ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The incision is considerable, slicing across the spine of the scapula and diverging at the balled end of what would be the humerus like a Y, like a fork in the road, each path barbed with suture and staple.
Muscles are bundled in small, soft sacks where my dog’s right front leg should be.
Yet the first thing I notice in that emotional moment as he emerges from the veterinary recovery room is a large shaved patch of flesh where the amputation was performed.
I am distracted from the lack of leg by the lack of fur, a safety mechanism my mind employs to soften the blow from the shock, to let the brutality of reality sink in a little slower. Once while researching a story on autopsies, I was distracted by the weeds tangled in the hair of a teenage girl who had been flung out of a car into a ravine before I took in the sight of her lying splayed open on a stainless steel dissection table.
So here was my dog Chako, a beautiful, muscular creature, alive but now reduced by a leg. He hopped slowly to where I stood, still groggy, whining softly, tail weakly wagging. He looked sad, almost apologetic. But maybe that was me.
I had imagined this moment, imagined what it would be like to see him different and bereft of an appendage since the day he escaped the yard and was found shivering and curled in a ball across the road on a rare snowy morning in March. We thought he had hypothermia.
But hours later, when he remained listless and his leg could not hold him, we knew this was something worse. Emergency veterinarians said he had likely been hit by a car, given the internal damage. That would heal, they said.
But his leg had been pulled so far back that it had been torn from the brachial plexus, a bundle of nerves near the armpit that controls the leg’s functioning. It was almost certainly a permanent paralysis, they said. If no miraculous improvement occurred in a couple of months, amputation was the best solution to prevent the leg from becoming injured and infected and a weighty, useless hazard to the rest of him.
That was the same conclusion reached by each of the six vets I consulted. Those vets and dozens of friends assured me that Chako, who turned 1 this month, would lead a healthy, active life sans leg. Dogs, they told me, are born with three legs and a spare. They adapt. They don’t care if they’re different; they care if they’re loved.
I got that. And still, the decision to do away with the bum leg was a hard one – harder than I would have expected. Certainly, no one wants to see a loved one undergo a trauma, whether that loved one has two legs or four. But there was something more to my intense amputation angst, and as I pondered my aversion to what everybody told me was best for Chako, I began to realize that this was not about the leg but about my head. This was not about his discomfort but mine.
We Americans are funny about how we view disabilities. Things that are not like us we often fear or shun because we don’t understand. Even those of us who think we are so open-minded shun persons with disabilities in a different way – by looking away, pretending everything is normal because we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. But we cannot accept one another’s differences if we do not acknowledge them.
One in five Americans is disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We have much to acknowledge. And as my friends with disabilities have taught me, being disabled means being able but in a different way. It means learning to adapt, to accept, to get on with it.
Chako has already gone on with it, and he’s taught me to get on with it, too. Leave it to a dog to teach this old human new tricks. The morning after I brought him home from surgery, his grogginess and pain had subsided, and there he was, jumping up onto the bed and giving me slobbery kisses, his tail wagging furiously.
My hand felt the concavity of his right torso, the new space beneath him where a scabbed and bloated and lifeless limb once hung. This is who he is now, still jumping and running and getting where he wants to go and still utterly and completely loved. He has already learned to adapt, and I am learning to accept.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.