|Lounging with R.L. in snowman PJs|
Thursday, May 22, 2014
“My Stump, My Stump, My Stump
My Lovely Lady Stump (Check it out!)”
One of the ways in which I’ve always entertained myself and others – ok, mostly just myself – has been singing popular songs while intentionally mangling the lyrics. I think I inherited this talent from my mother, though her lyrical mix-ups were anything but intentional. My personal favorite was her take on Barry Manilow’s most heart-wrenching of love songs. You know the one. “Oh, Mandy, you kissed me and stopped me from shaving . . .”
“Why would someone write a song about that?” my mother asked one day. “What’s so romantic about bothering someone while they’re trying to shave?”
Flash forward to the early 1980s, to a warm spring night in Chicago. I was on a double date with my college roommate, sitting in the passenger seat of a guy’s convertible as we raced down Lake Shore Drive. My big hair whipped around in the wind. The radio blasted out some awesome Tom Petty. And I stretched my hands overhead and sang, “No baby, you don't . . . have . . . to live like an amputee!” Big laughs all around.
Yeah, well, irony’s a bitch. As I’ve discovered – the hard way – if you want to continue living after you’ve lost one or more limbs, then you really DO have to live like an amputee. You’ve got to find a way to keep going.
With that in mind, I think it’s time to get all Dr. Phil up in here and address the elephant in the room: My “stump.” The detail-oriented among you might have noticed that in all these essays I haven’t turned to that word to describe what remains of my left leg. Nor have I described in detail what my leg now looks like. I think it’s time.
Like all relationships, the one I have with my chopped-off leg has evolved over time. While hospitalized, I refused to look at the strange, misshapen bandaged blob that was once my sturdy, muscled leg. I was horrified and disgusted by the nothingness of my knee, my calf, my ankle, my foot, and my manicured toes. Whenever doctors or nurses had to change the bandages of my open wound (and later my skin graft site) I would put a sheet over my face and squeeze my eyes tight. I couldn’t look at it. I did try a few times, but I felt sick and started trembling with grief. Honestly, it gave me the heebie-jeebies to even glance down at that alien thing, the swollen, mummy-wrapped rump roast dangling lifelessly from my left hip. I decided if I didn’t look at it or touch it, maybe it wouldn’t actually be there. Because, really, there was no way that thing belonged on my body. Clearly, there’d been some sort of mistake in the unfolding of the grand scheme of the universe.
I wasn’t supposed to be an amputee. That was for other unfortunate people who had endured motorcycle crashes, cancer, a crushing avalanche, or stepping on an IED in Fallujah while serving in the Marine Corps. Not someone like me. I didn’t ride motorcycles. I didn’t have a serious illness. I didn’t climb mountains and I wasn’t in the military. I was a divorced, middle-aged, romance-writing mother of teenagers living in a small town in Maryland. Losing my leg wasn’t even a radar screen blip in the control tower of my normal little life.
It happened anyway.
On good days, I’d joke around with doctors and visitors, saying that if they thought my leg looked bad they should see what I did to the shark. (Humor is my go-to coping mechanism.) We even talked about getting a custom T-shirt made that said, you should see the shark. My real feelings weren't so entertaining, so I decided to keep them to myself. Who wanted to hear that I would never – ever – accept the ugly, disgusting, useless thing that was once my left leg. Period.
For additional yuks I started a contest among family and friends to come up with a good name for it. Yes, “Stumpy” was a favorite. As was “Shorty,” “Sharkey,” “Peg,” “Lego,” and “Legolis.” (Get it? “Leg-o-less?”) My son wanted to name it “Bob.” Since none of those seemed to strike a chord with me, I decided I’d hold off on a name. I figured I’d know it when I heard it.
But all this was just distraction and for the benefit of others. I went on secretly being disgusted by it and scared of it, right up until about a couple weeks after I’d been home. That’s when my physician ex-husband, John, came over to help me change the bandages on my skin graft, and . . . .
