the (non) accidental tartan

The real McGill Tartan

The real McGill Tartan

The first prosthesis I ever received had a socket with a vaguely skin-toned hue to it. It was not an aesthetic triumph. But it wasn’t supposed to be. I had been an amputee for less than 8 weeks. My prosthetist informed me that I would receive a permanent socket a few months later after the size and shape of my limb stabilized. At that time I could hand-pick something specific for the socket.

The thought of being able to customize my prosthesis with whatever I wanted laminated over it was exciting for a guy who (at the time) had never gotten a tattoo or worn anything more daring than an occasional linen sport coat. As I mulled over my options, I remembered that I had a few square yards of our family tartan lying in a trunk in my attic. The McGill tartan is a predominantly red/green/yellow explosion that looks acceptable only two days out of every year: December 24th and 25th. But now, down a leg and thinking of how to decorate my socket, the McGill tartan finally became relevant.

My second socket left the tartan behind in favor of the U.S. men’s soccer team’s jersey, which at the time was a horrific simulated denim with white stars across it. What then followed, to the best of my recollection, was a series of superhero-themed sockets: Batman; Spiderman; a high-tech looking Superman logo; the Fantastic Four; The Avengers; Ironman; and Captain America.

I used to think that I whimsically selected socket designs based primarily on which franchise was then ramping up at the local cineplex. But as I stared at some old sockets lying around my house over the last few weeks, I began to reconsider that assumption. What if the underlying selection criteria were more subconsciously and psychologically based? The more I considered it, the more I found that explanation plausible.

Why would I ever choose the McGill tartan for my first permanent socket? All my life, the impossibly bright mashup of colors had been a punchline when my father donned his tie and my grandfather his (gulp) pants during the holidays. Even today, I have a McGill tartan tie in my closet (photo above), unworn since I received it. Neither aesthetics nor a positive historical/sartorial attraction to the nauseatingly vibrant colors should have led to my decision.

I have concluded, in retrospect, that out of the universe of possible options I chose this previously locked away swatch of cloth because it was the McGill tartan. It defined me, even with all its Yuletide garishness. It was a personal statement about reestablishing my identity. Never mind the fact that who I was looked suspiciously like the aftermath of a large Italian dinner seen while staring into a toilet bowl after a touch of food poisoning: the McGill tartan socket was my first post-accident stake in the ground when it came to showing people who I was.

In the year after my accident, I began coaching the same soccer team that I had previously played for. Soccer had been a big part of my life through high school and I came back to the game in an adult league in my mid-20’s. My  identity had always been impossibly and delusionally entertwined with my belief that I was a remarkable athlete. When viewed through that lens, the decision to select the U.S. men’s soccer team jersey as my second socket seems not only unremarkable, but inevitable. “Look – I’m still a soccer player [athlete] [normal guy]!”

As the newness of being an amputee began to wear off, I then went down the Marvel/DC socket wormhole. What does every superhero have? An origin story; a seminal event that defines who and what they are. For Superman, it’s the destruction of his home planet and the fact that he’s an alien living among earthlings; Batman arises out of the ashes of his parents’ murder; Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider; the Fantastic Four are exposed to cosmic radiation that fundamentally alters their biology; the Hulk is what’s left after a scientist gets exposed to what should be a lethal dose of gamma rays; Ironman (in the most recent movie trilogy) is born out of the trauma of a missile that leaves metal fragments on the verge of shredding Tony Stark’s heart but for the miniaturized arc-reactor technology that he incorporates into his body (and that ultimately powers his exoskeletal cyborg suit); and Captain America volunteers to become a (highly successful) lab experiment before getting frozen in Arctic ice for a generation.

Every one of these individuals emerges from the transformative experience stronger, more powerful, more remarkable than they were before. To a young guy who had walked into the middle of a road on a snowy night and woke up in a hospital bed two days later with virtually no memory of what had transpired in between, I suspect these stories subconsciously resonated with a unique acuity in the years following my accident.

Comic books and movies have been informing us for the last 65 years that the survivors of random, life-changing events morph from nerds, weaklings, or at most, ordinary people, into individuals who change the world. It’s a well-established mythology that’s so omnipresent we tend not to think about it.

As I look back on the superheroes who have graced my socket for the better part of 17 years, I have the sneaking suspicion that my attraction to them lay in more than how damn cool they look. As a person obsessed with tricking people into not noticing I’m an amputee, I navigate the world with an alter ego: the prosthetic-wearing Dave McGill that (hopefully) no one realizes is an amputee unless I choose to take off my mask. (Less colorfully described as “wearing shorts.”) Similarly, I construct my life around the conceit that I’ve emerged from my accident stronger and better than I was before. (“I am Ironman.”)

