Caroline recently told me that she missed the good old days (she’s 9) when she would help me don my prosthesis most mornings. Technological advances in prosthetic design resulted in my daughter getting obsoleted a few years ago, an event that should prepare her well for working life in the 21st century. Now to be clear, putting on a prosthesis has never been a two-person job. I just enjoyed the fact that Caroline saw herself as an integral part of this daily routine. I don’t think it would have surprised her at all if she had looked at the component list and instructions for use for my prosthesis and seen a picture of herself as “Girl, 5” just below “Allen wrench” and just above “socket valve.”
(Step 7: Instruct Girl, 5 to screw socket valve clockwise into valve housing; Step 8: Instruct Girl, 5 to chase bouncing socket valve across room following unsuccessful attempt to screw it counterclockwise into valve housing; Step 9: Take socket valve from Girl, 5 and screw it loosely into valve housing clockwise; Step 10: instruct Girl, 5, to turn valve one rotation in any direction; Step 11: lavish praise on Girl, 5 for a job well done and screw valve tightly into socket housing yourself.)
Caroline has known no reality other than that in which one of the first things I do every day is put on my leg and one of the last things I do is take it off. It’s all she knows.
Max, who’s about to turn 17, heard Cara talking last weekend about how she had found some old photos of us when we were first married. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he asked to see the pictures, explaining that he hoped to obtain a first-hand view of me with two biological legs. He spoke the same way an ornithologist would if suddenly confronted with the opportunity to see a now-extinct bird. For him, his prosthetic-wearing father is normal, the pre-accident version of me exotic, a stranger.
Jackson thinks nothing of it when I stand at the base of our staircase and ask him to run into my bedroom to grab my backup battery. He passes me the fully charged lithium-polymer power source while I reach up and hand him the dying one. He presses the indicator button after grabbing it from me to confirm that only one of the 5 LEDs remains lit and walks it to my charger, clicking it into place.
I have three children, all of whom have grown up knowing that their dad (a) has never had hair as long as they’ve known him, and (b) has always worn a prosthesis to walk. When they come across old photos of me with two legs, their reaction is the same as when they see pictures of me with hair: “You look so weird!”
But as with all things, context is king.
Last week while I waited for Caroline to finish her gymnastics class, another student walked out of the gym to use the bathroom and narrowly avoided breaking his neck as his body went one way and his head the other as he tried to simultaneously walk past me while looking at the metal and carbon graphite gleaming dully at him below my shorts. If we were able to hack into his neural cortex and determine the precise words formed there but not spoken, our Thought-Translator 2000 would have flashed the words, “He looks so weird!” on its monitor.
My kids and everyone else’s reach the identical conclusion for opposite reasons. Max, Jackson and Caroline can’t imagine me without a prosthetic leg. Other children can’t imagine me with one, even when what they’re seeing eliminates their need to imagine anything.
I have an internal discussion with myself about these thoughts at about this time every year as I transition from 6 months of wearing long pants back to shorts. As sure as leaves turn green on the trees, so too does Spring mark the time when I get jolted into seeing myself through the eyes of people who either have never seen a prosthesis before or didn’t know that I use one.
For children who don’t know me, I’m a guy with a bizarre robo-leg who, because he’s different, is probably a little scary. But for my kids, especially Caroline, I am – or more correctly, my prosthesis is – something to show proudly to her friends. She has a body of knowledge that others don’t. Some kids like to demonstrate mastery by memorizing obscure sports statistics, spouting presidential history facts, or accessing cheat codes to the latest video game so that they can roam entirely realistic fantasy worlds with heads as big as prize-winning pumpkins. Caroline, on the other hand, gives tours of my prosthesis in much the same way guides do in museums.
“Can anyone guess what this button does? Look!” [Presses rotator button and swings my prosthetic knee and foot upside down so that the sole of my shoe is now facing the ceiling. She laughs while her friends try not to freak out.] “Want to see something cool?” [Turns off my prosthetic knee and extracts the battery, brandishing it like a bar of gold in front of her peers.] “Dad, you’re almost out of battery!” [Confidently places it back in the knee with a celebratory flourish.]
It’s a little odd getting objectified by your own child in this way. I suppose if I were wired differently, I might feel a bit like a sideshow attraction at a traveling carnival. Fortunately, she has refrained (so far) from charging admission to meet her dad, so she remains on the right side of the boundary separating interesting from sensational.
Come October I’ll start wearing long pants again and all of this will recede into the background. Until the cycle starts over again next year.