Reprise: What's it like to have one leg?

I don’t blog on disability issues very much, but I noticed at tigtog’s place a link to a blog that’s new to me – The Gimp Parade, and also via that link, I became aware of one of the very many multifaceted blog carnivals that tigtog has also previously blogged about here – in this instance, the disability carnival. So I thought I might give this post a rerun, originally written (with the aid of quite a few gin and tonics, so please be kind to me) almost two years ago, because I’d like to participate. I hope reposting it might also be justified because I think LP has a wider and different audience than back in July 05. LP was a bit more of an intimate place back then, and the post feels a bit raw to me now, but I’d still stand by it. Hope it’s of interest to folks who may not have seen it the first time around.

What’s it like to have one leg?

What do you think? Can you imagine it? Do you just see the possibility as that of an absence, of being reduced to a disability, of being an incomplete person? Of having to “adjust”?

Somebody asked me that question in a bar last night – “what’s it like to have one leg?”

It’s a really difficult one to answer. I have one leg. I have a thigh – a residual limb – a stump – as well. It ends about 6 inches above where my left knee would be, if I had a left knee. I don’t. I have one knee, one foot, and five toes. That’s me. I don’t normally think of myself like that. As an “amputee”. Most of the time we don’t think of ourselves as a collection of body parts, unless one aches or pains us. We’re just hale and whole. So that’s how I feel. Because I am what I am. I am my whole body, and how I relate with my body to the world of objects. How it feels to be the subject of the sentences of my life that I write. And I don’t know how to be, or how to live otherwise. One day, I would like to learn how to live. Finally. What does that mean? Don’t we live each moment by moment, if only we are aware of it? And isn’t that how it should be?

And if I hadn’t lost my leg when I was young, I’d have been different. I don’t want to be different to what I am. I want to be what I’ve become. Through living, and suffering. And rejoicing.

This is a very free translation of Aeschylus from the Oresteia. It means a lot to me partly because it was cited by Robert F. Kennedy in the spontaneous speech he made in the ghetto the night Martin Luther King was killed. And partly because it’s so beautiful:

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Aeschylus meant the Gods. It should read, from the Greek:

Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise,
has established his fixed law:
wisdom comes through suffering.
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
so men against their will
learn to practice moderation.
Favours come to us from gods
seated on their solemn thrones:
such grace is harsh and violent.

(I like that too. Grace that is harsh and violent pierces our hearts.)

And perhaps he meant the Gods with reason. Fate is something we make our own. And Kennedy knew it, and he lived bright and optimistic because he was marked by fate and nemesis and sorrow. Yet he overcame. Is that how we learn – at last – to live?

Sometimes I have two knees, two feet and ten toes when I have phantom pains. At least it feels like I do. But I can’t scratch the itch because this perception of embodiment does not correspond to my flesh. As it exists in the real world.

I remember when I was 14 and I had cancer and the surgeon told me my leg would be amputated. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. What would it feel like not to have two legs? How much did I want to wiggle my toes before they were gone? How much did I want to walk along the beach and feel sand between my ten toes? Is it about numbers?

But the question – What’s it like to have one leg? – after 18 years – makes no sense to me. Sometimes – most of the time, I have a C-Leg, which unlike your leg, cost me USD40,000. I wake up in the mornings and hop over to where I can fit it onto my flesh. But it’s not me. It’s a prosthesis. At my most naked, I interact with the world without it, and when I interact with the world with it, I never feel like it is me – except when I do because it becomes a habit, an easy gait, a step I take.

But I don’t feel like I’m an incomplete person.

What I do know – and this goes for all of us, whether or not we’re four-limbed – is that the experience of my life is written on my body, and writes my body. And I am my body, and it is me – complete. As I know it, and reach out with it to touch the world, so does it become me and my world.

Descartes’ Cogito gives us an incomplete fantasy. Only. We act as if we have an essence – a self – separate from who we are in our embodied selves. But we don’t stop to think that we display emotion with our bodies. When we’re tired, we feel tired. If you prick us, we bleed. When we’re happy, our whole body feels alive and we have a spring in our step. But we claim that we can see and understand the world as if that weren’t the case. As if we could escape from our experience. As if our bodies were a prison, and we could float free. As if one day, we could download our consciousness into a computer. Think about it. Think about what makes a lived in body, a face with a few crows’ feet around the eyes, more attractive than a teenager’s, whose visage has yet to register too much sorrow, but also too much joy. Think about how sterile a computer generated image of a person is. Are you your gravatar? Are you just text? Compare Lara Croft to Angelina Jolie. Do not think that you want to live forever – think more about how you want to spend the time you have. And live it. Think of the weariness of the thousand year old vampire. Undead. And if we want to live on, our tradition tells us that our bodies will be resurrected. Transfigured, but recognisable. Do you love an essence? Or do you reach out with your touch?

Merleau-Ponty wrote – “we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world”. Think about that. And feel it.

What’s it like to have one leg? I don’t know. I just know what it’s like to be me.

