Sunday, August 26, 2012

July 17, 2000 Part Two

Vomiting as I was wheeled into what I assume was the emergency room is the last thing I remember until I opened my eyes, lying flat on my back, with tubes coming out of multiple areas of my body. As I slowly awoke, I started becoming aware of my surroundings, the television blaring in the corner, a feeding tube coming out of my nose, a mask on my face pumping much needed oxygen into my lungs, various IV sights, and a clear tube coming out of my left side that was draining fluid. My head turned and I noticed the owner of my camp, Anne, sitting in the corner. She stood up and walked over to me laughing and crying all at the same time. An elated nurse soon came into the room and started switching IV bags around and checking all of the surrounding machines displaying my blood pressure, pulse, and heart rate. Confusion was all I felt in that moment and immediately started asking questions. I remember knowing I couldn't feel my legs and asking over and over what was wrong. The only part of my body I could move, without writhing in pain, was my right arm and I kept using it to remove my mask and ask what happened, what was wrong with me. I will never forget the young nurse who seemed to only know the phrase, "that's not my specialty", every time I questioned the numbness in my legs. My mouth felt like cracked mud desperate for water and since water was apparently not an option, the same nurse would swab my mouth with little, oddly tasting sponges on a stick. The thirst was overwhelming and with a mouth like sandpaper, the sponges on a stick did very little to relieve the dryness. Every single part of my body, the parts I could still feel, seemed to be broken.

As I repeatedly asked about my shattered bones and the nurse continued to repeat her mantra, I slowly felt myself coming back to my body. Instead of being in a fog, the world around me was starting to become very clear and very real. My gut told me the truth about my injury, but I didn't want to listen. I chose to cling to hope and focused on the possibility this could all be an enormous misunderstanding and the feeling in my legs would return shortly and I would walk out of the room and head back to camp. Doctors started pulling the curtain and examining me. Finally, one of them stopped and stood at my bed and very kindly asked if I was aware of what had just occurred. I told him I was only aware of the loss of feeling from my belly button down and assumed it could only mean one thing. He wasn't able to answer my question either. He did, however, tell me the extent of the other trauma I sustained. My left leg clipped a tree on the trail, forcing me off of the horse, into the tree and then onto the hard, rocky ground. I didn't believe him. I was certain I let go, so certain it took me years of therapy to realize it was an impossibility according to all of the medical records. I blamed myself for not staying on the horse long and for not holding on tighter. But the force of the collision with tree is what forced me off. In the end, it doesn't really matter what happened, it was an accident and that is all that matters. I also learned when I hit the tree I shattered my left femur, broke my left collar bone, and broke all of the ribs on that side of the body. One of the ribs punctured my lung which was why it was so hard to breathe and the reason for the chest tube. My shoulder blade and twelve vertebrae in my back shattered because of the impact and force of my fall combined with the hard, uneven terrain. I felt almost entirely broken, because I was almost entirely broken. I still had no idea why I couldn't feel my legs. 

Contrary to feelings during later years, I felt very lucky and hopeful in this moment. I felt elated knowing I survived several life-threatening injuries. The life flight crew surprised me with a visit because they both wanted to see with their very own eyes that I was alive and well. These two men, who were once strangers, stood by my bedside as the heroes who saved my life. The shock and jolt I felt were these two men struggling to prevent my body from coding. I'm not sure how you repay or express enough gratitude, but I tried. Their visit only added to my elation. 

I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them the news, to tell them about the tree, the horse, and my damaged body. I could feel my spirit come alive again as I pulled my mask off and dragged the phone closer so I could dial and answer it myself. I was still inside, I was alive and this was enough for now. I still questioned my legs, but I didn't care anymore, I called everyone I could think of calling, my parents, my friends, my dancing teacher, anyone and everyone. The phone was ringing constantly.

