Monday, August 13, 2012

Channeling Uncle Kevin

While I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace in the neighborhood for multi-generations to be living under the same roofs. Three family homes in the Bronx's Kingsbridge often housed three tenant families who were blood relations. One such extended family lived on the next block. A bachelor named Kevin resided in the ground floor apartment; his brother and sister-in-law directly above him.; and Kevin’s nephew, wife, and several great nieces and great nephews above them.

It seems just about everybody in the old neighborhood had a moniker of some kind. While Kevin wasn't related to me in any way, he was known to a lot of people, including me, as “Uncle Kevin.” What distinguished the man in that colorful snapshot in time was his wooden leg and stilted gait. If memory serves, he had lost a good portion of his right leg in World War I. Naturally, Uncle Kevin’s story fascinated us local kids. He was, however, a taciturn gentleman with an emotional force field around him, which we respected. In other words, we didn’t feel we should badger him with questions about how he lost his leg, what it’s like to strap on a wooden leg every morning, and can we—just maybe—have a look-see.

Fast forward forty years and Uncle Kevin came back into my life. No, not physically or via a medium’s séance. Rather, I thought about him when suddenly, and without fair warning, when I found myself wearing a peg leg. Not the wooden kind like Uncle Kevin wore, but one that functioned similarly. My high-tech, computerized prosthetic knee—the vaunted C-Leg—at long last malfunctioned after four and one-half years of noble service. And when it did, the knee stiffened up and assumed its safety mode. Wearers can awkwardly—and very gingerly—maneuver around in the safety mode. But until they are serviced, the C-Legs are little more than pricey peg legs.

When I first got my C-Leg, I asked my prosthetist about the ramifications of a dead battery or a computer malfunction. Putting my capacity to walk in a computer’s hands didn’t come naturally to me. “What would happen if I were out and about and something went awry?” I asked. “You’ll be able to get home,” he replied. And he was right about that. As a ten-year-old boy, I pined to see what Uncle Kevin’s leg looked like and kind of wished he was my real uncle. Now, pushing fifty—and courtesy of life’s unpredictable and sometimes Byzantine twists and turns—I’d appreciate a gander even more. I will, though, have to content myself by walking in Uncle Kevin’s shoes today, tomorrow, and for the immediate future—and hope I don't fall on my face along the way. Uncle Kevin—veteran and amputee—didn’t have it easy but, in retrospect, he made it look so.

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