Friday, August 23, 2013

Heirloom Table

My kitchen table is full of scratches. I'm not talking accidental fork holes or occasional errant knife marks. I mean like the previous owner used this table for crafting, and didn't bother using a cutting mat when using her Exacto knife.

Most of the time it doesn't bother me. In fact, with a house full of teen agers, it helps me relax, that they can't really damage it more than it already is. On special occasions I can throw a table cloth over it. But most days it sits bare, its deep flaws exposed for the world to see.

For most of our 23 years of marriage we've had second hand tables. Except for a very special seven year period, when I had a magnificent table.

Back in 2003 we had just moved from Washington D.C. to Utah when I got the call that my grandmother had died. She and I had been close, until age and a hard life had left her to ride out her later years in a nursing home, unaware of those around her for the most part. We packed up our van full of little ones and drove down to Texas for the funeral.

Unexpectedly we discovered we had received an inheritance. A nice little chunk of change that was significant to our bare bones budget. We thought long and hard about what my grandmother would want us to do with the money she left us. And a kitchen table made the list. My grandmother loved good furniture, and she adored my children. Knowing they'd sit around a beautiful table for each meal would have definitely pleased her.

I'd always dreamed of having a big wooden table that was surrounded by sturdy chairs. I loved the idea of feeding my children around it every day, then some day sitting across from their boyfriends and girlfriends...then their fianc├ęs...then their new spouses...then someday, in the very distant future, pulling a high chair up to that same table to feed the grandbabies they'd bring home to me. I dreamed of a heritage table.

No other piece of furniture in the house spoke to me like a good, solid kitchen table. The place where every day meals were consumed. The place where homework was spread out, and board games were won and lost. Dressed up with candles and tablecloths for holidays, and filled with pumpkin scraps, birthday cake sprinkles, and gingerbread house crumbs as the seasons changed.

When we realized that our house full of hand me down and thrift store furniture would be blessed with a new (real!) kitchen table we spent months hunting down just the right set. We shopped at just about every furniture store in the Salt Lake City valley, and even considered making our own if we could find a big old barn door that we could cut down. But finally we found what we were looking for.  It was big and sturdy... fancy yet hardy. Ironically it appeared to us on the showroom floor of the furniture store owned by the family we'd bought our Utah house from. That meant we got a pretty great deal on it too, and decided to buy the eight chairs, instead of six, so there would be extra seating for those future honored guests.

The Utah house had the perfect spot for our new table. The large room attached to the open kitchen was just screaming for a big family table. It arrived just in time for my sister's visit from Texas that December, and we gathered around it with her husband and three girls, to greet the new year together, building gingerbread houses and playing board games.

Just as I'd planned and dreamed about.

We used that table every single day of our three years in Utah. Many more holidays were celebrated there, many hundreds of homework assignments were completed there. Science fair projects were constructed and Monopoly tournaments were battled out into the wee hours of the morning. A good chunk of our memories in Utah, the ones created inside the house, happened around that table.

And the scenes were repeated when we packed it up and moved to New York. After intense renovations of the old farm house we purchased, we created another big dining room, just off the kitchen, where our big wooden table fit perfectly. More holidays rolled by, more family memories were made. Every once in a while it would get a small ding or an errant stray mark by a permanent marker, and instead of being upset, I'd smile. Because I knew that in the years to come we'd see those marks and tell the stories about how they got there. It was all part of the family history making that first put a yearning in my heart for a good, hearty family table.

After five wonderful years in New York, we found out our next move was taking us to Colorado. There was no doubt that table would come with us. It was practically a part of our family.

But this move didn't go as smoothly as the ones in years past. We did everything right - fixed up the house perfectly,  put half our belongings into storage to make the house look bigger and cleaner, got a good appraisal before putting it on the market - but the market seemed to tank the exact day the For Sale sign was pushed into the front yard.
Month after month we dropped the price, seeing all of our tens of thousands of dollars of equity dropping away with it. We went past our 'give away' price after four months. 

Four months after that we were starting to get desperate. 

All the money we'd accumulated for decades, in every move, that was rolled over to the next house, was slowly disappearing. In the end it got ugly. 

We were weeks away from having to just walk away from it and let it go to foreclosure. A heart breaking decision, as we'd spent five years fixing just about everything in that house, down to replacing every single appliance. It was in pristine condition. It just didn't have any buyers.

