The sign in front of the Standard Artificial Limbs store always makes me think of my step father. On the day he died at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, after my mother and I summoned the rest of the family to tell them he’d passed, once everybody took turns patting him on his rapid cooling forehead, we all walked out into the broiling parking lot, the blacktop almost spongy under the August dessert sun, with my husband carrying Mike’s legs in a grocery sack. One was upright, the straps and buckle flapping outside the bag, the other was upside down, with Mike’s black dress shoe still laced and neatly tied on his fake foot.
He was a double amputee. Years of unchecked diabetes had taken its toll, the first leg, off below the knee in 1973. The second, a few years later. Amazingly, he still managed to walk, even drove a stick-shift truck for many years, until he rear-ended somebody at a traffic light, unable to lift the fake legs fast enough for both clutch and brake.
I have no idea if his prosthesis came from Standard Artificial Limbs, I certainly thought they were custom made, but who knows, he was a VA patient after all. But the sign in downtown St. Louis has held my curiosity for years. Why would someone want a standard artificial limb? Wouldn’t they prefer a limited edition? And what exactly does standard mean? Is it a one-size-fits-all kind of deal? Perhaps what they’re trying to say is that they set the standard for artificial limbs. Well, okay then.
Mike certainly made good use of his, until the day he walked into the VA hospital, never to walk out again, only his man-made appendages carried out in a sack. “Know anybody who could use these?” We had to laugh, people do that, if they’re smart, just a little to ease the pain. “We could probably sell em’ at the flea market,” I think my brother Jay said and my mom busted up. It was one of those rare moments when she looked completely lost.
Taking care of Mike had been her full-time job for years, the more immobile he became, the longer her shifts became — nurse, cook, tormenter, cheerleader — up until his dying breath, as he reluctantly heeded my mother’s urging to take a bite of a gnarly-looking chicken leg on his tray and suddenly he was violently ill. I would have thrown up too, if I tried to eat that crap, but what was really happening was the onset of a massive heart attack. Despite the crash cart, and hot and cold running doctors and nurses and code blue and all the ER shit you see on TV, (except they skirted us away, outside his death tent, whereas on ER the horrified family looks in through the glass windows, artistic license I suppose) in spite of him being right there in intensive care already, he was dead inside four minutes.
At the moment before his heart attack, when I saw his exhausted attempt to nourish himself to maybe live, even if only one more day, I saw him for the first time as just another traveler on our journey here on earth. A traveler who, at that moment I was wishing I could whisper to “hey, it’s okay, you know, about all that molesting stuff. I’ve gotten over it….” to help lighten his load upon passing. Of course I wasn’t able to say that, since we were standing like two stranded, cold birds out in the middle of a hail storm in a parking lot, my mom and I, outside the death chamber, until someone finally came and scooted us into the “breaking-the-bad-news-to-the family” waiting room. It was tough when they showed up before we’d hardly had a chance to open a magazine.
I didn’t get to grant him absolution. I didn’t get to tell him I’d forgiven him for the evil deeds he’d hoisted upon me as a young girl, as if that was my job anyway. And I really didn’t acieve “closure” on the whole step dad situation for many, many years to come. (In my mind right now, I’m seeing Dr. Evil and Mini Me making “closure” quotation marks in the air). Closure is overrated anyway.
But it was in his dying moments that I really saw his suffering and his struggle as opposed to mine. His looked a hell of a lot worse. I’d become rather brittle about him fondling me for all those years, but here he was, dying, and I felt so scared and sad for him. Even though we never uttered a single, solitary word, during or after the fact, acting as if it had never happened, somewhere deep inside me, was unmitigated rage. It wasn’t until my shrink coaxed it out of me, (wait for it, wait for it….over the course of SIX years !) that I finally spoke my truth. For the record, I was not actually in therapy all that time, only off and on, during acute episodes of “OMFG!” Plus, as always, I had no money. With time and periods of health insurance though, I finally placed the last stubborn, ill-shaped, nondescript but vital memory piece of the puzzle into the overall picture of my life, unburdening myself by speaking my truth. I told the shrink what my step father had done. His follow up assignment to me? To tell the perp how it felt. He was already dead, but I wrote him a letter anyway. I called that son-of-a-bitch out in a letter I wrote in blinding tears, addressed to heaven or hell, I know not where he landed. I dried my eyes and then took the dog to the drive-in to get a cheeseburger. It’s amazing the cathartic benefits of a letter to a dead person followed by a cheeseburger.
