Phantom Pain

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agpaThere are some tragedies which start out slowly, festering and lingering. However, there are those tragedies that lie in wait, disguised as any other ordinary day; springing up without warning with enough force the reverberations are palpable for every moment that follows. August 26, 1966 was an ordinary day for my grandparents, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Some stories that have passed down through the generations are diluted over the years and since this occurred before I was born, I will retell the events as they have been told to me by my parents, both who played integral roles in the day’s events.
It was late summer in Missouri and I know without anyone saying so that it was hot and humid. It was four-thirty in the afternoon and my dad was bush-hogging at my grandparent’s house. Bush-hogging consists of clearing away tall grass and brush from a field by pulling a ‘bush-hog’ behind a tractor. My grandpa had walked out to the field to warn Dad of a large hole that was obscured by the tall grass. Grandpa was about 100 yards away from where my dad was clearing when the blade from the bush-hog came loose. The blade rocketed through the tall grass just as my grandpa took a step right into its trajectory. As if his leg were made of warm butter, the blade sliced through-shattering flesh, muscle, tendon and bone. In an instant, his right leg was clinging to the rest of him by a narrow piece of flesh and a scrap of his pants.
Unbeknownst to my dad, who was unaware my grandpa was in trouble, Grandpa yelled out for help as his life blood gushed into the earth around him. My mom was in the house and heard Grandpa’s cries for help. She looked out and saw him lying on the ground. She ran to him and found him struggling to get his belt off so he could make a tourniquet. She flipped completely out as each time his heart would beat his severed femoral artery would spray them both with his blood. He grabbed her and told her to calm down. He needed her help. He told her to run to the garage and get him a rope. She ran.
When she returned with the rope, my dad was at Grandpa’s side. The missing blade had eventually caused the bush-hog to rattle and shake. After stopping the tractor, he realized that something was wrong. Dad found a piece of binder twine (thin tough rope used to secure hay bales together) and he made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. In order to get it to stop, Dad had to ratchet it up tightly…very tightly. My mom remembers, “When your dad cinched it up, I will never forget the sound your Grandpa made. It haunts me, that sound. But it stopped. The blood stopped. Your dad saved his life.”
The neighbors called the ambulance and it took Grandpa to a local hospital. My Grandma had about a dozen bouts of hysteria and in the end Grandpa lost his right leg above his knee. He spent 14 days in the hospital. During his hospital stay, a wheelchair ramp was built for him to access his house. Upon his discharge, he was given a set of crutches and a short lesson on how to use them. That was the extent of his physical and occupational therapy. He used the wheelchair ramp a total of one time on the day he came home from the hospital. He used his crutches and eventually a prosthetic wooden leg. Two years after his accident, he returned to work at the lead mines. He wasn’t allowed to go down into the mines with his wooden leg, but he worked topside.
I never knew my grandpa as a two-legged man and it never occurred to me that his wooden leg was anything but normal. Grandpa only completed the sixth grade in school. But he was gentle, humble, wise and tough as nails. He taught me more about history than I ever learned in a classroom and wove outrageous tales that swallowed hook line and sinker. He made me laugh. I made him laugh. He was a World War II hero, but he never told anyone. We found out after he passed through the Veterans Administration. He had an abundance of humility, which is a sign of a true hero.
The part of the story that pains me the most are the months immediately following his accident. It was the phantom pain–the excruciating nerve pain experienced in an amputated body part. The man who fought valiantly for his country, attempted to make a tourniquet for his severed leg, walked away from his wheelchair ramp, and returned to work after his tragic accident—suffering from a pain so intense that it left him writhing in the floor.
I often wondered about this mysterious pain inflicting such torment through a piece of a person that is no longer there. As my parents relayed the details of this tragic day and memories spilled into more memories, it became evident that Grandpa was a part of all of us. His legacy lives through us. Although the memory of his grit, wisdom and integrity live on in our hearts, he is still a physically missing piece of our lives. Although time dulls the sharpness of the pain the dull ache of loss lingers. I guess we all experience a kind of phantom pain when the physical presence of those we love is severed. Sometimes I wonder what pieces of me will linger in the hearts of those I love when I am no longer here.

Some tragedies linger and fester. Some tragedies blow up in your face without warning. But there are those tragedies, like that hot day in August 1966, which are something entirely different… an interlude to life well-lived; just a small piece of a beautiful soul.

2 responses »

  1. First of all, let me say that this is a beautifully written article and thank you for sharing it. Having sat on Grandpa’s lap and knocked on that wooden leg hundreds of times as a kid, it brought back some great memories of some wonderful people who have had a tremendous impact on my life. It probably goes without saying that the fact that both he and your father were Army veterans helped them keep their wits about them in that frantic time and ensure that he lived to make it to the hospital. The issue of phantom pain is intriguing. I remember him saying that sometimes he would feel pain in the foot that wasn’t there anymore. After I graduated college (and after he had passed), I used to call Grandma every week to talk to her. Years after her death, sometimes I would pick up the phone to call her and then remember that she’s no longer there. Nearly two and a half decades after her passing, I still remember the phone number. It’s just a phantom phone number now.

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