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On Loss, and Compassion

My uncle was 37 when he lost his legs.

The sight of him hobbling across the asphalt driveway

and into our house,

his salt-and-pepper hair slicked back,

an up-to-no-good smirk

breaking across his tanned, round face,

delivered upon me a jolt of anticipation. 

What novel experience or juicy story

would come our way this time?


I remember the worn Maxwell House coffee can

Uncle Bob employed as a chewing tobacco spittoon. 

He placed it prominently at the base

of my father’s favorite chair.   

My mother squirmed at the sight

of his spitting interludes, but

I marveled at his precision –

the way he tilted his head from a sitting position,

and sputtered those big, brown, stinky

gobs of tobacco juice straight as a bullet into the can,

as if he had fastidiously practiced

how to spit in an unbroken line without

spraying, or slobbering, or drooling.

It made me want to go outside and spit

at stones or daisies,

to reach Uncle Bob’s level of accuracy.


I laughed at his bold requests of food from my mom. 

We’d be sitting around the living room

talking about the relatives in Meadville,

when out of nowhere, he’d interject,

“Hey, Mary, do you have any limburger?” 

My mother knew he liked a thick slather

of limburger cheese on rye bread,

with raw onions and mustard. 

It was only a matter of time before he would ask,

and she was always ready to meet the moment. 


My uncle was dependably mischievous.

But he also had a stern side.

The gruff way he spoke to Aunt Thelma, his wife,

like you would hear someone address a servant. 

The air of disapproval he exerted with his son, Bobby. 

And the drifting movement of his eyes,

into the distance,

in the manner of one secretly perturbed.


We all have unexpected losses of various magnitudes:

a miscarriage, a blown job interview,

a car accident, maybe a house fire.

Or not being able to hear in one ear.

Enslaved African-Americans lost their abducted children.

Native Americans lost their land, and way of life.


Watching Uncle Bob as a young boy,

his loss seemed inconceivable to me. 

Out in the country where I grew up,

we jumped to the ground from the hay loft of our neighbor’s barn,

leapt from the top of the Silver Bridge into Black Creek,

swung from the Old Willow on a rope.


I figured I probably would sink into depression

if I couldn’t jump or run – or play hockey

in our expansive back yard, when the creek froze over.


I was introduced to loss, in part, by

watching my uncle navigate a life without legs,

seeing the way life goes on, and yet differently.

Observing his tamped-down bitterness,

as if he needed to blame someone,

or something, for

his unanticipated heartache.


What do you do with a loss?

You want to get even?  Make things right?

That’s just being honest.


Uncle Bob’s adjustments

Impressed my youthful awareness:

He used canes to get around,

to turn on lights, and open the fridge.

Brake and gas handles were custom-fitted

to the steering wheel of his old Cadillac

so he could drive using only his hands.


It wasn’t until decades later, after my uncle died,

that cousin Bobby told me the details:

His dad was a railroad brakeman.

As he did every morning, Uncle Bob gave the signal

to the engineer that the train was ready to move.

As the cars creaked, lurching slowly forward,

he took a step up. 

That November day, the step was covered

with spilled oil, and a thin layer of ice. 

He slipped, and fell on the tracks. 

One moving freight car, and then another, and another –

six cars in all – ran over my uncle’s legs,

each pulling him under a little more than the one before.

An ambulance rushed him

to Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren, OH. 

By the time his wife and eight-year-old Bobby

made the drive from Meadville,

Uncle Bob was in the middle of a 12-hour surgery. 


He awoke the next day to discover

he had no knees and no feet. 

Hearing that, imagining that moment,

brought me to tears,

and years later, I cried again,

The day I saw Uncle Bob limping

down the Church aisle,

a surprise guest at the funeral

Of my brother, Jimmy.


A long rehab followed. 

Aunt Thelma and Bobby

would take the train to visit him

at the Kessler Institute in New Jersey,

where his prosthetic legs were sized.

His new legs were wooden, and light tan. 

They attached to his thighs

with leather straps and buckles. 

A thick, white cloth that looked like a knit hat

kept the buckles from rubbing against his skin.

I know all this because,

when Jimmy and I were ten,

Uncle Bob asked, “Do you want to see my stubs?” 

Oh, the young are so curious!

He sat on the bed and removed his tapered prosthetics.

He let us thump on his wooden legs

just to hear the echo.

Those fake legs were so slippery

that his socks wouldn’t stay up, so, every morning,

Aunt Thelma thumb-tacked the top of my uncle’s socks

to his hollow, wooden limbs. 

We saw the thumb tack perforations with our own eyes.


Summers, when Uncle Bob drove three hours

to pay us visits,

he usually arrived empty-handed,

except for a six-pack of Rolling Rock Beer. 

My mother kept track of his meager offerings,

succumbing to an assumption

of her poor, Sicilian upbringing:

“When you visit, you come bearing food.”

I thought at the time that she didn’t understand.


I know there is a midpoint somewhere

Between pretending a loss didn’t happen,

And giving it too much attention.

Even as a kid, I saw the murkiness of it.

But this was Uncle Bob,

and he had been through a lot.


What my uncle’s legless life

taught me is that I don’t know what it’s like

For the one who takes the hit  –

Their pain, their fear and loneliness,

their ache for justice and retaliation.

So, I want to be careful of making

someone’s else’s loss a small deal.

In the end, I’m left with compassion,

Respecting what it might be like to be them,

Even though I don’t know.

Reminding myself, at the very least,

to cut them a break.



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