(I really must interrupt the flow of this essay to say that, yes, there is a story to be told about my quasi-friendly, post-divorce relationship with John, and someday I’ll get to it. But now is not the time. For now, just know that he was helpful and kind during this ordeal. I was grateful for his personal and professional assistance, and made sure to tell him so. But that story has more than a few twists and turns, and it will remain a tale for another day.)
Anyway, so John came over to the house to help change my bandages. I needed his help because the home care nurses couldn’t be there every day and I was too freaked out to do the job myself. On that particular day he carefully spritzed the site with sterile saline solution, applied a wrap of non-stick gauze followed by one of standard gauze followed with three elastic bandages. After he was done, he sat in a chair near the bed and told me the whole story.
I almost lost my entire leg, up to the hip, and there was even a time when my orthopedic trauma surgeon was prepared to amputate the hip itself and part of my abdomen.
I was stunned. My ears buzzed and my head felt like it weighed five hundred pounds. What? I wasn’t sure I heard John right, so I made him repeat it, with all the details.
John explained that the bacterial infection was quite far gone by the time I reached University of Maryland’s Shock-Trauma Unit. Despite the big-time antibiotics and repeated surgeries, the necrotizing fasciitis continued its death march up the inside of my thigh. But Dr. Robert O’Toole chased the infection inch by inch in his effort to salvage what he could. He went back many times, cutting away more dead flesh, bone, and muscle with each procedure. But he did it. He kept it from spreading. He saved my thigh.
So that’s what all those jagged, shark-attack scars were?! They were the reason I still had most of my upper leg and would one day be able to walk with a prosthetic?! At that moment it dawned on me that Dr. O’Toole had performed a miracle, that the thing I hated and didn’t want to admit was part of me was, in truth, a miracle.
After John left, I sat quietly and stared at the bandaged thigh, overcome with wonder, relief, and grief. At that moment, I took my first tentative step toward something other than self-hatred and denial. I felt my heart begin to soften. I realized that it could have been a lot worse. I could be dead. No, I should be dead. And I could have no leg at all, no hip, and nothing left of that side of my abdomen. Given these alternatives, I actually began to feel grateful for “it.”
That was the moment I named my leg. I suddenly remembered how I had laughed a few days earlier when my friend Pete, the medical equipment supplier, referred to it as “the residual limb.” I couldn’t help but be amused by the politically correct euphemism for “stump.” We had a winner!
I decided on R.L. for short. (Even its name was amputated.) I began to talk to it. I thanked it. I gently patted it and held it in my hands, understanding that only the inside and underside of the thigh was mangled – the top and outer thigh were perfectly smooth and free of scars. After that, I began to change my own bandages. And I even started to take tiny peeks at it, figuring I needed to understand everything that brave and strong leg had been through.
Slowly, I began to see R.L. as a symbol for all of me, my own battered and scarred but miraculously surviving self. I stopped thinking of it as “it” and knew in my heart that if R.L. was part of me, she was a “she.” It would be months before I dared hold up a mirror to my shark attack scars and more than a year before the sight didn’t make me nauseous and panicked.
These days, R.L. is a trusted friend. She doesn’t hurt much at all. She’s healed flawlessly, and I’ve never faced any additional surgeries, which is quite unusual for my kind of ordeal. She’s given me no problems with bone spurs or broken skin. Knock on wood. And she has the joint and muscle strength to allow me to stand and walk using my prosthetic leg.
R.L. is a survivor. She’s a warrior. She's a bad-mamma-jamma.
She is me.
Friday, May 16, 2014
“Don’t come in here! I’m getting dressed!”
“Jeeesh, mom. No need to freak out. We’ll go around the other way.”
Trying to stop my eighteen-year-old son and his friends from seeing me in my underwear was just one of many challenges I faced while living in the dining room. The space where we used to gather over meals with family and friends had become the place where I slept, dressed and undressed, groomed, talked on the phone, and received home nursing care. Until I became strong enough to go up and down the stairs to my second-floor bedroom – which would take months – it was my only post-hospitalization option for living at home.
