He was very matter-of-fact about the injury. Roadside bomb. Shattered femur. A completely reconstructed knee. After it healed, he walked with a cane.

That night, I watched him through the kitchen window, slow and steady, every left step anticipated a moment longer than the right. He headed for the corner of Socorro and Cherry, and I washed the dishes, scrubbing with steel wool, splashing soap onto the backwash. By the time he ambled past the house on his way to the other end, my hands were pruned and inflamed from the steaming water. As usual, his lips moved like he was talking to himself, and I strained to pluck syllables from the miniscule tremors of his mouth, aching to know them.

He hadn’t stopped talking after, not altogether. The problem was how he now carved careful statements from a large block of truth, giving me only splinters and shavings. I understood that his walks were his alone, that he didn’t have to strip his thoughts down to cold objectivity during this regimented half-hour every evening the way he explained his feelings to me in our bed.

“I feel warm,” he said one night. “I feel that the air is hot in here.”

I propped myself up on one elbow and tried to lock his eyes still with mine. They were brown, warm, deep, but in the darkness, I could hardly find them. Only the whites, the outer edges. I said, “Don’t joke. I want you to talk to me.”

He touched my face and said, “I feel patient.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, unless he was suggesting how I should feel.

But when he walked alone, mumbling secrets to our empty street, passing under the wilting, burning boughs of autumn, I believed he was writing poetry, overflowing with the beautiful, jagged specificity of his pain. I wanted, sometimes, to break the window and make him look, the words hanging there on frozen, parted lips. I wanted him to say, “God, yes. I feel like that.”

The call, months earlier, had triggered an agglomeration of throat-crowding panic and deep, heavy relief. Not dead – that was all that mattered. I phoned everyone I knew, and I practically gloated, possessive of the hard and fast fact of his survival as if I had saved him myself. I didn’t worry that his leg would forever have shiny pink scarring stretched across it like a poorly sewn knee patch. I didn’t worry that he would struggle for months before he could walk with help. I didn’t worry at all because the possibilities became finite, limited to recovery, to rehabilitation.

He disappeared from my view at the window, and I checked the oven clock. He’d be out there another twenty minutes. I wiped my hands dry, then pressed them to my chest. I wondered if it was possible for my hands to withstand the kind of heat it would take to burn my body with them. The tops of the feet, the eye lids – these areas were thinner, easier to damage. I checked my sternum in the hall mirror by the laundry room. A pink handprint, already fading.

His pants were hanging on the rack next to the ironing board. They had been hanging there for weeks, untouched. He’d lived in athletic shorts and sweats at first, so it hadn’t been obvious, but when he put his slacks on for church one morning, he stood in front of me and said, “It’s shorter.”

He meant his leg. The left had an inch of excess cuff. I’d been warned that the smallest, strangest events were often the catalyst for mammoth outpourings of everything from impassioned denial to primal rage, and I braced myself for the outburst. But he only folded the hem up, and that was it. I was the one who raided his side of the closet, grabbing armfuls of his jeans and slacks, and promising to make the legs match his. I hadn’t done it, though. I hadn’t touched a single pair. He’d taken two from my pile and began wearing them again at some point.

I looked at the pile now. All I had to do was shorten the hems. But instead of pinning them up and running them through the sewing machine, I found a stitch-puller and laid the first pair over the ironing board. From the bottom, I removed the inseam, opening the leg like a butterfly. I would make it perfect. I would reconstruct the whole piece of material if I had to, and I would change every detail of the garment to his specific measurements, deliberate, so that the fact of the alteration was as much a part of the piece as the button, the pockets, the label in the back of the waist. Every last pair would bear the adjustments.

Melanie Sweeney is an MFA student in fiction at New Mexico State University where she also teaches and coordinates the Writers in the Schools Program. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Sam Houston State Review. She lives in Las Cruces, NM, with her husband and dog and is currently at work on a novel and a memoir.

I'm interested in the acute ways humans grieve and hurt, how sometimes the smaller emotional burdens make us feel the most out of control. In this piece, I hoped to articulate the experience of witnessing a loved one's suffering, and of being helpless to fix it.



Copyright 2009