Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Quiet Success

Today was my 90th mile. I have just ten miles to go!

I am proud of myself for walking everyday. When I look back at myself and my abilities six months ago, I couldn't have imagined doing this.

But this success isn't like the physical successes I've had in the past. When I scaled a rock face or hiked five miles with a backpack on my back or kayaked in really rough waters, there was an exhilaration that came with those experiences. Not walking. I may produce a few endorphins to make my emotions perk up a bit, but I don't get a natural high from my daily walks.

My daily walks are my quiet successes. My walks don't deserve any fancy fanfare. They are more like a quiet nod to life.

When I was pregnant with Luke, my oldest, I was working at an AIDS hospice in Seattle. The residents were mostly people who were marginalized in our society and with them came a lot of drama to the house. After Luke was born, I felt caught in my own drama of my newly imposed disability - pregnancy wracked havoc on my leg, making me quite immobile. I decided that I couldn't have drama at work and drama at home. In order for me to quit working, Mark and I sold our beautiful north Seattle home and downsized to a smaller house in south Seattle. Over the years I've learned that I get to decide how much drama is in my life. Stuff happens in life, it always will. It's my reaction that creates drama or not. I've decided that I don't want to invite drama into my life anymore.

In a way, my adventures in my twenties were a way of ensuring that I had drama in my life. They gave me some really high highs and then the subsequent really low lows. Walking is like saying no to drama and yes to an average life. Without drama, my life is stable. I used to be so scared that stability would be boring. Not so. Without drama I have so much more energy. Without drama, I am able to be more creative. Without drama my life has expanded in ways unimaginable.

So I give a quiet nod to life, my perfectly ordinary, average life, every day when I take my mile walk.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Two Block Reminder

Yesterday, on the way home from my walk, the battery in my leg died. I must have forgotten to charge it the night before. When the battery dies, the leg walks stiff-legged. Thank goodness I was just two blocks from home and didn't have to walk stiff-legged for too long. Just those two blocks, though, reminded me how difficult it was when I was pregnant with my second child.

I learned from my first pregnancy that constantly adjusting the socket of my prosthetic leg was too time consuming and ineffective, so instead, for my second pregnancy, my prosthetist made me a big socket and we attached it to a peg leg, a long metal tube with a rubber foot at the end. This was a stiff-legged contraption, like Peg Leg Pete, the pirate. That's how I walked for over a year during and after my second pregnancy.

When I was seven months pregnant, Luke, my nearly three year old, and I went to swim lessons twice a week. Being in the water with him was so easy. The water displaced the weight of the baby inside me and allowed me to easily maneuver my body. I held Luke's chubby, soft body in my hands, face down so he could practice blowing bubbles and kicking. I threw him in the air and caught him as he hit the water. Belly laughs from both of us echoed around the pool.

One day, after we had showered and changed, we were walking to the car. I was weighed down by a bag full of wet towels and toiletries. Luke carried his pool toy. Suddenly, I crash landed onto the floor, scattering the bag's contents all over. My hands immediately rushed to my stomach. Everything felt okay with the baby. A gasp of air, a sob, abrupt tears assaulted me all at once. I looked down to realize that the metal pylon had broken off my socket. I was afraid Luke was scared, but he was still playing with his pool toy.

I hefted my body off the floor awkwardly, picked up the now filled-up tote and the remaining part of my leg. Taking a deep breath, I fought back the tears and scanned the area. Another mom, with her young child, was walking down the hall. With watery, pleading, embarrassed eyes, I asked her for help.

I showed her how to hold her arm so I could use it as a support as I hopped the hundred feet to my car. When we arrived home I had to hop twenty more feet to the house, using the fence for support. When I was younger, hopping up and down a flight of 13 stairs a few times in a row might make me breathless, but wasn’t difficult. After three years of inactivity and a six month baby in my belly, I fell onto the couch exhausted.

When I look back on my second pregnancy, I'm amazed that I made it through. I'm even more amazed that I've bounced back. Well, okay, bounced is a stretch. I've struggled to get back to walking a mile a day.

Even though I had to walk stiff-legged for a couple of blocks yesterday, I'm glad I did. It reminded me to be grateful for my imperfect body and how far it has come.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer Days

This week I have been simmering in the energy of the Summer Solstice.

I prefer to follow the Celtic wheel of the year which claims Summer Solstice as not the beginning of summer, but the height of summer. The longest day of the year marks the time of year when the earth is resplendent in her glory. Many flowers have shown their true colors and those that are blooming now appear to be showing off.

