When Boston was attacked and limbs went flying, people who thought their day would be spent watching runners cross the finish line found themselves on an unwanted journey.

The photos of the man in the wheelchair whose legs were blown off - he did not "lose" his legs, they were taken - are horrendous. My God. I cannot even imagine.

Flash back a couple of years. There, between the beer and the bread, was a man, tall and stocky, taking careful steps on a prosthetic leg.

I went over, lifted up my left pants leg and said hi. I think it took him a second to realize that this wasn't some bizarre come-on in the supermarket. I was just showing him our common bond.

We chatted about knees and feet - got to keep up on the latest parts - and Dave said it was his first time out walking on his prosthesis without the safety of his crutches. They were in his cart, a few feet away. Everyone he knew was scared for him, he said. They didn't want him to come to the store by himself.

He didn't know what to tell them to keep them from worrying. What will you do if you fall down at the store? What if you're not ready?

What will you do if you get hurt?

Cuss a little, maybe, probably. Figure out how to get back up. The answer seemed pretty no-duh to us, but answers can seem that way when the choice feels like it's between the impulse of liberation and the trepidation of inertia.

That day, Dave had chosen liberation. It was scary, but he was smiling.

Dave passed away last summer. His humor and kindness are missed. I admired him, not for "overcoming" or being "an inspiration" or "brave" - all those roles created for the comfort of others - but because Dave talked about his situation as it was. He didn't crab; he didn't sugarcoat. He just stated things, and laughed about it when he could.

Sometimes, using a fake leg is hard. It hurts. Having a leg amputated is on no one's wish list (well, it is on a few people's wish lists, but that's an entirely different story). It happens from necessity.

But as with any club, there are secret lessons you can learn only firsthand. You become living proof of the law of physics that says if you slam into the floor with enough force, you kind of bounce. Just a touch, but it's there.

You learn that if you try to ride a bike in shorts, your leg sometimes falls off. But you figure it out.

We have a need, a human tendency, I think, to try to minimize pain. We don't want others to hurt, so we recast it as bravery. We don't want others to be uncomfortable, so we hide the pain that makes us vulnerable.

I remember the look on the adults' faces years ago when my little brother hurt himself somehow, probably messing around in the backyard. He came up to the grown-ups, crying. "Are you OK?" a neighbor asked.


He spoke the truth. He wasn't OK. But from that flash of unease on the adults' faces - the adults who weren't our parents, I should say - it was clear that "no" wasn't the right answer. He'd broken the unspoken code.

I think about those folks in Boston. Living with a chronic medical condition can suck - there's sometimes just no other word (that's suitable for a family newspaper.) And dealing with insurance, assuming you have it, can be a protracted nightmare.

Circumstances, whether born in a brutal instant or through the long, slow pace of illness, can test us beyond what we thought we could bear. But here we are.

We should notice the burdens that we, with the best possible intentions, can lovingly place on each other - the desire to pretend everything is OK, even when clearly it's not.

We do that by listening, by freeing each other from the obligation to be an inspiration or to overcome. And we do that, as Dave did, by living with honesty.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column appears on Thursdays. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com