My kids waited for me to ask them a question. They sat across the table from me in a row, looking like a very young parole board. Music from a 70’s playlist throbbed a bit too loudly over the Friendly’s sound system, forcing all of us to raise our voices to hear each other.
I had been asked to write an article for a magazine and wanted my children’s perspective about my parenting style and how they thought it might have been shaped by limb loss. My digital recorder sat in the middle of the table, its presence reducing my normally-loquacious kids into partial mutes. Caroline drew with the restaurant-issued crayons on her kids’ menu. Jackson stared at me. Max considered the 39 texts arriving simultaneously on his phone.
“What part of wearing a prosthesis do you guys think I find most frustrating?” I asked them.
Without hesitation, Max and Jackson said, “When your battery dies.” Caroline quickly nodded her assent without glancing up. I looked at Cara, who was sitting to my right, for confirmation. She agreed.
As I chewed on my turkey melt I considered their response. “Not the answer I would’ve expected,” I said to myself. When I think about how I’d answer the question, I struggle to identify things that set me off. But I’m pretty sure a dead battery doesn’t even crack the top 5.
I find this disconnect simultaneously revealing and mundane.
* * *
Seventeen years ago last week I awoke to the mind-bending realization that doctors had cut off my left leg. As I write this on an airplane to California, I realize for the first time that every memory I have of looking down that hospital bed produces an image only of my still-intact right leg – my foot sticking up under the covers with a bulky inflatable cuff regularly breathing against my shin and quad. My recall is so right leg-centric that I have to correct myself – I spend more than a few seconds trying to figure out why I wear my prosthesis on my left leg because I can only see the damaged right one in my mind’s eye.
I’ve written before (multiple times) about the shock I experienced when I saw myself in a mirror for the first time without my leg. I’ve never thought about why I felt surprise as opposed to unease, sadness, or anger. In fact, astonishment seems like the least likely reaction I should’ve had.
I knew more than a week earlier I had lost my leg. I had wheeled myself around the hospital in a wheelchair prior to discharge. I tied only one Nike every morning before going to rehab in New York. The most obvious fact facing me from the moment I woke up from my surgery was that I had become an amputee.
But in the compartmentalized world of my mind, knowing that I had entered the world of “disability” and accepting it were two different things. Why don’t my kids understand today what really annoys me about wearing a prosthesis? Let’s start with the fact that at the time I should’ve been most acutely aware of my limb loss, I was already constructing a narrative that treated my rehab like a minor sports injury, not a near-death experience.
I reacted with surprise when I saw myself in the mirror because in the emotional part of my brain I still hadn’t lost my leg.
* * *
Build your new life on the foundation of delusion and it’s not entirely surprising you discover discontinuities as you move forward. I’ve buried what infuriates me about wearing a prosthesis under 47 layers of psychic debris. I don’t complain about these things to my kids or wife because I barely know what they are.
Instead, I live in Dave’s World of Fabricated Happiness, a land where a permanent fog prevents me from seeing (and therefore speaking about) the things I know affect me deeply. That leaves me with precious few things to get pissed off about, prosthetically speaking. And the things I apparently do react to are trifles.
Which brings us back to the dead battery in my prosthetic knee. When it conks out, I replace it with the fully-charged one I always have on hand for exactly that contingency. The total inconvenience can be expressed by the distance separating me from the backup, which more often than not is a single flight of stairs. And yet, my family unanimously agrees that this is the thing that angers me most about my current prosthesis.
To put this in perspective, I moved our cable box, router, and receiver on Sunday as a result of some furniture moving we performed to accommodate our Christmas tree. When I reconnected the 792 cords to their respective inputs, the TV no longer worked. I tried to fix the problem using the Verizon app. No luck. I called Verizon’s hotline, where I sat on hold for 35 minutes while poring over all the possible reasons for the problem. I spoke with technical support for another 35 minutes trouble-shooting solutions, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the cable splitter had inexplicably fritzed out.
The level of agitation and frustration I had as I left my house to drive to the airport with the TV still not working vastly surpassed any negative reaction I can remember having to a dead battery in my prosthetic knee. As I stomped upstairs to get the bags for my trip I angrily said to no one, “There’s an hour and half of my life I’ll never get back.” And mind you, I wasn’t even going to be the person inconvenienced by the lack of TV because I was getting on a plane and I watch virtually no TV anyway. (Cara got the glory, purchasing a new splitter and getting the TV back up and running before my plane even took off. My kids, particularly Caroline, are now in her eternal debt.)
All of this suggests that my life wearing a prosthesis isn’t at all bad, though that’s in part due to the fact that I play some kind of Jedi mind trick on myself to reach that conclusion. After walling myself off from the Big Issues, I can only conclude from my family’s input that a dead battery qualifies as the next-most annoying thing, even though it may actually be issue 1034 on a list I can’t create because I’ve banished Issues 1-1027 to the unmapped territory in Dave’s World of Fabricated Happiness.
And this raises a final question that I can’t satisfactorily answer: does the fact I know that I don’t know my prosthetic-wearing self very well make me self-aware?