This point on the wheel is directly opposite the Winter Solstice, the time when the earth is sleeping, gathering up her energy. The Summer Solstice is like the earth is having one big belly laugh.

I like to liken my life to the cycles of the earth. In winter I follow the earth's example and slow down, conserving my energy. In summer, especially this summer, I am completely groovin on what life has to offer. I have a job, The Spirit of a Woman (which contains my first published essay!) just came out, I am still soaking in the love I received on my birthday a few months ago (yes, it was that big!), I am on day 83 of my walk and am blown away by the many donations that have come in, my children are starting summer camps and it's even been sunny! My life couldn't be more full.

Mixed with my incredible joy, there's a tinge of sadness. We're still at neap tide with the sun, but soon the days will shorten, confirming that the apex has been passed and we are moving, as slowly as reluctant children, back to nap time.

But for now I'll keep simmering in the goodness of life.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


It's Father's Day. My family spent the day together just being a family. I think that's what I love most about birthdays and Mother's Day and Father's Day. We reserve the day just for the four of us. Today we took a walk on Sehome hill and went and saw Toy Story 3. I cried and cried. Of course I did. Most things make me cry. I don't care anymore, nor do I apologize.

So it was a nice day just being us.

I've thought about my own Dad today. He died suddenly when I was thirteen, the age my son is now. I try to put Luke in my shoes and I can't begin to imagine what it would be like for Luke to lose his father at this age. I can't believe I did. As one of two children, Luke has had so much one on one time with his dad. I was the fourth of six children and I have maybe two memories of being alone with my father. I kept expecting that to happen. The memories I have of Dad are wonderful. He was simply an amazing guy. I know I would have really liked him if I had been fortunate enough to have been an adult and known him.

But I got lucky. Mom married another man ten years after Dad died, when I was 23 years old. Larry is one of the gentlest souls I'll ever know. This man can read a Pooh Bear story and make you weep from the tenderness in which he tells the story. He's smart, funny and doesn't think badly of anyone. He's taught me to give everyone a chance, no matter what my first impressions are. He's loyal and forgiving. Larry is fortunate in that he's now lived a long life and the tendrils of his love has reached through generations. He has a wide circle of friends and an even wider circle of family.

I haven't run to Larry in times of distress like I would have had he been my biological father. And the fact that I didn't has been even better. I have always known Larry is there for me, no matter what. I've had countless conversations with him over the years, all in my own head. What would Larry say? His wise council has given me advice over and over. He just never knew it. He's been a father in the truest sense of the word: I've learned how to figure it out for myself, often using him as my example.

I think what I treasure most about Larry and what I've learned most from him is that he's happy with who he is. He's comfortable in his own skin. He's been a family man, he's had great success working at the Seattle Times, and he's had a quiet impact on his world since he's retired. Through it all Larry is Larry. Just being who he is. I marvel at how easy he is with himself.

I've spent my adult life questioning who I really am, so shaken was my foundation at the vulnerable age of seventeen, an age when one's self-identity is developing. Now I'm fifty and it's time to forgo the angst. Now it's time to be like Larry, like Pooh Bear and just be who I am, in all my glory.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Whole Self

I'll never forget a party I went to about ten years ago, just after I stopped answering all those questions from the kids at the park. It was an evening party in late June and the weather was beautiful. I knew the beginning of the party would be warm, sitting on the west-facing deck, but that the air would cool down after the sun set.

But the weather wasn't the reason I chose to wear pants to the party. I was finally sick of my prosthetic leg defining me. I knew that other people looked at my prosthesis and couldn't help but immediately have a bunch of assumptions about me. Anything from "She must have been through hell. What a survivor" to "Oh, gross. Decent face, but I'd never date her." I know what it's like to see a piece of someone and assume that it's a huge part of their identity.

Trouble was, with me, I used that to my advantage. I didn't purposely flaunt my leg, but if it came up in normal conversation, I didn't hide it, either. I wore the shorts instead of the pants. I assumed that people would think more highly of me if they knew I was an amputee. If they didn't know about my leg, I didn't trust that they would like me, that I would be enough. Ironically, I felt more whole in other people's eyes if they knew a part of me was missing.

