(November 1, 1945)
I spent a long morning listening to Mama read from Mr. Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. I don’t really much like the novel- I’m not sure I understand it all, but Mama seems to think that any banned book must be worth reading, so we are reading it.
“Too much is missed or lost by inattention and fear, Ari,” she told me. “Don’t miss the world, no matter what the world does to you.”
So, I spent a long morning listening to Mama read and now Dr. Chow and Uncle Liam have come to lunch with us. Uncle Liam has brought a picnic basket containing some kind of bean and brandy stew- Great Aunt Lil made it for us- a fresh loaf of bread and some sweet cider. I get the idea that this lunch- this meal, with the adults so key in my life, must be important. This meal is when they will tell me how my life will go on from here- this meal is when they will tell me all that I will never do by telling me what little I will. For once, I am at ease waiting for knowledge. I eat and I write with my chalk and tablet of how well I feel and I laugh- a strange hissing laugh with no tone- I laugh at my uncle’s overdone silliness that is meant to cheer me and I wait for the adults to share their secrets in their own good time.
Too soon, the meal and its forced jovial atmosphere is gone and Dr. Chow begins, “Ari, dear Ari, I want to show you something,” he says as he rolls up his shirt cuffs and moves to sit next to me on the bed. “Do you see these thin scars?” he asks, pointing his long, squared off fingers at the insides of his wrists where I can see straight, white lines across his skin just at the place where his hands connect to his arms.
Yes, I mouth and he nods to acknowledge that he saw my word.
“When I was just a small boy back in Sichuan Province, I suffered these great injuries to my wrists. My mother’s people had a farm and we were visiting there because she was to bear my brother San in days or weeks and she wished to be with her mother when her time came. My father was a surgeon in the city, in Chongqing. Being a small and curious boy I ran and played among the tools my uncles used to farm the land. Even though I was chased back to my mother and grandmother each time I was found among the scythes and plows, I soon returned to explore that which was forbidden. I was fascinated by the great metal claws that dug into the earth.
“One day, just a few days before my brother was born- Father was there- one day, as I was playing near my uncles’ new plow, the horse was scared- spooked- and he bolted. My hands were all but cut from my arms by the plow as it skated over my wrists. I nearly died from the bleeding- much as you were weakened by your blood being so low when you arrived here. It was a great, lucky accident that my father was there on that day. He sutured my hands back on- skin and tendon and muscle- and in time, after a long time, I was able to use them as if my injury had never happened.
“I tell you this so that you can know that from your injuries you may find your way- find a life that is good for you. I might not have followed my father into the practice of medicine if he had not done that miraculous thing to save my hands. You may find that- in time- this loss you have suffered will bring you to pursue a life better and more than the one you anticipated. I do hope that that is to be the case for you.”
I gave him the best smile I could manage for I knew that he was right- I would find a life different than I had ever expected, but it didn’t have to be a bad life. I picked up the small chalk and tablet I used to communicate my wants, wrote Thank you, and showed it to him.
(November 14, 1945)
I’m going home this morning, delayed because of fever. Two weeks of fever and ice baths have left me unsure of my body. It aches and swells in strange and unexpected places. My skin itches as if it were too tight. I have odd dreams- half remembered revelations featuring the Tree and Mama- shooting lightning from her eyes- and my dead father- who I only know from the photograph Mama has in her room- and Nat- always Nat. I dream Nat laughing and singing and shining in the autumn sun at the Shade, Nat pointing a revolver at me, at the Tree, at my dead father, Nat apologizing for hurting me, for his lies, for my father’s death. I awake questioning what was dreamt and what was remembered.
But this morning, I wake not remembering any dreams of the night before. Mama is here very early to see about packing my things and settling our accounts. She returns from the billing office with a smile she can’t keep from her face and I can guess whom she saw in the corridor somewhere between there and here because he is the one thing that causes that certain smile on her. I ask her- write to her, And, how is Dr. Chow this morning?
She smiles a bit larger and answers, “Generous,” but does not tell me more than that. An hour later, we are on our way back to the Shade.
