Frankenleg

Jennifer Porter

     
   

Our nightmare started like this:

An unfamiliar cell phone number showed on my caller ID. “Hello?”

“Jen.” It was my husband.

He said something like, I’ve done something bad or maybe, stupid. I didn’t say anything, just waited. “My leg’s broken. They’re taking me to St. Joe’s.”

“Don’t go to St. Joe’s. Go to Beaumont.”

“I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t.”

“Here, here’s Neal. I have to go.” My husband sounded weird. I thought he was laughing it off. I would know later that he was in shock.

Neal worked with Bob. Bob was a landscape project manager. He had broken his arm before on the job and arrived home with a cast. I am a former football/lacrosse/wrestling/softball Mom. Emergencies don’t whack me out of shape. We drive to the hospital or the sports medicine doctor, get x-rayed, get booted or casted or wrapped. We already have crutches in all sizes at home. So, I needed to pick up my daughter early from school, and we would go get my husband. Otherwise, school would get out and she’d be stranded. My daughter and I would drive the forty-five minutes south to Pontiac to a hospital I don’t like and pick Bob up. He would hobble out of the hospital on crutches.

“Jennifer, this is Neal. We’re taking Bob to St. Joe’s. We can’t take him to Beaumont, it’s too far away.”

“Who’s taking him?”

“We’re putting him in a truck.”

I imagined him in a pickup truck with a broken leg. It must not be that bad, was what I thought: to get a ride in a pickup truck.

“You can meet us there?”

“Yes, but I have to go get my daughter from school first. Tell him I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I moved quickly, but I didn’t rush. I called the high school and told them I’d be there in twenty minutes and to release my daughter from class.

The weather was terrible. I cannot remember if it was snowing, icy, or pouring rain. I think pouring rain, making it difficult to see through the windshield. People were driving very slowly and it was bordering on rush hour. St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital is on Woodward Avenue in Pontiac. There’s no direct route to this hospital. I was irritated to say the least.

Still twenty minutes out, I get a call from Bob’s boss. He was very agitated that I wasn’t there yet. They were waiting for me to get there to take Bob back into surgery.

“Surgery?”

What the hell was going on?

Somehow, I got enough information to know to hurry, without killing ourselves in a car wreck. I cannot remember parking but I can remember racing with my daughter through the hospital and trying to find my way. It wasn’t easy. We took the wrong elevator. I think the Boss called again as if I could just teleport and get myself there. He made me feel like a bad wife for taking so long, as if I wasn’t responding with enough concern.

Bob was in a hospital bed and the attendant shoved the clipboard in my face and I signed forms. Bob was awake with a stupid smile on his face—a combination of embarrassment, fear, and an annoying tendency the Porter family has of trying to diminish the seriousness of certain situations. That’s why I will call it “stupid.”

Then someone started using words like crushed, 911, ambulance.

And explaining that they had to put his leg back together in surgery.

They shoved into my hands all of his stuff and papers we couldn’t lose while the attendants wheeled him away and my daughter and I said words of encouragement. We had a small plastic bag with his cell phone and ripped apart clothes and a form we needed to recover his wallet from security. They had ripped off all of his clothes, including his new Carhartt insulated overalls. The overalls were in a bigger blue plastic bag that closed with white twine. But his boots weren’t going to fit inside a bag. They’d cut through one of his expensive hunter’s green work boots. Bob wears a size thirteen and the boots were as heavy as bowling balls. He wanted the boots taken home, even though one was destroyed.

So my daughter and I stood there trying to hang onto all of this stuff, this stuff that is so Bob, and trying to understand what was happening. It’s like a swirl in my mind.

And what I remember the most about these moments is my husband worrying and complaining about the loss of the overalls, the boots, and his pocket knife. “My pocket knife should be in there,” I think he said as he went through the operating doors. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll make sure the pocket knife is in there.”

We never did find the pocket knife and the hospital didn’t care about this loss. As if, he was in an accident and oh well, sometimes things get taken or lost. The knife wasn’t with the wallet, at security. This loss of the pocket knife would go on for Bob until I bought him a new one for Christmas. He lamented the loss of that perfect little knife. He wanted to be reimbursed for this loss. He wanted someone to admit they’d lost it and say they were sorry and he wanted it back, whole and in one piece and the exact same pocket knife as he’d had in his pocket when he went to work that morning.

***

The residential landscape company Bob worked for at the time of the accident prided itself on creating Japanese-inspired gardens for the exclusive and discerning customer. One of the things they sold to these customers was massive granite rocks carved then polished into chairs and tables. Think T-Rex fossilized eggs with a right angle sliced away for a slippery, shiny spot to park your ass. I always thought they were pretty cool until one decided to slip out of its straps as my husband was guiding it onto a delivery truck. Luckily for Bob, it was one of the “children’s” chairs (weighing only 1500 pounds rather than a ton or more) that slipped out and rolled over and crushed his left leg from the knee down through the ankle. Yes, crushed as in bones turned primarily into fragments and some bones into bits.

Frankenleg was what I called him when he came home after the first surgery—the one in Pontiac where the surgeon was over seventy years old (no joke) and his hands shook so bad he asked me to remove the dressing so he could inspect Bob’s leg post-surgery. Frankenleg because Bob’s leg and ankle were now held together with metal rods and bolts that the surgeon had inserted from the outside. Gross does not adequately describe how Bob’s leg looked, but Frankenleg does.

