Friday, April 13, 2012

Stump Love

I love my left leg, the one that isn't there anymore, the one I feel but can't see past mid-thigh since it was amputated. I've had a love-hate relationship with it my whole life. Now it's just love.

My left leg betrayed me by swelling up one night when I was almost fourteen. I couldn't understand why my body would do this. It had accomodated my running, jumping, riding, and climbing trees or ropes; it made it easy to believe my family's Christian Science doctrine that a body was only the manifestation of thought, a mortal representation of my limitless spiritual being.

I lay in bed for almost a year with the infection. It felt as if a stake had been plunged through my leg into the mattress; the pain was excruciating even when I lay motionless. I tried not to look at the running sores. I couldn't bear to watch my leg being destroyed. (This is called religion-based medical neglect of children, relying on prayer for a child's healthcare rather than medicine. It's still legal in 38 US states. I'll be writing more about this. You bet I will.)

Over eighteen months my leg fused itself in a bent position. It was scarred to the bone in places, deformed and atrophied from mid-thigh to mid-shin. I kept it wrapped with an Ace bandage. I was deeply ashamed that I hadn't been healed perfectly. Ten years passed before I could bring myself to stop wearing bluejeans with my swim suit and just wrap my leg.

Shame is a powerful force. Walking with a bobbing stride on a bent leg was not something I could hide like my scars. With every public step I took, I felt exposed as a spiritual failure. In turn, with each step I was more determined than ever to find my perfect healing.

Flash forward twenty years to my first x-rays. I'd quit Christian Science and stopped trying to pray my body into perfection. Othopedic specialists diagnosed the disease as osteomyelitis, a bacterial bone infection that had run its course. They were impressed how I'd coped and how fit I was. They had no solution; my knee had fused solid like the limb of a tree. How long until I couldn't compensate anymore? They shrugged. "Stay active!" they said, and shook my hand. I walked out of the hospital that day feeling absolved of a life sentence for first-degree mortality. I had a human history. I was a survivor, not a failure.

I stopped hating my leg after that. I appreciated it even as my foot gave out and needed surgery. I wasn't afraid to look when the podiatrist examined his handiwork every few weeks, not even at the wires that stuck out of my toes. (His staff was dazzled at my skills on crutches. They said I was the best they'd ever seen.)

My body demanded an end to my limp five years ago. In the hospital after my amputation, I was anxious how I'd feel when I saw my stump. But when the doctor unwrapped the Ace bandage to take a peek, I saw a neat seam of staples that ran around the end of my abbreviated thigh, simple and inoffensive. (There were 31 staples; it was almost exactly 31 years since I'd first been hobbled by circumstance, religion and disease.) Now, walking with the prosthesis, my stump has gained more thigh muscle than it had all the years when the joint was frozen. Not a huge amount, but muscle is developing normally--after 30 years!

During my physical therapy when I learned to walk with the prosthetic leg, my PT looked at the last x-rays of my weird, late leg. He pointed out something amazing: the knee cap had mostly dissolved. Little channels of bone ran down through the bent joint, reinforcing the structure. He said, "All the activity you did caused your leg to rebuild the bone to strengthen your leg." My body had rerouted its normal function to support an unexpected form. I felt a rush of love for my battered, misused, lost leg.

My stump is the latest incarnation of my leg. It does its job, whether wearing a hydraulic leg or bobbing in time to my crutches. It's different not having a body part I'm ashamed of; I keep thinking there's something I'm forgetting, but it's only the shadow of a habit. The absence of that shame is a stronger sensation than my missing limb.