The odd twittering in the pit of my belly that has always happened when I come home is more comfort than most everything offered for that purpose over the last few weeks. The world is cold and crackles under the wheels of Dr. Chow’s automobile. The kindness he has shown us at the hospital has extended to escorting us home. He refused to take no for an answer once he’d heard that we had planned to take a bus to West Stratford proper where Uncle Liam was to meet us with the old cider wagon. Dr. Chow plays the radio and my mother, beside him in the front seat, bobs her head along with Duke Ellington. I sit in the wide rear seat of the sedan and wonder how it would have felt if my father had lived beyond my infancy.
Dr. Chow drives the car right up next to the front door of the house so that getting me inside will not cause us more than a short chill. Uncle Liam comes out and helps Mama get me settled in the sitting room by the fireplace with a thick blanket across my lap and a warm cup of tea- hustled out from the kitchen by Great Aunt Lil. Then Uncle Liam disappears a few minutes as Mama and Dr. Chow say goodbye. Dr. Chow promises to return and check on his favorite girl soon- although I’m not sure to whom he is making the promise- Mama I think. Uncle Liam returns with a large wooden box and places it at my feet.
“Time to get you back on your feet, Ari,” he tells me and opens the box to reveal a wooden leg. “Made it myself,” he murmurs and stands it up in front of my chair where the rest of my one leg would have been.
“Liam, you push too hard,” Mama scolds him, but she doesn’t make him put it away and she smiles at his way of ignoring her. He always ignores her when he thinks he knows what’s right. Most of the time he is right- or right enough. I wonder if that is how they’ve always been- the bossy older sister and the stubborn little brother.
“Now, mind you I haven’t quite worked out how to secure it comfortably, but I just want to try it for height,” he says as he pulls the blanket from my lap and offers me his hands to help me stand. It is hard to make my one leg do all the work that two used to, especially since the whole leg has done no work at all for weeks but, with help from both Uncle Liam and Mama, I stand. The place where my shortened leg ends is perhaps two inches above the top of the carved leg.
“It’s a bit short,” Mama says sounding disappointed.
“No, no, it’s perfect. I left space for padding and a shoe at the bottom,” Uncle Liam reassures us.
Just at that moment- while I stand with my half leg hovering over my new fake one- my hope of being able to take care of myself- Great Aunt Lil comes in with a plate of tarts. She sees what we are doing, exclaims something, sets down the tarts and retreats upstairs. I am getting very tired and I let my weight sag backwards. Mama and Uncle Liam lower me back into the chair. Coming home has made me stronger. I feel it- I wouldn’t have been able to stand that long just this morning, but it is not enough. It makes me sad to feel so weak.
“It’s all right, baby,” Mama tells me.
“Yes, you’ve had a hard day,” Uncle Liam agrees and they resettle me with blanket and tea and tart.
Ten minutes after that, I am dozing with full-belly, fire warmth. Mama and Uncle Liam are seeing to odds and ends around the house and orchard and Great Aunt Lil comes down from upstairs with a bundle of thick canvas clutched in her hand and takes the fake leg from its box beside my chair. She pulls a small hammer and some tacks from her apron and attaches the canvas to the top of the leg with them. Then she coaxes me to my feet- when she tugs at my arms I think I can feel her strength seeping into me and making it easier to rise. Once I am upright, she kneels before me, fits my stump into the canvas, pulls it up my leg and cinches it like a girdle. She mutters a few words that I know are meant to encourage me and gently pulls me forward. I keep my weight on my whole leg and slide the wooden leg forward. It slips some, but Lil catches me. I shift my weight and baby step forward with my good leg. My balance is all wrong and I have only made the tiniest journey from my chair, but I can’t help laughing- my strange hissing laugh- with how happy this makes me.
I am walking!
Great Aunt Lil holds my hands to help me. She keeps speaking the same encouraging words over and over like a poem or a song or an incantation. After another five steps, I grow too weary and Great Aunt Lil all but carries me back the three feet to the chair. Then, she leans in and presses a kiss on my forehead. She whispers something hushed and secretive to me- as if it is the meaning of life and maybe it is- but I cannot understand the words. Something about how she says it makes me want to hold it- both her words and my victorious steps on my wooden leg- something makes me want to keep them hushed and secret, too.
The next day, Uncle Liam takes the leg out from its box and finds the canvas fitting on it. He asks me how it came to be like that, but I don’t say a word.