Monday, January 13, 2014

Ten Years

Ten years. It's a long time. It's a short time. It's long enough to make a newborn turn into a lightning fast soccer player. It's long enough for two married people to figure out if those vows are going to stick. And it's long enough for a person to forget what life was like with two flesh and bone feet.

I had my amputation surgery ten years ago. On January 12, 2004 I limped into a hospital in Bountiful, Utah, and climbed up onto a gurney. As I looked down I could see two bumps sticking up from the light sheet that covered my body. Two feet that were attached to my legs. The two feet I was born with. And I knew that within hours the left side of that sheet would lay flat.

But somehow I wasn't scared. It might be hard to believe, but I was actually excited.

I had lived with a foot I hated for most of my life. Too many times in my childhood I'd look down at that twisted foot that wouldn't let me do what my friends and siblings were doing, and I'd curse it. Stupid foot. Why can't you just be straight?

As the mother of young children I'd find myself sending hateful thoughts to my left foot. Was it too much to ask that I could go shopping for groceries, haul them home, put them in the cabinets, and not be so worn out that I'd have to sink into the couch for the rest of the day? Dragging that foot, eventually strapped to a brace, took all my energy. There was limited time to be the mommy I wanted to be.

Another day, another disappointment. Jeff is packing up the van for a fun hike through the local park. It's common knowledge that I won't go. I'll buy a Sunday paper, or find a good library book, and I'll wait in the van for them to emerge from the forest. With pink cheeks and excited stories to tell, I soak in their joy. I'll be the audience, allowed only to watch, not to join in on the stage. The only hiking pictures I have to sift through in the future are those of them putting on their tiny backpacks and then the occasional shots of them climbing back in the van.

By the time I found myself on that hospital gurney, wrapped in a breezy gown, I was ready. Ready to get rid of that foot that was nothing but trouble and sadness to me.

Now it's ten years later. A decade has passed since I woke up from that surgery and instantly lifted the sheet to make sure Dr. Hess had taken enough. I wanted more than just my withered foot cut off. I needed some of my leg taken too, so I could have clearance for the exciting prosthetic feet I'd been eyeing.

He'd done a great job. I healed quickly and moved on with my life. By Easter I was walking on my own, fairly well. No cane or crutches. I was wearing a dress with sandals. The first time I'd worn sandals in two decades, now that I had a regular foot. I posed for a picture at church with a friend who had just finished her chemo treatments. It was a milestone day for both of us.

That summer we toured the Red Rocks of southern Utah and I was part of the fun. I hiked up the trails to stand under the large arches. I'm in the pictures. No longer held back.

I've tried a lot of fun things in the past ten years. I was learning to ski on the first anniversary of my surgery. For the next two years I skied almost every Friday afternoon, with Jeff by my side, encouraging me with every turn.

I've done a variety of hikes. No Kilimanjaros. Just the kind of hikes that matter to me. Down an easy trail, with the people I love ahead of me and behind me. Ending up at a waterfall in Vermont or a bluff in New York. There are many pictures now, of me on hiking trails. 

Something I'd never dreamed of while I sat back in that van, reading my Sunday paper.

I've written a book and had it published. It was started just weeks after my surgery, when Jeff set me up at the computer, and found a nice resting place for my bandaged up stump. I had been frustrated during my pre-surgery research, that there were no books out there about regular amputees. In fact, there were only about four amputee books on the market back in 2004. They were all about super athletes. I was impressed, but not really encouraged that I'd find what I imagined on the other side of this surgery. I wanted to hear from an everyday amputee. Maybe even a mom, or a dad, who just wanted more mobility and found it.

Since I have some history with writing, I dived in. Chapter by chapter I wrote, edited, re-wrote, had friends read and make suggestions, wrote some more. For the next eight years I chipped away at that manuscript. As my new amputee life was unfolding, I'd go to my computer and get down what it was like in the earlier days, before my new leg snapped onto my body, so I could share with other amputees what my journey looked like. For a few months it would be filed away, as life got crazy. My kids were turning into teens and I didn't have as much time to write.

