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Phantom Pain


My Father lost his leg in Normandy during World War II. No one in our family ever talked about his missing limb, though I grew up surrounded by heavy wooden prostheses. Well before the present-day prosthesis (He insisted on keeping the old ones for some reason.) Massive wooden legs stood behind every door in our house, and they were always falling down unexpectedly. We would be eating dinner, perhaps, and one would crash like a giant redwood.

He was awarded the three most prestigious medals, which were kept in the bottom of a drawer. He did not feel a hero – He returned from France, a silent man.

I didn't like crossing the street with my father. He would hold on to me for balance and limp across, never fast enough for my taste. I would watch in a panic as the cars came toward us. We are going to die, I'd think. From the safety of the far curb, my mother would chide him: “Leo, come on. You can walk faster than that.” He married the perfect companion.

My father was a salesman at a men's clothing store and stood all day long at his job. Occasionally, I would glimpse him getting dressed for work, hopping across the bedroom to grab one of the legs leaning against the wall. He would start by putting a special sock over his stump, to make the leg fit better. Those thick, funnel-shaped socks were always drying in the bathroom, hanging in a neat row over the shower rod. I would see them every day as I got ready for school: a row of hand-washed socks with faded brown stains. I saw them so often I barely noticed them.

Years after my father died, I remembered those socks and the red/brown stains. How could I have been so oblivious? The stains were blood, so much that even my mother's constant hand washing could never fully remove it.

For my father.





I was never a big fan of formal education, so when my son decided he had better things to do than attend his high-school classes, I supported him. He wanted to become a filmmaker, and I wrote notes to excuse him from school so that he could shoot film and go to the movies. He attended only enough classes to graduate, and I wrote many excuse notes, always to a woman named Ms. Finn. I pictured Ms. Finn as half librarian, half prison warden, frowning at my notes, scrutinizing every word, looking for some hole in the iron-clad excuses I had concocted. This battle of wits with Ms. Finn inspired me to write even better excuses, brimming with legitimacy. I raised the excuse note to an art form. Then one day my son told me Ms. Finn was not actually reading these notes. In fact, she was barely looking at them. Ms. Finn, it turned out, was a long-haired free spirit not much older than my son. The image of Ms. Finn as a carefree hippie sapped the intrigue from my excuse writing — until I came up with a new angle: I would write excuse notes so outrageous that even she couldn't ignore them. With each failed attempt, I turned up the heat, to the point where my notes lost touch with reality: “Dear Ms. Finn, Michael has yellow fever.” “Michael has grown suspicious of his pets.”

“Michael just learned that he has an evil twin.” But my personal favorite was the simplest.

On a large piece of paper, I wrote just three words: “No clean clothes.”