I found the juxtaposition between his memories of Katie and his musing on knowing another’s pain particularly striking, especially, “what it says to you when nobody else is around.” What kind of connection is being drawn between love and pain in this story?
That’s a very interesting comment, Summer. I wasn’t aware that I had drawn such a connection, but now that you mention it, I see that it is there. What I was aware of was drawing a connection between physical pain and emotional pain. The pain that is called “phantom limb” is caused by the loss of a major part of someone’s body; it consists of physical pain in the illusory presence of a body part that is gone. The emotional pain that my protagonist feels when he thinks of the people he loved that he’s lost—his mother, his brother, his daughter—is analogous. He’s not remembering the good times with any of those people, only the pain of the loss of what was, and his love for them is the source of that pain. They were part of him, of his life, and now they are gone. He seems to deal with their loss by suppressing happy memories of them, and focusing just on the pain. They have become phantoms.
The idea of nerves continuing to grow into a leg that isn’t there was such a vivid depiction of what loss is. At what point does the commendable effort cease to serve, or was it always a pointless endeavor? What’s the turning point?
That’s a good question. Physical pain does serve a purpose: it keeps people from putting additional stress on an injury. There are people who have a congenital insensitivity to pain. They cannot feel pain, and are much more likely to incur serious injuries and to die at a relatively young age. But pain that persists past the healing point, such as a phantom limb, serves no purpose, as far as I can determine.
People who indicate no sadness or emotional pain are usually regarded as suffering from a psychological problem, as are people who appear to be grieving too much or too long. It does seem there is a correlation to physical pain, in that there is a point after which grief is not productive and interferes needlessly with the griever’s life and well-being. And just as there are no objective measures for another person’s physical pain, there is no objective way to measure whether someone has crossed an invisible line of appropriate emotional pain. (“That doesn’t hurt so much” is, in either case, a condescending and useless assessment.) Indeed, that might be the major underlying theme of my story.
What inspired you to tell a Marine’s story?
My father was a US Marine in World War II. He lost his right leg in an action on the island of New Britain, similar to what happened to the character in my story, and suffered from extreme chronic pain the rest of his life. In the early 1990s, a few years before he died, he sent me a short story he had written about being injured, and he said he’d finished the story when he was sitting in a hospital waiting room, waiting for me to be born. It was a good Saturday Evening Post story, professional quality, though it was never published. I used some incidents from it in my story, although my story is, of course, different, and not necessarily my father’s story.
What would you like your readers to take away from this story?
Whatever they want to, really. I don’t think it’s my task as the author to tell readers what to take away from the story. That’s the wonderful thing about stories, actually. They should be concrete enough in the writing to evoke reality, but generalized enough in the meaning that the readers can take away from them whatever is meaningful to their lives. The story won’t have quite the same takeaway for each reader, and whatever the reader takes away is right.
What’s coming up next from you?
I’m looking forward to the publication in April of “Night Shift at NanoGobblers,” a short story I wrote about near-future commercial exploitation of asteroids. I expect there will shortly be an announcement about it: it’s part of a project sponsored by NASA.
I’m also at work on a metafictional novel, The Education of Samantha Clemens. It is concerned with issues of gender and race, and of history as a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.
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