Tuesday, November 9, 2010 arrived with a clear early morning that promised to become a chilly, sunny, and typically autumn day. I zipped my coat, buckled my helmet strap, unlocked my bike, and headed off to work. A few minutes later, a garbage truck crossed a bike lane to make a right turn. I was in that bike lane. The tires of the truck crushed my left leg and caused other internal injuries. An amazing team of trauma surgeons saved my life, but they had to amputate my leg to do so.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Confucius.

In July 2011, I set off to walk a thousand miles as an above-knee amputee in my new prosthesis. The journey has held more twists, turns, and detours than I ever imagined.

I reached Mile 1000 on March 30, 2013.

But of course, that wasn't the end.

I'll keep walking!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rock Show

Mile Marker 1360:

It's true what they say, that your heart pounds all the way into your ears.  Height is dizzying.

I'm weightless up here, as if the slightest breeze could catch me like a feather.  Send me swirling off this narrow stone ledge to the ground far below.  Leaves rustle beneath me.  I'm higher than the trees.

The voices that connect me to the ground sound very far away.
"Move around the corner!"  they call, but their words are swallowed up by the sky.

I look up at the rope, looped through an anchor somewhere above me.  My life hangs by a knot.  Suddenly, I'm afraid to move a muscle.

That step around the corner feels impossible.

Then I see Tommy.  He scales the wall in large motions -- strong, controlled, confident.  The carbon fiber of his left leg glints against the sun.   Finally, he arrives at my side.

Not to talk me down.  To talk me UP.

A seasoned climber, he urges me toward that corner, his prosthesis planted sturdily by my right foot.  "Just look," he says at first.

I crane my neck to peer around to the left side of the rock.  Shift my weight ever so slightly toward the part of my body that always feels like a cliff.

He's right.  There are more holds over there, more nooks to lodge my feet and hands so I can climb higher.

Slowly, he coaches me around the bend.  Not one step at a time -- one inch at a time.  I stick my shoe soles into the stone.  Force weight onto the balls of my feet.  Reach as high and as far as I can.

Finally, I ring the cowbell.  (That's what they call it anyway!)

First climb.  Done.

When I get down to the ground, someone asks if I took in the view.  Um, no.  

Maybe next time.


I pass Mile Marker 1360 in New York's Shawangunk Mountains -- a.k.a. "The Gunks."   I waited all summer to climb again with Ronnie Dickson.  Here at his Amputee Climbing Clinic, he's got a huge support crew of guides and volunteers.  This is way beyond the rock gym.

It's the greatest ROCK SHOW of all time.

We meet up early in the morning in the Peter's Kill area of Minnewaska State Park.  Guide Doug hands out harnesses from the back of his car, fits us all with adjustable helmets and tight-laced climbing shoes.

Mary, who's driven up with me from Philly, bravely accepts her pile of gear.  She swore she wouldn't climb, but with every quiver of her body, I can see her mind wavering.


Go for it, Mary...
On this fresh, fall morning, the excitement is palpable.  And contagious.

...there she goes!
Look at that reach!
 

Kareema, Laura, Maria, Tee-Tee, and Q have bused up from Brooklyn, where they've got their own adaptive climbing club.


Young Eric has come with his parents.

We climb and climb and climb some more.  Everybody helps everybody.



Tommy and Mark belay me the whole day long.  They teach me how to loop my rope through the harness, how to tie off the knot like a double-wound figure 8.

They show me how my shoes stick to the rock when I put weight on them.  And when I scramble up a wall without footholds, they tell me I'm smearing.

Ronnie starts me off. 

With their guidance, I learn that everything is fair game.  Look left, look right, look up, look down.
Any aberration in the rock's surface can give you a boost.  A crevice fits your fingers.  A tiny mound holds your foot.  A ledge gives you a spot to rest.


The rocks have mammoth flat faces and clever names like Bunk Bed and Breakfast Table.  When I find a vertical rock that looks like it's hanging on with glue, Mark tells me it's called a flake.  When I descend with my thumb scraped and bleeding, Tommy tells me I'm lucky it's not a flapper.  (Use your imagination for that one!)


