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A mother assesses risk to life and limb

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"I can't save the leg," the surgeon states plainly. My 15-year-old son Brooks' head drops as fast as his dream to surf.

Diagnosed with a malignant bone tumor, osteosarcoma, he has 30 more weeks of chemo to endure, and now this, a crushing blow.

"The malignancy is too close to the nerve bundle. We have to take the leg."

Pain flickers across the surgeon's face as she says this. The fact that she too is suffering lightens me -- for, after all, it is precisely why I chose a female surgeon in the first place: What woman in her right mind would amputate a child's leg? And yet she stands before me, suggesting just that. I hate myself for being wrong! I hate my naivete!

But there is no time for hate. Now is the time to man the battle stations. I must go to bat for my son.

The mother tiger in me roars, "Who else have you conferred with on this? How many of these surgeries have you performed? Why have you waited so long to make this decision?" I get her to admit that she is being medically conservative -- ha! That she is not willing to allow small margins between a surgical cut and the cancer -- aha! That not taking the leg is a risk for recurrence!

Stop right there.

"Taking the leg." How dare she call it a "leg"? To a mother it's still chubby and pink, something that squirms when you tickle it and kicks when you try to squeeze on its shoe.

In my eye, it's soft and pale and pudgy, with five perfect little toes to nibble -- that's what I remember. My "Boo" at 2 years old, legs running wildly away from me, ready to stumble, always teetering and unbalanced . . . then, at 7, merrily jumping up and down in the surf, arms outstretched, swim trunks slipping . . . then, at 10, running those bases fast and hard, sliding home joyously, legs flailing, arms extended.

The door clicks and the surgeon is gone.

Brooks turns away, his eyes filled with tears.

I rearrange the sheets, brushing against his bare foot with my hand. Beneath my touch, I feel the wear of 15 years -- it's not the foot of a boy anymore, but of a man.

He doesn't pull away. I know he savors the moment as much as I, although he doesn't let on.

I massage his beautiful foot -- it is a front, anything to honor what I may soon lose, what he may soon lose.

I look at each toe, perfectly formed, the clean ankle and the curve of the calf. My heart is breaking, but one by one I grasp each toe and sing, "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none . . . . "

It's just a leg, and if I have to give up his leg to save his life, that is what I'll do.

. . . And this little piggy cries weee, weee, weee, all the way home.

Pamela Welky Paul co-wrote the musical "Song of Motherhood." She lives in Studio City with her sons. Brooks, now 16, plays mellophone in the Notre Dame High School marching band in Sherman Oaks. He wears a prosthetic leg.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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