A memoir excerpt originally published in Cosmonauts Avenue.
The first time I saw an amputee was in April 2006 at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I was twenty years old. The man was attractive, probably in his late teens to early twenties, with overgrown brunette hair, the beginnings of a beard, and both legs missing just above the knees. Behind him, a woman around the same age with platinum blonde hair cut into a bob, who I assumed to be his wife, struggled to push him through an obstacle course of small inclines littering the window-lined hallway connecting the basement’s cafeteria to the bulk of the hospital.
I stood outside in the garden smoking a Marlboro Light, a worsening habit since I arrived in Maryland. The garden, with its freshly blooming cherry trees and carefully landscaped flower beds, had become my escape. I was a newlywed and, three weeks earlier, my husband, Cleve, had been wounded by a Improvised Explosive Device while driving a humvee in Iraq. We had been married only three months.
Cleve’s doctor had him on a number of medications I could hardly pronounce that made him drowsy, so he spent the majority of most days sleeping. I spent my days watching him sleep, eating too much vending machine food while watching him sleep, and exploring the hospital’s maze of hallways after I couldn’t watch him sleep any longer. I felt misplaced in this unfamiliar world of doctors and patients, illnesses, injuries and prescriptions. I was lonely. But the garden felt familiar, like childhood afternoons in my grandmother’s azalea-lined backyard. I found myself there, cigarette in hand, often.
The woman forced her small frame into the handlebars of her husband’s wheelchair, using all her weight to push him up a slope as other able-bodied patrons buzzed past. Her husband casually adjusted himself, leaning back into his seat and taking a bite of a meatball sub from Subway. I looked down at the space where the man’s legs should have been, wondering who took them from him. I thought about Cleve confined to his hospital bed and wondered if he would ever walk again or if he would depend on a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I put out my cigarette and headed to his room to be with him.
I wasn’t supposed to be a military wife. I had no interest in falling in love with someone who would leave me, in sacrificing them to a war that may not give them back. I didn’t want to be the lonely wife waiting by the phone, watching the news intently for any sign that something could be wrong, and I had no interest in following a man around or in putting my goals and dreams second to someone else’s. I quickly found, however, that love simply doesn’t work that way.
Cleve and I met in eighth grade where we briefly “went out” before breaking up, because I thought he had a crush on one of our school’s cheerleaders. We remained fairly close, carefully dodging an intensity we were too young to address. We lost touch after high school.
I was a flight attendant when I found him again on Myspace; I had just turned twenty and was based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was a 21 year old Marine, a mortarman with an Iraq deployment already under his belt, based at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He was only a thirty minute flight east. Our close proximity and my being able to fly for free made it easy for me to visit him, so I did. I did so often that I lost my job for missing work over it. Because I was living out of a hotel room shared by five other flight-attendants, I also found myself without a home.
Being reckless wasn’t new to me. Only two years before, I quit high school and ran away with my abusive boyfriend in defiance of my parents’ sudden move from our hometown, Foley, Alabama, to Tampa, Florida. I had never been a particularly responsible person, and I had never done well with authority. As a teen I was always able to slide through life despite it, but as a newly twenty-something that was no longer the case.
I eventually ran out of couches to crash on in Charlotte, so I drove to Jacksonville to be near Cleve. I parked my car at the local K-Mart and stayed there for nearly two weeks. I could have moved to Alaska with my parents – self-proclaimed vagabonds, they decided to move there from Tampa for better jobs once they thought I was safely employed — but neither of us wanted me to move. Alaska seemed foreign to us. It was too permanent and risked severing our relationship forever.
Cleve and I fell in love during our evening talks in my car. We made love any chance we had — the garage at someone’s party, the barracks when no one was around. It was a reckless sort of love typical in the military. He was getting ready to deploy, and we could feel the clock ticking. He wanted to know I’d be taken care of. I wanted to be there for him when he came home.
The night he proposed, he showed up to my car unannounced. I was sitting in my white 2001 Dodge Intrepid listening to “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” in an attempt to stop feeling bad for myself, when I heard a tap on the door opposite of me. I could see a man in military uniform hunched into the window. The blinding street lamps in the distance turned him into a shadow making it difficult to identify the details of his face, but his fudge brown eyes squinting into the glass were familiar. I unlocked the door to let him in. He swung it open and plopped his body into the passenger’s seat, the smell of sweat and grass and oil flooding the car. He turned to look at me, the song playing on repeat in the background.
