He had tried to be upbeat about his disability. Then one day nothing seemed funny.
- Posted on Sep 16, 2014
I was just 10 when I lost my left leg to Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. At first I was furious with God. How could you let this happen? I demanded. You know I love sports! How am I supposed to live with only one leg?
Then, when I was being fitted for my prosthesis, a medical student tried to take a pulse from it. I burst out laughing for maybe the first time since my diagnosis. Man, that felt good! From then on, my attitude changed.
Yeah, I’d lost my leg, yeah, it wasn’t easy, but God had given me the best tool for coping: a sense of humor. I’d dangle my prosthesis out of the trunk of my family’s car on road trips. Or sneak it under the covers of a friend’s bed to prank them. Humor never failed me...until three months ago.
My girlfriend, Ashley, and I were in church. Halfway through the service, I happened to glance down at the bulletin. My eyes zeroed in on the date: July 6, 2014. It was 20 years to the day since my leg had been amputated.
I was proud and grateful at how far I’d come, how full my life was. I’d competed in skiing at the 2006 Paralympic Games and I’d just made the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team.
I was touring the country as a motivational speaker, talking to churches, schools and nonprofit groups about how they could find hope in whatever hardships they face. I’d written two books and even had my own YouTube channel where I posted funny (hopefully!) videos about my life.
I was brainstorming for one of my favorite projects: the amputation-inspired Halloween costumes I’d been making since 2010. That year I was a gingerbread man with one leg bitten off.
For the next one, Ashley had a brilliant idea: She helped me dress up as the famous leg lamp from the movie A Christmas Story, complete with blinking lights. Last year’s costume was the coolest yet: a flamingo! I did a handstand on my crutches; my foot formed the flamingo’s beak.
But the best thing in my life was dating Ashley. My dream girl. Who could ask for more than that?
That’s why I was shocked when I climbed into bed that night and suddenly burst into tears. I didn’t get just a little choked up. This was a deep, wrenching sorrow. Memories came rushing back—the cancer diagnosis, the chemo, the pain, how scared Mom and Dad were. How scared I was.
C’mon, Josh, I thought. Pull yourself together. The next day I was flying to College Station, Texas, to give a speech to a high school leadership group. How could I motivate anyone if I was a blubbering mess?
I picked up the phone and called Ashley, telling her about the anniversary of my leg amputation. “I’m feeling pretty whompy,” I admitted. Whompy was a made-up word we used when we were feeling down.
“Of course you are,” she said. “This is a big thing. Let it all out. I’m here to listen.”
She did. All night. I told Ashley how vulnerable I was feeling. How part of me felt guilty for being down on myself when I had so many blessings. I told her things I didn’t even talk to God about because I didn’t want to seem weak, or as if I didn’t appreciate all he’d given me.
The whompiness was still with me when I got to Texas. I sat there in the auditorium, waiting backstage before I went on. A text from Ashley lit up my phone: How you feelin’?
Still whompy. Not exactly motivational, I replied.
Must be hard to feel that way before going onstage.
It is, I wrote. Going on—Before I could type soon, she called.
“That’s it: I’m giving you a pep talk,” she said. “A little motivational speech before you give your motivational speech.”
“Don’t fake it. Just be honest,” Ashley said. “Tell those kids everything you’ve told me. Whatever it is you’re feeling, put it out there. It’s okay not to be ‘on’ all the time.”
Did I mention that one big reason Ashley’s my dream girl is that she’s a lot smarter than I am?
We hung up. Normally I prayed and reflected on all the good things in my life before going onstage, but all I managed now was, God, help me to do my best out there, however you want me to do it.
I heard my introduction.
“You know, back when I was in high school, my friends and I played pranks on fast-food drive-through employees,” I started by saying.
I talked about how my buddies and I would mumble into the speakers when placing our orders, or one of us would pop out of the trunk when we pulled around to the window. The kids laughed.
I segued into how I used humor to deal with losing my leg, and to stay upbeat. Yet deep down, something gnawed at me. Tell them, Josh.
I kept going—telling the kids about all the Halloween costumes, asking for ideas for my next one. I even showed off some of the kicks, handstands and flips I can do on my crutches. Tell them the truth. I looked at my watch. Only 15 minutes left to talk.
“You know what, guys?” I said. “I have to be honest with you all. I’m in kind of a weird mood.”
Silence. Hundreds of eyes, all on me. There was no turning back now.
“Yesterday was sort of a strange anniversary for me; it was exactly twenty years since the day my leg was amputated. I’ve been thinking a lot about the little boy I was in that hospital room, before my operation, and I feel bad for him. So bad.
"Not just because he’s losing his leg and there’s a lot of pain ahead, and a lot of awkward stares. I feel bad because he doesn’t know how much good is ahead of him. He doesn’t realize that he’s going to survive the cancer. And he’s going to grow up and become everything he dreamed and more. I wish he could know that.”
The words kept coming, tumbling out, totally unbidden.
“If you’re dealing with some hard situation, I feel bad for you. But I wonder if a future version of yourself would wish you knew right now that things are going to get better. That you’re going to look back twenty years from now and you’re going to say, ‘That was really tough, but I’m okay now. I’m more than okay.’”
I walked off the stage to a standing ovation.
I couldn’t wait to tell Ashley. “That was one of the best speeches I’ve ever given,” I said. “I couldn’t have done it without your pep talk.”
“God gave you the gift of being funny,” she said. “But He’s with you always, no matter how you’re feeling.”
And suddenly, it hit me: I’m okay now. God loved me. All of me. My upbeat, prankster side. My darker, more introspective side. My caring, emotional side. My laughter, my tears, my frustrations, my joy. My strengths and my flaws.
If I could be myself with Ashley, and totally open up, because I knew she loved me no matter what, couldn’t I be myself with God, who loved me even more than humanly possible? And you know what? Totally opening up to God? That feels really good!
P.S. Stay tuned for my Halloween costume this year. It’s going to be my best one yet!
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