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

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