Once I stopped answering questions about my leg from strangers and realized I didn't have to be the Amputee Role Model of the Universe, I could see that there was probably more to who I was than just being an amputee. Fortunately for me, I had a fallback identity. I was a new mom, a stay-at-home mom, and I was relishing in this role.

Motherhood is an equalizer. I could easily keep up with the other moms at play groups, singing groups or just comparing notes about poop and teeth and first steps. That I was an amputee in those groups was a non-issue. We were all just being moms together. For the first time in my life I had acquaintances that didn't even know I was an amputee. At first this was very uncomfortable for me, so afraid was I that I wouldn't be accepted or liked. But I was. I was learning not only how to be myself with people, but who that self was.

Motherhood was a perfect segue for me to leave my Amputee identity behind. Now I am expanding, perhaps realizing for the first time, how much more there is to me than just an amputee or just a mom. I've even realized the past few months (I love being 50!) that I can be full of contradictions and paradox and even that's okay. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. But it's all good.

Now when I go to a party, I wear what I want and bring my whole self to the party, not just the piece of me that's missing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A full head and a grateful heart

Last Thursday I met Tim Shride who recently visited Sierra Leone with the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. He is a prothetist who was there to provide service to the Sierra Leonians. I was amazed that in a town with hardly any running water or electricity they are able to do this work. He showed me pictures of the clinic and the accommodations they use to ensure that amputees in this country are able to become mobile again. I was amazed.

Then on Friday I visited Ray Pye, the Director of Programs at the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. As an industrial designer, he explained his role in the production of the Seattle Foot which come onto the market in 1986. The Seattle Foot was revolutionary in its design in that a keel in embedded into the core of the rubber foot made of material that is able to store energy. This stored energy is then used as a spring when one walks off the toe of the prosthetic foot.
His experience working on the Seattle Foot laid a foundation for his work with the POF. Ray painted many visual pictures for me as he explained how the Vietnamese manufacture every piece of the prosthetic legs they make. I learned how rubber is made, how a mold is formed, what "vulcanized" means. He explained all the steps the POF has taken with the Vietnamese to ensure that every part of the legs made in Vietnam are made in Vietnam - down to the small hardware. I left with a full head.

I was barraged with the myriad of luxuries we have in America when I thought about all the basic needs that are so hard to access in developing countries. This lack requires dedication, ingenuity and tenacity by all the folks who produce prosthetic limbs these countries.

Each country is so different in its needs and cultures, but one fact seems to thread its way through each one: amputees are undervalued members of society unless they are mobile and able to contribute to the basic day to day functioning. All it takes is $300.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A New Leg

In my lifetime it feels like I've had more legs than a Broadway chorus line. Every four or five years I have a new leg made. People are often surprised that prosthetic legs are replaced this often, but our bodies change constantly, plastic and wood wear out and technology advances.

I don't like getting new legs made. The process is always challenging for me. Most prosthetic legs are made in about a month or two, but not mine. Making a leg for me takes about four to six months. I don't know why, but I've always been hard to fit - which requires that I keep going back to the prosthetist, usually weekly, to adjust the socket or the alignment to get it just right. I grow to dread these appointments and get sick of taking my leg on and off. Toward the end of the process I avoid them like the plague, so tired do I get of "wasting my time."

It's surprising how different each leg is. Everything is different, especially the small things from getting in and out of the car to sitting on the toilet to how my clothes fit. No two legs are alike and it takes time for my brain to make all the new pathways a new leg requires.

Each time I get a new leg, letting go of the previous one is hard. Even though it's time to retire the old leg, usually because it doesn't fit well anymore, saying goodbye is reminiscent of losing my real leg. Grief bubbles to the surface in its myriad of ways: sadness, anger, and finally acceptance.

After a particularly adventurous five years in my late twenties, before I tucked a retiring leg that carried me through those adventures into the back of my closet, I got out my markers and my calendar. I reviewed all the fun times I had with that leg and drew pictures all over it: kayak trips, backpacking trips, skiing, and all the other landmarks that punctuated my steps with that leg. The pictures eventually wore off, but the memories remained.

Getting my current leg made took two years because Tom, my prosthetist at Cornerstone Prosthetics, was sure that my hip and lower back pain would be alleviated if I changed to the new style of socket. In his attempt to make it fit correctly, Tom made two or three different sockets to fit my residual limb. He was so accommodating to my needs, always making adjustments, twice a week if he had to. Fitting a socket is an art, and for my residual limb any socket is a masterpiece. He waited for me to give up on the new socket before he made me a yet another(the fourth!)in the style of socket I am used to.

