Spend a few thousand hours in a small room with individual members of the human race, and you begin to catalogue the species, organize them into groups and form opinions. Try hard enough and you can find something disappointing about pretty much any demographic. But I never met an amputee I didn’t like.
Until I did.
When I was two years old my mother’s father lost a leg to cancer, and he got around with crutches from that day forward. He went straight back to work, to church, to life and its responsibilities. I don’t think he favored the pretense of prostheses because a disquieting plastic leg stood for years in his closet, wearing a shoe for no discernible reason. I never visited that house without sneaking into his room to stare at it, transfixed, understanding it to be a metaphor, but for what I still don’t know.
It was his nobility in the face of misfortune—his stoicism and utter lack of self-pity—that would serve as the basis for my theory that those who are robbed of limbs are compensated with character. This belief served two purposes. First, it allowed me the delusion that decent people exist and can be identified by physical markers. Second, it imposed satisfaction on my decidedly dissatisfied days. At least I have two arms and legs, I told myself, an embarrassment of riches.
I once worked on a woman whose arm was severed in an earthquake. She went on to become a doctor, serving the indigent. Another time I witnessed a guy in yoga power through difficult postures with twice the amount of determination—and half the number of feet—of anyone else in that room. I’d amassed a small menagerie of case studies proving me right, including Michelle.
It was early summer, and when I went to collect Michelle from the waiting room I found her drowning in a white cotton robe and writing in a journal. She was my four o’clock client. A whisper of a girl, young and slight, I liked her immediately, but my affections swelled when I noticed her awkward gait and the contraption extending from her knee.
In a voice soft and modest, Michelle explained that she’d need to remove her prosthesis for the massage. She’d be okay getting on the table by herself, but might need help after getting down. That was no problem as I’d have happily carried her around in my palm, like a hummingbird fallen from the nest, for the rest of my natural life. Generally speaking, I spend my days exorcising the Dow Industrial Average from financiers’ shoulders, so things like this really perk me up. During my intake, she let me know it was okay to work on her upper thigh and—only if I didn’t mind—it also felt good, she quietly stammered as she pointed lower toward her abbreviated tibia, on the area down there.
In situations where I suspect an average person might cringe or recoil, I get competitive and want to establish myself as better. And in needing to be special, I go too far.
“Oh, sure” I declared much too loudly and with impossible enthusiasm, “I’ll definitely massage the stump!”
I said it as though I say that word every day of my life—which absolutely no one does. Recovering my dignity was not an option at that point, so I excused myself from the room and let her change.
My thought process during the session ricocheted from one thing to the next, leaving no space for logical segue.
“Idiot. Why did you say that?”
“I wonder if she dates?”
“What does a person actually do with an M.F.A in creative writing? Idiot.”
Michelle, meanwhile, mostly just slept.
Once finished, I retrieved the lower leg she’d leaned against the wall and wrapped her arm around my shoulder to lift her down. Sleepy eyed and relaxed, Michelle thanked me profusely—as if I’d done her a favor instead of my job—and surprised me with a tender hug before we parted.
Jena is one of my coworkers and pulls down long hours in an effort to save money for midwifery school. All of her clothes are bought secondhand, but I think that’s as much a philosophical position as it is a cost-saving measure. Jena volunteers free massages to the housekeeping staff who wash our laundry all day, and studies Spanish so she can chat in their native tongue. I don’t know half of these women’s names, but Jena knows their individual countries of origin and where their kids go to school.
A few weeks after I met Michelle, Jena was booked with a client I’ll call Dolly Sinclair. Dolly was a motivational speaker and author, and had recently published a book of stories about the spiritual yearnings of formidable women. Dolly liked to inspire people. She’s the sort who believes that your mediocre life will be elevated if touched by her extraordinary one, and as such confuses narcissism with benevolence. She spent the entire appointment rambling on about herself and her myriad accomplishments. And at the end of the scheduled hour—and in case Jena craved more Dolly than she’d already received—an offer was made.
“Your choice,” the woman propositioned, “Would you rather I give you a cash tip or a copy of my book?”
It was an either/or deal, getting both wasn’t presented as an option.
Anyone who works in the service industries—especially those catering to the general public—knows some version of Dolly Sinclair. The world is chock full of people who will do anything to pay in a way that costs them nothing and—short of genocide—there’s little can be done to stop them. I knew before hearing the end of the story how Jena had answered that question. She just shrugged and laughed, but I was outraged and demanded to see the book.
Later that night, after devouring every last awful page and syrupy anecdote, I turned to google in search of more evidence in my case against Dolly. I was hoping for an entire webpage devoted to mocking her, but a bad book review would have sufficed. That’s when I found the photo and my naïve little theory snapped clean beneath the unbearable heft of reality.
Dolly was an amputee.
Jena had left this detail out because Jena is the kind of person I pretend to be. She doesn’t consider these things remarkable or worthy of comment. Jena would never shout, “stump!” in a bid to prove something about herself. I sat alone in the glow of my computer and stared at Dolly, remembered Michelle, and missed my grandfather.
I was a small child when he lost his leg, so I don’t know who he was before that. But I can’t imagine the experience left him unchanged. I believe certain vanities and insensitivities—things that are greater liabilities to joy than limbs are assets—were cut from him along with that leg. They must have been. And while my memories of the man are flattered and slanted by love—while he surely sometimes failed in his humanity—I can say with conviction that he would have never left someone a (free) promotional copy of his book in lieu of a tip. But probably that was true even before he learned to walk for the second time in his life.
The unbearable reality wasn’t that Dolly ruined my lame amputee track record. I know obnoxiousness isn’t born in the appendages. If it were, my parents would have taken steak knives to each of my major ball and socket joints when I was 16 and saved me from myself. I was devastated because, quite simply, things can go so wrong in life. Things you hold dear can be stripped away in the blink of an eye, and cruel reminders of what you once were can mock you from right inside your own closet. If that which is taken from us isn’t replaced by something else, something better, then what remains?
I want to believe that my sweet grandfather received more than he lost, that change is purposeful and nothing to fear. And that might have been true for him. But it might also be true that he simply wanted his leg back every single minute of every single day, and the well-intended admiration of strangers—and of the family member telling this story—was no kind of comfort at all.
For a few weeks after, Dolly was all we talked about. She’d earned a dubious place in our workday conversation, but it was a temporary post. Jena would survive without the twenty-dollar gratuity, and that odious book would collect dust on my shelf until I returned it to Jena, and it collected dust on hers. Dolly (she’d be sorry to learn) was largely forgettable.
On rare occasions here and there, she’ll tempt my memory. It’s almost always at a moment when I’m elbow deep in grapeseed oil, wondering where I might have been were I not so terrified of change, so terrified of losing even that which I do not want anymore. But to think too long of Dolly is to add a layer of misery to the day that is neither warranted nor fair. It’s not a bad gig I’ve got. I have two arms and legs.
So rather than Dolly, I think of my grandfather, of Michelle and of Jena. I think of the inexplicable origins of kind hearts—inside bodies broken or whole—and of things that can’t be severed, only willfully abandoned; things like decency, goodness and mercy. These thoughts leave me tingling, like phantom limbs, with the sensation of something still present long after it’s gone.