All He Had To Do Was Turn Around

I’ve never been in prison. The closest I ever came was not related to any crime, but occurred when I was a UPS driver. The prison was a daily stop on my delivery route. I arrived mid-morning, and went through a security process that allowed me access to proceed down a hallway to the mail room.  It was during that short walk that I passed by a window giving full view of the inmates milling around in a recreation room.

I remember they were loud, and walked either with a slow shuffle or a swagger.  Some greeted each other with structured handshakes reminiscent of gang brotherhood. Others jostled each other with elbows and shoulders in a way that was rough, but full of camaraderie. And then there were the few men who appeared isolated from all groups. Perhaps they were–as I would learn—the “new fish” who had yet to find their place in the prison cliques. Or perhaps they were simply individuals who preferred their isolation. Looking through that window, it was hard to tell.

I don’t have a clue what life is like in prison. We’ve all heard stories, but they only give us a glimpse of what it’s like to live within the razor wire-surrounded walls.  What I do know is that going or not going to prison teeters on the one second difference between a wrongful or rightful decision.

*          *          *

One second.

I have a friend whose 18-year-old grandson, Derek, was recently sentenced to prison for a first-degree felony aggravated robbery charge. He and his buddy had the foolish idea to arm themselves with guns and rob an apartment occupied with several people.

One second was all that was required to stop in their tracks, turn around, and call it a day. But they didn’t.

Their plan was to barge in through the front door, point their weapons, yell a few expletive orders, then take the drugs and money, and run. Pretty straight forward.  Except they didn’t factor in a rifle pointing at them. Or being fired at, for that matter.

In the end, two people were killed. One was an occupant in the apartment, and the other was Derek’s buddy. Derek was lucky, though, and fled the scene with only a grazing shot to the leg, but was apprehended by the police just a few blocks away.

It was an irreversible moment as he was handcuffed and put in the police squad car. His soft-spoken and gentle good nature had gotten him entangled in his own ability to hang with any group of people. Be it the jocks, the geeks, the punks, or the wayward kids of mischief, he was intrigued by them all. Unfortunately, this time, he had hung with the wrong kid at the wrong time and place. While it was Derek’s choice to be there, he simply didn’t realize what he was getting into.

Although he never fired his gun, Derek’s involvement in the robbery proved catastrophic in terms of the prison sentence that justice dealt him…

Forty years.

*                 *                    *

Our lives are full of seconds, some of which have far greater repercussions than others.  How quickly one second was to become the darkest 40 years of his life. And it is that thought where my imagination wanders…

At night my mind travels to the prison that houses him. I choose nighttime, because that is when people are the most reflective. My wandering curiosity quietly enters the front doors, then slips past the security check point that grants access into the facility.  I meander through the hallways until I find Derek’s cell. I recognize him from newspaper articles that reported the botched robbery. He’s just brushed his teeth, and has climbed atop a bunk bed. Lights out. The entire prison settles in for the night.

My curiosity, though, is wide awake, and in need of answers. And it is there that my presumptive imagination finds them.

I stealthily perched at the end of his bed. Initially, there is some slight tossing and turning, which is normal during your first week in prison. But then, you lay still with your eyes gazing far, far beyond the ceiling. Into the night, as my mind freely travels, his, too, escapes. It goes home to his mother and sister—the two people he most dearly loves.  His dad has been out of the picture for years.

Derek sees them in the kitchen, eating beef stew together on a cold, snowy night. Frigid tree limbs tap against a window as they eat in silence. This used to be a kitchen that was the centerpiece for jovial conversations and sharing the events of the day. Now, it’s as if those days never existed. It is bleak. The slow pace at which they eat their stew is indicative not that the food is hot, but rather that something is missing—that something has been unfairly removed from their lives. They don’t understand why the law must be so strict. It all seems so unfair.  But the law is that if more than one person participates in a felony where death occurs, then all involved are equally responsible—even those who didn’t cause the death. Forty years is too long a time to wait, thinks Derek’s mother. I’ll be dead by then. 

