My parents have lived in the same apartment in New York City for over thirty years. When they bought their home, the Upper West Side neighborhood was sketchy; I was mugged just two blocks from home on my tenth birthday. But the place is huge and it has an incredible view overlooking the Hudson River and Riverside Park. It’s filled with relics that my parents have collected from their years of trips and residencies overseas. Naked statues from Africa and Asia sit coupled on many shelves, with genitalia that reach out and wrap around each other’s necks, Tibetan Tonkas adorn several walls, and batiks runners line every surface. For years, even the TV was covered by a batik screen in order to minimize what my parents considered to be an eyesore in the house. Beautiful dishes from my great grandparents are on permanent display—cut-glass bowls, an old silver tea set. The apartment is elegantly homey with an ethnic flair, and my parents relish the time they spend there together. Every morning for thirty years, they’ve sat in bed overlooking the river as they have their coffee—my dad on the right side, my mom on the left—talking about their days, their memories, their kids, and anything else that occurs to them over French Roast and steamed milk.
On this November morning, I take the subway to my parents’ apartment. It is sunny with only a slight chill in the air. As I walk into the lobby of their building, I am greeted by Tommy, the ageless doorman I’ve known for twenty-five years, who always stretches out his arms to embrace me as if I’ve just returned home from a long journey instead of a thirty-block ride on mass transit.
“Today’s the day!” I tell him cheerily.
“Is that right?” he replies with a toothy grin and watches me walk up the stairs toward the elevator.
Inside my parents’ apartment, I find my mom in the kitchen cleaning up after breakfast, wearing one of my dad’s old white T-shirts. I beam at her.
“It’s the big day!” I blurt. “Can you believe it?!”
“I know,” my mom says warmly, smiling. “I gave your dad a good breakfast: Cream of Wheat.” My family has always believed that Cream of Wheat has special powers to warm, heal, strengthen and solve any problem one might have to face during the day. Not the instant kind, but the kind that takes twenty minutes to cook—a sure sign that its nutrients were allotted the proper amount of time to become the forceful warriors they have the potential to be.
“That’s great, Mom. Where’s Dad?” I ask.
“In the bedroom,” she says and sends me off with a pat on the butt, the way she used to when I was a kid. I make my way to my parents’ bedroom in the back of the apartment, armed with my bouquet of flowers and the Cliff Energy bar I have brought to ensure that my dad is up for the challenge ahead should the Cream of Wheat somehow falter.
“DAD!” I exclaim, as I make my entrance into the room. Ever since he got sick, I have made it a habit to greet him with the utmost enthusiasm, hoping that somehow my proclamations would give him more strength. He is sitting in his wheelchair at his desk writing a thank-you note. My heart swells with love for him as he turns, smiling and outstretching his arms to give me a hug.
“Oh, Mary, can you believe it?” he says. I notice that he has gained some much-needed weight in his face. He has a look in his eyes that mixes hope with anticipation. This day has been a long time coming for him, too. With my brother living and working overseas, it was decided that I would be the one to accompany him to East 73rd Street. This will give my mom a break from it all—to be alone in the house to tend to her life and the piles of paper that have accumulated over the months. I hand my dad the small gifts in celebration of the day and we make our way outside to await Access-a-Ride, a van service that transports the wheelchair-bound to various destinations. I had never noticed them before. Now when I see them, I smile at the drivers, holding myself back from saluting them in gratitude.
Five months earlier, my dad had both of his lower legs amputated after a battle with a rare disease called meningococcemia—a bacterial infection that shuts down vital organs in hours. No one could say how he had contracted it, only that he was lucky to be alive. His skin had been severely damaged. Much of the damage to his legs was irreparable, causing the tissue to slowly die and leaving no other choice but amputation.
We had spent those first ten anxious days not knowing whether he would live or die. He remained on full life support, unconscious to the world. My mom, brother and I sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to his immobile body and posted colorful words of hope and pictures on his hospital walls to greet him when he finally opened his eyes. We watched him struggle to recover in the hospital for three-and-a-half months, half-conscious, drugged, in physical therapy, in pain. It had seemed much more like a bad dream than something that actually could have happened. Especially to him—one of the kindest and most good-hearted people I knew. He survived against the odds. And when he finally came home, we had figured out how one navigates an apartment where the kitchen won’t easily accommodate a wheelchair and where taking a bath becomes an hour-long obstacle course.
My dad loved to do a houseful of small domestic things—standing at the ironing board and pressing pillowcases, perching on top of the radiator to water the plants, fervently vacuuming the crumbs that my mom, the less fastidious half of the couple, had dropped on the ground—things that were not possible without legs. For the first time in thirty-five years, my parents had to switch the sides of the bed on which they slept because the space between the wall and the bed on my dad’s accustomed side was too narrow for his wheelchair.