I remember being confused the morning of February 26, 2012, when I woke up for the first time in a twin bed shoved into the corner of what looked like my dining room. It took me a moment to recap . . . . I was very weak. I had one leg. I was no longer hospitalized, which was wonderful, but I didn’t want to be stuck here in the corner! I longed for my own room, my heavenly Queen-sized bed and its goose down comforter and buttery soft flannel linens.
I didn’t want to simply be in my home. I wanted to be at home. I wanted my old life back.
I knew my daughter was upstairs, and that was a comfort. Though my teenagers divided their time fifty-fifty between their dad’s house (five minutes down the road) and mine, they decided that for the first month after discharge from the hospital one or both of them would stay overnight, every night.
I turned on the bedside lamp and looked around at how different the room looked. The leaf from the dining room table had been removed, and what remained was shoved into the corner smack against the china hutch. Just a couple chairs were pushed alongside. But despite all the crowding, the room felt hollow. I noticed that the dining room and living room rugs had been removed. In fact, all the rugs were gone, even the hall runner and the throw rug under the kitchen sink. They were hazards for me now, I suppose. My wheelchair could get stuck on them, or I could trip while using my walker.
Something else was missing. My dogs weren’t here! For the past twenty-three years of my life, the first thing I did every morning was exchange greetings with one or more canines. It had been a constant in my ever-changing world. The kids might be at their dad’s and the man in my life might vary – or not exist at all – but no matter what else was going on, my day always began with my dogs. And they weren't here! It made me so sad, but it was my choice. When I got sick, my ex-husband, John, had taken the dogs along with the kids, and he’d agreed to keep them even after I got home, until I was stronger. They were sweet and loving creatures, but exuberant and large. My yellow Lab was a hundred pounds of obsessive love and devotion, and my Labradoodle enjoyed hopping up on his hind legs and hugging me. I couldn’t deal with that yet. I was terrified of falling and paranoid about anyone or anything brushing up against my surgical sites. I knew our reunion would be over-the-top, and it wasn’t safe for me. The last thing I wanted to do was yell at them the first time I saw them.
I started to cry. How pitiful was this? I was such a blob of pain and fear and helplessness that I couldn’t even hug my own damn dogs.
This new life of mine – my legless, dogless, and rugless life – began that first morning in the dining room. It would be a life focused on the most basic of things, such as personal grooming and hygiene, bandage changes, resting, trying to stay hydrated, trying to eat, and enduring the visits of home health care nurses and therapists. But more than anything, this new life of mine revolved around the need for pain control.
I was on multiple meds, but the big mama of them all was a skin patch stuck to my upper arm or back. The small rectangle needed to be changed every three days so that it could mainline the goods directly into my bloodstream twenty-four-seven. This shit was one hundred times stronger than morphine. Really. I looked it up on Wikipedia. But despite its potency, it was merely the foundation for a whole slew of drugs. I took so much crap that I needed a printed medication schedule to keep track, which I tucked inside the Tupperware container holding all my prescriptions. (My kids referred to this as my “snack bowl.”)
I was wasted out of my skull the first couple months I was home.
Hey, I admit that my college experience included guzzling cheap beer and/or the occasional opportunity to inhale. But I wasn’t interested in the hard stuff. I never understood why people wanted to untether themselves from reality and dissolve into a psychedelic nothingness. I knew I would never do that to myself.
Ha. Never say never. For a total of five months – three in the hospital and two at home – I existed in a loopy la-la land, slogging my way through a pharmaceutical fun house. The drugs turned me into a zombie. It was a Catch-22 of sorts, since I needed drugs to endure the pain but the drugs made all of the new “real-life” challenges I encountered at home a hundred times more difficult and dangerous.
I was stoned every time I tried to safely get in and out of bed and in and out of my wheelchair. I was stoned each time I hopped along on my walker. I had to use the bedside commode and eventually teach myself how to use my new handicapped-accessible bathroom facilities while stoned. The first time I took a shower, I was stoned out of my mind and nearly fell. I had to do physical therapy exercises stoned. I had to learn to operate the microwave, can opener, stove, and toaster oven while stoned. I was stoned when I tried to dress myself, eat, drink, and carry on conversations in person or on the phone. I was too stoned to write thank you notes, let alone a paragraph for a novel. I was too stoned to read any of the books my friends brought me, or figure out my medical bills, or remember the reason I had just wheeled myself from one room to another.