It is a bittersweet place that he visits each night. But his fondest memories are all from his home. Either his mind goes there or remains back in prison, where he must listen to the late-night, psychotic laughter of his cellmate—a convicted rapist, who lies beneath on the lower bunk.  Unfortunately, it’s never easy blocking out reality.

I visited his cell to find an answer. To see what it was that he thought of most.

Loved ones and happiness.

The human body can turn 180 degrees in one second. He missed that opportunity, and will forever regret his decision.

May we all be so lucky to take some time to learn from his mistake…even if it’s just one second.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

 

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Goodbye, Ken Copeland

It’s 7:30PM and dark.

You sit in your car in the grocery store parking lot and stare at the side of the building, as the tears well in your eyes.  Cars and shoppers pass by, but nothing steals your attention.

Earlier in the day, you had a friend take a photo of yourself, standing by two large garbage dumpsters at your town’s Activity Center. In your hands were a pair of running shoes—the same running shoes you had written about in your previous story titled, Wonder. This photo was to accompany a follow-up story about finding your shoes—to tell your readers about how they had spent the last two weeks on the feet of a college student in Wharton, Texas.  About how the kid doesn’t even prefer running shoes, but much prefers boots.  After all, he’s going to school to be a certified welder.  You were going to tell the story about how you had left your shoes out by those dumpsters to dry in the sun after your morning run.  About how you had driven off and left them behind, only to be found by a man who would later give them to the kid from Wharton, who, just happened to be visiting the Activity Center that day.

And through a series of odd events and coincidental conversations, someone would recall the details of your description of your lost shoes, and surface with the answer of their whereabouts.

And then, today, your shoes arrived.  And you were all prepared to write the sequel to Wonder.

But, then, the details of that story became completely insignificant, as did the photo.

Because today, a friend of yours was killed in the line of duty.

*                    *                    *

I’ll wonder about Ken Copeland for a long, long time.  I’ll wonder about his wife and kids, but mostly his son, Nile, who I train, and is, for the most part, confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida. I’ll forever think back on Ken’s last words to me: “Ros, Nile loves you.  You’re the best with him”.  And how can I not stop thinking about his son, when you know fully well that “the best with him” will never be there to rub his hair for one last time?  How can I not think about Ken as he would marvel with Nile at his pet tarantula that has turned a slight hint of blue?

Four years ago, I met Ken for the first time when he was working routine security during my daughter’s high school basketball game.  The instant I saw his smile…that instant…I knew this guy had it—the gift.  He could lighten up any room with just his smile.  For ninety minutes, I stood with him at the end of the basketball court, and we talked like buddies who’d been separated for years.  The conversation flowed and never dipped into boredom.  I drilled him with endless questions about his experiences as a police officer, and he answered them as candidly as I never expected.  I just let him run with the stories.  And why not?  I mean, he was the model of sincerity.  Of committed fatherhood.  Of being just a great, great guy.

*                    *                    *

And so I parked my car outside the grocery store tonight and stared at the side of the building.  I needed a place to stop and let my eyes pour.  That’s where I started writing this story.  It’s where emotion was riding heavily on my shoulders at each tap of the keyboard.  It’s where I found myself wondering about the fragility of life and the cruelty that can harbor within it.

So much travels through your mind when you suddenly lose a friend.  So much emotion sweeps through you, that it becomes nearly impossible to handle.  But you aren’t his family, and that thought alone—thinking of them—just levels you.  And you aren’t Nile, and the helplessness just eats away at you because you don’t even know how to begin to offer your sympathy.  The kid’s rock was taken away from him, and all of us—to be forever missed.

Goodbye, Ken Copeland.  I’ll never stop wondering about you.

After all, you are a wonder.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

 

Wonder

Somebody stole my running shoes today. They were only a week old.

I ran fast in those shoes. They fit like a best friend. I remember taking them out of their box for the first time, and immediately trying them on. I wanted to sleep in them. I wanted to read them a book. I wanted to take them to a movie. And so I did. I took them to Wonder.