"Mark!  It's windy up here!"  I yell from 40 feet up.

"Yeah!  Go with it, baby!!"  I can hear the groovy sway in his shoulders -- this is the guy holding my rope :)

It's afternoon, my fourth or fifth climb of the day, and I'm getting more confident.  Camera ready, I perch on a ledge, snapping photos of the leafy canopy below.

But as the wind shakes the rope, my heart goes wild again.  I brace my body flat against the wall to stay balanced.  A tree behind me brushes its highest branches against the back of my helmet.

"Mark!  The tree!!!"

"Show 'em who's boss!" he says.  (Or something like that.)

Then he starts singing.  Classic rock.

"Mark!  Are you with me?!"

"I'm with ya!"

"Can I move over there?!"

"Wherever you want!"

"Hold me tight, I'm climbing!"

"Climb on, Spark Plug!"

We go back and forth like this the whole way up.

It's important to communicate with your belayer, but I'm guessing I'm chattier than most.  What I lack in muscle, I make up for in volume.   I can't help it -- it keeps me connected.  And Mark and Tommy keep answering 'cause they know their words will drive me to the top.

Finally I get to a narrow foothold where I can steady myself again.   I press my toes into it, like a sailor who's reached solid land.

I look left and right at the red and gold leaves swinging around me.   I look up.  The carabiner and top rope are just inches away.  So is the summit.  And beyond it, the vast, deep sky.

Then I slowly reach around with my right hand.  Carefully dig the camera out of my back pocket.  Aim it downward.

"Mark!" I yell for the 200th time.

Just past my chalk bag, he is a tiny green dot against the ground.

He answers, of course.  Hang Loose!

It's one thing to talk to your belayer, but it's another to listen.  Mine showed me the best seats in the house.

At the greatest rock show of all time!

Rock on, everybody!
Click here to watch the video.
(Country music...  Yeah!  Go with it, baby!)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thirteen

Mile Marker 1350:

Noa is 13.  

We stand together at the kitchen counter, looking up words for her 7th grade vocabulary sheet.  One by one, she types them into Dictionary.com, her fingers bouncing easily over the keyboard.  In less than a second, their definitions and parts of speech fill the screen.  When we click on the megaphone icon, a computerized voice pronounces each word for us.  English homework has sure changed since my middle school days!

At 13, I was thrilled to get braces because all my friends had them.  

On Friday nights we dressed in our Jordache jeans and headed -- via parent carpool -- to Young’s Regency, the local hot spot.  There, we dined on soggy pizza and skated to 80’s hits like Come On Eileen and Tainted Love.
 
For my Science Fair project that year, Uncle Steve helped me set up three tanks of fish.  They earned me a 3rd place ribbon, though none of the fish made it to the end of the experiment!  

Sorry guys, but that's 13!
At 13, I was still the tallest kid in my family -- a title I lost the next year, when Mark turned 12 and passed me!  My parents and I were close, in a typical teenager way.  One minute I was shopping with mom or at a Flyers game with dad; the next, we were shouting at each other.

I was uncomfortable and awkward back then.  I wanted to be blonde.  I wanted to be popular.  I had a wishlist a mile long. 

And Science Fair aside, I was not a star student.  Can you blame me?  English homework involved hours of page-turning in a real-live dictionary!


More than 30 years later, at Mile Marker 1350, my college friend Amy brings her daughter Noa to Philly.  I haven't seen Noa in years.  But this weekend, she has a friends’ Bat Mitzvah to attend, and my apartment is the perfect crash pad.

By the way, Noa wears 13 better than I ever did!

Her blond hair, streaked with “Sun-In,” drapes in long, kinky strands across her shoulders.   Without any make-up at all, her eyes sparkle.   Light emanates from her freckles -- and braces.  She’s a figure skater and a swimmer, not to mention a champion Instagram-er.  She texts like it’s her native language.

