The first Christmas after my accident remains a memory only because of the photo I’ve seen of myself. It shows me sitting on a chair with a Santa hat. While my headwear screamed “Christmas!”, my face said something else.
The most jarring thing about the photo is how white I look. For someone whose skin color hovers between Jack-Skellington white and copier-paper white, this is no small accomplishment. My face explodes out of the frame, its pale luminescence especially pronounced underneath the bright red hat and the dark shirt I wore. My smile looks like it was plastered there by a grade-school artist, equal parts fear and discomfort.
Getting home for this holiday meant a lot to me at the time. I remember telling my wife that “There’s no way in hell I’m staying in a hospital for Christmas.” I think I would’ve felt the same way if I had lost my leg a few weeks before Thanksgiving or Labor Day. I wasn’t motivated by this holiday in particular. I just needed a target.
Looking back, this might have been my first rehabilitation goal. And so, when I got discharged from the rehab center in New York City on December 23rd, I was proud. I had done it.
But ironically, I don’t remember packing to leave Rusk, how I got out of the building or the ride home. I don’t remember reentering my house for the first time in weeks or my first night sharing a bed with my wife again. As I plumb the depths of my memory, there’s almost nothing there between rehab in Manhattan and finding myself at a restaurant on Christmas day.
Pain probably had a lot to do with this. I had experienced phantom pain of a severity and duration that left me a crying, screaming-for-morphine wreck. This encounter became the defining event in my immediate post-amputation world. My focus shifted from “reclaiming my life” to “not feeling pain like that ever again.” This new agenda crowded out everything else. Any sensation at all in my residual limb now led to a semi-panicked analysis: “Is it getting worse? Will it stop? When did I take my medication last?”
I asked myself these questions on Christmas day as the leg I no longer had tingled in the empty space below my chair. While conversation floated around me, I felt an edge of terror creep into my voice as I asked Cara in a whisper when I had last taken the Percocet. As I slid a pill down my throat, the pins and needles soon departed in favor of a soft warmth that radiated outwards from my leg to the rest of my body. I remember nothing else about Christmas dinner. Or returning to my in-laws’ house to open presents. (When someone took the photo.) Or going back home afterwards.
When I see that picture today I’m looking at a stranger. The December 2006 version of me didn’t understand anything. Gripped by fear of pain, still weeks from visiting a prosthetic facility and having never met an amputee before, I was adrift. I didn’t know that the next three weeks would consist of listening to sports radio while lying on the floor or in a green La-Z-Boy chair. (That’s the one present I remember getting that Christmas, from my wife. I refuse to part with it, even today.) I didn’t know that my future self would start and end every day by taking a plastic, carbon-graphite and titanium approximation of my leg on and off my body. And I didn’t know that I’d learn more about myself in the next 12 months than I had in the previous 27 years.
Christmas has now reverted to its historical mean. My 3 kids have downloaded apps that count down the number of days, hours, minutes, and seconds until they can open presents. My daughter buzzes around the house looking – at the time I write this, we believe successfully – for the boxes containing her gifts that we tucked away into closets and cabinets. We listen to the obligatory weather report that includes “a chance” of snow on Christmas Day. I watch Cara wrap gifts late at night. I await the inevitable “How early can we wake you guys up?” inquiry that one of my kids will make in the next 24 hours, likely after a secret plebiscite on the matter and the formal election of one of them as the official delegate to raise the issue. (If they’re smart they’ll elect my daughter. But I’m not sure they are – I have my money on one of the boys.)
I woke up this morning. I have no left leg. I got out of bed, grabbed my crutches, and made my way to my dresser. I pulled out clothes while resting my residual limb on one crutch to keep my left hand free. I went into the bathroom, leaned the crutches against the wall and hopped to the shower stall. I waited for the water to heat up and then gripped the shower frame to hop/vault into the shower. I balanced on one leg for 5 minutes while soaping my body and the silicone liner that I wore yesterday. I hopped back out of the shower and dried myself with a maroon towel, balancing on my right leg the entire time. I put on my underwear, my sock, my shirt. I rolled the silicone liner onto my residual limb. I pulled the prosthesis leaning against the sink (pants already on it) towards me, sprayed alcohol into the socket and slid my leg in. I buttoned my pants, tightened my belt, and reached down to the power switch to turn on my knee. I brushed my teeth and walked out so that I could write this post.
For me, that’s ordinary now.