It seemed there were only four things I was good at while stoned: cat napping, watching TV, listening to music, and staring at the fire. I discovered entertaining television shows I never knew existed, such as Castle, The Mentalist, and NCIS. Seriously. I had never watched any of them, and I quickly got to the point where I’d say this to anyone who happened to be nearby – “Shhhh. My show’s on.”
Naps were essential because I didn’t sleep well at night in the dining room corner. I kept waking up to the alien sound of the old radiator near the head of my bed. I guess I was more accustomed to the steady stream of alarms, beeps, and “Code Blue” announcements of the Shock Trauma Unit. Plus, I was either too hot or too cold. And I couldn’t get comfortable. I had what doctors refer to as “breakthrough” pain, meaning my narcotics cocktail couldn’t keep my nerve endings from screaming, my chopped-off bone from aching, and my flesh from throbbing and tingling.
I may have been lonely for my own dogs, but somebody else’s pet had managed to turn my mornings into a living hell. My neighbor’s pug dog, Mary Stewart, greeted each new day with a specific routine. She would press her little blackened and schnarveled-up face into the fence about ten feet from my dining room window, and let loose with a staccato machine-gun firing of barks, always in the same five-beat rhythm and always at the same brain-piercing pitch.
Aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh!
Aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh!
Aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh!
Aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh, aeurgh!
I may have been stoned, but I wasn’t stoned enough to remain unaffected by Mary Stewart. She drove me flippin’ insane.
Okay. So perhaps the homely little dog wasn’t entirely to blame for my sleep deprivation. It was partly my fault. I got cocky those first nights home and tried to sleep in a position other than flat on my back, the way I’d spent most of the last three months of my life. I propped myself up on my right side, a blanket shoved behind my back and my surgery sites supported and protected by pillows. It felt exotic, and it gave me a glimpse of how normal people sleep, but it wasn’t restful.
|The dining room, before it became a sick room and dispensary|
My caring friend Leslie came by to make me breakfast every morning, and I always asked for the same thing – one hard boiled egg, one turkey sausage patty, an English muffin, and cranberry juice over crushed ice. I would eat this in my comfy living room chair every morning, a tea tray over my lap and my leg propped up, flipping the remote between Good Morning America and the Today Show.
More days passed and more stuff happened. Friends stopped by to help with laundry, run errands, or keep me company for a bit. A group of volunteers designed a wheelchair ramp for my back yard and began to bring in lumber and supplies. Another friend brought me a pair of scissors, a kindness she began to regret as she watched me cut off the lower left legs of all my jeans and sweat pants in an effort to create a sassy, post-amputation wardrobe.
And after each day passed, I would return to the little bed in the corner. I would be in that bed by eight P.M., even if the kids were still up and making a racket in the kitchen or watching TV in the living room. The noise didn’t bother me. Those were the comforting and familiar sounds of my old life. The arguing and laughing, the cabinets slamming, the bathroom plumbing swooshing – it was what normalcy sounded like.
I would lie in my corner retreat, staring at the warm burgundy wallpaper with its swirls and filigrees. I’d cry quietly to myself, remembering how I’d carefully selected the color and pattern for this room all those years before. Before. When it was a dining room. Before it became a recovery room and dispensary. When I was still me.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Today is May 5th, my birthday. Coincidentally, I’m about to tell you the story of one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received in my lifetime. It wasn’t a birthday present or a holiday gift and it didn’t come wrapped in a bow. This gift didn’t wilt or require me to take out an insurance policy in case of loss or theft. You might want to have a box of tissues around. Seriously. I’m crying already, just thinking about it. I’ve been crying about it for twenty-six months.
I received the gift the day I left the hospital, which was a particularly difficult day for me. As I wrote in the most recent post, I was reeling from a cosmic shift in the way I saw my life. I could no longer count on my old frame of reference, the one in which I was sure that my talent, my hard work, and my luck would bring me what I wanted.
