In the PT room, Conny wheeled her over to a set of parallel bars.
She’d never noticed how intimidating this piece of equipment could be. As she stared at the shiny bars, an aide came up and stood beside her, holding the prosthetic leg.
It looked like a tree trunk with a foot.
“Okay, Jolene,” Conny said, squatting down so that he was eye level with her in the chair. “Today isn’t about walking. Your right hand isn’t ready to really support your weight yet.”
“It may never be.”
“Let’s take one problem at a time.” He reached for a thing that looked like a big sock and put it on her residual leg. Then he looked up at her. “Today, you’re going to stand.”
“Easy for you to say.”
He grinned and helped her to her feet. She hopped, holding on to him, and positioned herself inside the parallel bars.
The woman with the prosthetic leg kneeled in front of Jolene and fit the residual leg into the plastic cuplike top of the prosthesis. It felt snug, maybe even tight.
The woman said, “It’s on,” and backed away.
Conny tightened his hold on Jolene. “You okay? I’m going to put you down now. Just try to stand.”
Jolene clutched the left bar in her good hand. With her right, she couldn’t really grab hold, but she put her fingers on the metal for balance.
She took a deep breath, trying to calm her runaway nerves. This meant everything. If she could stand, she could walk, and if she could walk, she could run. Maybe she could even learn to fly again. Just do it, Jo. Stand.
Her heart was beating so hard it took her a moment to hear his voice.
He was standing at the end of the bars, smiling at her.
He’d let her go. When?
Slowly, she looked down.
She was standing. Standing.
She could hardly believe it. She looked up at Conny through a blur of tears.
“I know, soldier girl.”
She stood there for a long time, working on her balance. She practiced lifting her hands from the bars. It hurt, putting all her weight on the prosthesis, but she didn’t care.
She gripped the bar again in her good hand and moved her right leg one step forward.
“You’re going too fast, Jo, don’t—”
She ignored him. It felt good, making her own choice, pushing on. She had to drag her bad foot. It felt so heavy, unwieldy, but she did it. She walked.
She took another step forward. It felt like there were teeth in the socket, chewing her flesh, shredding it. She winced every time she put her weight on it, and by the time she reached the middle of the bar, she was sweating so hard her hands slipped. “I need gloves,” she said between breaths.
“That’s enough for today, Jo.”
Ignoring him, she gripped the bar in her good hand, stood on her good leg, and forced another awkward step.
Pain pushed back.
She loosened her grip on the bar until she had let go completely. She put all her weight on the prosthesis, ignored the pain that shot up her thigh and lodged in her hip like a hot knife blade, and took another step. It took forever but she walked all by herself to the end of the bars. When she finally looked up, sweating and red-faced and breathing hard, she saw Conny smiling at her.
“You know what this means, soldier girl?”
She wiped the sweat from her eyes, still breathing hard. “What?”
“It means she’s going home soon,” Michael answered.
Jolene glanced to the left and saw her husband standing by the wall, smiling. That was all it took, a look, a tiny adjustment to her balance, and she stumbled. Pain exploded up her right side.
Conny was beside her instantly, catching her before she hit the ground. She bit her tongue so hard she tasted blood.
“I’m tired. Can I go back to my room?”
“Sure.” Connie started to reach for the wheelchair.
“I’ll walk,” she said.
“I don’t know, Jolene, that’s—”
“She’ll walk,” Michael said, coming up beside her. His gaze was steady on her face. “She can lean on me.”
He gave her one of his old smiles, and she was surprised by how deeply it affected her. She realized all at once how much she’d missed it, missed him.
He moved in beside her, slipped an arm around her waist. His hand pressed against her hip bone, holding her steady. She felt his breath against her lips, her cheeks.
“Don’t let me fall,” she said.
She nodded and took a deep breath. Staring at the open door, she gritted her teeth and began to move like Quasimodo: step, limp, drag; step, limp, drag.
She made it one step at a time, to the door, through the door, down the hall. By the time she reached her room, the pain in her leg was unbearable.
She was so tired, she let Michael help her into bed. Neither one of them knew how to remove the prosthesis, so they just covered it with the blanket. She was pretty sure blisters were forming down there, bubbling up and oozing, and she felt no rush to look.
“You’re back,” Michael said.
She’d been thinking about the pain of her forming blisters so deeply she’d almost forgotten he was there. “What?”
“Back there, I saw the woman who could run a marathon on a high-tech leg.”
“That woman is gone, Michael,” she said.
The look in his eyes was sad. It spoke volumes about who they’d been and who’d they’d become. “I should have told her I loved her, before she went off to war.”
“Yeah,” she said hoarsely. “That would have been nice.”
