Losing an Arm

I was born in 1986, which (I'm told) was a pretty wild and crazy time. Cocaine was all the rage, there was a little incident at this place called Chernobyl, Mark Harmon was the sexiest man alive (who???) and Top Gun was released. And when a baby was born without her hand, the doctors thought it would be a great idea to amputate the toes off of one of her feet and install them as fingers on her stump. Like I said, drugs were cool back then.

While still fairly surprised that their first child made her grand entrance sans a major body part, my parents had the fortunate wherewithal to politely say 'Are you f$#@ing insane?' They bundled me up and took me home with all ten toes in their factory original positions.

Born stump bumping

Born stump bumping

Yet, there still remained a 'problem' that needed to be solved. Humans should have two hands. How could you possibly survive in the world without one? Thus, just past the age of one, I was given my first prosthetic. A hook. Now, hooks are great for two reasons: they're cheap, and they're durable. However, if you outfit a toddler with a giant metal pokey thing, don't be surprised if they beat the ever living shit out of all of your nice furniture and floors. 

Hooks also have limited range of use, only look cool on Halloween, and depend on a harness system that wraps around your shoulders that is decidedly NOT cool. At around 5 or 6, I received my first myoelectric prosthetic - a robot hand. It was heavy. I had to plug it in each night to charge. Like the hook, all it could do was open and close and it only sort of looked like a 'real' hand.  

It was around this time that I started to become attached to my prosthetic, my 'helping hand'. Even though it was functionally no more than a dead weight with a battery, I needed it. I couldn't leave the house with out it. The attachment grew worse when in middle school I switched to a passive cosmesis, which is essentially just a mannequin hand designed to look as real as possible, down to the skin tone and nails. It's also worth noting that I was (am?) a somewhat scatter brained individual and never put things where the belong and would regularly 'lose' my arm somewhere in the house. For something I needed every day, I was pretty crap at keeping track of it.

Let me clarify 'needing' it - I don't need my prosthesis at all. In fact, I'm more abled without it. The emphasis isn't the prosthesis, but the 'cosmesis' - it's cosmetic. When I wear it, I get fewer stares, fewer sideways glances, fewer 'How did you break your...oh.' 

Fake arms are sweaty. Sockets get stinky. Hot spots develop. They break. They're expensive. I can do more without it. So why do I still wear one? Why, as a teenager, would I fake sick and not go to school if I couldn't find my  arm to wear? Why would I change plans around having or not having my prosthetic? 

My mom and I, wearing an early myoelectric arm which doubled as Thor's Hammer.

My mom and I, wearing an early myoelectric arm which doubled as Thor's Hammer.

I wish I had a definitive answer, but the closest I can get is that the pain, sweat, and discomfort was worth it to avoid the stares and awkward conversation. This shouldn't be confused with not being proud of who you are - if someone walks up to me in the grocery store and says 'Hey! You're missing your hand!" I'll answer "Yeah! Let me tell you all about it!"

Sometimes though, you just want to be a 'normal' human being and not have to deal with people when you go to get a gallon of milk. Without my arm, I stand out all the time. I always have to have a reply ready to inevitable questions. If I'm cranky I'll even have my 'Oh no, I didn't notice!' deadpan ready to go. With my arm, even when it's green and grimy and has broken fingers, people's brains will glance me over and think 'Two eyes, two ears, two hands...check, normal human, move on." 

Au naturale and perfectly fine with it. 

Au naturale and perfectly fine with it. 

I received my last prosthesis when I was 22 and aged out of the Shriner's Hospital for Children's program.  I loaded up with a few of them, but as the years went by they broke, wore out, my muscles changed and the sockets don't fit that great anymore. I don't *need* my arms, plus I'm broke/cheap, and replacing my arms seemed less and less of a priority as time went on. Slowly, I stopped wearing my arm to the grocery store. Then I stopped wearing it going out to dinner. In the last two years, I stopped wearing it entirely except for when I'm at work - and I can sense even that is coming to an end. 

A few months ago I went to dinner right from work and was still wearing my arm. My friend Dan looked me up and down oddly, finally saying 'Dude, you have two hands right now. That's freaking weird.'

After 28 years, I'm losing my arm. It's been more of a crutch than an asset, more of a hindrance than a helper. My obituary for my arm will be short: "The good times were few, mainly limited to the look on teacher's faces when it would come flying off during games of Red Rover."  I don't want to be defined by a hunk of plastic. I don't want this forgery of a hand to be a part of me, because it echos a sentiment that I am somehow lesser without two hands. 

Good riddance.

Growing up Gimpy

Dirty, bruised chicken legs - nothing has changed. 

At dinner, my mother slowly lowered her hands to the table and stared at me with disbelief while I glared at my slab of steak: 'You want ME to cut your meat for you?' 

'Yes!' I cried, wiping the grease off of my shirt from my failed cutlery experiment. 'Whenever I try to hold the knife it slips and-'

'Well, what are you going to do when you're older and out of the house? Just get married and make some MAN do it for you?' *

Stubbornly, I stabbed the steak in the middle and picked it up whole, balanced it on the points of my fork and began gnawing at it like an animal. 'No,' I muttered. 'I'll become a vegetarian.'


I never did become a vegetarian, but I did get used to the idea that my family would never treat me any differently because I had a 'disability' - let alone use it as an excuse for not being able to do something. 

To do something that others expect you not to be able to do is an act of rebellion. That sounds high and mighty, but it reconciles with having a punk-ass attitude as a little kid. I played soccer as a kid. Makes sense, a game where you don't use your hands, right? Except I was the goalie. A grade school gym teacher tried to tell me it was OK to sit out the baseball segment of class since I couldn't wear a mitt and throw- I spent the next two weeks with a stinging and bruised palm from bare-handing baseballs after telling the the teacher (in 8-year-old speak) to go screw himself. He didn't mean poorly, he just made an assumption and thought he was doing me a favor.

I never got teased by other kids. I don't know why. I wish I did, so that I could pass on some sage advice to differently abled youngsters that might be getting teased or bullied now, but it just didn't happen. It was usually only adults that would try to tell me what I couldn't do - the  gym teacher above was immediately rebuffed by my classmates who told him 'That's stupid, of COURSE she can catch a ball. Duh.' The only thing I can think of is that because I was PROUD of being different, other kids respected that. Plus, robot hand. Instant winner.

Robot hand, fanny pack - ain't no one messing with this brat.

Being disabled or handicapped or crippled - those were words and phrases that never entered our family lexicon. I had a 'little hand' (my stump) and a 'helping hand' (my prosthesis). As I got older and was too cool for a helping hand, I upgraded to calling it my fake arm. Blunt, to the point - that was our style. My friends would hide my fake arm as a joke.  My brothers would make elaborate costumes for me for Halloween that involved either a bloody stump or an arm falling off mid 'Trick-or-treat.'

When applying for college, I saw lots of forms that had a box to check if you were disabled. 'Dad,' I asked one night, 'Should I be checking those boxes?'

He thought for a moment, then said 'You know, you may as well - there might be extra scholarship money in it or something. But you're not really disabled.'

 Adversity is only an obstacle until you embrace it - then, it just becomes a regular, boring part of your life. Laughter and humor will always be the fatal blow to unfavorable situations. Just because there is a box that other people are trying to force you into, it doesn't mean you have to check the box.

Above all, learn to cut your own damn steak.


*Not to detract from the point of the story, but my first year in college I met my husband and he's been cutting my steak for ten years.