The operative word in that sentence was “MY.” Please keep that in mind for later.
So, my ex-husband, John, and Arleen, my best friend, took me home. If you’ve read the blog entry entitled “You Can’t Go Home Again,” then you know about the disastrous dry run homecoming the day before and how anxious and scared it left me. My discharge from the hospital came much sooner than anyone expected, and I didn’t know how I was going to get in the house or how I would function once I got in there. Nothing was ready.
But on the drive home, Arleen mentioned that some of my romance writer friends were waiting for me at the house and they’d been getting things ready for my return. I figured a few fellow members of the local Romance Writers of America chapter had stopped by, maybe bringing some snacks and a potted plant or two. And as sweet as that sounded, I just didn’t know if I was up to visiting with anyone. I wasn’t thrilled that these women, my professional comrades and ladies who knew me only in the context of meetings, workshops, lunches, and convention cocktail parties, would be seeing me at my all-time low, the most pitiful state I’ve ever been in outside a hospital.
Looking back, I have to laugh at myself. It’s ridiculous that despite everything I’d been through, I was still trying to “manage” how others saw me. I speak only for myself when I say that the ego is a relentless beast. Please keep that in mind for later, too.
We pulled to the curb. I noticed a lot of extra cars on my street, but my mind was focused on the immediate challenge ahead of me. Based on the previous day’s disaster trying to get me in the side door, we decided I would enter the house via the front steps. No, there was no lift chair. There was no wheelchair ramp. There weren't even handrails on both sides of the steps. The only way I would get into my house was to crab walk backwards toward the front door, up four concrete steps, across a concrete landing, and up an additional four steps to the porch.
With a lot of help, I got from the car to my wheelchair and out of the chair and into position on the bottom step. While shoving off with my one foot, my arms pushed me up and back. I don’t know how much time it took to get to the second step. Every movement required complete focus and all my available physical strength. My arms began to ache immediately. John and Arleen were right there, assisting me, encouraging me, but I had to block them out. I didn’t want them to touch any part of my body because I hurt all over. This was about me and the stairs, and I needed to focus. Though my skull was like one of those restaurant bread bowls and my brains were nothing but a narcotic soup (do you want a baguette with that?) I knew it had to do its job if I were going to make it to the porch.
Neighbors stuck their heads out their doors to watch.
Another step. Another. I tried not to cry.
I heard voices behind me, coming from inside my house. My friends were in there, and here I was, scooting along the cold concrete landing on my ass like the cripple I had become.
I made it across. Five feet felt like five miles. By the time I got to the first porch step, I was choking on a kind of shame I didn’t know existed.
I was a circus freak. I was Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. This was permanent. I was powerless. Permanent . . . powerless. I would never be Susan again. I had become someone – something – else.
By the time I made it up the porch steps, my face was wet with tears, my arms trembled from exertion, and my palms were scraped raw from the concrete. But I still had to get up into the wheelchair. I surrendered, and let Arleen and John pull me up and get me seated. Next, the chair had to be lifted over the threshold, with me in it. My writer friend Mary greeted us at the door and took charge of the operation. Because Mary’s daughter has been disabled since birth, she was an expert at this sort of thing.
I sat facing outward with Mary bent down by my ear behind me. “You are going to be all right, sweetie,” she whispered. “I won’t let you fall.”
The wheelchair rose up and tilted backward. I think I gripped the armrests and screamed in terror. If I fell, I didn't have the strength to defend myself from injury. I had no control. I had no power.
The wheels made contact with the foyer floor. I was home.
I was wheeled into my living room, and my shame evaporated in the warmth of kindness. The fireplace was roaring and light reflected on the clean wood floors. A fuzzy blanket was wrapped around me and a cup of hot herbal tea placed in my shaking hands. I was welcomed home with hugs and kisses and reassurances. That's when I realized what was going on.
This wasn’t a few ladies with casseroles. This was an army of mercy.