Wonder is about a young boy with a disfigured face. Much of the movie focuses on the bullying he must endure while at school. You have no choice but to feel for him, as all the other students keep a safe distance for fear if they touch him, then they each will be plagued with a disfigured face as well. It can be a cruel world for kids who must go public with such pronounced scars.

The disfigured boy is a wonder though, with a brilliant mind that knows exactly what’s going on. He learns to shake off the bullies, and embrace those who come around to understand just how special he is. How engaging and funny he is. How amazing he is.

That was the last movie my shoes and I will ever see together. Someone took them, leaving me in a state of wonder.

I wonder why you took my shoes. Are you, by chance, the bullying type who gains pleasure out of messing with other people’s lives? If so, then show me your face. Walk up to me in my shoes. I dare you. Because if you do, I’ll take a gamble and surprise you.

I’ll take you out to lunch. I’ll pay for your meal. But you don’t get to leave until we talk. Not just me, but you must talk as well. You see, I believe that many of us are just one conversation away from being helped. It’s not always the case, but you never know when it just might be someone’s lucky day.

So sit there and wonder about why I’m being so kind to you. Wonder about what a fool I must be to think that I can make a difference in your life.

Or wonder about what a difference you can make in your own life.

You do that, and the shoes are yours.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Accident

All it took was the unavoidable collision of his pickup truck into the side of the car that had pulled out in front of him.  He didn’t know it, but in the instant of steel violently kissing steel—that moment of sheer terror—he was about to rediscover just who he was.

Seventy-eight year old Sadie merely wanted to get home.  Four turns and she’d be there.  For 62 years, she’d never had an accident.  She’d nicked her bumpers on a few parking lot light posts, but nothing of any real significance to qualify as damaging.  The first turn required crossing three lanes of the highway.  Her car would barely make it past the first lane.

There was no time to accelerate.  No time to brake.  No time for prayer.  Time was up.  The pickup suddenly appeared.  How she hadn’t seen it, was beyond her.  But there it was at 60 mph, and horrifyingly unavoidable.  She braced herself for what might be her last day as the truck T-boned the rear driver’s side door, sending her car into a tail-spin.

Somewhere along the way a cervical vertebra in her upper neck and several ribs fractured, but it was her conscience that was absorbing the brunt of the hit.  The truck had gone airborne, and she could hear the terrifying roar of its engine as it lifted off the road. Dear God, what have I done? No matter the damages, no matter how minor or major the injuries, or how fatal an ending, she would be held responsible.  Especially in the worst case scenarios, her conscience would never rest, but forever be burdened with relentless and undeniable blame.

The pickup helicoptered counterclockwise for 360 degrees, before smashing into another pickup that had been waiting to turn left into where Sadie had pulled out.  In the ensuing silence that followed—after the glass and vehicle debris had settled, and fluids were forming puddles—three drivers sat in their vehicles in shock and uncertain what their immediate conditions were.

Thomas, the 38-year-old driver of the pickup that had hit Sadie, wiped deployed airbag powder and glass fragments off of his arms. There were a few lacerations near his wrists and forearms, but nothing serious. His door opened without difficulty, but the passenger’s side door was a different story.  It was nearly bent in half due to a heavy, direct hit from the front of the second pickup. Thomas could see the other pickup’s driver who, miraculously, smiled and gave a thumbs up.  He returned the same gesture, then swung his legs out before standing.  Inspecting his truck, and then giving himself a full look-over he said, “What a miracle.”

Then he remembered the woman.

He remembered her look just before impact: sorrowful eyes, a heavy brow, and downturned lips. The look of someone lost in fright and remorse.  The back half of Sadie’s car was practically unrecognizable. It was mangled, crumpled and twisted, and would have been the death sentence for her granddaughter who had opted out of the ride to grandma’s house.  There was no sign of Sadie as Thomas approached her car.  He looked around to see if she might have been ejected, but then heard a moaning sound. On her side, and in the passenger’s seat, lay Sadie.

“Ma’am,” said Thomas, “Are you okay?”

“My neck.  Something’s wrong with it.”

“Well, don’t move.  I’m calling 9-1-1 now.”

“How’s the man in the pickup? I pulled out in front of him.  I just didn’t see him coming.  Dear, God, I—”.