The neurosurgeon finally pulled back the curtain. He had a very strong and reassuring presence. He stood by the bed and said he heard I have some questions. I will always remember the conversation. He was the perfect person to tell me. I asked him, "Well, I can't feel my legs and well, am I paralyzed for sure?". As if there is a kind of paralyzed. He said, "Yes, of the twelve fractured vertebrae, one cut into your spinal cord leading me to believe you are in fact paralyzed from T12 down." My reply was, "Are you sure, how sure are you, what are the chances this is true and I will never walk again?". "I am ninety-seven percent sure." "Oh,"I said. I turned my head to the right, the left hurt too much, and started to cry a little bit. He put his hand on my broken shoulder very gently and said, "It's okay to cry, but don't worry, you will still be able to do everything you did before. It may take a little time and a lot of work, but you will get there." I asked a few more questions and he left the room. Anne was making phone calls in the hallway. I turned to the right again, luckily it was away from the dreaded opening and closing curtain. I felt hot tears streaming down my cheeks again and put my one good hand on my one good leg and started rubbing it and telling it how sorry I was for hurting it. I apologized over and over to my legs and body. I felt so ashamed to have taken each and every part of its wonder for granted. I grieved heavy tears for my legs. I wrestled in my mind about why I let go, why I decided to ride that day, why I was working at camp, all of the whys simmered over until they were boiling and I was thinking too many irrational thoughts to process, I just continued to break down in tears. I hit the bed next to my right leg, but then would yell at myself for almost injuring something else. 

Family and friends started arriving, chaplains became permanent fixtures at my bedside, and the long, quiet painful nights continued, one after the next. I would lie awake wondering how I would live, what I would do with myself. I tried to picture myself in a wheelchair but only grew more hysterical and angry. I remember cupping my mouth and sobbing uncontrollably. I questioned my ability to handle the surgeries and the healing and begged God, the universe, whomever would listen for one more chance. I sobbed with memories of all of the wrongs I committed and mistakes I had made, naively writing my accident off as some sort of punishment. I did all of this quietly and alone. I felt so ashamed and absorbed all of my blame, hatred, and anger as some sort of penance.

To protect everyone else from the darkness I felt, I happily progressed and diligently worked at therapy, but secretly planned to give it my all until I started walking, in just a few, short months. Remaining permanently in my chair was not at all a part of my plan.

The physical work was indescribably difficult and tears, nausea, gut wrenching pain, were all a part of my day. I shuttered and shook when I thought of the looming responsibility. When I wasn't shedding tears of loss, I was feeling the sting of change. I grasped to optimism and fought for joy. I knew there was a gravity and enormity of emotions that should be addressed, but my way of facing the unwanted fear was to persevere with what little hope I had left. Sure, I was terrified, and worried, and angry, and sad, but I still felt strong and alive and ready to face the challenge. I chose to focus on walking instead of a life in a wheelchair...denial was far easier than acceptance at this point. What I was unprepared for was what this mindset would to me, what would gradually metastasize over time, a feeling of disconnection and defeat so strong and overpowering I would be left feeling empty and vacant and alone. And lastly and most importantly, I never anticipated the wonder and discovery that come from taking broken pieces, broken bones, and building something out of what remains. The journey may be difficult, but it is oh so rewarding. Life goes on, and it is a lovely life, even sitting down. 

This is the beginning, the tale of the day that changed my life forever. The day I woke up, not expecting anything more than the ordinary. There are many more stories of many more days to come, but this is the beginning. Thank you for your patience, I struggled to put it into words. The stories and days ahead are filled with many more trials, but mostly with hope, hope for a better day and a better life embracing my strengths, as well as my weaknesses. 