Freed of that glob of stagnant stuff-to-deal-with, the job of discernment began. This is a slow, deliberate process. It starts with rational thinking, stripping out the accusatory “how dare you?” thoughts, migrating to a more intellectual plane, like: “Overall, what were the pluses and minuses?”
Rationally thinking, he taught me a lot; how to drive a stick, keep a journal, finish what I started and how to do my taxes. He was organized; kept a tidy tool shed, with nails and washers in labeled jars. He was neat, always kept napkins in the glove box of his car, a habit I continue to this day. He had some funny sayings too; “Jean you’re a good girl, too bad there’s no demand for good girls anymore.” And this little gem to register his surprise, “Well, cut my legs and call me shorty!” which is certainly more colorful than the standard, “well, I’ll be damned !” Ironic that the first saying came true and in my heart of hearts, I hope not the latter. No standard limbs, no standard lines.
Lifetimes should be judged by the body of work. I hope that’s how I will be judged and this is what I suggest to my children as I encourage them to learn to live with the paternal holes in their own lives, not the least of which was a seven year absence of their father, while he did time for his sexual misconduct. All the while, I remind myself to practice what I preach. To demonize is easy, to discern takes time. The word “discernment” constantly flashes in my mind, like the “hot now” sign at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, reminding me that things in life are not always one way or another. People are not all bad, (well, okay, maybe SOME are) or all good.
My stepfather married a woman with five kids, five! And we weren’t all that great. My brother Garrett was already well on his way to being a card-carrying juvenile delinquent. My brother Don, was out of the nest and looking askance at the latest man to come padding up the trail, knocking on my mother’s door. Poor Don, as the oldest, he knew all about her habits, sometimes reckless habits, with men. One of them resulted in me, the bartender’s baby. My step dad was armed with all this knowledge, but married my mom anyway. They say love it blind. Or maybe it was his ability to discern that he could love her for her fire, her strength of will, her devotion, (in her own way) to her kids, and the way she loved him in return; fiercely, steadfastly, unwavering, until his dying day.
There are thousands of moments in the course of a person’s life. I am fortunate to be able to remember some of the good ones. Frank was one of my greatest fans. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding and danced the first dance on his artificial leg. He was the first, in what so far, have been four eulogies I have had to deliver, his I was willing to do for the good moments. After time, the horrible ones cease to matter. A person who has been sexually abused comes to understand what it does to you and, in the fullness of time, what it does not. It does not have to be a debilitating scar, nor an excuse for failure. It’s more like chicken pox, which a pockmark or two and some folks might develop shingles (to carry this metaphor too far) but it does not have to define you. It merely becomes a gap, or a hole where a healthy relationship could have lived. It’s best to learn to live with the breeziness of the gaps.
I hold no illusions about what a relationship with my biological father might have been. He could have been my hero, he might have been a lout. That’s the mystery hole I’ve lived with all my life. I go to the doctor and they ask, “any history of heart attack, stroke, cancer, kidney disease, liver, lung, lupus?” and I respond, “I halfway know.” There’s a 50% margin of error in my entire life.
Much like the odds in my forthcoming journey. Tomorrow I give my notice at work that I’m quitting, cutting the safety net, jumping off what could be as perilous as the La Quebrada Cliffs in Acapulco. I’m giving my notice in the morning with no guarantee of a job when I return, and barely enough money for a cross-country trip with my dog. A trip to think and write, breathe and write, reflect and write, to have enough time to reconnect with people and friends I’ve left behind, trying to discern if there’s a half-brother out there who can tell me about my Lester roots. Odds are I won’t find him, but I’m going just the same, leading some to wonder if might just have a hole in my head.