"You have a fake leg because of a firework," my five-year-old nephew says, as if he’s breaking the news to me for the first time. To put it more eloquently, when I was 14, a professional-grade firework landed at my feet and immediately blew off the majority of my right leg and a few chunks of my left at my hometown’s Fourth of July celebration.
After the blast, I had to tell my mom that my leg was "gone." She didn’t believe me, even though she was kneeling right there beside me. That’s how powerful a mechanism shock can be: You can be looking at a foot dangling off only by its skin and think everything is cool. After a 10-day stint in the hospital and a slightly unmemorable couple of months on a cocktail of painkillers, I began to heal. People I was both close to and awkwardly distant from came to show their support. I watched myself on the news and saw my photo in the paper. I also clearly remember my oldest brother and me picking gunpowder out of my arm once I was back at home — the same brother who took off his shirt and belt to tie around my leg to stop the bleeding. Thanks to the honorable people at Shriner’s Hospital, I was fitted for a prosthesis. It was an oversized, yellow-toned leg that looked like it belonged to Homer Simpson rather than a four-foot-eleven, pale, freckled girl. When I saw it, I cried for the first time as an amputee. I thought my new leg would look just like the one it was supposed to replace. Learning how to walk on it was the hardest thing I have ever been through in my life. The fact that I was learning how to do something that was intuitive when I was a toddler, when most of my friends were entering high school, was numbing. And yet, I was learning how to walk next to children who were permanently paralyzed and would most likely never have that chance again. It gave me perspective. Back in the real world, I began to experience people’s reactions to my new physical status. There are typically two ways people react to my story. Either they tell me that I’m so strong and that they’d kill themselves if it happened to them, or they want to know how much money I got from the settlement. For the record, yes, I received a settlement, but money doesn't erase all the struggles I have faced as an amputee, nor the obstacles I'll continue to endure. I wish I could tell you the right way to respond to finding out a person is missing a limb, but I’m still trying to figure that out myself. My best advice is to be sympathetic, but stop trying so hard to make it sound like something amazing came out of it. That’s an effort that helps you cope, not me.
For years after the accident, I found myself taking care of other people’s feelings rather than my own. Everyone was crying and torn up, and I had to tell them I was going to be okay. Then I became their hero for "handling it so well," and I was trapped in a narrative where I was a strong, one-legged, wheelchair-bound heroine. For years, I refused to grieve properly. I was fine. Everything was fine. And I wouldn’t take any time to reflect on what exactly happened to me until the middle of college, when it felt too late to dwell and my family, it seemed, had moved on. For a decade, I hid from the world every year when Independence Day arrived. Eventually, I started to treat myself and stayed in a hotel with a spa to Zen out, still hiding from social media and the rest of reality. Last year, for the first time, I finally felt comfortable enough to be social and invited friends to celebrate with a little hot tubbing in a beach house. And this year, I went to Palm Springs. But I still avoid fireworks. My family celebrates the Fourth of July now, and it feels like a betrayal. They can be over it, but I don’t have that privilege. On the days when I’m feeling down, fashion helps. When I dress up and honor my own sense of style, I don’t feel like a crippled girl, I feel like an empowered woman who happens to be missing a limb. The prosthetic leg that lets me wear heels makes it so my disability works for me, and not the other way around. If I wear a cute pair of pumps, people stare at those instead of my leg. What I choose to wear gives me power to represent who I am, not what somebody else’s negligence has made me to be.
I am both humbled and offended when friends, family members, and strangers tell me that I inspire them. That might seem strange, but let me explain. When I continue to live my life as an amputee and suffer the physical and emotional adversity that I go through on a daily basis (including phantom pain), I am not doing it so you can feel better for having all your limbs and mobility. I’m not here so you can feel blessed in comparison. But if my positive attitude and desire to accomplish my dreams help you get out of bed every day because you acknowledge the strength it takes for me to do it, then I am grateful to be that person in your life. When I initially thought about writing this story, I was worried about how my future self will feel looking back at this. Will I feel better or worse about my status as an amputee when I become a mom? When I get married? My feelings fluctuate about having one leg, and that’s the reality — I mostly have good days, because it’s not the focus of my life. It’s not all handicap parking spaces and getting into the front of the line at Disneyland. Sometimes, it’s worrying that I won’t be able to walk tomorrow because I have a sore on my stump, or not be able to buy my dream pair of shoes because they’re 4.5 inches tall and I can only wear up to 3.5. But right now, I’m grateful that I am walking again, in heels again, that I was able to pay tuition for a degree in communications and buy a house in San Francisco, and that I have a dream job as a copywriter at Sephora. I’ve also been in a longterm relationship with the most understanding boyfriend of all time. I don’t know if this would be my reality if I hadn’t lost my leg.
So what’s it really like to lose a limb? Initially, it’s shocking and painful. It’s also exhausting: Try living your life every day by putting your leg on every morning and taking it off at night (my dog still freaks out whenever I do this). But, then again, it's — dare I say — amazing, because you learn you can take steps forward on a foreign, uncomfortable apparatus. And then you start to think, What can’t I do? I may not be able to do as much as before, physically, but emotionally I feel invincible.