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Phantom Towers, Phantom Limb: Feeling a Loss I Can't Remember

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The yellowed postcard with ragged edges caught my eye in an overcrowded North Carolina antique shop. It had a plastic cover with a tag attached, dated 1994, and cost $3.95 in 2016. I didn’t pick it up because it was blank or yellowing. The picture on the front drew me to the card — the New York City skyline, centered on two silvery towers, seeming equal in every way: height, fame, magnitude, symbolism. I’m certain I saw these two towers years ago, but I only recognize them thanks to images such as the one I was holding in my right hand.

As a native New Yorker living post-9/11, I’ve seen the pictures of the smoke consuming the buildings as they fell to their feet, taking thousands of lives with them. Starting around the end of August through the beginning of September, it is nearly impossible to escape the stories. The stories are almost like a tradition, the kind that comes between end-of-summer parties and first-day-of-school pictures.

I’ve heard about dead parents, injured first responders, firefighters lifting crosses from the rubble, a 9-month pregnant aunt walking from east 42nd to west 72nd to get a ride home, and a cousin who was late to her job in the towers that trekked back to Brooklyn through the tunnel. A friend of the family stood outside his store to wash dust off people with a fire hose. Students stayed at a northern Manhattan school until 10 p.m., not knowing if their parents who worked at the towers were alive or dead. People made emergency plans in the event of another attack. Depression affected both the USA and the world.

Every night in my dreams, I’m short and petite and physically attractive. My light golden blonde hair reaches my waist when not picked up in a bun. My toes are always painted deep red. Both my hands are soft and smooth, with a French manicure. Why my fingers and toes do not match is beyond me. When I’m awake, my dirty-blonde hair tip-toes across my shoulder blades. My toes are a lighter red, or coral, or plain. My fingernails are chewed raw, and I have only one hand.

I’ve been an amputee all my life. I’ve said it over and over and over again, but my armpits still sweat when I say it; it’s almost as though I know that’s a lie. I’ve been an amputee just about all my life. I lost my left hand as the result of a medical accident when I was 9 days old.

Do I even remember those days before the accident? I have no conscious memory, but my muscles and my subconscious suggest otherwise. I sometimes find myself stretching the muscles that make a fist open and close. They are located just below the elbow, and though it seems as though I could almost reach out and stretch non-existent fingers, I can feel them ache when I make the same movements that are natural on my hand. My dreams, too, suggest I remember a time before the amputation, but when awake, those images of the girl I might have been, had my body remained untouched as an infant, are gone.

I don’t know what it’s like to have two hands, but I still feel as though I’m missing my hand. When people ask me about my amputation, after they learn how it happened, they tend to ask if it hurts. The first time I ever admitted aloud that yes, it does sometimes, was to a class of 6-year-olds. I prefer not to explain that it hurts, as bringing up the pain only causes more pain.

Even if I wanted to explain it, I couldn’t. I don’t understand how my phantom limb works — the hand was removed 18 years ago, before I could consciously remember what it was like to have two hands. Many people say it shouldn’t hurt. Yet every so often, I can feel a slight, relentless needle poking out from the muscles I’d use to clench a fist, tingling along the edges of my arm connected to nonexistent flesh, the way only a hand could. Sometimes my arm hurts so much, I cry.

When I was 12, I led a prayer service for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Because it was a school event, I was told to wear my uniform. The other students in the service, who were reading biblical verses or saying prayers for the victims, sat beside me. I was the eldest, born two-and-a-half years before the event, and my brother the youngest, born four months after the towers fell. I did my best to lead the service, yet I don’t know how I could be expected to honor the dead with eloquent words about a skyline the audience and I only knew of from photos and videos, not from memory.

No matter why I was asked, or how well the teachers thought I had spoken, I still felt as if something was missing. There was something I couldn’t offer to the service, something I didn’t know, that I was too young to understand, that if I had only remembered what I was told I lived through, maybe I could have offered something more. I wished I could have had the same solemn looks as the adults, just so I could find some way to honor the dead. As disconnected as I felt from the words left for me on the wooden podium, I was still able to feign a sense of memory as I spoke, just as I had at other points in my life.