“Hey, there. How was work?” I said, leaning over for a kiss.
“You’re not going to Alaska.” He paused to think about what he wanted to say. “I was thinking… what would you think about. . .” He paused again. He turned to face me, leaning his back against the door and folding his left boot under his right camouflaged thigh. “I was just wondering the past few days that maybe we could get married or something.”
My face went blank. I hadn’t expected it. I was in love with him, yes, but I knew it was too soon to be considering marriage. Still, I was giddy. Though we had only been seeing each other for three months, we had known each other for seven years, and I was blinded by the rush of our budding romance. Somehow the situation felt utterly romantic. Though I knew it was crazy, I said yes.
On January 11, 2006, we eloped at the Jacksonville county courthouse. It was just me, him, and his two best friends, Matt and Tony, as witnesses. I wore boot cut blue jeans, a slouchy tan sweater, and my hair in a ponytail. He had just gotten off work and was still wearing his soiled desert camis. There was no ring, and there were no pictures.
After the ceremony, since I was Cleve’s wife and all, his friend Matt’s wife, Shannon, decided to meet me with the possibility of letting me live with her and her six month old while our husbands were deployed. We hit it off over a bottle of cabernet and became instant friends. I moved in the next day.
Two months later, on March 10, 2006, Cleve’s unit, 3/8, deployed to Ramadi, Iraq. Three weeks later, on April 1, he was hit by the bomb. He was sent to Bethesda, Maryland two days later. As soon as I got word that he was being flown home, I drove through the night to be by his side as his wife and, now, caregiver.
Cleve’s being injured on April Fool’s Day was appropriate given his sense of humor. The man who saved him, James, told me years after his injury that Cleve was in good spirits, trying to keep things light, as they pulled him from the wreckage.
“He knew he was banged up,” James said, “but he didn’t want us to worry, so he kept on cracking jokes as we softened the area so we could get him out. Among all that chaos, old Cleve kept up that humor of his. He was a true Marine.”
Cleve had been driving a Humvee along a dirt road in Ramadi the day he was injured. Ramadi was one of the most hostile places in Iraq at the time, or at least that’s what he told me when he finally began talking about the accident a month or so after his injury. He said the streets were littered with Improvised Explosive Devices, or homemade bombs, often hidden in piles of trash or broken down vehicles, a quintessential war scene. The one that hit him was hidden in a pile of roadside trash by men that were hiding nearby, waiting for him. When they saw him coming, they triggered their bomb.
“That one just snuck up on us,” Cleve told me as he lay in his hospital bed, naked except for a white sheet weaved between his legs and around his lower torso. He lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling as he spoke. The curtains were pulled around his half of the shared hospital room, separating us from the world.
“You didn’t see it? Were you the only one out there?” I asked him. I was sitting in a stiff, plastic-lined chair next to his bed, indian-style. I’d positioned it so it faced him. I leaned forward so my chin could rest on my arms on the side of his bed as he told his story.
“Nah. They told me over the radio, but I didn’t hear it in time. There was a row of us that day. I wasn’t the first. I had my leg propped up on the dashboard as I was driving. You’re not supposed to do that, but I probably would’ve lost my leg if I hadn’t of done it.
All of a sudden, I heard a voice over the radio. Kinsey! Kinsey! Watch out! Then, before I knew it, BAM! A double-stacked IED. That son of a bitch blew the door right off my side.” He laughed to himself. I didn’t laugh. I was stunned. Paralyzed by the image of a world lined in bombs.
“I barely remember the explosion,” he said. “All of a sudden I come-to on the ground. My boys were dragging me to safety, stabbing me with shots of morphine, others were shooting back and forth. I looked down and my leg was bent toward me, the opposite way than what a leg should bend. It was like a limp noodle, draped across the top of me.”
“Jesus Christ.” I said, then paused for a moment, reaching for my water on his bedside table. I took a sip. “Could you feel the pain? You must have been terrified.”
“No. Really, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. The morphine had me feeling pretty good. Disoriented mostly. My boys got in there and took care of things.”
We sat in silence for a moment. I couldn’t stop staring at his face. His skin was pallid, his brown hair disheveled, and his eyes were gaunt and painted in dark circles. He was muscular when he deployed, 6’2” with strong arms and a healthy layer of pudge that I loved. But he was losing weight rapidly from lack of appetite and being in bed for so long. He hardly looked like himself anymore.