“Ma’am, I’m okay.”

“Jesus Christ. I hit you?” she said, in a voice overcome with emotion. “And you’re walking?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m fine.”

“Are there other people? Was anyone hurt?”

“There’s only one other man, but he’s okay.  I hit his truck after yours.”

“Oh, my God, what have I done?”

Thomas leaned into the car and took Sadie’s hand.  She responded, squeezing tightly. “Please don’t let go,” she said, “I need you to understand how sorry I am.  Are you certain no one else was hurt?”

“It was just us three.  No one else.  You’re banged up the most, so let’s focus on you, okay?”

“Please don’t leave me.” she said. “Please stay with me. I don’t want to be left alone.”

“Ma’am, my name is Thomas, and I’m not leaving you.”

“I’m Sadie, and I know you’re not. I’m not going to let go of your hand.”

*                 *                *

Thomas was 12 miles away from his double-wide mobile home which sat on a two-acre plot of land that he had purchased years ago.  It was bought with the full intention of being a temporary residence while he built his dream house—a small house, a simple house, and a place to dream of one day becoming his very own.  But life got in the way, filled with a history of poor decisions.  There was a time when his carpentry skills were paving the way for financial stability. It was a time when work was abundant, because word had spread quickly about just how gifted he was.

And just as quickly, or so it seemed, he lost touch with nearly everything.  Mounting debts and a failed relationship splintered any hopes of fulfilling his dream.  Once he lost his focus and drive, the carpentry business went as well. There would be too many long nights when he couldn’t sleep, and would sit outside in an old aluminum lawn chair.  He’d gaze at the stars and wondered how was it even possible that in a universe so overwhelmingly expansive, his life could be of any value. And, yet, how real it was that his feeling of worthlessness could overpower its vast enormity.

He’d once met a woman—his first love.  They’d met at a carnival—just two people strolling on their own around the amusement rides.  By chance, they had been seated together on a Ferris wheel.  Small talk led to laughter, which led to a hotdog stand, which led to exchanging phone numbers.  Two months later, she moved in with him, and two months after that she moved out.  No explanation of any kind, just an ambiguous hand-written note, succinct enough to crack his heart.

Thomas:

 Just finding a pen to write this is more burdensome than I could ever imagine.  Trust me, the pain is deeper than the cut I’m now giving you.  I have a past that you have no knowledge of, and it will forever remain so.  I never intended for things to end as they are.  I can only wish you the best with whatever comes your way.  Hopefully, it’ll be someone of far greater worth than I.

                                                                                                                                                     Sandra

The note was forever indelibly trapped in his brain, and for no one to see, but him.  To the end of the earth it would follow him.  Even measured against the size of the universe, it would always be larger.  Three o’clock in the morning, and sitting in that old aluminum chair, he’d wonder not so much about how far away or how many stars there were, but rather what was it about himself that couldn’t keep her grounded next to him. It wasn’t a matter of her mysterious past that was to blame, instead, it was him.

He was 12 miles away from home, and thinking of nothing more than what his life had become: a day-to-day realization that he had reached a point of little value.  His self-worth, like everything else around him, had crumbled.  So, he thought, this is life at the bottom.

And then he hit Sadie.

*                    *                    *

Inside the ambulance, a paramedic secured Sadie in the portable cot. She was wearing a cervical neck brace, and was holding Thomas’s hand as he sat next to her.  Though he said he felt fine, it was suggested he still get checked out at the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Somewhere along the way—far back down the road before the accident—Thomas lost touch with what he was capable of. He had lost sight of what made him a great carpenter, and instead only saw the pitfalls of his life that were clouding any chance of returning to the man he once was. While taking responsibility for Sandra’s leaving didn’t help matters, in the ambulance, an unexpected change was taking place—a resurgence of self-worth.

Hardly a word was spoken between the two during the trip to the hospital, and hardly a word was needed.  Though Sadie’s mind was a whirlwind of disbelief, regret, and sorrow, there was the newfound sensation of peace as well.  There was no doubt that the accident, and everything it entailed, was her fault, but no one had been seriously injured.  That was something she could very much live with.  Vehicle damages mattered none, as they could be repaired or replaced.  Shattered lives don’t share that luxury.