Perhaps this is an example of me creating a retrospective narrative to make random past decisions appear more logical. But then again, maybe the tartan was more than just a tartan.

bathroom fear

bathroom fear 1.22.15

Today I will admit in this post what I’ve not wanted to say but been thinking for a long time: I don’t get a warm and safe feeling when I imagine myself as a 70 year-old man with one leg. The tipping point came at 4:43 AM a few weeks ago … in the bathroom. (Predictably – and sadly – my  moments of great realization and insight don’t come when contemplating a breathtaking landscape or sitting in meditation, but rather, when half asleep in the john.)

*   *   *

A common question I get asked by kids is whether I wear my prosthesis in bed. The answer – unless I’m trapped on the redeye – is no. Between 10 and 11 most nights I climb up the stairs, go into the bathroom and remove my left leg. I use crutches from that point until I put my prosthesis back on again the next morning.

For most people, not many things happen between 11:30 PM and 5:30 AM. Pretty much the only event of note during that timeframe involves basic bodily functions. You wake up and have to use the bathroom. You lie in bed for a few moments, half awake, wondering if you can somehow just gut it out and go back to sleep for the few remaining hours without awakening to find yourself in a damp puddle of your own excretion. You conclude that the answer to the previous question is, “Probably not.” You stumble out of your bed, shuffle your way to the bathroom like a drunk, and try to circumnavigate the obstacles in the darkness with your eyes 90% closed.

As a one-legged person, that scenario plays out for me in largely the same way as it does for my bipedal friends. After I say to myself, “Probably not,” I sit up and reach for the crutches next to my bed. I stumble forward and shuffle (yes, that’s possible with one leg and crutches) to the bathroom like a drunk, my eyes 90% closed.

Following this process, I found my way into the bathroom at 4:43 AM a few weeks ago. As some readers may be aware, men have a choice when emptying their bladder: stand in front of the toilet or sit on it. I long ago made a choice that when not wearing a prosthesis, half asleep or not, I sit. I’ve found that as a general proposition – officially, General Proposition #1 – having your hands and arms occupied by crutches while trying to perform all of the machinations necessary to ensure that the fluid leaving my body actually finds its way into the toilet (as opposed to in the general area of it) militates against standing. (The rarely-stated-but-ignored-only-once-before-it-becomes-a-fundamental-principal-of-your-existence General Proposition #2 states that your physical and mental health may never recover from a fall into a pool of your own urine because your crutches slid on said urine after ignoring General Proposition #1. Helpful hint of the day for all males using crutches in the middle of the night, amputee or otherwise: never forget General Proposition #2.)

These golden rules [please tell me you got the pun] hold especially true after midnight. My ability to balance solidly on one leg degrades precipitously when I’m half asleep, eyes mostly closed. But it’s important to remember that sitting down when you use crutches isn’t quite the same as doing it with two legs.

The person with crutches has to complete the following steps: (a) do a 180 so that his back is facing the surface he’s going to sit on, (b) get close enough to the sitting surface so that when he lowers himself, he doesn’t miss the landing pad, and then (c) lower himself onto the seat in a controlled manner. Note: the uncontrolled “collapse” method in place of (c), while arguably ok when falling onto a soft, heavy chair or sofa, can have painful and, I theorize, potentially catastrophic consequences when toppling backwards onto a completely hard surface like porcelain … with your pants down … (I’ll let readers imagine the horrific outcomes that could follow therefrom.)

The layout of bathrooms further complicates things. Toilets typically sit within a foot of the wall on one side, leaving someone with crutches little space to widen their base of support with the wall-side crutch. And as you execute step (a), your ability to maintain stability equally on both sides is inversely proportional to the distance between toilet and wall. (For example, the crutch on my right side often makes contact first with the baseboard heating cover some 4-6 inches above the actual floor as I spin my body into position.) In short, performing The After-Midnight Excretion 3 Step is the equivalent of doing the Tango flawlessly while being attacked by a rabid dog.

All of which leads to this: as I tried to sit down at 4:43 AM while executing steps (a) – (c) – a process that takes less than 3 seconds from beginning to end if performed consistent with U.S. federal standards – I lost my balance for a moment, teetering perilously close to an uncontrolled fall. I caught myself at the last minute through a combination of one crutch and the wall, crashing onto the toilet seat with (through the grace of God) no damage to those body parts relevant to the activity for which toilets exist.

Now I was awake.

And the following thoughts flooded through my head: my balance isn’t going to improve as I get older; my reflexes aren’t going to improve as I get older; my strength isn’t going to improve as I get older; I’m not going to get less breakable when bouncing off a wall or landing on a hard surface as I get older. And most scarily: it only takes one bad fall …

Now, perhaps I’m overestimating the risks; dark thoughts have a way of seeming particularly sinister in the middle of the night. Perhaps as I age, I’ll force myself to open my eyes all the way in the middle of the night and be more cautious as I traverse the distance between bed and bathroom, thus lowering my injury risk level. Perhaps I’ll become so irrational that I’ll stop drinking fluids after 3 in the afternoon and sleep with a 5 gallon bucket next to the bed. Regardless, this is the first time I’ve had a vivid vision of life as an older person with a prosthesis – actually, technically, I guess I’m imagining it without the prosthesis – and it wasn’t fun. (I don’t even want to begin to consider the psychological implications of the fact that I can only imagine myself at age 70 in the middle of the night trying to sit on a toilet.)