“What’s a double-stacked IED?” I asked.
“Well, it has twice the power.” He held his hands out wide in a gesture to show how large it was. “It was a big son of a bitch. The explosion is bigger, so it’s more powerful. More dangerous. I’m lucky to be alive.”
I had never heard of an IED until Cleve’s injury. Cleve told me that day they could be made with marbles. When the bomb goes off, the marbles explode, glass shards shooting in every direction toward their victims leaving them broken and, often, dead. As he spoke, I imagined the innocent balls of glass I played with as a child, white with blue cat-eyes in the center, the same shade as my mother’s and my eyes. The toys wait in darkness, dreading the moment they will be forced to play in a war they weren’t made for. The bomb is triggered, and there is no turning back.
When Cleve was first wounded, I hated the men who hurt him. I hoped that when the other Marines came to save him, they were able to find and kill the bastards who did it. I wanted revenge. But after hearing the story of what happened, I unexpectedly found myself wondering what the men’s names were. What they had for breakfast that morning. Whether they had families. I wondered what it was exactly that made them want to do it. To kill. I wondered how many of their loved ones had been wounded or killed in the war and how many of their wives pushed their husband’s wheelchairs. I thought about how much they must hate us, too.
“He’s the perfect candidate for leg salvage,” Dr. Gupta told us confidently the morning after we arrived at the hospital. “Years ago, with an injury this severe, we would have had to amputate before bringing you home. Since the beginning of the war, however, we’ve learned a lot about the injuries coming out of there. You’re going to be a bit of a guinea pig, Lance Corporal, but we have some of the best doctors in the world. We’ll take good care of you.”
The words “guinea pig” made me feel uncomfortable, but by the looks of his leg, he was lucky to have a chance to keep it at all. Most of the soft tissue had been blown off of his calf and his tibia and fibula were shattered. All of it was wrapped in a see-through cellophane type plastic that was suctioned to the remains of his leg, which seemed to be holding in unnerving amounts of blood. His thigh was also broken in multiple places, but doctors in Germany placed a rod in it before he was sent back to the states.
I stroked his head and stared at his dilated pupils and flushed cheeks. I was high on lack of sleep and adrenaline from driving through the night, and he was high on the Dilaudid he was given for pain.
“Thanks Doc, I don’t care what you have to do, I just wanna keep it. I can’t lose my leg.” Cleve looked down at his 6’2” body. His toes and foot drooped forward, cold and crusted with blood and dead skin.
“I understand, Lance Corporal. We’re going to do the best we can to keep it. You should be in surgery in a few weeks, and if everything goes as planned, you should be out of bed and in physical therapy a month or so after surgery.”
When Dr. Gupta left the room, Cleve flopped his head to the side to face me. He looked scared, the unnatural size of his pupils drowning the familiar brown.
“You’re a lucky guy, babe,” I said, forcing a smile. “They’re going to fix this and you’ll be walking again soon. You’ve survived the worst part.” I brought his hand to my lips and kissed his fingernails. “Take a nap. Everything’s going to be okay.” This was the first of many times I would comfort him with similar lies.
Cleve was taken into surgery three weeks later, just after sunrise. I sat in the corner of his room and watched as two nurses rolled his bed, his sedated body, away from me. Alone now, my eyes scanned his room. The lamp in the far corner filled the room with a soft light, fighting the harshness of the rising sun in the window. A blinking computer screen. Beep, beep, beeps coming from the hallway. The smell of iodoform and antiseptic. An empty space where my husband used to be.
In the words of a lady we would encounter months later, post-surgery Cleve looked “like he had elephantiasis.” He took her comment arguably well. He smiled, lifted his hand, gave her the middle finger, and didn’t talk about it again. I, on the other hand, was pissed.
“Some people need to learn when to keep their bullshit thoughts to themselves!” I said in her direction. I talked about it for weeks.
The truth is, I saw what she saw. His leg bulged in places no leg should bulge, and it was the color of suffocating flesh — blue and purple and white. I thought it looked more like it had been wrapped in raw chicken, however, skin side up. It didn’t bleed from any one wound, the entire thing was a wound and bled out all over. He had metal rods about a half an inch thick boring into his flesh and attaching what we later knew as a “halo,” which circled around the outside of his leg, reminiscent of steel beams holding together a bridge, to the pieces of his shattered bones. Before his injury, I would have said that a wound like his would make me queasy, but that was never the case. My gut reaction to his being hurt was to do whatever I could to fix him, and that was the end of it.