At lunch, Amy runs to feed the parking meter, leaving Noa and I at the table together.  She tells me about her swim team, and I tell her about my water leg.  When Amy returns, she jokes that Noa's said more to me in 5 minutes than she said during the whole two-hour drive from D.C.!  (Yep.  She's 13, all right.)

Later, Amy shows me an Instagram photo that Noa posted during the car ride.  I don't get Instagram, but I get the idea.  The picture's a "selfie" -- Noa's eyes are cynical, her hoodie's pulled up tight, and her body's scrunched sulkily against the backseat of the car.  The caption is pure 13-year-old angst:  On the way to Philly.  So bored.  Text me please!

But Philly isn't so boring after all.  As we make our way back from lunch, Noa buys a red velvet cupcake at a walk-up bakery window near my building.  Then she hangs out happily in my apartment, texting her friends, while Amy and I go off in search of free parking.

While we're on our own, we stop at an "old school" bakery, Termini's!
Of course, we pick up an
apple turnover for our favorite
13-year-old!

On the surface, there's an edge to Noa that Amy and I are not cool enough to keep up with.  But as I get to know her, I admire Noa more and more.  She possesses a confidence I never had at her age.  She paints her nails with glitter.  She wears sparkly shoes.  She has the courage to walk into a friends' party where she's the only out-of-towner.  

It's not easy to be 13, but Noa handles it like a pro.

At 44, I’m amazed how much she rubs off on me.  I give in to the peer pressure, throw caution to the wind.  We stay out till midnight (to pick Noa up from her party).   I skip my night-time shower (because I’m too darn tired).  I eat Termini's pastries for breakfast (instead of the sensible cereal and yogurt).  Whoo-hoo!  It's like my own post-teenage rebellion!

Early Sunday morning, I emerge from my bedroom to find Noa on the couch, playing with her phone.  We whisper back and forth, so as not to wake Amy.  Noa asks me thoughtful questions about the accident, about my prosthesis. 

"Do you wish you still had 2 legs?"  It's her final question.

"Sure," I tell her.  Of course I'd rather have 2 legs.  

But really, I've come a long way since 13.  And so has my wishlist.

After breakfast, I entrust my Genium and water leg into Noa's capable hands.  Turns out, she is a NAIL POLISH EXPERT.  We paint my 15 toes a bright shade of autumn gold.


The weekend whizzes by.  Amy washes the breakfast dishes while I walk Noa through her English homework. 

...closed for the government shut-down!
Outside, we breeze by the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall...





We peer into the windows of Elfreth's Alley and shop the quirky Old City stores.




We even make a second trip to Termini’s, this time for treats to take home to D.C.! 
You can never have too many cannolis!

As we make our way back to my apartment one last time, I watch Noa wrap her arms around Amy's waist.  “Thanks for bringing me to Philadelphia, Mom,” I hear her say.

The pricelessness of the comment isn't lost on me.

No, I don’t have my own 13-year-old.  But I’ve been one.

Thirteen is tough to forget.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

September

Mile Marker 1300:

I know, I know.
It's October.

The thing is, I just can't let go of September yet.

I bet you're expecting my typical rant about what's ahead... darkness, wind, ice, snow.  NOVEMBER.  But that's not where I'm going.  (Well, technically, I am going there -- we all are -- just not in this blog post!)

Spring is usually the time for renewal, but right now it's fall, and I tell you there’s a growth spurt going on.  Life is busier than it's been for the past 3 years!  Even as the leaves drift to the ground, my branches burst and spread.  Sometimes in the unlikeliest places...

When I pull my Honda Civic into the gas station, my stamina runs as low as the fuel gauge.   I’ve just finished a two-hour drive from Baltimore to Philadelphia.  My butt bone aches.  I can’t wait to get out of this car.
The pumps are crowded for a Saturday evening.  I wait in line behind two cars and then pull into the next and only pump available.  I open the driver’s side door, hoist my legs out onto the blacktop, prosthetic side first.  When I straighten up, my hip is molded into the angle of the car seat, and I feel the ever familiar poke of my socket.  I slide a credit card into the gas pump.  But no-go.  It won’t read the card. 
I reach into my wallet for cash and find nothing but a lonely one-dollar bill.
So I hobble over to the glass payment booth.  Hold up my silver MasterCard.
“The pump won’t take my card,” I say to the woman inside.
“How high is your amputation?” she says back.
Huh?  In my driving-daze, I wonder if this is some sort of test.  Yes, I'm wearing shorts, but the question still seems out of place.

