Self-Portrait with Daughters, by A. Balkan
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August 2015 Issue [Forum]

Self-Portrait with Daughters


It was summer and I was a new father, to eight-month-old daughters. I was the pilot of a car trip: New York City to somewhere near Lake Michigan — a town called Watervliet (half-rhymes with Wounded Knee) and a lake called Paw Paw.

But first we had to get there. Every second my daughters weren’t sleeping, they were crynin’. That’s what my girls used to call crying, although that summer they couldn’t yet speak. They could only coo and cry; there was lots of crying, especially when we had to drive somewhere. The only thing that soothed them was Dylan’s tune about the horses and how tired they are. It was the only song that they’d let me play without them going nuts and hollering. All the tired horses in the sun, how’m I supposed to get any riding done?

In Michigan we were to rendezvous with my in-laws at a lakeside house they’d rented for two weeks. There was a one-room cottage behind the house; my wife and I were told we could sleep there, and our daughters would sleep in their crib inside the main house. And when, in the wee hours, the girls needed changing or feeding, the in-laws would gladly volunteer. The idea was for my wife and me, but especially for my wife, to get some sleep for the first time in eight months.

The second morning in the cute little cottage, there was a tornado. No one knew it was coming, so no one knew to take cover. I was brushing my teeth, and my wife was in the main house already.

The tornado ripped a tree out of the ground and dropped it on the roof. Our cute cottage, destroyed. No one was hurt, but the power was knocked out for the entire lakeside town. So my wife took the kids to her parents’ house in not too faraway Mishawaka, Indiana, and I stayed there, at the lake, waiting for power.

It took a while for the power to come back. For four days, I read my book in the hammock out back, by the destroyed cottage, and when I got tired of the hammock, I paddled the kayak out onto the empty lake.

I enjoyed reading my book while lying in the kayak on the lake. Very much, in fact. I liked to close my eyes behind my shades and nap.

The speedboat never hit me. Not really. At the last possible splinter of a second, it swerved. It missed. Instead of hitting me head-on, as it had been on course to do, the boat clipped the nose of my kayak, dumping me into the lake. I remember being upside down, underwater, and thinking, So this is what it’s like to die.

I did not die. I came up for air. I coughed up a bunch of mucky lake water. I remember that the water tasted like gasoline, but it was probably just the fumes coming from the boat’s engine.

I also noticed that my right leg was sliced straight through the middle of my calf. It must’ve made contact with the speedboat’s propeller when I was rolling out of my kayak and into the water. I screamed, Oh my God! I screamed, Holy fuck! Actually, I don’t remember what I screamed. My leg was still attached to me, but barely. It was hanging from just below my knee by a little bit of bone, some shredded muscle, and some skin. I held my freshly severed leg by my ankle and kicked with my other foot to stay afloat. I tried to hold it level, my limb. I tried to hold it steady. It must’ve been the shock, and the bath of adrenaline that my body was, at that moment, awash in, but the pain, at least initially, wasn’t all that bad. It simply felt like I was being stung by a few hundred thousand wasps at the same time in the same spot. I gripped my shredded limb with one arm and dog-paddled with the other back to my kayak. When I reached it, I flipped it over and threw myself on top, and I waited.

a doctor’s words:

Near-amputation of the right leg with open tibial/fibular fracture. Patient has a more than 4 cm segmental loss of the fibula, anterolateral and posterior compartment soft tissue injuries which were very extensive.

The tibial nerve is intact as is the anterior tibial artery and vein. The remainder of the limb save for a small skin-bridge is not.

a wife’s words (to family and friends):

A’s foot is still down there, swollen and yellow. Yellow from the cleaning solution they douse it in before surgery, which he had today, and which went fine, except for they removed a whole hell of a lot of dead muscle. The muscle dies because it is being serviced by only one artery, instead of three, like the edges of a lawn might brown if you had just one hose watering the center.

Today we had surgery to flush the wound, get out bits of stray bone, and set up a medical erector set around the lower half of A’s lower right leg below the knee. Both leg bones down there are shattered, and a big chunk of muscle and nerves and skin are no more.

In the best scenario we keep the foot and we have 6–12 months of surgery (plastic and reconstructive), and some kind of walking assistance (cane?) for ever and ever. I’ll have to find out more on that tomorrow.

A. misses his girls, bemoans never skating again, and wants a Gatorade.

words of the responding officer:

Suspect, R, stated that he had just put the boat in the water. Had been on the water for just a few minutes. R had launched the boat at the public launch. R stated that when he went to launch the boat, it would not start and he used a jump-pack to start the vessel. It should be noted that the battery of the vessel is located in the rear (stern) portion of the vessel on the starboard side. In order to access this battery, the seat cushions need to be removed, then the battery pack can be placed underneath. R stated that he had just launched and was traveling around the lake in a direction that would be counterclockwise. R stated that when he made it to the other side of the lake, he noticed with his peripheral vision that the boat cushions that had been removed from behind the driver’s side of the vessel to the passenger (port) side, and were stacked, had begun bouncing as if they might be bounced out of the boat. R’s description would indicate that he diverted his attention to the boat cushions and had begun to reach for them so they would not fly out of the vessel. R stated he hit something in the water. R stated he never saw what he hit. R stated that after having hit something in the water, the vessel ceased running. R stated he heard a loud male’s scream.