And there Thomas sat, holding the hand of someone he knew nothing about. He noticed dirt under her nails, and asked if she were a gardener.  “All my life,” she said. “Nothing beats working with your hands.”  The carpenter in Thomas couldn’t agree more.   Was Sadie, in some unknowing way, sending him a message?  What if, he thought, the collision was more than just an accident? 

At times, when the ambulance went over even a slight bump in the road, he could feel her grip tighten, needing the reassurance that he was still there—that he wasn’t going to leave her—that things would be okay.  She had made a horrible mistake, but needed his acceptance in forgiving that mistake.  Without uttering a word, Thomas did just that, and wrapped both of his hands comfortingly around hers before watching the tears drop from her eyes.

Indeed, the universe is big, he thought, smiling.  And with plenty of room to make a difference.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Scorpion and Cinderella

It wasn’t until I noticed my daughter using a rag to clean up the carrot juice that I realized just how quickly my rage could be subdued by merely one selfless gesture.  I knew that I’d forcefully thrown the bag of large carrots, but had no idea that I’d pulverized them.  In retrospect, had I not thrown them in my boiling rage, then I suppose it would have been just another day.

We have a refrigerator at my house that wasn’t behaving properly. It’d been leaking water beneath the fruit and vegetable crisper drawers. The water eventually pooled to such a level that it ran outside the fridge and puddled onto the kitchen floor.  A full inspection of the fridge was required, so I transferred all of the contents to a second fridge that we keep in the garage. Eight trips, back and forth through the laundry room, is what it took. Eight trips barefoot. The last trip, I had only one item…the bag of carrots.

I was one step away from the door to the garage when, little did I know, I was also one second away from spontaneous combustion. A scorpion nailed me in the bottom of my foot.

It was a sharp piercing needle of fire—quick and full of malicious intent. Of course, the scorpion was only trying to preserve its life as 190 pounds descended upon it. But a scorpion is always on alert, and was not going to let a size 13 do anything without first putting up a fight. The moment my foot came within an inch of it, was the moment it sent its stinger into my skin, and, I’m sure, hoping the venomous toxins would travel as far into my nervous system as possible.

I recognized the heat of the sting immediately. I’d been stung before by scorpions, but never in an area this sensitive.  Anger unleashed itself as I violently threw the bag of carrots onto the adjacent kitchen tile floor, and shouted a few hundred expletives.  Understandably, I startled my daughter, Brookney.

“What the!?….Dad??”

I’m not even sure I heard her. I was too preoccupied with cussing like a sailor and trying to slaughter a predatory arthropod, whose existence I wanted to end.

I scanned the floor of the laundry room, knowing that if the scorpion made it beneath the washer or dryer, then there’d be a good chance it’d be hard to find.  However, scorpions have one deficit that was in my favor: they’re relatively slow creatures.  They don’t run, they scurry. As if lugging that big, venom-filled tail of theirs is such a burdensome chore that it inhibits any possibility of real running.

But the scorpion didn’t even choose to scurry.  Rather, it opted to be motionless in the middle of the floor, as if it knew the nearest place to hide was too far away.  Any attempt to move would put it at high-risk of being noticed, so it contracted its legs and pincers in an effort to conceal itself.  I can only presume that its decision to stay still must have been influenced by the vibrations of my maddening oscillations.

Within seconds I located it, then grabbed a nearby shoe.  I raised it high above my head, fully knowing there was no stopping me.  The piercing needle of fire in the bottom of my swelling foot was clearly telling me, “DO NOT LET THIS CREATURE ESCAPE!!”  Given the opportunity, it would strike over and over again.  To capture it, and then set it free somewhere far away outside, was not an option, nor even a thought.  I was locked in a primal and territorial state of mind, with only one objective: termination.

I did my best to hammer the shoe through the concrete foundation. One hit sealed the deal.

All that anger—all that pent up fury—how quickly it had arrived, and how quickly it had departed.