“Above the knee,” I answer tentatively. 
“I’m through the knee,” she says.  It's amputee jargon.  She motions to a door on the side of the booth.  “Come around,” she says.
I follow the curb around.
She gets up and opens the glass door, tugging up her peasant skirt to show me her prosthesis.

In the next two minutes, I learn her name is Cassandra.  She tells me she’s been an amputee for over 20 years.  I tell her my injury happened less than a mile from this gas station.   Then we talk some more.
For years, I've been nothing but an anonymous customer, paying an anonymous woman in a glass booth.  Now there's a connection.  It's random, but energizing.

The spark of September.

It's Susan's birthday, too...
The month lights up with birthday treats:  a pair of trekking poles from Mark, a Starbucks lunch with Deb, a chilly evening picnic with Mary, Susan, and Jen.

and Chase's...
My school team bakes me a cake, dotted with candles they saved from last year -- when I was still in the hospital.  (They ate last year's cake without me!)

Days pass quickly.  Evening creeps in earlier and earlier.  There's a trip to the beach, a hike in the woods.  A party with new friends in my apartment building.

Branches veer off, tracing curvy paths into the sky.

and Sam's!
I fly solo to Vermont for a "sister weekend" with Sam.  She's two inches taller, but 9 years and 10 days younger.  Yep, another September birthday!

Then Mom and I drive to visit friends Mo and Arnold, from the Amputee Coalition Conference.  Rob, my peer mentor, surprises us there.  He hasn't seen my mom since our shell-shocked hospital days!  The five of us have so many stories to share, it's like we've known each other for a lifetime.

One Saturday morning, I go out walking with friends from the rehab gym.  Dave and Robert lead the way, their crutches in hand.  I lag behind with Binal, pushing the wheelchair "just in case."  Dave and Robert are determined not to use it, but after the first hour, Binal and I are tempted!

Crisp, rippled leaves litter the road.  Each step is a feat of its own, yet we take 10,560 of them -- a 2-mile journey in all!

And yes, we obey the speed limit.  By a long shot!

September rolls on.  Each night, I fall into bed exhausted.  But it's worth it.  This year, instead of down-sliding, each new spark ignites me with energy.  Gives me the momentum I need to glide over bumps in the road.

I am undeniably HAPPY.  But as much as I try to put the feelings to words, I can't.  I can't bring myself to say I'm glad I was in an accident, glad to have experienced the last few years, glad to be an amputee.

Yet without my injuries, I wouldn't have met many of the people who now fill up my life.  The daily victories wouldn't feel so victorious.  I wouldn't be able to recognize each sunny, healthy moment as the gift that it truly is.

How can something built of immeasurable PAIN seem like a BLESSING in some ways, too?

Yesterday, on the very last day of September, my friend Shelley finally rescues me -- with, of all things, a Facebook post.

Call it a bike ride epiphany -- it captures my feelings perfectly:

As I was gritting at the headwind on my bike commute this morning, all of a sudden that same headwind brought me the most delightful chocolate aroma.... Ah, sometimes the thing that challenges you the most brings you just what you need (or at least a little bit of aromatherapy).

Thanks, Shell.

So maybe it's the warmth that lingers behind when the calendar says it's fall.  Maybe it's the fact that I can now count a whole year -- September to September -- since my last surgery.   Or maybe it's the energy of so many close friends, old and new.

Whatever it is, it keeps my branches growing.

As I blow out my candles this year, there's not much left to wish for -- except maybe 12 more months like this one.

Thank you September, and everybody.

My tank is full...


When you have a month like this, you've just gotta celebrate :)
Click here to watch the video.