Then we got one offer. Even though the price they offered was twenty thousand below what we'd paid for it, before we put tens of thousands into it, and spent all of our free time providing sweat equity to fix it up, we had to consider their offer. It would mean someone would move in and enjoy our house. It meant it would not sit vacant and deteriorate as it went through the foreclosure procedures. It meant we could live with the fact we hadn't just walked away from this house we created and loved. We could know it was being loved again.

Then, as if it couldn't hurt any more, the day the moving guys were putting our belongings into the moving truck, the call came. The new buyers were considering dropping their offer. One of the conditions to following through with their offer was that they wanted a few pieces of our furniture. And since most of our furniture was old  and worn out, of course the piece they were talking about was my kitchen table. My heirloom table.

I stood in that long driveway, watching work men haul boxes into the moving truck, and willed myself not to cry. With the realtor in my ear, asking if we were willing to honor the buyer's request, I took a deep breath.

It was truly down to deciding whether I got to keep the table that was near and dear to my heart, and let our house go to foreclosure, or let it all go to the new buyers and walk away.  There was really only one choice to make.

The moving men dug out the three dining chairs that they'd already packed deep in the bowels of the moving truck and placed them back in our old dining room, right next to my beautiful wood table. And they all stayed behind when that truck drove away.

Once we found a rental house in Colorado (all the down payment money to buy a house was lost with that house sale) we hunted around in the thrift stores and got another kitchen table. It's sturdy and it came with six sturdy chairs. It's not my first pick, but the price was right and sometimes in life you just have to move on.

For a short time I let myself grieve for that table. I was fully aware that, with the huge financial hit we took on that New York house, the budget for a new heirloom table would be nonexistent for years to come. I was also very aware that, at this point, with two of our 'kids' now being young adults, the window of time for creating kid memories around that table had just about closed for half of my children. It was time to mentally move on.

My Colorado thrift store table works just fine. 

We've had some memorable meals around it already. We've hosted friends, old and new, around it. I fed my oldest son a few last meals before he headed off to his grown up life in the military, and I'll feed him around it once again, when he visits us during the holidays. The table itself, as scratched as it is, is not the reason I smile when I'm looking at his face while we share meals there. The meals don't necessarily taste better or worse because of the quality of table they are served off of. The people who surround the table are what matter to me.

It is probably a blessing that my chickens started their flights from my nest after I lost my precious table. It has helped me to realize what's important, truly important. A house full of beautiful things, leather couches and heirloom tables, is not what makes a home happy.

People I love walking through the door, and throwing their things across whatever table happens to sit in the dining room, is what makes me happy. 

Seeing those faces I love and miss so deeply, and watching those bodies sink into my sturdy thrift store chairs as they begin to open up to me about their latest adventures is what really matters.

There is a part of my heart that will always long for that table I left behind in New York. We had built, so steadily through the years, the memories that were leading us to my dream of an heirloom table. But life happens. And sometimes it's necessary to say goodbye to things you loved. It's all a part of the journey. 

And I'm pretty sure my grandmother would understand.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What a Decade Has Done For This Amputee

Ten years ago I was craving information. I had been pondering the idea of having my deformed foot cut off and getting a prosthetic limb for a couple of decades already, but information was hard to come by on such a specific topic. There were no books in the library, about amputation or the lives of amputees.  

Those were the days before the internet had filled out. It was mostly full of dial up email communications and basic websites set up by forward thinking companies, for advertisement purposes.

Then, a decade ago, things started to change. We got our first high(er) speed internet service and I was hooked. Suddenly I could dissect the extensive information that the ACA (Amputee Coalition of America) had posted online. I could read stories about amputees and find pictures of the newest prosthetic limbs.

This led me to websites like Hanger, a major prosthetic provider. On their sites I found more extensive pictures about the hardware I'd be wearing if I made this choice. I visited several Hanger local offices, after being encouraged by what I saw online, and held in my hand the metal foot that might give me more mobility.

One night I stumbled upon a story on the ACA website about a man who had chosen to have his foot cut off. He'd had a bad ankle injury that would never heal and he decided a prosthetic foot would give him a better chance at an active life. The 25 year old was now walking beaches with his wife, and learning how to run.

I was astonished. Until that moment I had never heard of another person who would choose to have their foot amputated. This guy had made the decision I had thought about for years, and he wasn't crazy. In fact, he got a better life afterward. Finding his story on the internet put fuel on my fire.

