Tuesday, May 17, 1994
Although we’ve told him numerous times and in great detail about the leg, we’re not sure he understands or remembers. He and I are sitting on the Cabrini Home patio, facing Route 9, the Hudson behind us and the Tappan Zee back to our left. The sun feels good, we’re watching the cars and people go by, he’s looking so fragile and tiny and helpless, and we don’t force a conversation—just enjoy the warmth, each other, and the moment.
“I don’t know who would’ve wished this on me,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
He gestures towards where his left foot and shin used to be. “My foot. Who would’ve wished this on me?”
“I don’t think anyone would wish it on anyone,” I say. “Do you remember what happened?”
“It fell off.”
“Where did it fall off?”
“I think it was in front of the house,” he says.
“Was it an accident, you mean?”
He shows some frustration. “I don’t know. I don’t think it was an accident.”
“Do you want me to tell you the story again? Do you want to know?”
“Yeah, I want to know.”
“On December 26 you felt lightheaded, so Uncle Frank came and took you to St. John’s emergency. You and mom had bad colds so she couldn’t go out. They admitted you, just as a precaution because they wanted to run some tests. You felt better once you were there, but they admitted you anyway.”
“On the 29th you had a severe angina attack, and everything shut down—so they put you in ICU and hooked you up to a respirator and a pacemaker and God knows what else, and your circulation in you lower legs and feet was poor, gangrene set in and they told us that if they didn’t amputate your left leg below the knee the gangrene would spread and kill you. It should have been your decision to make, but you were unconscious for twelve days and we had to make it for you. We wanted you to live, but we didn’t know if you would want to wake up at 86 and find that your left leg was gone, so we debated back and forth and finally told the doctors to take the leg. We hoped it was the right thing—or at least a good thing—to do.”
“So they took the leg, and your heart got stronger and you gradually improved, and one by one they took away the tubes and hoses and straps until you were doing it on your own again—just like you had for 86 years.”
We sat momentarily in silence and then I asked, “What do you think you would have chosen if you had been able to make the decision yourself?”
He sat and thought for the better part of a minute, picked at some lint and pills on his favorite old brown polyester pants, then looked at me and said with great clarity, “That’s a really hard decision to have to make. I don’t know what I would have done.”
I hold onto those two sentences—four months after the amputation and 14 months before he’d take his final breath—as the moment during which he understood what had happened to his leg—and life as he had known it.
We sat in silence again for a while, and when he was ready, I wheeled him back inside.