I can’t stop thinking about my father’s amputated leg. I don’t use the word “obsessed” because self-diagnosing is specious, I’ve been told, but I think about his leg more than normal for someone who wasn’t there and hasn’t also lost a limb. One day I’ll be brave enough to tell my therapist about my father’s leg and how often I imagine finding it, like a plastic dummy, spilling from a bag of trash on the curb. For now, I’d like to keep the leg for myself. I haven’t seen my father or his leg in six years. The last time our trio was together, the leg pumped the brake and gas pedals in sharp, purring bursts while I wished I were anywhere but in the back seat of my father’s pickup truck. We snagged drive-thru beignets and coffee even though it was four in the afternoon. My father asked about the things he always asks about, what he believes he ought to ask of his suddenly adult daughter who he barely knows, like if she’s fucking someone consistently and if she likes college. My answers to both were noncommittal, which frustrated him, but I’ve never been very good at taking him seriously, especially when there is powdered sugar all over his lap. Each of his earlobes had the same three matching, bulbous silver rings they’ve had since I was a toddler, but the skin of his neck was leathery and orange from the sun and probably drugs. His diabetes was under control, supposedly, but he was thirty pounds lighter than I’d ever seen him. He limped. He looked old, which is maybe the most uncomfortable realization I’ve ever had while looking at him. I wish I’d gotten a better look at the leg. The leg used to have tattoos of a skull and a dagger. Now there is a prosthetic. Black, glossy vinyl attached to a metal stump. I searched my father’s social media for pictures of the leg in hopes to get one good, last look, but in every photograph it’s obscured by cargo pants or hidden behind the belly of a fishing boat. If I’d known that time in the truck was our last, I would’ve said something, taken a longer look—a shared and sacred sentiment toward sudden death. You see why I can’t say these things to my therapist. I sound reductive. Everywhere in the world, there are dead bodies. Statisticians and mortuaries can hardly keep up. Last week, my roommate listened to her cousin reenact their grandfather’s last words, which weren’t really his last but a rehearsal of what his last words might be because he suffocated alone in the ICU. He was her last connection to her own father, who also died tragically when she was a child, whose body she also never got to see. I haven’t earned the right for the sentimentality of a leg. It hasn’t done anything except rot and come off. My father still breathes, still walks, only now with a cane. Then again, who am I to say “only,” to minimize his loss, his permanent state of without-ness. No one knighted me with this permission to compare. It’s not about me. It’s not about my father, either, or other people who may or may not suffer and die. It’s about the leg. So, it’s better that I shut my mouth and hug the leg close and hope, one day, it might tell me what it wants with me.
At first, the leg was only sick. My younger sister called to inform me our father’s leg was deeply infected, potentially infected beyond repair, and that I should call him where he lay grumbling in his hospital bed in rural Mississippi. I resisted. I never called my father anymore. He never called me. The idea of pressing the cold flat face of my phone to my ear and hearing his voice was perverse. “He could die,” she insisted, reprimanding me. People did not die of amputations, I said, although I was sure they sometimes did. Regardless there was a part of me, perhaps the half that came from him, chilly with the thought of his body, pallid and inflamed, sinking into a gurney. Surely a state of emergency demanded a subversion of the rules. He began our conversation with the same sort of questions as our afternoon in the truck. Yes, I was dating, yes, career life was going okay. But how was the leg? How did we allow the leg to get so far away from us? Initially, there was a spot at the heel of his foot. Dark and purple and sore, like the splinters I used to ignore as a child because I was incredibly afraid of tweezers. He tried to excise the spot in the bathtub, but the darkness was not dirt. It was nothingness--a hole. I was convinced my neglect sparked his clear insanity as he casually detailed how he slathered the hole with Neosporin, inside and out, packed it with gauze, and bandaged it. For four days it festered. When he was unable to walk, he drove himself to the hospital. In my imagination, he was also slightly high, but my imagination is a cruel place to live. He implied the tending surgeons were dramatic, though much less so than his judgemental nurses. I imagined them in their break room, chewing thickly on tuna salad sandwiches, gossiping about the withered heroin addict with missing teeth and gangrene in room 514. Somehow I had the audacity for shame. As his daughter, I had a lot of nerve listening to him talk about the impending removal of a quarter of his body, thinking instead about how those nurses constructed the lore of my damaged family. “Can you believe it?” they would ask. “He’s barely fifty. Isn’t there anyone looking after him?” I should pity my father. In light conversation with acquaintances about our childhood traumas, I’ve expressed interest in forgiving him, pending long, meandering conversations about how he’s never correctly remembered my birthday, how occasionally I have nightmares about the time I found him beating his bloody fist against the driveway in the middle of the night and he begged me never to leave him, and how, in the near future, I will think of a thousand ways his leg was disposed of and abandoned. The acquaintances usually nod. They confirm that families, particularly fathers, are complicated matters. There is no perfect word to describe the opposite of reassurance. If there was, the word would live there, in the shadows of their smiles. Forgiveness would have to wait. My father was coughing into the receiver and a nurse was speaking somewhere in the background. I wished him luck for the exploratory surgery scheduled later that day. I’m sure it’s nothing, I told him, although a brief Google search prophesied something beginning with an incision at the anterior flap and ending with the complete removal of every bone, joint, and blood vessel below the right femur. I texted him the next day, checking in. He didn’t reply. On Facebook a few days later, he posted a disgruntled selfie with a joke about how his testicles were so swollen, he needed a second hospital bed to accommodate them. I knew he’d be just fine. Since the leg was lost, we’ve gone back to our routine of non-communication. I recently spoke to my uncle, who’s been doting on my father, and he insists that since the leg was removed my father has made a lot of “big changes” in his life recently. I’m sure he meant that he’s sober again and monitoring his insulin, which are undeniably big and excellent changes, but I stopped myself from nudging the conversation where I wished it would go. What did they do after the surgery? Did they throw the leg out? Did they burn it, donate it to science, use it as a cautionary tale in a high school health class? Did it look different or fake, like those gummy decorations sold at Party City during Halloween? Did anyone even see it? How do we know it got the send-off it deserved?