A year later I had my surgery. And now, almost ten years later, I'm still enjoying a newer version of that same metal foot I held in my hand a decade ago. At the time of my surgery I knew that if prosthetic technology never advanced one bit in the years to come, I'd be happy with where it was in 2004. But it has advanced. In so many exciting ways. Today I wear a foot that wasn't even designed five years ago.

The running (Cheetah) legs that you see on Paralymic athletes was just being tested in 2004. I now have amputee friends, casual athletes, who use them for their daily runs. There are mechanical knees and ankles that can memorize your gait and replicate it, to make a more natural walking pattern. If you enjoy a hobby, there are amazing options in attachments you can attach to the end of your artificial limb. The world of prosthetic options has exploded and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But it's not just the hardware that has changed. Attitudes have changed. When I was a kid, an amputee was a person who most likely used a wheelchair. They were old men who had been in a war and come home with a few less limbs. They were not people we saw very often and they were most certainly not people who would jog around our neighborhoods or show up on our TV screens.

I visit many amputee internet boards. I hear stories about what it was like to be an amputee before 2004.  I've read books about people my age, who grew up with wooden legs...literally legs made of wood. The world was a different place for those amputees, and not just in the hardware they strapped on every morning.

In the ten years since I've joined their club, public attitudes have changed. I don't hesitate to wear shorts in public. I've never had a negative comment about my prosthetic leg. In fact, I've had the opposite reaction. People are fascinated by my hardware. Little children might squat behind me in the grocery store line (a common occurrence), but it's not because they see me as a cripple. It's because they want to figure out how my metal ankle works. They want to see my 'robot' leg.

My co-workers are not afraid to ask about my limb, and listen with interest as I tell them how much it's changed my life for the better. No one sees me as 'less than'. They see me as differently abled.

I will forever be grateful that the climate of acceptance has washed over the amputee community in the years since I made my difficult choice. I'm grateful that, with new options in hardware, younger amputees have come out of hiding and bravely mixed in with the public, demonstrating how we are just normal people who happen to get around on metal limbs.

I'm grateful for the adaptive athletic organizations that have popped up in the last decade, and encouraged amputees to get off the couch and get back to their active lives. I'm grateful for amputee support sites, which have been flooded with new members once the internet caught up to our needs. Interacting with other active amputees inspired those who thought they were alone in their journey.

Tthe news about newly injured young military folks, who were getting their lives back after amputations, and videos showing little kids using new prosthetics to run across the playground, changed people's attitudes. The more they saw how normal an amputee is, the more amputees were accepted back into the able bodied world.

Everyone has their own opinion about the court case surrounding one of the most famous amputee athletes. Whether or not Oscar Pistorius is found guilty of a terrible crime, he has changed the world of amputee perception. By qualifying to run, on his two prosthetic legs, in the able bodied Olympics, he became a symbol to all amputees, especially amputee children, of what could be accomplished on metal legs. He changed how the world looks at us.

I'm still astonished when I see amputees represented positively on television. Both AmyPurdy and Sarah Reinertsen competed in the Amazing Race. Chad Crittenden held his own on Survivor. A main character on Grey's Anatomy is an amputee. Luke, a character on the popular sitcom Modern Family, casually tells his sister that it wouldn't be a big deal if he lost his leg, because then he could get one of those 'cool running legs'. A revealing episode of House informed us that Dr. House, who limps through the series with a bad leg, wishes he'd had his leg amputated when he'd has his medical crisis. He wishes he'd had the courage to amputate. That's a new way of thinking and I'm thrilled to see it on my TV.

My 'ampuversary' is a few months away. On January 12, 2004, I will celebrate a decade of new mobility. A decade is a long time. Long enough for me to feel totally comfortable in my amputee life. It quickly became a non issue in our house. My four children have grown up seeing their mom do everything else other mommies do and the fact I click on a leg in the morning seems very normal to them. Their friends have cycled through the house, in the three different states we've lived in the past ten years, and not one of them saw my amputee status as anything more than fascinating.

Attitudes have changed and this new generation is growing up with new ideas. In the next decade amputees will continue to be out there, mixed into the able bodied world. We no longer hide behind long pants or stay home when adventure calls. I'll celebrate my anniversary with a grateful heart. I'm so incredibly grateful to be a part of a community of amazing people, and grateful I get to be a part of an exciting new world.