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Say What?

Author: Jeff Tiessen
It happened more than 20 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember how nauseating it felt maybe more than anything.
I was completely mortified. I’m talking about way beyond embarrassed. I’m talking about a hey-genie-grant-me-my-last-wish-and get-me-outta-here humiliation.

Funny thing is, if it would have happened to me today, at this stage of life as an amputee, I would’ve laughed so hard that that tactless, brash-mouthed, gravel-voiced tourist lady would’ve thought my problems were even more serious than imagined. In life, timing is everything I guess.

I was traveling alone, in my mid-20s. To give my weary feet a break one afternoon, I joined a group of tourists – my own countrymen and women – for a scenic boat ride up a picturesque urban waterway. Surrounded by Bermuda shorts and Tilley hats, I felt as much a foreigner in this group as I did in the land I was exploring.

In the line before boarding, I was peppered with very personal, maybe-that’s-really-none-of your business-type questions from a relentless senior. Trapped, I answered her inquiries quietly and superficially, trying to end the barrage with each answer and clear body messaging. No luck. She was unmerciful and building an audience around us. Embarrassed, I had no idea the worst was yet to come.

The line began to spill onto the boat and I lurched forward looking for anonymity in the crowd. I was on the run. She would take one last crack. “Hey Jeff,” she bellowed over the heads of the boatful of people. I cringed but looked back with a gesture of courtesy she really didn’t deserve. “So, are you one of those Formaldehyde babies?” she yelled. I could have just tossed myself overboard. I presume she meant Thalidomide, a drug created in the 1960s to curb morning sickness in expectant mothers and not Formaldehyde, the fetal pig preservative we used in 12th Grade biology class.

It didn’t matter. I shook my head and bore my eyes into the steel deck to avoid the wave of curious stares all around me. It was devastating.

That was then. Today, being much more confident in my silicone skin, Curious Georgina’s questioning would have come to a polite, yet abrupt end much sooner, especially if it came in the presence of my family, entitled to our privacy and sensitivities.

Fielding personal questions in public places – as amputees, none of us are immune. In a way, it’s a twisted kind of celebrity. But how it affects us and how we handle it – good, bad or indifferent – is as individual as the myriad of questions themselves. How the question is asked, by whom, and of course its content often factor into how we reply… not to mention our mood and energy levels that day.

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