The Friendly Phantom

by Christine Adams Beckett

I read in a medical journal at the pediatrician’s office today that Science has recently debunked a once widely agreed upon theory concerning the root of phantom limb syndrome, an amputee’s sensation of pain, itches or other stimuli from a missing limb. More recent studies suggest that causation is likely not due to damaged nerves of that limb. Instead, researchers have come up with new, more complex theories that include the entire jumbled system of neurology and it’s electro-chemical responses, a “neuromatrix” theory. The somatosensory cortex of the brain, after losing a significant amount of input after the loss of a limb, goes through a long process of reorganization, often resulting in false stimuli. Hence, the amputee may feel pain where there is nothing.

The phenomenon reminds me of the sensation a new mother still feels after birth: abdominal flutters, perceived fetal movements as she cares for her living, breathing newborn. The lingering sensation a child feels long after a pet hamster had skittered across the palm and returned to its screen-covered glass aquarium. The sound of that same baby crying out in her sleep, who is in fact restful and unconscious to the world around her: all tricks our brain’s sensory cortex plays on our receptors, a faux response to false stimuli.

I have “seen” movements out of the corner of my eye, convinced that a turn of the head would lead me to the position of greeting a visitor to no avail. I have heard voices, most often belonging to the radiator. I have felt the touch of a hand that was simply the cramp of a small muscle.

So it is when our “vie quotidien” is disrupted, our habits of daily life are thrown a curve ball and the change does not quite register. In the 1980s, when a family friend shaved his mustache, it took me months to recognize what was different about him. Returning from college, the garden in front of my parents’ house seemed different, but it took three days to compute: the crab apple tree was gone. I am often left to wonder, “what is different…?”

My dog left us abruptly last Friday, a victim of the instinctual tragic flaw of being unequivocally attracted to squirrels. She died in my arms at the vet an hour after the accident. I watched her leave me as I thanked her for the love, joy and comfort she afforded our family for the five too-short years she graced us with her company. Every sense of my person registered that loss: I saw her pupils dilate away from me, I heard her breath stop, I felt the shudder under her fur, I smelled the medicinal atmosphere of the veterinarian’s office and tasted the tears that ran down my cheeks. Every neurological sign sent painful signals to my stunned sensory cortex: she is gone. My nerves responded in kind: my digestive tract told me never to eat, my respiratory system took painful breaths, my eyes felt exhaustion deep in my head. I grieved.

That her presence still registers with me is likely due to faux sensory input, details of my day severed from my life too abruptly. I see her in the periphery waiting at the back door when the rain kicks up. I hear her now, breathing in her deep dainty snores as I write about her. I smell the faint hint of her corn chip fur that shed on my pajamas long after our TV watching embrace had unlocked and we headed to our separate beds. I ignore gold fish crackers on the floor, as I know our canine vacuum cleaner should hoover them anon. I reach for the leash when I am at the door and I am still saving the plastic bags from The New York Times to clean up after her at the park.

Faux sensory stimuli are creating a false response in my sensory cortex. That is the scientific explanation. Or maybe the Goodness of her being is still here, a phantom of love that sneaks through the walls and under the rugs and can’t be taken away from us. It is Real. My heart still – and will forever – register it.