Cleve’s nurses eventually taught me to clean his wound. Sometimes the holes around the pins oozed pus and needed to be cleaned with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water, and the entire wound, which spanned from his ankle to his knee, needed to be re-wrapped with gauze at least once a day.
A few weeks after Cleve’s surgery, his leg seemed to be healing, but Dr. Gupta was worried about blood flow. He had taken a piece of Cleve’s right latissimus muscle and attached it to his calf to replace the tissue that had been blown off. Dr. Gupta had to stitch together many tiny veins from the remaining pieces of his leg to the muscle flap, and if they didn’t work properly, the tissue would die and Cleve would be forced to amputate.
To test the circulation of the newly constructed leg, the doctor had Cleve sit up in his hospital bed and lower his leg to the ground. Each time they lowered it, his leg turned bluish-purple and blood dripped out of random areas, collecting in a glassy crimson puddle on the floor. It was called venous congestion, and it wasn’t a good sign. But according to Dr. Gupta, there was still time for improvement.
“I’m gonna start calling you stink foot,” I said as I cleaned the pus from around Cleve’s wound. I’d gone through a stack of Q-tips. The dirty ones were piled on a brown paper towel on his bedside table.
“Awe, that’s fucked up,” he said laughing. He propped himself up to watch what I was doing. “I hope it gets better soon. I’m ready to get out of this damn bed. I’m sick of looking at this room.”
“Don’t blame you. Let’s talk to the doctor about getting you into a wheelchair or something. Seems mental health has to count for something too, ya know?”
“Yeah, ‘cause I’m ‘bout lose my mind. It would be real nice to breathe in some fresh air.” He looked through the window for a moment then pointed to the pink tub of soapy water the nurse left next to his bed.
“Can you sponge me? I’m crusty.”
“Sponge you? And crusty. You’re so gross. Nerd.”
I finished cleaning his leg, balled up the Q-tips in the paper towel, and threw them in the trash next to the bathroom.
“I would sponge myself, but my leg might fall off.”
“Right… This whole leg thing is just a ploy to get sponge baths for the rest of your life,” I said. “Yes, I’ll sponge you. I just need to wrap your leg first. Where’s the gauze?”
“I’ve got it” He pulled a roll of tightly wound gauze from under his sheet and handed it to me.
I sat on the bottom edge of his bed and wrapped his leg cautiously, weaving the gauze between the pins, careful not to touch the wound. I was afraid of hurting him, though he claimed most of it felt numb. When the gauze ran out, I made sure it was secure by tucking it inside of itself.
That evening we spoke with Dr. Gupta about getting Cleve out of bed. The next morning he brought a wheelchair. I sat in the corner of the hospital room video recording Cleve’s first ride. He hopped on one leg to his new mode of transportation, and his doctor and a nurse strapped his wounded leg flat in front of him on a piece of wood so it wouldn’t bleed out. Once in, they moved his chair around a bit to make sure it worked properly.
“Alright, you’re ready to go,” Dr. Gupta turned to look at me, “Ms. Kinsey, don’t push him too fast, now.” Cleve and I had different last names. We thought if I was going to change my name to his, it needed to be after a proper wedding, something we wanted to have after he was out of the hospital. But most people who were military affiliated always forgot. To them, I wasn’t Karie Fugett. I was Ms. Kinsey. I didn’t mind being called that, though. I liked knowing that others knew I was his.
“Got it,” I replied, determined to seem unfazed like the girl I saw in the hallway.
I turned the video recorder off and positioned myself behind Cleve, pushing my weight into the handlebars and leading him out the door of his room.
When we reached the hospital’s lobby, just before the main entrance that lead outside, a young man missing every limb but his left arm rolled toward us in a wheelchair being pushed by someone who looked to be his father. The wheelchairs’ wheels nearly touched when Cleve lifted his hand for a high five.
“Looking good, man,” Cleve said.
Their hands met with a loud clap. The young man’s body jolted to the opposite side with the contact; he had to catch himself with his one arm before falling out of the chair. His dad stopped pushing and leaned forward to steady his son. The young man continued smiling, one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen.