I went in for another adjustment today because my residual limb has changed even more because of my daily mile walks. As I rode the elevator up to his office, I thought of the folks in developing countries and how grateful they likely are to be fitted for a leg. A prosthetic limb makes the difference between going to school or not, having a job or not, being an active, contributing member of one's community or not. Today, when I went to see Tom, I didn't do filled with dread at the process; I went in grateful that he's there, he's present, and so incredibly accommodating.

Sometimes I just need perspective. Then I quit whining.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


When my firstborn Luke was a toddler I took him to the various wading pools in the Seattle area. I'd put on my bathing suit and peg leg (the leg I use in the water), pack a lunch and look forward to a day at the park with my son.

Inevitably we'd be swarmed by other young children. I was like a flower full of pollen and they were the bees. Questions galore were thrown at me: "What happened to your leg?" "Hey, what is that thing?" "Did it hurt?"

I felt compelled to answer their questions. I already felt like a freak to them. If I took the time to be a nice-kind-mommy lady, then I'd help break down any stereotypes of disabled people. I knew kids may not have developed those stereotypes yet, but if I ignored them or didn't answer their questions, then I was afraid that I, perhaps the first disabled person they had ever encountered, would lodge that stereotype deep into their psyche forever. Yea, I took on a lot of responsibility.

It didn't take me long to recognize that I was putting the needs of the children unknown to me ahead of the needs of my own child. This is how my son found out about how I lost my leg. Not a sweet mom-to-son chat, but by me telling strangers my story.

I also took on this duty with adults. At least children are naive, usually sweet and simply curious. With adults I knew I had a stereotype to break down, but the strangers I encountered were appalling. I didn't understand how it helped them to hear a 30 second sound bite of my story. And when they asked THE question, "Did it come off right away?", I was always too shocked to do anything but whisper "yes". My day shifted after these encounters. It was hard to go on after re-telling, yet again, the worst day of my life.

During the second summer of this, Luke said, "Mommy, will you stop talking to those kids at the park?" I had felt caught in a merry-go-round of responsibility and he gave me the out I needed. I spoke my therapist and asked her how to stop. "Why do you answer their questions?" she asked?
"Because they asked!" I said, feeling like I was stating the obvious.
"They have parents, you know, who are perfectly capable of telling their child what happened to you."
Clearly she wasn't getting it. "But those parents don't know what happened to me."
She gave a little laugh. "All the parents need to tell their child is that you lost your leg and wear a prosthetic leg to get around. End of story."

Huh. Really? Wow.

For the next week I practiced my answers to the children. Armed with an arsenal of responses, I packed another lunch for Luke and I and drove to the park. I was so excited to use my new skill, to set my new boundary. I got out of the car, took Luke from his car seat and grabbed our picnic basket. Come on, World, give it to me, I can take it, I thought.

Do you know what happened? Nothing. Barely a stare. Nary a question. Seriously. I have to admit, I was disappointed. And then it dawned on me. I got what I wanted. A peaceful day at the park with Luke.

It's still rare that total strangers ask me what happened, children or adults. I'm fine if acquaintances or friends ask me about it, that feels appropriate. But a stranger at the grocery store line? No. Once I became clear about where my boundaries were, that's what I sent out to the world and it's what I received back.

It's a good thing for me to realize in all parts of my life - Know my boundaries and kindly let other people know what they are. People won't hate me if I honor myself.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I'm on TV!

A few days ago KOMO 4 News did a story on my walking campaign. They aired the story on three or four different news programs. Lots of people have talked to me about seeing me on TV. Truth be told, being on TV is terrifying to me because my voice sounds three levels too low and, worst of all, I see myself limp. I'm embarrassed when I think of everyone seeing me limp until I realize that people see me limp all the time. It's me that doesn't see my limp. It's always a shock to see it. When I walk, I don't feel my limp; walking this way has become normal. More than once I've seen myself on film and wondered, "Who is that gal with the limp?" It's quite sobering to realize that it's me.

I don't mind showing people my C-Leg and, in the context of a news story, I don't mind talking about my leg or my amputation. Just like when the article came out in the Bellingham Herald, I'm clear that I am doing this for other amputees around the world.

So take a look, if you haven't already seen it, and hear more about my story and why I'm walking 100 miles.

Oh, and look for the ducks.