Then it would call to me, as yet another stranger would approach me in public and ask, "How did you lose your leg?" and "My son/daughter/mother/father just lost his leg. What advice can you give me?"  

I would be reminded how important it was to get an amputee book out there.

Finally, one year and three months ago, it was done and published. Now when I get the questions I can hand them a card. It will take them to my website, that has many helpful links and several essays. It can say so much more than I can, when I only have a handful of minutes with a stranger in public.

I've sledded on icy hills in New Hampshire and Utah with my kids. I've gone along with the gang, on almost every adventure. There are still days I stay back, when Jeff and the boys want to do serious hiking in the mountains around us. But when they come home I'm ready to tackle the challenges that are more my speed. Walking a trail at the dog park, talking about our day.

And, to be honest, just as important to me, is the simple things I can do. Now that I have energy return on my left side, I walk more evenly. Both sides are participating. That means I can do an overflowing cart trip to the grocery store, haul it to the car, unload it at home and still have plenty of energy left to do what the rest of the day calls for. Making dinner. Throwing in laundry. Keeping up with the tall teenagers who live in my house. My leg does it's part and gets me through my  day. I'm never whole body exhausted when it's time for bed, like I used to be every night before I got this metal foot.

It is truly hard to remember what it was like to stumble along on that deformed foot. The only real reminder I have is the phantom pain ache I sometimes feel, coming from that foot that is no longer there. I can curl the toes on that foot, in my brain. And sometimes it aches like it used to when I was so hard on it. But it's not really there. So I rub my stump or shake it out, and the ache is gone. The foot is gone and the agony is gone. Missing out on my kids' lives is gone.

I've been the lady with the prosthetic leg for a decade now. Most of my kids only know me as an amputee mom. And to them it's perfectly normal for a mom to have to take off her leg in the middle of a hot day, and wipe out the sweat, before continuing the hike. For my now 13 year old, he literally has no memory of me as a two legged mom. I've always been there for him, with my metal foot to keep up with what he dished out. My older three have faint memories. They remember the surgery more than anything. The feeling that this was a big deal and not knowing what to expect on the other side. Moms are solid and constant. Moms don't lie on hospital beds and get their limbs cut off.

But it didn't take long for them to see that I was still their mom. Still the same person. There were long afternoons of card games while I sat on my bed, waiting for the incision to heal. We snuggled and watched movies. Curled up together and read books. There wasn't anything scary about a cast and a mom with a shorter leg.

Then I was up and around. They thought the leg was actually pretty cool. Robots and Super Heros had this kind of stuff. My youngest spent the greater part of his three year old year hanging out in an office filled with fake hands and feet, as my prosthetist made adjustments to my leg.

Life happened. Day after day. We moved from Utah to New York, then New York to Colorado. And I was 'just the mom'. I continued to buy groceries, mix them up for dinners, change loads of laundry, and sign school papers. I was not defined by my artificial limb.

I quickly acclimated to the title of amputee. For so many years I'd tried to hide my disability and once I had my new leg I found I was proud to identify with the amputee community. Finally I had a title I could hang on to, a title people understood. And, lucky for me, by the time I had my surgery, amputees were no longer scary and weird. We were intriguing, wearing interesting hardware.

I've had a pretty good ten years. I've grown into my title and tried to represent it well. I know I'll never walk perfectly but I love working on my gait in public, showing the world how normal it can be to have a prosthetic leg. I love working out at the gym, showing others how wonderful my leg is and what it allows me to do.

I look forward to the next ten years. I have some personal goals, but what I've learned along the way is that life can surprise you. I can't wait to see what I'll write about ten years from now, when I've held this title of amputee for 20 years. 

It's going to be amazing. I just know it. 


Leonora Criswell said...

Judy, congrats to are always a joy to talk to and always an inspiration! What strength you have to make this kind of decision. Im amazed how being an amputee has not seemed to slow you down..quite the contrary!

terri patrick said...

Thanks for sharing, Judy. It was a pleasure reading your book and I'm so glad you can add so much more to your story ten years later. Awesome.