FROM: "To Be Alive"


Here is the end of Jahn’s story: During the War, Jahn made a decision that led to his having a wife, two sons, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren whom he never met but whom the war will haunt unless their parents find ways to exorcize it.  His was the kind of decision one has to make every morning of one’s life: How will I die today, like this or like that?

More practical! I thought.  Practicality underwrote the Nazi program!  It cannot be the reason some people murder and others save!  It cannot underwrite both massacre and salvation!  What kind of a man was he!  I began to embellish his story.  I added, “The Germans, as Poles called them then and as some Poles still call them now instead of using the term Nazis – Do you see the symptoms of haunting? Do you see? – had raided a military hospital and either killed or captured all the doctors and residents and nurses and medical students who were risking their lives to treat the injured and the dying while firing squads could be heard in the distance!” 

But it is wrong.

Shhh, my grandfather tells me to quiet down and just write his story in his words, not mine.  Very well Jahn, I will.  This, then, is the beginning of your story:

The Germans raided a military hospital.  They either shot or captured all the personnel working that day. They then crowded those they had captured into a large hall.  Then they packed in more people from the outside. No one knew what was going to happen... 

From "My Lone Leg of Texas"

It wasn’t long after the accident that I found myself falling in love with my wife.  Actually, it happened when I saw the stump of her leg for the first time.  I had prepared myself for the moment as best I could, but I never would have guessed that, at fifty-nine and certainly well past my years of evaluative introspection, I would become the person I was meant to be.

As soon as the surgeon on call that morning, Dr. Holly of the glaring spectacles, informed me in conciliatory but firm tones that they would have to amputate and then rushed back behind two large, swinging, metal doors separating me from the sounds and sights of what was probably already beginning to happen to my wife’s beautiful straight and long leg, I turned my back on the handful of others huddled singly and in pairs in the waiting area of catastrophes, and I walked down some corridor, passing swatches of approaching colors and shadows and lights, vaguely registering some of those colors as people, vaguely getting a sense that I was still on the third floor, until I found a large square window that reached almost to my feet and rose over my head and let in a lot of grey-white light.  I stood and looked out over the roundabout, where patients were being exchanged, dropped off, taken on.   


Mostly I saw the tops of brown and tan heads, one of which was wrapped in a doughnut of gauze with an awkward, heavy tuft of hair in its middle. Heads were entering and exiting sedans and taxicabs and minivans, helped and held by what appeared to be nurses and attendants and wives and husbands, some of whom looked like they themselves were on their last legs.  But when that phrase crossed my mind, with its painful and bittersweet irony, and when next I understood my wife would never be on her last legs ever again, and when the next thought that came was that she would be the butt of a lot of silent, missing-leg jokes in a lot of other minds like mine, and that I would always know it, and that she would always know it, and that we would try to make light of it, even as we didn’t feel light about it, I stopped thinking altogether, and the coldness of fear moved up my body.  Up from my two feet, I didn’t fail to notice.


My next thought was about saws and how they buzz when they cut through lumber, a sound I’d heard only last summer when carpenters had begun building the trellis over half of our patio to mollify the brutal Dallas heat...