I returned home to notes covering my bed from everyone in my life. Notes of sympathy, encouragement, admirance. I felt so incredibly loved. The weirdest notes were from people containing gift cards. Sorry you lost your hand to cancer, hope Amazon, iTunes, or Panda Express make you feel better. You could’ve sent me a post it note telling me you were rooting for me and I would’ve been over the moon. The gift cards made me feel dirty, like they were trying to replace my loss with money. They tried at least. They took time out of their day and thought of me. People handle grief in many ways. People show sympathy in different ways. And that was a lesson I learned from the gift cards. We all grieve and we all need an outlet to cope with grief. If sending me a gift card helped them sleep at night then so be it. Some people just wanted to give.
My mom’s family is huge, Catholic (mostly) and loud. Most of my aunts and uncles reached out to me extending some support. It was the note from my cousin who lived in Northern California that meant the world to me. She had collected seashells in a jar during her walks along the beach. Her note said briefly, I don’t know the proper words to say but I’ve been thinking of you during my walks and collected seashells for you. It was so simple but meaningful. I was on her mind and this was her way of showing support. I still have the seashells on my desk.
The next few weeks I was drugged, high, and having phantom pain. I kept waking up dreaming that they accidentally cut off the wrong hand. I kept having to feel my residual limb, where it ended, that there was no hand attached anymore. I would wake up and have to feel it. It would itch and I felt like I was going insane trying to scratch my fingers that no longer existed. My therapist suggested itching my actual hand in front of a mirror to trick my mind. It worked only occasionally. When recovering, the surgeon left my nub wrapped with the end stitched. For almost two weeks I didn’t see what was left of my arm until the night I went off the oxycodone and methadone cold turkey and the withdrawls sunk in. I was shaking something off of my bandage when it suddenly flew off. It was the first time I was faced with my raw, freshly stitched nub. It looked like Jack Skellington’s smile. My hand was gone and this was the first time I was seeing the new terminal end of my right arm. There it was: 7 inches below my elbow with a dried blood, stitched end where a hand once was. I felt a warm rush come over me and tears rolling down my cheeks. I ran into my dad’s study while he was in the middle of charting and curled up on his lap crying. “It’s gone. It’s really really gone.” I kept on saying. He calmly re-wrapped my limb so I couldn’t see the stitches and stroked my hair compassionately, saying nothing. Again, drugs and hormone imbalances caused me to cry. I sat on my dad’s lap as I tried to explain to him why it was so surreal but I couldn’t. He just held me saying, “I know.”
“One day you will look back and see that all along: you were blooming.”MHN
My mom slept with me at night while the nightmares engulfed me, the hot flashes tortured me, and my emotions were hysterical. She sang to me as the toxins exited my body and my sobriety slowly returned not even three weeks after my amputation. 72 hours later I was on NSAIDs and Tylenol exclusively. I felt a thousand times better and I felt like I was gingerly regaining control of myself and my identity. I was taking a marijuana edible once a day to keep me sane and taking ibuprofen to cure the pain. Suddenly I saw clarity.
I saw a prostheses and met a young girl who had survived Ewing’s sarcoma causing the amputation of her foot. She had continued to do ballet with her prosthetic foot that my prostheses had designed for her. Later that year I found out that her sarcoma had returned to her lungs, taking her life. My mom didn’t tell me about her passing because she didn’t want to upset me. It upset me more that she lied to me about it.
My prostheses fit me for a basic hook prosthetic. It was a hook that opened and closed using the movement of other arm’s shoulder. Essentially, when I extended my residual limb while wearing it, the hook opened. When I retracted it, it closed. It was a marvelous contraption mainly because it was inexpensive and I wasn’t afraid to really use it like I had my hand. It was difficult getting used to having nine inches back where my hand had been cut. My prostheses was extremely smart and talented in his field. His pathos, logos, and ethos were exceptional in handling my case. He knew when to push me and when to pull back. He was young, in his early thirties; eager to help me reach my full potential with prosthetics. The hook’s force was generated by the number of rubber bands were around the bottom on the hook, creating resistance and the ability to hold objects. I remember one day I was holding my sack lunch, once returned to high school, over the top of the stairs to show a friend how much the hook could hold between the force of the bands only to watch the paper sac slip through and drop two stories. In my defense, I didn’t have a very good grip on it to begin with. That was one of the few times the hook failed me.
I will never be able to portray or even depict how much my parents did for me. They never treated me like my life was over or I was handicapped. My mom bought me elastic shoe laces, electric and left handed scissors, a hairdryer stand, and a pant buttoner. I presume these were produced intended for those who’d suffered strokes. My father reminded me that I had a horse to ride and a heifer that needed to be halter trained. I went to therapy once and had decided that I couldn’t face my cancer yet. I wasn’t ready. It had all happened so fast and suddenly it felt like overnight I went from average teenager to amputee cancer survivor. Any time anyone brought up my cancer I changed the subject. I felt like vomiting whenever someone suggested I do Relay for Life. I felt alone at times and lived in fear as a hypochondriac. I had good reason to. I wish I could say that I had been stronger. I wish I could boast about never complaining or crying or screaming in frustration. But I can’t. So many times I had to leave the room to go outside and scream because I couldn’t do things the way I used to. So many times I had to take a deep breath and count to ten and then ask for help. It didn’t happen overnight and so many times I went to sleep crying. When learning how to write with my left hand, a few of my close friends decided they would try too, in support. When they got tired, they switched back to their dominant hand. They praised me how talented I was. I wasn’t though. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have my dominant hand. My mom praised me for being brave and learning how to do everything again. I hated her for saying that. She of all people should’ve known it wasn’t by choice. I wasn’t brave. This was my life. Either I did it or I sat there, miserable wishing I still could.
I think relearning how to ride my horse is what truly cured me. I went out to ride the beast and couldn’t even put on his halter with one hand. After a few failed attempts, I finally did it. Check. I tied him up and turned on George Strait. I still had my bandage on my residual limb. I brushed him and then barely was able to get the pad on his back. The saddle. Shit. I balanced it on my elbow and hand, spooking him as it thumped on his back. I started crying. I couldn’t do this.
I sat down on a footstool next to him as he nickered and calmed down. How was I supposed to maintain my identity when I physically couldn’t? Just get the job done; there are different ways to get up the mountain. Perfect it later. “Boy, she don’t need you and she don’t need me, she can do just fine on her own two feet, but she wants a man who wants her to be herself and she’ll never change, don’t know how to hide her stubborn will or her fighting side but you treat her right and she’ll love you like no one else…how ‘bout them cowgirls.” I cinched up the beast and through tears, got the bit in his mouth and mounted him. I did it. I was riding my horse after cancer. It was possible. I wasn’t good at it but it was possible. And that was the day my fears began to fade and I realized I was still E. Cancer threatened me, but I was stronger.