A nurse came in around five in the morning. She handed me a clipboard stacked with triplicates — yellow, pink, and ash. You need to sign these forms, she said.

When I was a kid, I’d swipe credit-card triplicate forms from restaurants and department stores. Magic paper is what I called it. I didn’t even color or write on it, just kept drawers full of it.

“What am I signing?” I asked.

“The forms say you agree to undergo the baloney amputation,” she said.

“Baloney amputation?” I asked.

“Yessir. It’s printed right there on the form.”

“ ‘Bologna’ like the processed meat?” I asked.

“I’m sorry?” she said.

It took me a few beats to find the words on the paper.

“Oh, ‘below-knee!’ ” I said, pointing to the proper words, below-knee amputation, in bold on the top page of the top form. “That sure makes more sense than ‘bologna,’ ” I said.

“That’s what I said, ‘below-knee,’ ” she said.

“Yeah, but I misheard you. For some reason I thought you said ‘bologna,’ like bologna-sandwich bologna.”

I don’t remember her exact reaction to this conversation, only that she got embarrassed and looked some other direction.

an email from my mother-in-law, writing on behalf of my eight-month-old twins:

Hi, Daddio!

We love you! We are having a good time at Grandma Mary’s and Grandpa Jimmy’s but we miss you. Last night we slept from 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., and they seemed to think it was some really big deal, but as you know it’s just what we usually do. Right now we’re crawling around in the living room. The blue carpet is soft but we get stuff stuck between our toes.

Grandma Mary is nice, but she is a slow diaper-er.

Today we are going to rearrange some furniture so we have more room to wander.

We’ll keep writing to let you know what’s up in our world. It’s going to be hot today so stay cool!


G & J

I wish I remembered it better — the day my wife brought my daughters to visit. It was only a couple days after the last of my surgeries, the so-called guillotine surgery, where they sawed the fucker off once and for all. Ever since then, I’d been pumping myself full of painkillers night and day. I was pretty out of it.

My old man was with us that day. I remember he was quite nervous. I think he was worried that something or someone would bump or knock against my leg and cause it to be — I don’t know — more fucked than it was already?

We took the elevator to the cafeteria, sat at communal tables. We fed my twin girls. We fed them in the cafeteria in the portable high chairs that my wife had hauled all the way from New York. I don’t know why, out of the dimness of that day, it’s my father and his nervousness that sparkles. Once, when I was feeding my kids, instead of putting the spoonful of squash or peas or corn or whatever it was into my daughter’s mouth, I put it in my own. I swallowed the bite and I smiled at my dad. He did not smile back. So I took another bite, and instead of merely smiling, I rubbed my belly and grinned, a demonstrably gleeful grin announcing that the slop I’d just swallowed was, in fact, the slop of the sublime.

Later that evening, my dad and I ordered Chinese. But they delivered the food to the wrong wing. By the time the orange chicken found us, it was sour and congealed, not to mention cold. Then we walked. Or, rather, he walked while pushing me around in a wheelchair. We rambled. We strolled. For a while we were out in the sun, but the wheelchair was a piece of shit; it kept getting stuck on cracks in the sidewalk. So we went back inside. We journeyed over to the pediatric wing. We hit up the gift shop. We gazed at the bizarre-as-fuck collection of paintings that had been donated by the family of some dead hospital administrator. We discussed Roth and whether The Plot Against America or American Pastoral was the superior American nightmare. We recited lines from The Big Lebowski. We did that often, my dad and I, during those two weeks of my care in the chopped-limb wing — the strolling. Sometimes we strolled in the late morning, almost always in the evening. You could say that our appetite for strolling those hospital grounds could not be fully sated.

a letter from my father:

Still looking for literary quotes that will properly represent your situation. This came to mind:

nihilist: We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing! And tomorrow we come back and cut off your chonson.

lebowski: Excuse me?

nihilist [shouting]: We’ll cut off your johnson!

nihilist #2: Just think about that, Lebowski.

nihilist: Yeah, your wiggly penis, Lebowski.

nihilist #3: Yeah, and maybe we stomp on it and squoosh it, Lebowski.

a wintertime conversation with a friend’s six-year-old kid:

kid: Where’d you get your metal leg?

me: Fulton Mall.

kid: Fulton Mall in Brooklyn?

me: No doubt.

friend to me: Really?

me to friend: Yeah, sorta. That’s where my prosthetist’s office is.

me to kid: I get my sneakers there too.

kid: So you buy your legs and your shoes at Fulton Mall?

me: It is true.

It was summer, nearly three years on. I was making bracelets with my kids. We were sliding colored plastic beads onto pipe cleaners that came exclusively in a hideous shade of radioactive lime green.

They were asking about The Boat; they wanted to know where they were at the time. “You were back at the house with Mommy,” I told them, which was true, they were. Safe as safe could be.

But then G put two and two together. “You were all by yourself?” she asked. She spoke in this tender rasp, a little amplified mouse.

“Yeah,” I said. “I was out there by myself.”

“But why?” asked J.

“I was taking a break from helping Mommy. I wanted to relax in my kayak and read my book. I wanted to be alone.”

That’s when G broke in with strict instructions: “Daddy, you can’t put your leg outside the boat.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”

J climbed onto my lap. “What are you making?” she asked.

“I’m making a bracelet for your sister, do you want me to make you one?”

I sorted through another handful of beads and tried not to think too much about the lake, and the quiet before the boat.

is a poet who lives in New York.

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