I’ve actively avoided thinking about getting older for my entire adult life. But I’m finding that strategy harder and harder to successfully implement with each passing year.

forgotten laughter

forgotten laughter 11.20.14

The subject of how and why I use humor in less is more came up in a conversation I had yesterday. That got me thinking: how long did it take me to start laughing after my accident? After the trauma and displacement of waking up in a hospital one limb short of what I came in with, surely I’d remember the first moment of genuine brightness breaking through the gloom (and medication) that enveloped me?

I’ve never asked myself that question before. And the answer – after careful thought – is that I can’t remember the first time I laughed after my failed two-step with a car. And that strikes me as strange, although perhaps it’s no stranger than not being able to remember the entire incident that led to me becoming an amputee in the first place.

I can say with certainty that I wasn’t laughing while still in ICU. Well, I apparently did giggle a bit, though I have no memory of it. Cara tells me that I woke up at one point and she told me that an old family friend had stopped by to check in on her. In my medicated haze I apparently chuckled and said, “[Friend’s name], what an a#$hole.” (I have not disclosed my friend’s name because (a) I’ve never told him the story, (b) I don’t think he’s an a#$hole, but (c) I fear that if he learns I once said this about him, he’ll consider it a pharmaceutically-induced yet true description of how I subliminally felt about him. [Friend’s name], trust me – I’ve met plenty of people who are a#$holes. You’re not one of them.)

After it became clear that any mental problems I was having resulted from my everyday stupidity and not bleeding in the brain, doctors transferred me to a normal hospital room. I don’t remember anything fun about that either. I do recall getting fairly freaked out watching the show Millennium, a darker, scarier version of The X-Files. Medication, serial murderers and vaguely sinister plots about the end of days do not mix well when you’ve just lost a limb. It’s possible I cracked a joke about the fact that my father ate a box of chocolates that I received from the family of the young woman whose car I was pushing. I know it struck me as slightly absurd at the time. I have a body part amputated. I get a box of chocolates. The least I should get for my troubles is a good piece of chocolate with caramel or marshmallow inside it, no? But my dad ate them (while – I kid you not – I’m watching and getting freaked out by Millennium, as I recall). That box of chocolates was the closest I ever came to actual communication with the young woman whose car I was pushing. I’m sure I could create some kind of interesting metaphor around the symbolic importance of my father’s Godiva intervention, but I’ll refrain from trying to draw it here.

Before I left the hospital for a week stint at an in-patient rehab facility I got to cruise the halls in a wheelchair, which I remember finding amusing. But I don’t think I ever laughed while doing laps around my floor.

I definitely didn’t laugh upon arriving at Rusk in New York City. As I’ve discussed many times before, Rusk in 1997 hadn’t been refurbished in many years. It had a distinctly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe to it. Cara, especially, was not amused.

I’m assuming that I eventually did start smiling and laughing over the course of the next week at some point. I say that because (a) I can’t imagine not laughing or cracking some dark joke for two entire weeks, and (b) I distinctly remember having fun as my physical therapist worked with me. Cara confirms that Ann and I hit it off immediately and that my whole mood immediately brightened when she and I started working together. But again, I have no actual memory of a single humorous event.

I wasn’t laughing when I returned home and on my first night back fell down while entering a restaurant on crutches. I was in a black rage for the rest of the night. Watching people with two legs fall is hilarious. Falling when you only have one and are using crutches, on the other hand, is catastrophic.

Christmas flew by in a Percocet-induced blur. Very funny in retrospect, but not so much in the moment, which consisted of me being unable to focus on any conversations going on around me and nudging Cara every 15 minutes to ask her when I could take the pills next.

The days before getting fit with my prosthesis consisted of lying around my living room, watching TV, and listening to sports radio. I filled nights with reading to distract myself from the phantom sensations pulsing through the air below what remained of my left leg. I mostly remember this period as monotonous and boring, a dull lull between the unexpected excitement of waking up in a hospital on the one hand and learning how to walk on the other. That post-amputation/pre-ambulation epoch is a kind of limb-loss purgatory – you’re waiting for the ferryman to escort you across the river to your prosthesis. You understand the life you’ve lost and you’re dimly aware there’s more to come. You just can’t comprehend what it will be like.

If I had to pick the one day where I know I grinned and really enjoyed myself, it was the second day in my prosthesis. I’d been walking between parallel bars and trying to get a feel for the biomechanics of walking with an artificial limb. I dimly remember reaching the end of the bars and then continuing into the open space beyond … tentatively … awkwardly. I had set up my whole life over the previous 7 weeks around this moment – walking without any assistance. Cara’s hands went up to her face as she started crying. For the first time in nearly two months I felt something that hadn’t been there before: confidence that I’d be ok.