Talking about life with one hand compared to life with two hands is a little odd for me. I don’t recall the nine days I spent as a healthy newborn with two hands, or the three months during which my left hand was slowly rotting away due to a medical mistake. I talk about how easy it is for my peers to tie bows and fold paper while I struggle to pour a glass of milk, yet I don’t actually know what it is like for my peers to live with both hands. I once said if I had another hand and I got a hand cramp during a test, I’d start to fill in bubbles with the other. My best friend tells me nobody with two hands would do that, that two hands aren’t as great as I seem to think, and that she likes me better the way I am.

Whenever I tell this story, I still argue the first and second points to whomever is listening. No matter what gets said about two hands, I’d still love to know what it’s like to be able to clap against a palm instead of my thigh or what’s left of my forearm. I want to be able to make a heart with my index fingers and thumbs and not have to ask someone else to make the other half. I want to be able to use two hands like my classmates instead of trying not to cry because a girl who spent the past three years torturing me because of my arm is in the room. I don’t want anyone to see how much these things bother me.

When sitting in my high school, if you look above the tenement houses and between apartment buildings, you can see the blueish building with triangles on every side aimed for the sky. The new tower at Ground Zero marks where the first towers would be standing, had they never been struck. It is visible from just about any classroom in my high school, but the best view is in my freshman English classroom, in the second row from the door, second seat. At least, I thought it was the best view in the school as I watched construction workers finishing the tower when I really should have focused on the film adaptation of “Merchant of Venice.”

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I told my teacher I felt sorry for the poor kid who sat in my seat all those years ago. Neither of us knew then that my school was in a different building and suspended the move so an elementary school near the towers could have classes in the new building. I walked out, my mind playing the footage of the second tower crashing down on loop, only to fall down the stairs myself, twisting my ankle.

My prosthetic hand sits in a “Dora the Explorer” themed bag on the side of my bed. The palm is small, the size of an eighth grader’s hand. It was made seven years ago; I can hide it with my flesh and blood hand. The skin — shade 11, according to the stamp on the device — isn’t very realistic without follicles of hair or blue veins or defined palm lines or raw pink fingernails, but to someone just glancing at it, not paying much attention, the illusion of a hand exists.

To the unsuspecting eye, it is a real hand, so long as a long, cotton sleeve covers the “Made in England” marker on the forearm of the device and a collection of wristbands cover the indentation at which the hand can be removed and replaced with a swimming fin, an assortment of cooking utensils, or a stump to help me perform push-ups. Truthfully, the best part about the illusion is putting bright red ribbon in the socket so when I take the prosthesis off, the unsuspecting bystander gets more than a little shaken up.

I don’t wear my prosthesis often, since I can do just about everything without it. For the most part, it just sits there until I decide I can’t bear the second glances from people whose minds struggle to process my missing limb. The illusion hardly makes me feel as if I have the hand, but it does provide some solace to just be able to see an outline of what used to be there.

The year I turned 18, “Come From Away,” a musical about the aftermath of 9/11, came to Broadway. I had wanted to see it for over a year after first hearing of performances in other cities, memorizing the cast album and being highly disappointed it did not win Best Musical at the Tony’s. When I finally found discounted tickets for my mother and I to attend on September 12, a month after dragging her to the memorial at Ground Zero, I spent the entire evening on the edge of my seat, my hand firmly pressing against the tip of my arm. I couldn’t help but connect with what was happening onstage, one of the first times I felt as though I could join the community of people who remembered what happened so many years ago. I didn’t realize why until almost a year later.

The only planes shown in the musical were the ones diverted to Canada. Never once did the audience see an image of the towers collapsing. Even though every audience and cast member had to have seen the pictures on the news the day before, the show was about the aftermath of the tragedy rather than the tragedy itself. Before seeing it, my mother didn’t understand why I wanted to see a musical about the one of the great tragedies she witnessed. Almost a year after, I now understand when I think of the first great tragedy in mine.

It’s the beginning of September. The towers will be visible the skyline again. The lights that have been placed in the foundation of the original towers are switched on. Although the sun has set, I don’t turn to see this ghost, reminding me of what should be there but I can’t recall, as the family car approaches the Lincoln Tunnel. There are some wounds that will never fade, and so long as there is a reminder of what happened — a hole in a limb held closed by stitches, a scar in the skyline covered by a new building — it is impossible to forget, even without remembering what it was like before the injury. The only thing we can do is live in the aftermath.

Getty image by Francois Roux.

Originally published: May 23, 2019
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