But today was a new beginning. Off in the distance, with only Central Park between us, lay a pair of titanium prosthetic legs with my dad’s name on them. How on earth would they work? How does one stand without feeling the ground? When would life ever feel normal? I push these doubts out of my head as we reach the prostheticist’s office, a lackluster gray building on York Avenue and East 73rd Street. You could easily pass by this place without noticing it. Its immediate interior is even less impressive than its pasty outside. It has a whitish gray color with two glass doors and a dimly lit hallway. Ignoring the yellow-stained walls reminiscent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, I grab my dad’s hand in anticipation of what lies beyond that dreary doorway.
Once on the fifth floor, we sit in the waiting area for what seems like forever, trying not to stare at the patients who pass by with prosthetic limbs of various sizes and shapes. Finally we are ushered to an undecorated room with two chairs, a sink and a raised padded platform. My dad transfers himself from his wheelchair to this platform and, as we wait for the prosthetist, he removes the protective coverings from his legs. What’s revealed are technically called stumps now, but somehow the word doesn’t slip off the tongue easily; it feels like you are saying something insulting. I glance at the discolored, damaged skin that surrounds the area where his legs were removed, feeling taken aback even though I have seen it dozens of times. I‘m overwhelmed with anger and outrage at whatever it was that allowed this to happen to him. It’s so brutal, so awful, and so unfair. His hair is grayer, his body thinner, and his eyes more withdrawn. I’m ashamed that I can barely remember what he looked like with his olive skin, his perpetual grin and his long, lean legs. Why hadn’t I taken a better look back before all this happened?
But I smile at him. “You OK?”
“Sure!” he replies. We wait without speaking.
In walks the prosthetist, titanium legs in hands. He is huge, and he looks and talks like a less goofy version of Gomer Pyle. He captivates us with a lengthy explanation of how the new faux limbs will work. He produces two green and gray silicone leggings to slip over my dad’s stumps. Each has what looks like a metal drill attached to its end that will snap securely into the prosthetic leg, contraptions for which we have brought a pair of my dad’s loafers. The loafers look odd on these detached feet impaled by the titanium poles—as if they were an afterthought, a mistake, an old umbrella left at a diner. I am taking photos of the process with my six-dollar disposable camera, wondering all the while to whom I will show them.
Dr. Gomer Pyle finishes his explanation. With deep breaths, my dad and I peer at each other to see if we are ready to make the leap from imagination to reality. Gently the leggings go on, followed by what will soon be a familiar sound of metal snapping into place. Suddenly these miracle legs are attached to my dad, he is hoisted up, and for the first time in five months, he stands. His expression is funny as he sways back and forth, holding my hand so tightly that I begin to lose feeling. The look is curious and fearful at the same time, like a child entering an unfamiliar situation. I can tell that he wants to feel confident but just isn’t quite there.
“I feel like I’m going to fall down,” he keeps repeating. “I feel so tall.” It’s an ironic declaration since, with his new legs, he is actually two inches shorter than his former 6’2”.
“Try walking forward,” Gomer suggests. My dad takes two tentative baby steps with me on one arm and Gomer’s assistant on the other. He is wobbly but perseverant, ignoring the pain that I know is shooting through the confused nerves at the ends of his stumps. Fifteen minutes later, he has strolled around the small office a couple of times and has pared down to just one walking assistant: me, silently rejoicing and trying not to cry at what has felt like an impossibility for so long. The whole experience is surreal. You expect your dad to be there when you take your first steps, but you never imagine you’ll be there for him to take his.
Our first visit to this ordinary yet magical place has come to an end. Access-a-Ride awaits downstairs and shuttles us home, where I know my mom is eagerly awaiting the news of how it all went. We make our way through the lobby where Sal, the afternoon doorman from Bosnia, greets us warmly and nods his head approvingly at the loafers peeking out from beneath my dad’s pant legs.
Up at the apartment, my mom opens the door to welcome us.
“How was it? How was it?” she asks. “Let’s see them!” She is breathless, anxious and happy. She has been waiting for this moment for months. With a little help from me, my dad manages to stand to give my mom her first vertical hug since last May. He rests his head on her shoulder as they embrace, the way a sleepy infant digs his face into its mother’s neck late at night. He sits back down in the wheelchair and I can sense his pride about the day’s events as well as his relief that they are over. The lump in my throat looms large as I remember my dad’s homecomings from business trips long ago; I would watch my parents embrace, gleefully shouting “Kiss! Kiss!” as he stepped off the elevator. My heart is filled with the sensation of joyful bursting coupled with heavy sorrow. I take out my camera again to capture them silently, wearily gazing at one another.
In this instant, I feel like an outsider peering into a moment of intimacy I had never before witnessed. My dad almost looks like a gentleman caller coming to woo. And my mom, standing there still wearing my dad’s old white T-shirt from the morning, has never looked so beautiful.
Recently, I asked my dad what it was like for him to come home and have the ability to stand on two feet in the apartment after being in a wheelchair for so many months. He said it was the simple things that he appreciated: being able to set the table just the way he liked it, with the glass in its proper spot on the upper right-hand corner; finally standing upright and shaving at his mirror above the sink; picking up the slippers that my mom had carelessly left under the dining room table. But mostly, he said, it was the joy of being able to look at my mom at eye level and to hold her winter coat open for her before the two of them made their way out of the door to their next four-legged New York adventure.