“It’s a good day to be alive,” he said.
“Hell yeah it is,” Cleve said over his shoulder.
We turned the corner and made our way outside. D.C. was in full bloom and I couldn’t wait to share it with him.
I kissed the top of his head. “I can’t wait to show you the cherry blossoms.”
Cleve got another year out of that leg before it had to be amputated. We had been living back at Camp Lejeune for a couple of months when he had to fly back to Bethesda for a routine check-up. The doctors found infection in his bones. He called me crying from his hospital bed as soon as he got the news.
Part of me was relieved for him. By this time, I had seen men with legs missing, fancy robotic ones in their place. They were more mobile than Cleve and seemed to be in less pain. His leg had become burdensome. He couldn’t get around without a wheelchair or crutches, and he had a pic line to his heart so that we could adhere to his strict antibiotic schedule from home. Often, we had to take a bag of medication with us while running errands, carrying it around while attached to him. More often we opted to stay home.
There was also so much pain. He was always in pain; it was relentless. And after taking pain medication every day for so long, he was showing signs of addiction. He had become pale and sweaty and had gained so much weight that he was hardly recognizable, a young body deteriorating before its time. He certainly didn’t seem to be getting healthier, and I wondered if a leg wasn’t a fair price to end his suffering. I wanted him back to the masculine, energetic Cleve I’d known since I was thirteen. I was upset that he was upset, but at that point, I was not concerned about him losing a leg.
I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when he called, but I remember imagining him as he wept for his broken body. He was sitting in the room, his right leg folded under his left thigh, his left leg dangling from the bed and dripping blood into a growing puddle on the floor, his tears streaming down the hand that held his cellphone to his ear. Though I wasn’t there, it is vivid. The room in my memory was florescent-white, his body a dark figure hovering in the light — alone in grief.
“They’re gonna take my leg,” he said, defeated. “They have to fucking cut off my leg.”
His voice cracked with soft whimpering and wet, heavy breaths. Suddenly I didn’t want it for him anymore.
“I’m coming,” I said. “We’ll get through this.”
From the day he was first injured until the day of his amputation, I had done a fair job, despite my lack of life experience, of keeping calm, of being the strong one. I would remind myself that he was the wounded one, the one in pain; I had no reason to cry, so I never did.
When his surgery was complete, I walked to his room and stood in the doorway, staring at the sheet covering his legs. He was sleeping, and I found myself afraid to walk up to him, afraid to see him literally broken, to be forced to accept that all of it – the war, the wounds, the hospital — had been real and would continue to be real.
The nurse walked past me and into his room and began taking his vitals. As she checked his blood pressure, his left leg shimmied past the sheet, peaking into the summer afternoon light that filled the room from the widows. The unfamiliar body part, I was afraid to name it, was out in the open, his foot nowhere to be found. I was later told to call it a stump, a word I would never feel comfortable saying.
The empty space below his knee sucked the air out of my body until I was empty, too. And then I was running in the opposite direction. It was too permanent, too official. His foot was gone. It was just fucking gone.
I grasped at the hospital’s beige walls to keep myself upright as the tears clouded my vision. Posters and well-wishes from people around the country scattered the walls and flew past in a red, white, and blue blur. I made it back to the waiting room where I cried in a ball on the floor until my body couldn’t spare anymore tears.
I don’t remember how long it took — five minutes, an hour — but I finally pulled myself together and went back to his room. This time, I went straight to his bed and put my hand on his. He squeezed my hand and opened his eyes.
“Hi,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. “How are you?”
“Alright.” He looked down and pulled his new leg from the sheet. “It’s not as weird as I thought it would be.” He wiggled it in the air. Unexpectedly, we laughed.
“It’s kinda cute,” I said. “Is that weird?”
We were silent for a moment, surveying the new shape of his body.
“Hey. Did you see me in here earlier by any chance?”
“No. I’ve been dozing in and out. They have me on the good stuff.”
“Lay with me.” He motioned with both arms for me to come to him.
Carefully, he moved to the side and pulled down the sheet. I crawled in next to him and nestled my face into his bare chest.
“No turning back now,” he whispered.
“Good,” I replied, pulling him in tighter, not realizing the depth of the truth of his words.
We thought he survived the worst that day, convinced that nothing could be graver than losing a limb. But we would soon find out that his leg would not be his only loss. My only loss.