The worst part of my obsession with the leg is that for as much as it fascinates me, the leg is not unique. My father’s father also had his right leg amputated. Not because of diabetes, but because my grandfather was a lifelong drinker and smoker with blackened veins full of sludge. I was still in diapers when the doctors made the chop. I wonder why I don’t dream of his leg in the way I dream of my father’s. Since I don’t remember it, maybe I never knew what I was missing. My grandfather was the man I loved most in the world, which feels like an impossible thing to say about someone who only lived until you were seven-years-old. I tell myself it’s different because his legacy is that he adored everyone, but most especially me. At his funeral, his eulogist spoke of how he painted his tool shed the same shade of hot pink that rich white women dye their Pomeranians because I asked him to. He carved my name into the door just to make me smile and so everyone knew I was the boss. He was crass and hilarious and loud and relentlessly stubborn. Even after his amputation, he drank beer like water until it clotted his blood and stopped his heart. He was very flawed but more perfect. There is no need for me to worry about where his leg ended up or how it’s doing now. He was better off without it. I won’t do my father the disservice of assuming what this new, legless life holds for him. Assuming is for dead people. I hope his big changes stick. I hope they are big changes that are also good. I hope these big, good changes lead to us speaking productively one day, even honestly, but I hope this less than those other things. I wish I had the energy to hope more. Maybe that’s what the leg is for.
In my imagination, the leg and I are often star-crossed. In one scene, it’s bobbing down the Ganges, bumping into families as they bathe. They push it along its way like a pest. I run beside the river, hoping to catch it, but never time my dives correctly. There is another, a daydream I replay sometimes when I’m bored at work, where the leg is repurposed and attached to a man who was bisected in a car crash. In their desperate mission to put the man back together, doctors pull the leg from where it rests in a deep freezer, cure its nasty case of gangrene, and stitch it to the man. Because of the leg, he’s able to walk again. He becomes famous. He goes on a daytime talk show and they pull a stunt where he painstakingly calls and thanks all of his donors, except he accidentally calls my number instead, and he thanks me for the leg. I don’t have the heart to tell him he’s got the wrong person, so I lower the octave of my voice and humbly accept. Most recently, the leg and I are in a stark white interrogation room. I wear a smartly tailored suit. The leg sags on its chair, smelling of hydrogen peroxide because my brain is not very pharmaceutically creative. I prod the leg with a long ruler. “My grandfather was the oldest of four. My father was the oldest of three. I’m the oldest of two, but I also have a vagina. Will you take my leg from me, too? Will you?” I slap the leg at the knee and its skin shivers. I slam my fist on the desk and shock myself. I demand the leg answer me, but before it can, I wake up. I write these reveries down in a dream journal. I cross-reference them for patterns. Nothing about them seems obvious yet, but I’m not sure what else I should do with them except for try, and dream, and try again.
Because my imagination is the cruelest place in the world, my father isn’t allowed to live there anymore. He’s already had an amputation. I’m not sure how much more the man can take. No one has given me explicit permission to extrapolate on his condition, but what I can gather from the ambiguous details my relatives provide is that my father is in a delicate place and that he loves me. It’s suggested, though not required, that I find it in me to reciprocate. I’m not sure I’m there yet or ever will be. But I hope, lamely, gently, that one day I might, and on that day when we reconcile, I will show him the leg and how safe I’ve kept it in the meantime.
Jessika Bouvier is a writer in Atlanta. You can find more of her published work at jessikabouvier.com. You can also follow her on Twitter, @jessikavbouvier, for more candid and embarrassing writing.