More than twenty women from Washington Romance Writers had invaded my home. God knows how long they’d been there, because the place was spotless, completely rearranged, and full of flowers, cards, and chocolate. A luncheon display was arranged on the dining room table. Apparently, they learned of my early discharge and, with Arleen’s help, descended en masse upon my house to get it ready for me.
Several friends helped me get into my big overstuffed chair by the fire, where I sat with my blanket and tea. It was the first upholstered chair I’d felt in three months. I was worried about my leg, but several women buzzed around me, helping me prop it into a position that kept the pain tolerable.
Slowly, I began to comprehend the situation. My writer friends had scrubbed my house top-to-bottom and set up a cozy bedroom area for me in the downstairs dining room, with a twin bed, side table, and lamp. There were new, freshly laundered sheets, and fuzzy blankets. Two new robes lay across the bed, one ultra soft and cushy and the other a floral silk. They had rearranged all my kitchen cabinets so that I could reach dishes and pantry items. They purchased a small counter top microwave I could use without standing up and reaching for the built-in appliance over my stove. They bought me a new electric tea kettle. It would take weeks to discover just how much food my friends had provided. Massive quantities of homemade sauces, stews, soups, entrees, and desserts were stacked in my freezer (which was now cleaner than the day I bought the appliance.) The cupboards were packed with staples like organic soups, whole grain pilafs, juices, tuna, pasta, coffees, teas, condiments, and canned goods. A stack of autographed novels had been placed on my bedside stand, including an advance reading copy of Nora Roberts’ latest.
I will never forget the moment I saw my friend Gail appear from the basement doorway wearing a pair of elbow-length vinyl gloves. She had been scrubbing my basement. My basement?! Due to the fact my son’s room was down there, the location had a nickname – The Pit O’ Despair. Gail deserved hazardous duty compensation, or the Congressional Medal of Honor.
And then I learned this little tidbit: two friends had brought along their husbands, and these poor souls had been enlisted to rip out the old, leaky downstairs shower and install a handicapped-accessible unit – in a single day. They’d already been at work for many hours. I looked out into my back yard to see old fixtures, plumbing, and shower doors thrown on the grass.
I was dumbstruck by this display of generosity. It was the most shockingly loving thing that had ever happened to me. Of course I cried. I was too weak to fight it. But here’s what needs to be said – I had spent time with most of these women over the years at events, but others I had barely spoken to. Some of them were practically strangers to me. But they were there anyway.
As the evening approached, people started to head back to their Washington DC-area homes, where they would probably repeat the cooking and cleaning routine for their own families. I hugged everyone. I thanked everyone, though my squeaky little “thank yous” couldn’t begin to convey how much their kindness meant to me.
(Let’s fast forward two years – some of these barely-known women and their families are now among my dearest friends, and I will never be able to repay them for their ongoing generosity.)
It took the handyman husbands until eleven P.M. to finish the shower project. I had long ago put on my jammies and collapsed into my dining room sickbed, feeling cared for, spoiled, and more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life.
That’s when one of my friends pulled out a big envelope and showed me that she’d brought along donations from members who couldn’t be there that day. Checks. Money to put toward medical bills. I didn’t even know what to say. The next day I would find a get-well card stuffed with cash just sitting on my bedside table.
I couldn’t even process how much love there was in these women. The next time you hear someone dismiss romance novels as bodice rippers written by hacks, tell them this story. (After you've told them to eff themselves. Or instead of. Your choice.) The point is, these talented women walk the talk. They believe in love and they aren’t afraid to show it. The do more than write about heroines. They ARE heroines.
It would take a long time before I understood the shift that occurred in my life that day. I had been forced to let go of my old formula for living and tentatively accept a new one. Literally, I’d had to leave my self-centered formula behind (MY talent, MY determination, MY luck) – and be open to something else.
It was my first shaky attempt at gratefully and gracefully accepting help from others, letting them do for me what I could not do for myself. It was tough, since I’d lived the first fifty years of my life proud that, though I loved other people, I didn’t need them to survive.
The rules had changed.
