by Alexandra Boutté
I’ve had a tight group of friends since college. In those days, we held each other up as we stumbled home from the bars. Since then, we have held each other up through some of life’s other stumbles, including divorce, cancer, infertility, loss of parents, raising children with special needs, and plenty of other life-altering events.
Including limb loss.
I saw Sarah’s face hovering over me just minutes after waking up from surgery for my above-the-knee amputation. She snuck into the recovery ward after working a shift in the emergency department. I’d be lying if I said her working at this hospital didn’t influence my choice to have my surgery here. I’d been to college in Gainesville years before, where many of my best friends still lived, so it felt like home. My husband, mother, and I had spent the night before surgery at Sarah’s house, eating as much comfort food as possible before the midnight cutoff time. Some other girls from our old college posse showed up dressed as elves with several comfort food casseroles for me the afternoon after my surgery.
While my wound was as fresh as my amputee status, I could not have guessed all the ways my life would be different—especially how it might affect my friendships. Neither I nor any of them had ever met an amputee, so they were just as ill-prepared to help me as I was to care for myself. Everything they did and said came from the heart, and I always felt their love even when their words and actions didn’t fit perfectly into the “what you should say to an amputee” handbook.
I was motivated to get back to walking as quickly as possible, so I did all the stretching and moving I could while waiting for clearance from my surgeon to get a prosthesis. When I finally had my leg and showed off my first steps, I was flying high. I kept working and getting better at it, and one day Sarah said to me enthusiastically, “I bet you won’t even have a limp soon!”
Ouch. She was trying to encourage me and acknowledge my progress, but her words stung like salty tears on a new cut. Because I knew something she didn’t: I would likely always walk with a limp. Considering the level of my amputation, I was lucky to be walking as well as I was. But how could she know that? She had watched me advance from a walker to crutches to one crutch and, eventually, to walking without any assistive devices on my prosthesis. She had been there for me throughout the whole journey, and she’d gone above and beyond in every possible way. She wasn’t just my friend—she was my sister. She wanted to say and do the right thing; she just needed my help to do so. That meant I needed to educate her if I wanted to feel understood and supported.
So as I got used to wearing a prosthesis, I started sharing everything I learned about it with Sarah. I took off my leg and showed her all the steps to put it on. I encouraged her to ask questions—lots of them. I explained how the prosthesis worked and what it was and wasn’t capable of. I shared my struggles with her when I felt pain or discomfort, and I even shared photos of my rashes and blisters with her, partly to get her medical advice and partly so she would have a detailed understanding of my new normal.
Sarah had always been my person, the friend I shared all my glory and all my hurt with. The last thing I wanted to do was push her away when I needed her the most. But I was a little nervous that sharing so many of the details about my limb loss might feel like a burden to her. But, like the true friend she has always been, she didn’t run away from the complications that came with being this close to me. In fact, she leaned in, as did my other close friends. If we were out for drinks and we reached a steep street, any of them would gladly hold an arm out for me without making a big deal out of it, carrying on with our conversation as if nothing happened. Just as I learned to walk on my new prosthesis, they learned how to hold me up when I stumbled, and I learned how to help them do it.
Today, my friendships are stronger than ever. I’ve chosen genuine, loyal people to be a part of my life, and we’ve all fought hard to keep each other going and to understand each other. It’s far too easy to build walls up and place blame when you are hurt. It takes quite a bit of effort to keep yourself open when you feel most vulnerable. Tender hearts are punctured easily, but true friendship means allowing people you trust to see you in this raw form. That’s the only way they can understand how to give you the support and the love you need.
I won’t call what we went through a test. Instead, it was an opportunity to thicken an established bond. I’d say we did that and then some.
Alexandra Boutté writes every week at her blog, Limbitless Sunshine. She’s also a regular member of Amplitude‘s writing team and contributes to our newsletter once every six weeks. Follow her on Instagram @limbitlesssunshine.