Many of us moms have keepsake books for our babies' first year of life - we keep track of a baby's many "firsts." Things like his first tooth or her first haircut. Soon enough, it's that precious first step and the first birthday party.
Yet, there's another type of "first" that is usually not so joyful.
Those of us who have suffered tragic losses have kept track of things like the "first Christmas since...," the "first birthday, Mother's Day or Father's Day since...," or the "first vacation without her." Then there is the first night in a lonely bed and the first time coming home to an empty house. Finally, we honor the first anniversary of his/her death.
The "firsts" surrounding our babies' births are usually sweet. The "firsts" surrounding a loss of life are mostly sad, or bitter.
My unexpected turn in life creates a more complicated type of "first" that is both bitter and sweet. Though I am still mourning the loss of my hands and feet, I am also rejoicing at the blessings of my "new" life, a life that was saved. And, while I hate that I can't do things the way I once did, the "firsts" that I experience are accomplishments and thus celebrations.
For example, going to the beach can be difficult for me because I can no longer enjoy an early morning run when my breaths and my footfalls match the back-and-forth cadence of the waves crashing on sand. The same sand that squished between my toes while the sun warmed my skin.
At the same time, I can now experience the beach with a newfound joy. I am incredibly grateful to smell the salty air and feel the majestic breeze as it blows through my hair. On my "first family vacation since...," I did not get to build sand castles. I sat and watched more. But I did build new family memories. And I also took my "first" walk on the beach. I took my husband's hand in mine, and I walked along the shore.
Once a year, The Amputee Coalition, a national organization that supports and advocates for amputees, holds an educational, experiential, and social meeting for amputees and those that care for us (prosthetists, physical therapists, and loved ones). It's called The Amputee Coalition Conference.
I've been told about these annual conferences again and again over the past two years. I've heard that they are "experiences of a lifetime" and that "you have to go at least once!"
The Amputee Coalition Conferences are held in go-to destination cities like Phoenix, Vegas, and Chicago, to name a few. While surfing the net, I discovered that the 2016 conference was scheduled to be held in Greensboro, North Carolina at the Sheraton!
Greensboro would not only be a convenient locale; it would be affordable! This was it! My time had come!
I registered early, partly to get the early-bird discount, but also to ensure that I wouldn't lose my nerve. It was fairly intimidating to jump into a new social arena; I'd always been a bit reserved, and that was when I had two feet!
I tried but failed to find a roommate so I could split the social, physical, and financial costs; but, in the end, I invited my eldest daughter Caroline to join me for the endeavor. (See Road Trip.)
Accompanied by my nine-year-old sidekick who doubled as my personal assistant, I made the quick and blessedly uneventful hour and a half drive to Greensboro and arrived on schedule.
As we pulled in to the hotel parking lot, my daughter pointed and proclaimed, "Mom, there's an amputee! And there's another one! He has a prosthetic leg, just like you!" Stealing her thunder and degrading her observant comment, I told her, "Caroline, you're going to see a lot of 'them.' It's an amputee conference!"
It was in that moment that, with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I was convicted. And the evidence was obvious - I am one of 'them.' I am an amputee, and I belong here at this conference.
Oftentimes, this whole ordeal seems unreal to me. I'll wake up in the morning, fully expecting to look under the covers to see my hands and feet. But other times (like in this particular moment), it hits me. It slaps me in the face, actually. And I know, without a doubt, that I am an amputee.
The fact sunk in more and more over the course of the weekend. And it began to settle in my stomach rather than just lay there in a pit.
For the "first" time, I felt like I belonged to the group of people who call themselves "amputees." I shared more with them than what we were missing.
I attended some incredibly interesting and relevant educational sessions - sessions about the body image struggles of an amputee, the grief process for an amputee, and the newly available technology that is improving our lives by the day.
Just as I had hoped, I made some great contacts at the conference, networking with folks who could help me professionally and personally. I went to a "welcome reception" for amputees from North Carolina, so I met some "locals" who are doing amazing things. In seeing all the great things that other amputees are doing, I became excited, inspired and hopeful about a future where I can help people of all different abilities through my speaking and writing.
In addition to business contacts, I also met some wonderful new girlfriends who "get" my everyday struggles and frustrations - some of which are universal and human, but many of which are complicated by this thing labeled "disability." These women can relate to the love/hate relationship I have with my prosthetics (and my prosthetists), the jealousy I feel towards people who are "able," and the corresponding guilt I have for feeling jealous at all.
My new friends share in the circle of grief that I am constantly traveling - one step forward and two steps back, in one direction or the other. And they understand how the ordinary things in life (getting or keeping a job, being a parent, driving a car) become extraordinary when you're disabled - extraordinary in difficulty but also in the feelings of pride in your accomplishment. Though I may not see these ladies until next year or even later, I know they'll be forever friends.
Perhaps the best part of the conference was that I got to try so many new things, as well as some old things that I tried in a whole new way. I would never have tried such things on my own; but, with this crowd, I felt as if anything was possible. I was surrounded, encouraged, supported, and challenged.
We swam laps in the hotel pool, trained by an Olympic medalist who later became a Paralympic medalist when he lost his leg.
We learned to line dance, mamba, shag, and even hula hoop!
We even took turns rock-climbing; the line of us wanting to give it a shot wrapped around the Sheraton Greensboro during a summer heatwave.
We weren't climbing walls to prove anything, either. We were simply having FUN, feeling normal. We laughed - with each other, at each other, and at ourselves. We swam, we walked, we danced. We ran, we climbed, we SOARED!
For the first time, I was proud to be called an "amputee."
It was my first Amputee Coalition Conference. Of many.