My foot was still screaming as the swelling increased.  I hobbled across the kitchen floor and took out a bag of frozen peas from the freezer and set them on the floor.  Standing, I gently lowered my foot onto the soft, icy bag and let its cold therapy begin.  I expected shock, but discovered an immediate sensation of comfort. And there, in a transition between my rage and relief, something unusual caught my attention:  my daughter was on her hands and knees, cleaning up pulverized carrot debris and juice.  What had once been a bag of large, healthy carrots, was now a catastrophe of hemorrhaged orange guts.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Uh…well, Dad…you made a mess.”

I say “unusual” because Brookney is not exactly the type of person to voluntarily clean up a mess. Particularly if it belongs to someone else.  Of course, if you were to poll all the households in the country, I suppose the findings would indicate that’s expected behavior.  “Nice job, Dad,” she’d say, “Mop’s in the garage.”

But there she was, working that elbow grease into the rag, because she knew it was the right thing to do.  She knew that a little bit of relief can go a long way. And if you’re lucky enough to recognize such an act, you might find yourself in an entirely better state of mind than the one you were in moments before.  The frozen peas gave me physical relief.  But Brookney’s unsolicited offer to clean the floor gave me an unexpected comfort—soulful in a way—and widened the gap beyond my fit of anger.  It was a Cinderella story of sorts, as she labored on all fours with her hair dangling like a drapery of tangled vines. Of all people…my daughter?  My mess?  The difference though was there were no oppressive step-sisters ordering her to do so.  Attacking this domestic chore was strictly under her own volition. “Dad,” she said, “I got this one.”

And if that’s not enough to comfort you—to help take the sting out of your foot—to remind you that some of the simplest moments in life are, in fact, some of the most touching, then you might want to have the blur in your vision checked out before you go completely blind.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

October Christmas

There’s something unsettling about walking into my local Lowe’s Home Improvement store to buy a chainsaw in mid-October.  You quickly discover that the only path to that chainsaw is to pass by a display of massive inflatable snowmen, Santa Clauses, sleighs, and a holiday-dressed Mickey Mouse, as well as enough Christmas decorations to outnumber all the drills, hammers, screwdrivers, clamps, batteries, and bags of concrete in the store.

There are a few mannequin-style vampires, zombies, and skeletons dressed in tattered clothing. In addition to some plastic pumpkins, spooky-themed door mats and boxed inflatable Despicable Me yard decorations, that’s about it for Halloween.

And Thanksgiving? Well, good luck, Thanksgiving. Of course, ceramic turkeys will be on the way, but for now, not much of anything is there. It is Christmas which has come to town, infiltrating store after store like a plague of unwelcome eye sores.

It’s interesting how we’ve evolved to become consumers of gargantuan yard decorations. Yet, I don’t recall anybody asking for them.  But, perhaps we did…

Dear Christmas Decorations Manufacturer:

 Is there any way you can push the envelope a little, and knock out some inflatable yard abominations large enough to hide our homes? You know…BIG inflatables that’ll make it look as if we’re putting on a grounded hot air balloon festival.  And slap a price tag on them for a couple hundred dollars, because you know us…we’ll buy whatever you put out there!

 Happy Holidays,

We The People 

Perhaps there were protesters outside Lowe’s whom I never saw, pumping their “OCTOBER CHRISTMAS!!  OCTOBER CHRISTMAS!!” picket signs into the air, while shouting, “WE WANT REINDEER!! EIGHT-FOOT INFLATABLE REINDEER!!”

Did a protester stand on top of one of Lowe’s riding lawn mowers, and speak into a megaphone to a gathering crowd of head-nodding followers?… “UNTIL LOWE’S SELLS US INFLATABLE GINGER BREAD HOUSES, ELVES, IGLOOS, AND COCA-COLA-DRINKING POLAR BEARS, WE SHALL REFUSE TO BUY THEIR CHAINSAWS, BIRD SEED, AND FIRE ANT KILLER!!!”

However these massive yard decorations came to be, one thing is certain:  a need to display them two-and-a-half months prior to Christmas has become the new norm.  And that goes for every Christmas tree ornament, string of lights, package of tinsel, artificial poinsettia, and mistletoe decoration as well.