That first night home, it was a struggle to fall asleep. I may have been exhausted, but I couldn’t get comfortable in my little dining room bed. My teenagers watched over me, telling me they loved me. I was so glad they were there.
But it was all so strange. There I was, surrounded by a variety of one-legged necessities – a bedside commode, wheelchair, cell phone, glass of water, pain medicine, pillows to prop up my throbbing leg, extra bandages, extra blankets, ice packs and heating pads, tissues, and skin lotion, etc. – in a room that had hosted raucous dinner parties, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and romantic candlelit escapes.
Weird. Odd. Surreal. Confusing. All of it.
The pain meds eventually did their job, and I fell asleep with my daughter, Kathleen, holding my hand. I slid down into that dark and drugged-up place where I could ignore the little voice that was whispering in my ear.
Friday, May 2, 2014
He arrived on a typical summer evening on my suburban cul-de-sac, just another night in which Susie refused to come in from outside, or take a bath, or brush her hair – because those things led up to the dreaded bedtime.
So when I couldn’t find my hairbrush anywhere, my mother assumed it was just another attempt to delay the inevitable. Not so. My hairbrush was gone. It wasn’t in the bathroom or on the bedroom dresser I shared with my older sister, much to her dismay. And when I accused Nancy of using my hairbrush she laughed haughtily. She was fourteen, a teenager with her own collection of brushes and combs, a girl who spent most of her waking hours applying Dippity-Do and using orange juice cans as hair rollers. No, Nancy had no interest in my disgusting hairbrush. And my brother was innocent, too. Sean was only three and hadn’t yet reached the age where he stole anything and everything – including my naked, armless Barbie dolls – to use as airplanes on bombing missions.
The brush had disappeared.
So my mother and I looked everywhere for that stupid thing and came up empty-handed. Eventually, Mom untangled my hair with her own comb, and tucked me in.
At some point during the night, an odd sound woke me from a deep sleep. The headboard of my twin bed was against the same wall as the bedroom door, so I faced into the room. The dresser mirror provided a reflection of the hallway behind me. When I heard the strange sound again – a scraping and sliding noise – I sat up and opened my eyes.
I heard a giggle. I looked into the mirror and saw him under the hall light, a little man in a matching green top hat, jacket, and short pants. He wore black shoes with big silver buckles. His eyes twinkled and his cheeks were rosy. And he was laughing and skipping down the hallway, kicking his heels when he wasn’t kicking the hairbrush along the wood floor toward my bedroom.
I froze, my eyes glued to the mirror. This little man was making such a racket that I couldn’t believe my parents and siblings didn’t wake up. I looked over at Nancy. She was sound asleep, her orange juice cans denting into the pillow. I tried to call out to her but I couldn’t get my voice to work.
It was just me and a guy who was clearly a leprechaun. I didn’t dare turn and look directly down the hallway, so I took another furtive glance in the mirror. He caught my eye, and laughed even louder, like he was glad to be caught in the act. Then he gave me a mischievous smile.
I slammed down onto my back and yanked the covers over my face, trembling with fear as the scraping sound got louder and louder. I heard him in my room. He was giggling up a storm and mumbling to himself in a loud sing-song voice. And then – poof! – he was gone.
I woke up the next morning to find my brush placed in the center of my dresser. I couldn’t believe it! Nobody admitted to finding it and putting it there. My mom thought I was just being a rabble-rouser when I told her all about my leprechaun, the way he giggled and what he was wearing and how he had kicked up his heels. She hugged me, laughed, and told me what a wonderful imagination I had.
“Maybe one day you’ll be a writer!” she said.
You may wonder why I’m telling you about my leprechaun at this point, since the last time I posted a blog I was just about to be discharged from the hospital after three months, twenty surgeries, and the amputation of my left leg above the knee. Bear with me.
Let’s return to February 25, 2012, the morning I was really, truly, finally GOING HOME. I woke very early, flipped on the light, and sat up in my hospital bed. Then it hit me – the ordeal was over. I’d done it. I’d survived. I’d been strong. I’d beaten the odds. I’d aced the test!
I’d like my leg back now.
