Monday, December 5, 2011

Going Out On A Limb (Part 1)

These posts were partially inspired by my recent foray into our home's heart of darkness. The storage room in our basement is to be avoided at all costs. Only the most pressing need could send me foraging amongst the years of accumulated junk treasures that clutter that space. It is a place where order seems to spontaneously combust into disorder. You never know what you might find. Rolls of Christmas wrap with two inches of paper left on them, outgrown coats, puzzles with missing pieces. Or how about this? A cardboard box filled with outgrown limbs.

Parents usually chart their child's growth with lines drawn on the door frame. No need for that when your child is an amputee.

Most parents have saved mementos from their children's early years, things like their baby's first pair of shoes, a much-loved blanket, or a stuffed animal. But what about a leg? Yes, lovingly wrapped up and tucked in amongst other treasures from my children's early years is the leg David was wearing when we adopted him. I am going out on a limb here and claiming I am likely the only mom on the face of the planet whose cedar chest contains a prosthetic body part.

This is David on the flight from Thailand to Canada. The leg he is wearing in the picture is the one safely tucked away in my cedar chest. It is also the leg on the far left of the picture of the legs lined up in a row.

Here is David with his first Canadian leg.

The other inspiration for these posts comes from the stories David was sharing about his first few days at his new job. Mostly these stories were just variations of the kinds of comments and reactions David has been getting his whole life. I must admit that whenever I think I have heard it all, that there is no new ground left in the "interactions with amputees" department, someone inevitably proves me wrong. An example would be a couple years ago when David was volunteering at a summer camp and some lady who was dropping off her granddaughter felt it necessary to tell David that she would be praying for him to grow new limbs. I kid you not.

I decided it would be nice to interview David and let him give his perspective on life as an amputee. If anyone has any specific questions they would like answered please leave them in the comment section and I will make sure he gets back to you. I am able to guarantee his complete cooperation because he is currently living at home and I control the refrigerator. Here is part one. My words are in italics and David's are in bold. (I apologize for the inconsistencies in the text. I wrote out the questions, emailed them to David, he wrote out the answers and then transferred them back to my computer. For some reason it changed the way things look and I don't know how to fix it.)

Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me where you were born, what your disability is, and how it occurred?
I was born in the country of Thailand. My disabilities would be that I’m missing both my hands, my right leg below the knee and half my left foot
Do you view yourself as disabled? 

Mostly I consider myself a fully capable person with no disabilities but there are some days I notice my disabilities more than other days
Are there any limitations on what you can do?
I don’t think there is anything I can’t do; when there is a new task for me to do for the first time I just have to think about how I’m going to accomplish it.
How common is it for people who don’t know you to underestimate your abilities?
It is very common to meet new people and have them instantly think that I can’t do a certain task at hand (no pun intended).
You have to deal with people staring at you every day of your life. What is that like? 
When people stare at me and I catch them in the act it’s just plain outright awkward!
Even though I know you hate being stared at, do you ever find yourself staring at another disabled person? Be honest!
I do catch myself staring at other disabled people, mostly those in wheel chairs and/or the mentally handicapped. I think to myself that I have it easy and am thankful for not having turned out being that disabled.
I know you have had to deal with people crossing the boundary line of what is acceptable many times in your life. Have you ever found yourself crossing the same line when responding to unwanted attention? (Hint: think Whistler)
Yes I like to tell certain stories depending on the age of the person giving me unwanted attention. For example when I worked at McDonalds and a new crew was just watching me working the grills I’d say something like “Be careful with the grill. I lost my hands under the lever and those burgers got some extra spice.”
Clearly David is avoiding the Whistler hint. When David was about 13 years old he went skiing at Whistler with some friends. There was a little boy who just kept following him around, asking over and over again what had happened to David’s hands. This is actually quite a common scenario. Kids are just curious and David doesn’t mind explaining his disability to them. Once they have answers they are satisfied and that’s the end of it. Well, not with this particular little boy. He would ask what happened to David's hands. David would explain. The boy would ask again. David would explain again. David finally lost his patience, turned to the little boy and said, “I ate them.” The conversation ended there. 
When David got home and told me what had happened all I could think of was there was some poor mom who had no idea why her child had been up all night with nightmares while they were on their family holiday at Whistler. That might have been the end of the discussion between David and the little boy, but it was the beginning of a discussion between my son and me about what is and isn’t an appropriate response to intrusive questions!

More to come in a few days...


  1. What a great post! I love David's 'can do' attitude! Love the pics, too!

  2. You're a better parent than I am--I like the answer David gave the persistent little boy. =)

    Because of experiences with my MIL, I've learned to moderate my curiousity and give everyone the same polite nod in passing. After my MIL's surgery, she had almost no motor control, so she sort of slumped in her wheelchair when we took her out. In the beginning, people we encountered couldn't do anything right. My FIL got mad if people stared and he got mad if he thought she was being ignored. There was a very fine line on which he expected others to balance--it was almost impossible. Over time he became less sensitive.

  3. Lovely post! I get a lot of comments in my wheelchair because I'm young and don't look disabled (invisible physical illness...) I love the answer you gave to the little boy! Brilliant, exactly the type of thing I'd say! I usually go with "Don't dis my ability"

  4. @Aneta - Aren't those pictures of David when he was little cute? He definitely has a "can do" attitude!

    @Ric - Shame on you for liking David's answer! :-) And yes, you would completely understand the staring issue because of your MIL. This is a broad generalization, but David, who is not wheelchair bound, has people assume he is mentally handicapped as well as physically handicapped. I think people in wheelchairs get treated like they are invisible.

    @Jaz - I just responded to Ric above saying I think people in wheelchairs often get treated like they are invisible. As someone who uses a wheelchair would you say that is a fair assessment? I might be totally wrong in my observation. And I like your response to people. Much better than "someone ate my arms"!

  5. WOW! David is incredible! He sounds so comfortable and confident with himself (and that sense of humor!!) I think that's amazing! In my job, I get to interact with a lot of people who suffer limb loss and paralyzation, and I'm always inspired by the human capacity to triumph over extreme obstacle.Thank you for the interview!

  6. Kristie,

    That's incredible story of David as well as you. I feel lucky that I became friends with such inspiring people like David and you in my life. Others are not as lucky. But my gut feeling tells me that if that boy was ordinary, I think David's humor got to him. He might not come back and report, but because of it, he might think of the issue deeper than most boys of similar age. I used to drive people crazy asking too many questions when I was small. One of those questions, I still think about it even today.

  7. @Michelle - David definitely has a sense of humour! I think it has helped him be the well-adjusted person he is. I am sure you see this same sense of humour in many of the people you encounter who have disabilities.

    @keiko - Small children learn by asking questions. You might have driven people crazy with your questions when you were little, but that curious nature was a part of who you were/are as a person. It was probably the same for the little boy David encountered at Whistler. For some reason though he just could not accept David's answer that he was born that way.

  8. I agree, people either totally ignore me (incredibly frustrating at times!) or jump 6ft in the air when they see me! It's usually assumed I'm mentally not with it because you can't see my disability. I don't mind little kids asking questions, I decorate my spokes and lil kids love playing with them! It's really cute :)

  9. @Jaz - David would agree with you about not minding when little kids ask questions. He is always happy to explain things to them. His worst interactions have definitely been with adults. He has had adults point at him and say in rather loud voices "Look, that boy doesn't have any arms." Excusable in a five year old, not in a fifty year old. I like your idea of decorating the spokes on your chair!