There was a time when Christmas decorations weren’t sold until Thanksgiving.  There was something that just felt right about it—as if the month of December was meant to be festive.  Had massive, inflatable yard decorations been a part of that past, it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be so over-the-top as they are in mid-October.

Mid-October…really?

Until there’s enough public outcry to persuade retailers to at least keep Christmas out of October, then chances are that—and you guessed it—the greedy hands of September won’t be too far away.

But it is what it is.  Christmas, with its mass consumer grandeur, has been a multi-billion dollar generator for many, many years.  And it has no plan of stopping.  Without Christmas, the success of our national economy would never reach its celebrated numbers. And to that, as Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Lowe’s watch the increasing sales of gargantuan yard ornaments, they have really only one thing to say…

“Thank you, Jesus!”

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

C6

My plan was to run him until he dropped.  No breaks.  Just gradually increase his pace until his tank ran out.  I wanted to see how much endurance strength he had.  Unfortunately for me, I never discovered it.  There was one slight glitch in my plan that I hadn’t foreseen…the kid just kept on running.

*                    *                    *

I often thought that Lee Bryant’s energy should’ve been harnessed as an alternative fuel source.  He simply had no stop button.  Rest was a four-letter word he preferred not to hear.

We would meet two to three times a week at a college intramural field.  There, beneath the lights on warm Texas summer nights, Lee let loose, clipping along at speeds that didn’t slow down.  He was 15 years old, and my job was to prepare him for his upcoming high school basketball season.  To build up his aerobic conditioning required on the court.

For two years I ran Lee.

Until I couldn’t.

*                    *                    *

September 18, 2010.

The light pole stood tall and solid in the Target parking lot.  Its sole purpose was to illuminate.  Beyond that, it was completely unforgiving.

Lee was 19 years old.  He had just exited the store with a couple of items, and was getting into his car, preparing to drive away.  Fifteen minutes was all it would take for him to walk through the front door, before going directly into the kitchen to raid the fridge for a quick snack.  In seventeen minutes he’d be chilling in his room, watching ESPN.  In twenty minutes, he’d be back at the fridge, rummaging for anything to appease his high metabolic rate.

Unfortunately, not only did his car not travel more than thirty seconds from the moment he left the parking space, but he also never made it home that night.  And one light pole had changed everything.

While one hand was trying to call his mother with a cell phone, the other was attempting to secure his seatbelt.  His eyes were anywhere except paying attention to where the car was going, which was being steered with his knee.  Inadvertently, Lee had put himself in a very vulnerable and precarious situation.

At 15 mph, his car aimlessly ran nose-first into the concrete base of the light pole.  At the moment of impact, Lee’s head was turned to the right as he dealt with the seatbelt.  This would be the last time in the foreseeable future—and possibly his life—that he would ever be able to grab something, and one airbag had made certain of that.

He was completely caught off-guard when the airbag deployed, forcing his neck to bend at a bad angle.  Less than a second later, much of his body was paralyzed.  It comes with the territory when the sixth cervical vertebrae shatters into small fragments, resulting in a damaged spinal cord.

But there was a moment after the impact when Lee had no idea that paralysis had even occurred.  For all he knew, this was nothing more than a little one-vehicle accident, and he might as well get out of the car to assess the damage.  He shifted his torso to the left and tried to unlock his door.

Tried.  It’s fair to say he didn’t even make that much progress. It was bad enough that he couldn’t move his arms, but the real horror was the fact that neither could he move his fingers, legs, and feet.  They were completely limp.

He had felt nothing as C6 shattered.  No pain of any kind, just an unwelcome numbness.  There would be no unlocking the door at the request of the person outside his car—the same person who was calling 9-1-1.  As Lee sat there, waiting for the paramedics and police to arrive, he had but one thought:  “Shit! Shit! Shit!  This can’t be good…this can’t be good.”

Soon he would hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles.  And soon a police officer would be telling Lee to remain calm—they would be getting him out.  That’s when he heard the sound of breaking glass as his rear windshield was being smashed open.

