It is a weekend for working around the house. My fiancée, Erin, and I have the baby’s room to paint and some IKEA furniture to assemble. I roll out of bed early — 10:30 — and get into my wheelchair. Erin is already making coffee in the kitchen.
“I started the first wall,” she says. “I love that gray.” Erin never bugs me about sleeping late. For a few months after I was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, I often slept 15 hours a day. The doctors said my body needed to heal. It must still be healing because I hardly ever see 8 a.m. anymore.
I finish my coffee, then roll into the bedroom for my stubbies. Two days after the bombing, both my legs were amputated above the knee. A year later, I’m still unstable on my artificial legs, so in private I sometimes use my stubbies, small platforms that attach to the bottom of my thighs. Because they are only a couple of inches high, and don’t have knees, I can walk and stand on them for hours.
With my stubbies on, I’m less than 4 feet tall, so I paint the bottom half of the wall. Erin stretches for the top, doing things I’ll never be able to do, like stand on tiptoes. We had only been dating for a year when the bomb went off, but she never left my side. She knew how to lightly lift the hair from my burnt forehead without causing me pain. When I joked, “Don’t worry, E, our kids will have legs,” and she laughed, I realized how much I loved her. We hugged, and it was the first time we touched without pain. It was six more months before the engagement, and the pregnancy, but it felt inevitable.
“What about trim?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I was thinking yellow or green.”
“How about red for the Sox?”
“Jeff . . . ”
The doorbell rings. “That’s Kevin,” Erin says. “I asked him to help with the futon.” Kevin Horst is my store manager at Costco. He visited me every day in the hospital, and stopped by my mom’s apartment for months to give her flowers because he knew how worried she was. He’s gay, in a long-term relationship but with no plans for children, and sometimes I feel like his semi-adopted son.
“Heavy Kevy!” I shout, opening the door. Kevin is standing there with a drill. “You don’t know anything about IKEA furniture, do you?” I say, laughing.
“It’s a gift for you and Erin.”
He and I sit on the floor and unbox the futon pieces. It does not go well. There is fake wood everywhere, and none of it fits. Kevin keeps insisting we follow the directions. I’m convinced the drill could solve all our problems, if we’d give it a chance. In the end, Kevin is driven crazy because the slipcase won’t fit snugly on the cushion. Erin talks him down. I just laugh; I’ve been laughing with Kevin all afternoon.
Afterward, I make lattes for everyone, and we sit in the baby’s room, admiring our work. I think: Are we watching paint dry? But Erin and Kevin talk about the natural light, and all the memories this room will hold. For a minute, it’s hard to believe this is my life: my house, my love, my friend, my baby on the way.
“This was a great day,” I tell Kevin, as I roll with him to the door. “One of the best.”
Most people would look at me sideways for saying this about such a mundane day. After all, since the bombing, I’ve stood on the field at Fenway during the seventh-inning stretch of a World Series baseball game; I sat in the presidential box at the State of the Union address. Erin and I met Michelle Obama.
But Kevin understands. He knows that the things normal people take for granted — going to the bathroom on their own, getting out of bed without falling down, making a latte for friends — once seemed insurmountable to me. There were times, when the sweat poured off me as I struggled and failed to take one step, that I wanted to give up, because I thought that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be self-sufficient again. I would always be a burden to the people I love.
So those other experiences, they are special. They are memories I'll always have. But this experience — doing household chores, being helpful, living a normal life — is what matters. It is what I worked so hard for. And right now, it’s all I really want.
Jeff Bauman’s book, “Stronger,” is out this month.
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