At first I felt shattered, lost. But every day is better. I have walked behind the sky… Sometimes, at night, I hear a voice in my head. Is it me, Kim? Is it true that the beyond – that everything beyond – is here in this life? I can’t hear you. Who’s there? Is it only me? Is it myself?

[adapted from the film Nadja]

In illa tempore. In that time. We live in the eternal already, if we only knew it. In saecula saeculorum.

As we grow older, we walk along the same steps. We tread the same paths. We settle into the same groove. But we don’t have to. We can embrace our ghosts, and what life and the world has written on our body. And remember the touch, and the voice, of those who have gone before. Transcendence is experience. Experience is transcendence. This life is all – bare humanity, to be embroidered and stitched together as we will. And then we let go, to join the ghost who walks alongside.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

How many legs walk the path? Would I still be me, if I could tickle you with all ten toes?

As we walk through life, we shed skins. We write knowledge and pain and love on our brows. Sometimes we lose a part of ourselves, only to find it. And as we walk towards the light, increasingly ghosts go along with us. Until the End. This should not be cause for fear or fantasy. It’s just living. It’s our choice whether we learn to live. Finally.

I have heard the mermaids singing…

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown black
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

But Jesus was a sailor, then, when he walked upon the water…

Quod scripsi scripsi. Quid opus et verbis?

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Posted in culture, Disability, life, Philosophy, Technology
13 comments on “Reprise: What's it like to have one leg?
  1. Jan says:

    Thank you.

  2. su says:

    Kim that was so wonderful- a gift. And everything you have said I can see has relevance to my own family where there are no physical issues but where developmental disability and psychological issues blossom so chaotically. Really- thank you so much.

  3. tigtog says:

    I’m glad you reposted this.

    Would I still be me, if I could tickle you with all ten toes?

    We are the sum of our experiences.

  4. professor rat says:

    Please do not laugh at the disabled – ever. I may have smiled while watching a trailer for the movie,’ The Idiots’ and thinking of the Danish Royal family but I think I got away with it.

  5. Helen says:

    Beautiful post, Kim, thanks.

  6. Thankyou for a beautiful piece of writing, Kim.

  7. MH says:

    Thanks. I wonder, if I may ask, if there is a certain lack of anonymity in “hav[ing] one leg”. As you so eloquently say, our lives are written on our bodies, but for most of us, having all our limbs and senses offers an anonymous sameness. There is no particular life story made visible. But missing a leg speaks – whether one wants to or not – about a very dramatic life event, and even of physical and emotional pain and suffering.

  8. Kim says:

    Interesting, MH. But it’s a very conflicted lack of anonymity, if you catch my drift…

  9. philip travers says:

    Well,I say having two legs is a problem for those who were born that way and are not relatives of droptail lizards.As a design principle,artificial design,that is, not replicates redesigns or modifications would make it easy to believe two-leggedness is only an efficient means to get around on only if you get around on them regularly.So the monstrosity view of the one-legged is a bit antiquaited,but obviously still felt and experienced at times. A leg over,a description of sex seems not to be so impeding for the already adequate in those regards.So the species could continue with some luck and being hitched or married amongst the various form of leggedness could still win a three legged race in potato bags.And lil Abner and blonde chasing the fastest and most athletic farmer around the place,may not be as efficient in the three limbed potatoe sack race. A case of counting your blessings? No! Count your negative numbers first,and a genius at calculation forever from that day!

  10. MH says:

    But it’s a very conflicted lack of anonymity, if you catch my drift…

    No doubt.

  11. Brian says:

    Hope [the post is] of interest to folks who may not have seen it the first time around.

    Kim it’s of interest to those of us who did see it then. As Mark said:

    A very rich and rewarding text, Kim, worth savouring, returning to, and reflecting on.

    It says things I think, believe and feel in a way I could never find words to express. And more.

    Similarly with the comments Mark made on the old thread just above the comment I linked to.

    When I was 18 I suffered a small physical disability from a short but quite severe illness. Since then I can be reminded of it with a searing shaft of pain, almost any time with one false move but a definite possibility when pleasure of a kind is on the menu.

    I can’t say I’ve learnt to love this condition, or circumstance or however one might put it. But accept it I must and I don’t spend any time or energy railing against fate or wishing the unalterable alterable. I am what I have become. You can’t change the past, or the present, but your disposition towards both is important for future presents (and the future past, if that makes sense).

    Not sure I should have said that, as this thread is yours, and I think magnificently so.

  12. nasking says:

    Kim, I read your piece out to my wife…we both found it insightful & filled w/ warmth & passion. Charming…displayed a touch of fragility…& yet enduring strength of character.

    “You must have this charm to reach the pinnacle. It is made of everything and of nothing, the striving will, the look, the walk, the proportions of the body, the sound of the voice, the ease of the gestures. It is not at all necessary to be handsome or to be pretty; all that is needful is charm.”


    “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

    (Marcel Proust)

  13. Link says:

    Will return to read again. Beautiful, angelic thoughts, skillfully expressed.

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