She was eight months pregnant and playing with her three-year-old when she heard the screaming. It was coming from the backyard, which is where she found her rock of a husband twisting on the ground, tibia jutting through his skin just above an ankle that was dangling by a thread. He’d been on the roof cleaning the gutter and lost his balance; when he hit the ground, his leg cracked like a Louisville Slugger on a checked swing.
Neighbors materialized. “I know it hurts, honey,” one said, leaning in close; another heard the screams and appeared brandishing a shovel. The three-year-old brought his dad a pillow.
Ten minutes later, the ambulance was tearing down their street, each siren blast a promise of the coming year’s trials. The deep infection. The procedures to clean shards of bone and rotting leaves from the wound. A haze of pain meds. The profound agony of physical therapy. Antibiotic beads and skin grafts and flaps and bone removals. The plates and screws and spatial frames meant to hold the leg together. None of it worked. One screw snapped, and a bone graft disappeared completely. “A lot of people in your position struggle for a year or so,” a doctor told him. “Then they get the limb amputated and move on.” At the time, he couldn’t believe the doctor’s insensitivity.
While he was laid up, she learned to parent alone. Mowed the lawn, did the shopping. Watching him suffer deepened her affection. He helped out when able but could only do so much. The cruelest torture was not reliving the gruesome moment again and again, nor was it the judgmental comments from acquaintances that became so grating (“Bet you wish you never went on that roof!”). It was the guilt that he could not carry his baby girl. That his son didn’t know how to swing a bat. For a hands-on father, the shame outweighed the pain.
Roughly 400 days after the accident, the bone had not healed. He was limping around in a boot, his ankle all but useless. A surgeon told him they could open it up, insert an antibiotic nail, and break the leg close to the knee to lengthen it, a two-year process. Basically, start over. That’s when he knew. If he wanted to fix a break so bad that it could not be mended, one option remained. It involved anesthetic and a bone saw. His decision shocked many—just say the word “amputation” and watch people grimace—but after more than a year of misery, it promised an undeniable improvement, and he no longer cared if anyone thought he was giving up. He was ready to have his life dictated by something other than his injury.
The June day a doctor cut off Jason’s leg below the knee, I thought about my wedding ten years earlier. When a guest canceled at the last minute, I’d invited Jason. That was the night he met Tricia. They fell in love, settled in a one-bedroom apartment in Wicker Park, got a dog. Became teachers. Moved to Kansas City. Had a baby. A whole sequence of events had put him in that house, on that roof, and, in a weird way, when he fell and his world stopped while hers continued to spin, I felt cosmically responsible. But sequences of events are like colds. Attempting to trace them back to their origin doesn’t cure anyone. Only time can do that.
Sometimes, says Jason, he can still “wiggle” his missing big toe. In December, he’ll be fit for a prosthesis, and then, with some practice, it’s all possible: running, skiing, mountain climbing. At 37, life will start over. First thing he’s going to do, though, is carry his baby. She just took her first step, and he plans to follow her.
Photograph: Ryan Nicholson/Wonderful Machine