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Phantom Leg — Linda J. MacDonald


(Photo: Unsplash)

[NOTE: I wrote this several years ago. I am doing much better now,

but further healing has taken a long time…]

By Linda MacDonald

He told our mutual friend that I didn’t need protection. He said, “She’ll be OK.” OK? Easy for him to say. That all depends upon a person’s definition of “OK”.

You see, when I said, “I do,” my right leg became tied to a trusted, beloved partner to run a three-legged race going forward. We planned to be joined at the hip for the rest of our lives, learning the skills of operating as a team over whatever rugged terrain life brought us along the way. However, years later, at a moment of only his choosing, he decided to run in another direction. And rather than take me with him, to my horror, he took out a jagged saw and began to cut my leg off so he could run free.

I screamed in agony, but he didn’t seem to notice. His once warm eyes turned cold and hard, focused on the task of cutting me loose. Then I watched in agony as he cavalierly disposed of my mangled limb, not grasping how valuable that leg had been to me. And, skipping merrily off to a new venture, his own legs intact, he left me behind, crumpled, maimed, and bleeding. 

In shock, I waited for him to return. And waited. And waited. Friends gathered around and applied pressure to my stump to stop the blood loss. I was faint and nearly died.  Gingerly, my friends loaded me onto a stretcher and took me to the hospital. I fought the doctor’s news that my leg was irretrievably gone and sobbed as he carefully stitched together the leftovers of my tattered flesh. 

Despite years of therapy and medical attention, I am forever altered by my ex-husband’s change of heart. My right leg—the one most linked with him and our life together—is missing and strangely still gives me pain.

I worked hard to find healing through reading, counseling, praying, and writing. Finally, I resigned to the fact my healing would only be partial. A part of me was gone forever and that was that. No longer would my sons (and future grandchildren) have one set of parents to celebrate holidays with. No longer would I smile, reflecting on happy memories with my husband and our life together. Past and future birthdays, graduations, and weddings—all have become tainted reminders that we are no longer an “us.”

A prosthetician fitted me for a prosthetic leg and sent me for occupational therapy to retrain my stub-muscles so I could walk. I figured as long as I wore long pants, people wouldn’t suspect such a huge part of me was missing. They might only notice a slight limp to my gait. 

Yet, my fake leg doesn’t fool me. I know it’s not real. I have no way to explain the shooting pains and strange sensations I still feel from my missing leg—as if it’s still alive. 

In the meantime, I have found a wonderful new partner who is missing his left arm. He uses my right arm for strength, and I use his left leg for balance. We are tied together for a new race, this time bound around the trunks of our bodies. I move happily yet haltingly forward with him, despite my deformity. 

For even though a prosthetic fills its space, there is something that won’t let me ever forget my missing body part … my phantom leg.

My phantom leg is invisible, but ever present with me. I feel its twinges whenever a painful memory surfaces. It causes me to wonder if I am playful enough. Or worthy of love. It reminds me to question my feminine appeal and to worry about how my personality comes across to others. I sometimes ask my new husband, “When I said _____, did that bother you?” expecting to hear a snide comment similar to my past life. Yet my new partner seems surprised by my question. It doesn’t even occur to him to think negatively about whatever I said or did.

When my body was intact, I seldom thought about such things. But now that my leg is gone, I feel the hampering effect of its loss every day. My real leg has been replaced by a haunting presence that won’t let me forget my crippling loss.

Occasionally I am fooled into thinking it’s still there. I feel my leg tingling when I telephone my sons and catch them laughing and having a good time. At that moment, my body feels complete again. My life is back. Then, when I hear their father’s voice in the background, the throbbing begins. Oh, yeah. I am not part of that picture anymore. 

When my new husband and I meet other couples at church, at first I feel whole, normal.  Yet as soon as the inevitable questions come, “How many children do you have?” and, “How long have you lived in town?” my phantom leg sends shooting pains into my torso. There is no simple way to explain our discrepant answers without slapping the dreaded “D-word” across our foreheads. 

We keep walking, a little more labored than we did in our prior lives. But we are moving forward at such a pace that onlookers think we are just fine. They do not seem to notice the extra strain caused by our missing limbs.

At times my phantom leg presents a burden to my new partner. When it aches, he has to work extra hard to keep us moving at an equal pace. I worry that my pain will make him want to run away, too. He assures me he is here for the long haul. I usually believe him. 

And then I am sad. What made my first husband lose heart? Why could he not stay?  How did he change from a loving, protective partner into a mutilating maniac? How come he had to do so much damage before he left? How can I quiet the raw nerve endings from a leg that is no longer there? How?

All I can do is accept what is and treasure the time ahead with my loving, new life companion. My right leg is gone. All that’s left is an illusion that occasionally twitches and hurts, reminding me of the intact life I once lived and lost. 

Perhaps now you can see why my stomach dropped the day my friend told me my former husband said I’d be “OK.” It all depends on your definition of “OK.”

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