Needless to say, the leg was so swollen that surgery by the trembling old guy could not proceed. Swollen legs are not like balloons when you cut them open: the insides spilling out and the balloon deflating. After the opening up, the skin has to be sewn back together—something nearly impossible to do over inflamed masses of tissue.

“Do you want to take him home?” Grandpa Shaky Scalpel asked me and I said, “Hell yes” then spent the next half an hour finding the best available orthopedic trauma surgeon in Southeastern Michigan.

The second surgery—the reconstructive surgery—took 5.5 hours. Two hours over the expected maximum time. But the surgeon came out to the waiting room and explained that he wanted to put Bob’s leg back together all in one shot, and, he said, it was crushed far beyond what he’d guessed.

Frankenleg now has all those bolts and pins and titanium rods inside his leg. He even has a man-made ankle joint. And, he has cadaver bones in there. Cadaver bones, the surgeon said, he wouldn’t hesitate to put inside his own body.

It made me wonder if the leg would haunt Bob with displaced memories or fragments of someone else’s emotions as I’ve heard heart transplant recipients have. Can we store impressions in our bones?

Whenever Frankenleg complained too much about the ordeal of his recovery I always reminded him that during the Civil War, they would’ve just cut his damn leg off and thrown it in a pile. Or, when he was moving that chair, maybe he should have used a machine. Last time I checked, he wasn’t the Incredible Hulk.

***

Lest you think me cruel, let me point out that it was me, and only me, who gently cleaned those bolts and rods sticking out of the leg several times a day for many weeks while we waited for the swelling to go down enough for the second surgery. It was me who checked him all night long and made sure the leg was elevated and in the proper position. It was me who suddenly became Miss Clara Barton: applying compresses, monitoring catheters, getting to know gauze and her friend tape as well as I know the insides of my eyelids. I am a woman who needs a large chart to remember which meds somebody gets and when. The pus and blood and crud that came out of the leg never bothered me, that’s true, but there were some things I had to do for my husband that seem natural when done for one’s child and wholly unnatural when done for one’s husband. Have you seen the Stephen King movie Misery? The woman takes the injured novelist in and then tortures him. Frankenleg was on holiday by comparison.

***

What I found out about my husband whose lower leg was crushed by a rock garden chair is that work is integral to his sense of identity. It’d be like telling a dinosaur to stop being a dinosaur for awhile, be a small bird instead. It drove Bob crazy to not work. He didn’t enjoy the time off. He didn’t enjoy being able to watch every single Tigers game for the entire season for the first time in his life. And it had nothing to do with the struggles of recovery. He wanted to go to work. He missed waking up, dressing, eating his eggs and bacon, packing his lunch then working one of his ten to twelve hour days. I’m not anticipating a happy retirement life for Bob, despite his vocalizations otherwise.

It wasn’t enough for Bob when he was able to scoot around on his scooter and get in my way. He’d sigh audibly every morning from the reclining end of the couch, his leg propped upon a specially made piece of foam. He’d do his treatments—the doctor sent him a machine that sent waves of I-don’t-know-what into his bones to encourage them to grow. He’d try to find a John Wayne movie and wait for the Tigers game. I’d hide in my office, trying to do my work for graduate school and prep for my afternoon tutoring sessions.

I could hear him out in the living room, miserable and restless. “Can you bring me my phone, I forgot it?” Then he’d call someone at work and ask them how the jobs were going. Were they having any problems building that pond for Mrs. So-and-so? How was the rock wall going at the John Does? He relished every phone call that sounded as if the entire company was falling apart without him. He told his colleagues to call him anytime, anytime at all. They did. He kept reminding them he’d be back soon. “I’m coming back to work as soon as the doctor will let me.”

I, on the other hand, foolishly kept expecting an epiphany to come from Bob. Something along the lines of, “I’ve been slaving away all these years and now that this has happened, I can break away from all of that and be someone else.” Or, “I nearly lost my leg, and I’ve come to re-evaluate what is important and significant in my life.”  I mean, the guy has spent the last thirty-three years doing back breaking work, day in and day out.

But what Frankenleg found out, and thus his wife, was that he has to work to exist within the world he has created for himself. He doesn’t feel right in his own skin if he isn’t working full-time (in landscaping this is a 55 hour week minimum). That’s just who he is. When he could finally go back to his chosen field, he was happy again.

It’s hard to come across the permission to be who we need to be, to realize who it is we are and then slide fully into this realization. Frankenleg didn’t come through it unscathed. He limps, he still endures pain, he cannot manually labor as he did before. He gets tired after 50 hours in one week. When he goes to a Detroit Lions game he pays the extra money so he can park closer. But, he doesn’t complain anymore about working.

Not that I would listen.

     
   
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Jennifer Porter lives in metropolitan-Detroit. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, Ray’s Road Review, The Dos Passos Review, Jet Fuel Review, Sling Magazine, Hobo Pancakes, and Apeiron Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in Revolution John and This Zine Will Change Your Life. She earned an MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is the Fiction Editor at The Tishman Review.