Jolene woke up screaming, drenched in sweat, shaking hard.
Falling back into the pillows, she worked to slow her breathing. They were killing her, these nightmares. She tried not to fall asleep anymore, but sooner or later, it crept up on her, and the nightmares were always there, waiting for her in the dark. Every morning she woke up feeling drained, already exhausted. Her first thought was always Tami.
She stared out her one small window; that was her view now. Her world had shrunk to a single room and a three-by-three-foot sheet of glass that looked out on a tree that was losing its leaves.
From her cockpit, she had seen forever … and now she needed help to go to the bathroom.
It was demoralizing. As hard as she tried to be positive, she was irritated and shrewish when the aide finally came in to help her.
“I hear it’s a big day for you today,” the woman—Gloria—said, pushing a wheelchair into the room.
“Yeah,” Jolene said, unsmiling. “I’m getting my cast off.”
“I thought you were going home.”
Jolene thought again: What’s wrong with me? “Oh. That, too.”
Gloria helped Jolene out of bed and into the wheelchair. Talking all the while about something—Jolene couldn’t concentrate on the words—the woman wheeled her into the bathroom, helped her pull her pants down and sit on the toilet seat.
“Do you need help wiping?” Gloria asked in the same voice you’d say, Would you like fries with that? Perky. Cheerful.
“No. I’m left-handed. Thanks. Maybe a few minutes of privacy?”
“Of course.” Gloria left the bathroom and closed the door behind her, but not all the way. A slice of air showed through.
It took Jolene a long time to empty her bladder—nothing seemed to work as well these days. When she was finished, she was actually winded. And she still had dressing and hair combing and teeth brushing to accomplish. It tired her out just thinking about it.
“Are we done?” Gloria asked.
“I’m done,” Jolene said, striving not to sound irritated.
She was getting upset. It didn’t take Sigmund Freud to guess why.
She was scared to have her cast removed.
With the cast on her arm, there was hope. She could look down at it and think that within that plaster casing, the nerves in her hand were mending, growing strong. But today she would know for sure. Was she a woman with two good hands or just one?
She let Gloria help her back into the wheelchair, as humiliating as it was.
“Conny will be here in a few minutes to take you to get that cast off. Do you want to get back in bed to wait?”
“Could you roll me to the window? I’d like to look out.”
“Sure.” Gloria rolled Jolene to the window. “It’s going to be a beautiful fall day.” She patted Jolene’s shoulder and left. At the door, she paused and turned back. “Oh, I almost forgot. Maudeen Wachsmith in accounting wanted to ask you what you wanted us to do with your mail.”
“I have mail?”
“Oh. Well. Bring it to me.” She turned back to the window.
Outside, the autumn sky was a pale sage green with wispy clouds. Beyond the parking lot, giant cedar trees screened whatever lay beyond. Up close, an aged cherry tree clung stubbornly to a handful of blackened leaves. As she watched, one lost its grip and tumbled downward.
“There you are, soldier girl. Nice to see you doing something besides sitting in bed.”
“I was thinking about trying a cartwheel.”
Conny laughed. “You’re a firecracker, Jolene, that’s for sure.”
He came around behind her and wheeled her out of the room. All the way through the hallways, he made small talk: his wife’s new hairdo, his daughter’s promotion, the way his back ached when he first got out of bed in the morning.
“Well, here we are.”
Jolene checked in and was wheeled into an examination room. Moments later came a knock at her door. In walked a stick-thin man in a white coat with messy salt-and-pepper hair and a nose like a portobello mushroom. She could tell instantly that bedside manner would not be his strength.
He came into the room, mumbling an introduction while he glanced at her chart. Then he set the file aside and looked at her. “I’ll bet you’re anxious to see how your hand works.”
She nodded, unable to find her voice.
He pulled up a chair and sat in front of her. Within moments, the cast was off, broken into pieces.
She looked down at her right forearm, shocked to see how thin it was, how pale. An angry red scar ran up from the back of her hand.
The doctor touched her palm very gently. “Can you feel that?”
“Try to make a fist.”
She stared down at her hand, thinking, come on, come on, and please, and then slowly, slowly, she watched her fingers curl into a feeble fist.
Jolene let out a sigh of pure relief.
The doctor smiled. “Excellent. Can you lift your arm?”
By the time she’d finished the range of motion tests, she was smiling. At the end of the appointment, she wheeled herself out of the room. It took real effort to make her right hand contribute, but she did it.
“You’re looking good, soldier girl,” Conny said, getting up from his chair in the waiting room.
He rolled her back to her room and positioned her by the window again. “PT in one hour. We need to start working on your grip now, too,” Conny said. “And you can start on crutches.”