Sunday, February 26, 2012

My ampu-versary

In 2007 the Academy Awards were held the Sunday night before my amputation. The surgery was scheduled for 8 am, Monday February 26. The night before, I was home with my older daughter (17 at the time), my sister and my cousin who'd each driven eight hours to be with me.

We'd had an impromptu party on Saturday night. It had featured strong margaritas, loud music, and a giant paper leg we burned in effigy in the snow outside. It was a rowdy, over-the-top celebration, a send-off I called my Leg's Retirement Party. But all day Sunday I paced and trembled, too stressed to speak to anyone. When a well-wishing neighbor stopped by, rather than answer the door, I hid. I waited for the hours to pass. I endured. I was ready; I just wanted to go.

That Sunday night, my daughter took photos of me in shorts with my left leg. Later she told me I had the dead, sunken eyes of a concentration camp survivor. Then we watched the Oscars with my cousin and my sister. We watched them straight through but still I can't name a single film or actor mentioned that night.

In the morning I fed my appaloosa in her run-in stall where she was free to come and go. Laredo munched her grain seriously, nose deep in the bucket, breath swirling up in clouds of vapor. Her neck was warm and her thick winter coat soft against my face. the smell and feel of her was like oxygen, like hope. I pressed my left leg against her left foreleg. I wanted the strength of her smooth tendon, knee and muscle as its last impression.

I haven't regretted it, not since the moment I woke up in Recovery with my thigh a bandaged stump. It's complicated but so is every life. Here's to my next thirty-five years, or more.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Incidental music for above-knee amputation

Today I've been steeping in music like a teabag in hot water. My amputation-anniversary tomorrow has a resonance similar and different to my daughters' births. This afternoon I had to drive forty miles round trip on an errand. My town south of Ithaca NY, centrally isolated, is 20 miles from anywhere. I put on a certain song and cranked the stereo until it was pegged just as I did that last month before my surgery was approved in 2007, when my girls were 7 and 17 and it hurt me even to ride my horse. Then, my left knee was painless and bent, rigid for thirty years, auto-fused when I was in my teens. But my left ankle and foot had ground bone on bone; my right knee had broken down. In line at the grocery store I'd shifted from foot to foot, unable to find a comfortable stance. My chiropractor had adjusted my back every week so I could walk. When my girls bumped my foot I'd yelped like an old dog. The doctors wanted to fuse my leg straight and let me limp that way for a while. My knee was surgically uncorrectable. One specialist called it "unique to North America." It was the kind of fusion they didn't see anymore, not since the discovery of antibiotics. 
This is where religion-based neglect of children can lead.

I was the one who looked into amputation, researched it, met with two different prosthetists, talked to amputees. Amputation was my worst nightmare when I was a kid, especially as a teen when I sensed it might happen if a doctor saw my disease-ravaged leg. But ever since the bone disease blew my world, I've needed to know the worst-case scenario. I've needed to know so that I can imagine enduring it. That's my security. I've struggled to find a sense of future or hope.  It's typical  behavior for someone with post-traumatic-stress-disorder. But I found that facing my worst fear head-on can be the most empowering event  of my life. “Our fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

That winter in 2007, my older daughter would turn on her radio every morning as she and her sister got ready for school. A song caught my ear: sliding guitar chords, heavy beat, and hopefully desperate lyrics. Appropriately enough, it's called Gone Away by the Offspring. I got the CD & twisted the volume to eleven. It was--is--my theme song of that time. I guess it's my anthem. I drove with it blasting, then and today. Listening to it feels like staring amputation in the eyes, like runnng off a cliff and hoping to glide instead of fall like a stone, like being chased and choosing to take a chance. When the surgeons agreed to amputate my leg, it was the biggest act of faith in myself I could imagine. Though I had friends and relatives supporting me, I had no partner or spouse or lover; I had no god or religious faith. But I had evidence of so much  human love and caring around me. I had evidence of and faith in my own strength and resilience.

A bobcat dashed across the road in front of my truck this morning as I drove across town to get a load of hay. It was a furry streak too small for a coyote, tailless,too big and brown to be a feral cat. It ran with that wild and hellbent singlemindedness imprinted by survival. When I got home I looked up the meaning of BOBCAT as a totem: "Silence. Solitude. Secrets." It seems appropriate for me today. As the Offspring sing (cranked up way too loud), It feels like heaven's so far away. For me, tonight, that's a good thing.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Approaching my fifth anniversary as an amputee horseman

 This weekend marks my fifth anniversary as an above-knee amputee. It's sort of a personal New Year, both end and beginning. My amputation was definitely both an end (of years living with a knee that fused itself when I was a teenager, during a horrific untreated bone disease) and the beginning of mylife as an amputee. I chose this road open-eyed;. The bone diease (osteomyelitis) just happened to me.

My parents were devout Christian Scientists at the time; we lived near Boston, headquarters of Christian Science. Back in the 1970's, Massachusetts law protected the rights of parents to choose "spiritual treatment" over medicine for children. My parents believed my only chance was a healing through prayer. I spent a hellish year and a half in bed and a wheelchair. But I survived. 

The previous photo of the girl bareback on her horse is me at thirteen, Novmber 1975, with my crazy appaloosa mare, Flicka. My father took the picture about two weeks before my knee suddenly--viciously--swelled without warning one night. I'd lived in my legs. I'd run hurdles on the jr high track team. I'd ridden since I was six years old. My last day running was in late November 1975. It was a good day.

In the thirty-six years since that photo was taken, I've had a wonderful life. Even with a fused leg I was able to do almost everything with horses that I'd hoped including training, teaching, competing in low-level hors trials and riding racehorses. I've always written about horses, and for the past eight years I've finally begun to wrestle with my life on paper. I'm here tonight to begin a conversation (one-sided so far, though I'm hoping you'll join in) about three aspects of my life:

1. Horses: I've never been able to separate myself from horses, physically or emotionally. They have taught me to forgive and to be a better human. I can't stop keeping them. I've still got two and a half out in my pasture right now, unless you count the mini as a whole horse...
2. Religion: I left Christian Science in 1994. I am an atheist. Now, January 2012, 38 states in the US still permit parents to opt out of medical treatment for children  on religious grounds. (Five states have religious defenses to crimes including manslaughter and murder.) I am just beginning to speak out against this privilege . It's personal.
3. Motion, physical activity, movement: This  is the essence of who I am which has been facilitated by horses all these years, and held back by the limitations that are the legacy (pun intended!) of my untreated bone disease. My remaining leg is failing. My knee grinds bone on bone and my limited insurance, which paid for my prosthesis, for which I am grateful, just refused a much more inexpensive knee brace for my suffering, 80-yr-old's-equivalent knee.

These three issues are the triangle that stabilizes and limits me, galvanizes and spurs me on. 

More to follow. Be well.