pain in the pants

Trying on a pair of pants at a department store shouldn’t be a big deal. In my pre-amputation life, it involved a 6-step process that I never had to think about: (1) enter dressing room; (2) take off shoes; (3) take off pants I’m wearing; (4) put on pants I’m thinking about buying; (5) put on shoes; (6) marvel at the magnificence of me wearing new pants. Since I’ve never been a big fan of shopping, I could do this at a speed that rivaled that of a car shooting across Utah’s Salt Flats. It was less about getting the right clothing – I once owned a royal purple button down shirt that I swear was corduroy – and more about getting something damn fast so that I could carry on with more important things.

But since my amputation, purchasing pants has morphed into an activity of epic proportions.

As in the good old days, I still enter a dressing room to change. (The employees and customers at Macy’s all breathe a huge sigh of relief.) But once the door closes behind me, I have to start a detailed analytic process that culminates in making Decisions of Importance. First, what is the best way to get the pants I walked into the dressing room with off my body? And this, in turn, branches into a forked path: (a) do I try to pull the pants I’m wearing off and the pants I’m considering buying on over the shoe on my prosthetic foot, or do I take the shoe off first and then undress/re-dress?

The obvious answer to this question when you have two legs is you take the shoes off. Who besides my sons at age 6 would try to get pants on and off while still wearing shoes? (An exercise, by the way, that more often than not led to the shoes getting ripped off their feet and so entangled in the pants they were wearing that we needed to extract them (the sneakers) using the Jaws of Life.) But confront this question as an above-knee amputee and it becomes a near-existential inquiry.

To start, you have to consider the shoe on the prosthetic foot itself. What kind of shoe is it? Sneakers are safe – you can generally remove them and put them back on without a great deal of difficulty. But if you’re wearing, for example, leather loafers, you remove them at your own peril. It’s not that you can’t get them off the prosthetic foot; it’s just that once you’ve successfully wrangled it off, getting it back on may prove a Sisyphean task.

Prosthetic feet, unlike their biological peers, don’t bend, flex, or do anything else that might make it easy to get shoes on over them. And the force required to get certain kinds of shoes onto a prosthetic foot rivals that of an industrial-strength hydraulic lift. On those occasions where I’ve accidentally removed a difficult-to-don shoe without thinking about the ramifications first, I emerge from the dressing room 20 minutes after I entered it, covered in sweat, often with bleeding fingers and/or with a shoe dangling limply off the back of my prosthetic foot.

“Well, stop being an unthinking idiot,” you say. “Use a shoehorn.” That seems like a logical solution on both fronts (not being an idiot and using a shoehorn). In fact, many department stores and all shoe stores actually have shoe horns that you can use in a pinch. You know them well – small plastic ones or those thin, silver, metal shoe horns. Problem solved, right?

There are certain images of destruction that get seared into your memory. For some people, it might be the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane. For others, it’s images of a war zone or the site of a terrorist attack. For me, it’s what’s left of the shoehorn some well-intentioned salesman gave me so that I could put my leather shoe – typically a loafer – back on my prosthetic foot. The words “carnage”, “devastation”, and “annihilation” all come to mind.

As I try to torque the shoe back onto the foot with these woefully inadequate tools, I feel the plastic and thin metal giving way in spectacular fashion. To get a sense of how profound the failure is, imagine trying to stop a bullet by holding up a piece of paper. The look of horror on the salesman’s face when I return the now-shapeless mass of plastic or metal to them reminds me of crime-show drama actors upon discovering a body at a grisly crime scene.

Fortunately, there are other options. Forward-thinking amputees do have at their disposal the equivalent of a nuclear shoehorn, like the one depicted below.

Several of these occupy different spots in my residence. There’s not a shoe on the planet that won’t submit to the will of this 50-megaton shoehorn. If the shoe doesn’t go over the foot, it’s either because (a) it’s 3 sizes too small, or (b) you’ve split the shoe in half. So the good news is that this kind of tool provides a solution. But the bad news is that you can’t easily slip this into a pocket. And if you walk into a store carrying it in plain view, you’re likely to get the attention of security for walking around the store with a small crowbar.

So, more often than not, I opt for yet another option: pulling pants on and off the prosthesis with shoe still on the foot. While this avoids the shoehorn holocaust, it leads to other issues.

It radically extends the amount of time you’re in the dressing worm, as you work your pants carefully around the shoe. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the pants get stretched taut across the shoe, requiring blunt force to get clear. This culminates in the infamous Pant-O-War, with me on one end, veins popping out of my arms and neck, and my prosthesis on the other, challenging the very fabric of the finery I’m wearing (or trying to wear). I emerge from the dressing room looking like the Jim Carrey character from Liar Liar who, in an effort to avoid having to proceed with a court case, inventively beats the snot out of himself by (a) running into walls, (b) pouring soap in his eyes, and (c) smashing his head repeatedly with a toilet seat lid. (The scene culminates with a startled man entering the men’s room and asking what’s going on, to which Carrey replies, “I’m kicking my ass!”)

These are the challenges facing me when I just want to get a new pair of pants. This is why I agree with the succinct assessment provided by my daughter whenever we try to comb out her tangled hair: “Fashion is pain.”

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