Really, that’s what went through my head. Of course it sounds ridiculous, but I understand how I might have thought that way, since it was how things usually worked for me. For the previous fifty years of my life, I had put my faith in a simple formula: if I worked really hard, things usually turned out the way I wanted them to. All I had to do was use my God-given talent, push on with bullheaded determination, and let the good luck dust sprinkle down on me the way it always had – even before I was born.
My sister is almost ten years older than me. In between Nancy and myself, my mother had three miscarriages. While being examined after a car accident, my mom learned she was pregnant again, and assumed I would become number four. But she realized something was different this time around. My mom always described it this way: “I started to feel a powerful life force inside me, pure determination, and I knew you would be fine. You were going to be born and that was that. I never worried about the pregnancy again.”
This determination/luck thing went on to work for me in the post-natal years, as well. How I got into college and how I became a published author are prime examples of the formula in action.
I wanted to be a journalist, so with decent SAT scores and a B average from my little suburban public high school, I applied to the No. 1 journalism program in the country at that time – and nowhere else. I carefully filled out the admissions application and spent months crafting, typing, and polishing my essay, then drove to my in-person interview. I woke up in the middle of the night before my appointment, and tore that sucker into confetti-sized pieces. Then I sat down at the small round table in front of the hotel room window and wrote about how I’d just destroyed my essay because it was from the girl I thought they wanted me to be, not who I really was. I wrote this triumph of teen angst in pencil. On Holiday Inn stationery. Off the top of my head. The generous admissions staff at Northwestern University accepted me anyway, and I went on to get bachelors and masters degrees from the Medill School of Journalism.
More than twenty years later, I was married with two young children and working part-time as a fine arts fundraiser when I decided I wanted to write popular fiction. I gave myself one year – three hundred and sixty-five days – to write a novel from start to finish and snag an agent and/or a book deal. Since I had to quit my job in order to write, that’s all I could spare. But I figured a year would be plenty of time to discover if I had what it took to be a published novelist. If it didn’t happen within that time, it wasn’t meant to be.
As the end of the year approached, I’d written two complete novels and was working on my third. I went to a writer’s conference where I randomly sat down next to an editor at lunch. Based on our informal chat, she asked to see the first few chapters of my work-in-progress, and called a week later to say she loved the book and wanted to read the whole thing. I left a panicked voicemail with the only literary agent I’d ever met in person and I became her client by the next day’s close of business. Within six weeks, I’d finished the novel and had a two-book contract with my dream publisher. Yes, I had gone past my allotted time, but hey, I figured it was close enough.
I tell you these stories to provide context, because this sort of stuff happened in my life so often that it was the norm for me. I was an incredibly lucky woman. I didn’t talk about it much, but sometimes my mind went back to the night of the hairbrush, and I had to admit that I just might be in a relationship with a leprechaun.
The morning of my discharge, as I looked at all my belongings packed and ready to go, it dawned on me that the tried-and-true formula would not work in this situation. Being a stellar patient wouldn’t earn the return of my knee, calf, ankle, and foot. No amount of bullheaded determination would regenerate my flesh and bone. It pained me that my damn leprechaun hadn’t even bothered to belly up to the bar before closing time. He should have shown up to do his sprinkling thing before my leg got whacked off in the first place.
Clarity – a big-assed concrete block of clarity – crashed down on my head. My charmed life wasn’t charmed anymore. I was a one-legged woman, and nothing I could do from this point on would change that. I was permanently powerless over the situation.
I know. The idea that any of us human beings are “in charge” of any damn thing is delusion. I’ve always understood that, but only as a spiritual concept that didn’t necessarily apply to me. In prayer, I would give over the flow of my life to the Source. In meditation, I would let the idea of “accepting what is” float through my mind. And then off I’d go, right back into a life that I expected to work according to my equation – talent, effort, and luck would get me wherever I needed to go.
Crap. All of it.
Not only would I be going home without a leg, or a fully functioning brain, or a strong body, I’d be going home without my safety net of delusion.
My leprechaun had left the building, and he’d taken my charmed life with him, the little fucker.