*                    *                    *

A few hours later, in the ER at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Lee was wearing a cervical neck brace as he laid prone on a gurney.  He was waiting for a doctor to give him the results from his MRI.  “Basically, your sixth vertebrae is missing.  It’s shattered, and highly unlikely that you’ll ever walk again.”

In Lee’s words: ”That’s when the waterworks hit.”

At this point, authorities were attempting to contact Lee’s parents and sister. He was alone, and some of the worst news possible had just been delivered to him.  It’s a tough situation when you’re a teenager and you learn that three-quarters of your body has basically been permanently anesthetized.  Your entire life has evolved around sports.  There’s no telling how many tens of thousands of miles your legs have run.  And you always hated the word “rest” because it meant being idle, and idle just sucks.  Long before your youth Little League Baseball days, you thrived on high-energy movement.  And now…

An airbag knocked C6 clear out of the line-up.

“We’re prepping for surgery,” said the doctor. “You’ve got vertebrae fragments scattered around that need to be cleaned up.  We’re also going to fuse C5 and C7 together with a titanium piece. It’s critical we do this now so that the spinal cord isn’t subjected to any more damage.”

Through his watery eyes, Lee nodded in agreement.  Soon after, he was wheeled into the OR.

*                    *                  *

Life is what it is, and sometimes you’re a lot better off joining it, rather than lamenting over it, or fighting it.  That’s how Lee saw it, anyway.  And this became immediately clear as soon as he came to from the surgery, when a sense of hope encompassed him. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy, but at least he had a road.  And if the only means of getting around is in a wheelchair, then so be it.  It’s a highly admirable attitude, given the range of his disabilities: paralyzed chest down, partial upper arm muscle deficits, unable to move fingers, no abdominal contractions, unable to yell because his diaphragm can’t contract, inability to maintain body temperature, and an inability to sweat.

Much of his acceptance of his “new normal” came from spending a month at TIRR in Houston, which is one of the world’s most respected and aggressive spinal cord injury rehab centers. There, he saw just how alone he wasn’t.  He met numerous 20-year-olds who had been in vehicle or water-related accidents, such as diving head-first into dark, shallow rivers.  The higher up on the spine the injury is, the more severe the limitations.  C1 and C2 injuries were the worst: complete paralysis of arms and legs, limited head and neck movement, trouble breathing without assistance, and ability to speak sometimes impaired. There, in his wheelchair, as a therapist tied his shoes, how fortunate Lee felt to be able to freely move his arms.  How lucky he felt to be able to drop his limp fingers onto a computer keyboard and type a college essay or search the web.

“It’s the putting on the socks that sucks,” he says. ‘I can’t do it.  With those, I need help.  And jeans…well, I can put them on, but they just take fiveever.”

Fiveever.  It’s his own little neologism that describes the act of doing something taking longer than forever.  Or, as we might hear phonetically…fourever.

“I’m good,” he says. “I’ve accepted this life and do what I can do. I’m attending classes at Texas State University, working on a degree in Therapeutic Recreation, and that’s a big deal to me. I hope for two things:  to work in a spinal rehab center, and that my disability will improve.  You have to have hope.  I mean, why not?  Look at technology. It’s way on my side as there are cars out there that are designed so I can drive. So, yeah, as a whole, I’m good.”

And that’s where I come in…into his room.  For the past six years, I’ve been training him there, doing whatever I can to build strength in whatever areas possible.  He has a pair of special gloves that allow him to hold onto barbells and dumbbells.  I also have him pull on elastic cords in all directions, as well as have him work with a medicine ball that he catches and throws with the heels of his hands.

No, we’re not running sprints on the intramural field anymore.  To train Lee for aerobic conditioning is certainly out of the question.  And as for basketball…will Lee ever shoot one again?  What are the chances? Many would say slim to none.  But never say never, as his workouts are not just to build and maintain strength, but to hopefully wake up a nerve somewhere—to fire up a neuron that’ll send a long-awaited signal to the brain that says, “Hey, remember me?  I’m alive!”

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017