What about the life that Rob lost when he decided to join the Marines, a life of video-game making and company softball and working toward a big salary and four weeks of vacation? Phantom.
Rob and Oksana live every moment knowing that large pieces of them are gone and the rest could go at any time. They have a heightened awareness that we are all merely currently alive.
"You are just one little, tiny grass strand on this whole earth," Oksana says. "You're not guaranteed anything, let alone your white-picket-fence lifestyle that you want or whatever."
Sitting at an outdoor table at a café in a strip mall in Charlottesville, Rob says matter-of-factly, "Some things are more important than preserving your life. I'm not going to throw it away willy-nilly, but I would give it up for something important. Somebody I care about. Or a pregnant lady."
Rob is still not sure exactly why that IED exploded beneath him. If he stepped on it, then he thinks he should have discovered it first. But if the IED was radio controlled or command detonated, then there was nothing he could have done. Either way, he has no regrets. He doesn't even wish he had his legs back anymore. Since the injuries, too many good things have happened to him: rowing, the Paralympics, new friendships and experiences.
"I don't understand it," said Ben Kiernan, a friend and fellow Marine who was wounded by an IED blast in Afghanistan but did not lose any limbs. "It's amazing how resilient he is. If ever I'm in any sort of a bad [place], which doesn't happen very often now, I look at him. He is the first one to crack a joke."
Later, after she began rowing with Rob, Oksana decided her self-consciousness when she wore shorts in public was just phantom pain. She wears them all the time now.
The pain from her childhood is more complex. What about her birth parents? Do they ever reach for the daughter they gave up, only to discover again that she isn't there?
Her friend Lainey was definitely real, but the story of her getting sick and dying was phantom. Oksana knows the truth: One night Lainey and Oksana sneaked out to get food, and Oksana slipped and hit a chair. Men heard the noise and found Lainey. Oksana hid and heard them hit Lainey six times. They murdered her."It was my fault," Oksana says. "I never forgave myself and probably never will forgive myself."
Oksana was a little girl at the time, parentless and abused. She knows that if she had rushed out to help Lainey, she might have been killed too. She was not responsible for the death of her friend. Blaming her childhood self—that is phantom pain. But it feels real, so real.