Our bodies are given to us for a short time. Unfortunately and fortunately, they are delicate and unpredictable. Our body is our best guide and our best friend. It is there for us when we need it most. It fights injury and infection and wills us to never give up and only asks for diligent care and respect in return. In order for me to live the life I dreamed of living, I need a functioning, well loved body. If lying broken and motionless taught me anything, it taught me to honor my humanity. Listen to my spirit and my soul, but honor and respect the fragility and wonder of my humanity. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

July 17, 2000 Part One

I need to start at the beginning and write my accident story. I know this and have known this, but have been avoiding it. For the past week, I knew I needed to start here, at the beginning, because the day to day stuff has so much to do with the moment that changed my life forever. I don't want to write it because I know I will have to relive it in detail. I've thought about the day many times and talked about the day with friends, family, and therapists. There were many, many stories about what happened and what really happened. I thought for the longest time I did something to cause my fall. It is time to write it, the correct way, as it happened. I've thought about it enough. I've written a lot about my feelings about the past twelve years, but never ever I have written out the story of July 17, 2000. It seems insurmountable to put it into words, but I will try.

Every day we wake up, live out our routines, expecting one thing to happen after another. Even though we know the moments come, because we have seen it many, many times, we still never expect that day to come, that bolt of lighting striking out of no where, leaving us burned, shocked, and changed forever. The burns may heal, the shock may wear off, but the change, it comes in waves, until one day when we least expect it, we realize we are new and different. This moment, which is so fleeting it seems unreal and dreamlike, becomes a lifetime of adapting and accepting.

The summer of July 17, 2000 I decided to work at camp. A summer camp for girls in Crossville, Tennessee. I lived in a cabin with six little girls and a co-counselor. The girls attended different activities throughout the day, moving from one forty minute block of time to another. The counselors organized, ran, and taught the activities, ranging from Nature, to Canoeing to Horseback Riding. I, along with a few other counselors, mucked stalls, brushed manes, saddled horses, taught ring exercises, and led trail rides. It may have been stinky and muddy work, but it was shaping up to be one of the best summers of my life. Camp is a place where I feel at home. I like throwing my hair back, pulling on boots, braiding six little heads of hair, and corralling the little chatty Cathys to sprint up the hill because we are late to breakfast again. Living with all girls and women for a summer while working outside is a priceless experience. General noise about boys, shoes and who wore what where is replaced with confident tales of skiing on one ski for the first time or finding and catching a four foot snake while on a hike. The Appalachian Trail Hike and The Two Mile Damn Swim are the topics of conversation and one evening every week, each girl is recognized for her achievements in whatever activities she chooses. One activity doesn't take precedence over the other, they are all equally important. Singing and making bracelets are the past times and stormy afternoons are spent listening to the melody of the rain on the tin roof while playing cards on the floor. It is welcoming, peaceful, and freeing. Removing the outside facades of make up and perfect clothing, exposes people's hearts and true personalities. It requires sweat and endurance to keep up the momentum for the entire summer. We worked hard and played hard, sleeping very little in between. The work and responsibility of being a camp counselor, however demanding, become insignificant compared to the life lessons gained and learned.

About six or seven weeks into this particular summer, we just finished a day of working in the barn and several of us decided to go riding. It is nice to take a slow, short trail ride at the end of the day. The horses like it and the adults need it. Almost every night we go riding if we are able to. Always the same trail, always the same field. There is an intuition I believe we all have, I am not sure exactly what it is or where it comes from, but it speaks to us and sometimes we listen and sometimes we don't. Most of the time we don't even know it is trying to communicate with us until intuition is shouting and yelling, but it is too late, we didn't heed the warning. When I look back on this day, July 17 2000, it was filled with whispers, knocks, and screams of danger. I don't blame myself anymore for denying the nudges, rather I use it as a lesson to trust myself and my gut feelings. This idea of sensing something imminent or out of body also adds great substance to my ever increasing understanding of our spirit/body relationship. Many times I felt a separation from my human body. I only interpret this as chance to increase my understanding of and relationship with a higher power. These thoughts and ideas marinate and develop over time, they too like my healing, don't happen in an instant.

We start out on the trail. I am riding Wishbone. I like Wishbone, he scares me a little bit because he is so tall and a retired race horse, but I ride him anyway. He's a good horse and I am working on overcoming fear of riding different and new horses, so this seems like a good time to try it. It will just be a quick evening walk, about fifteen minutes, a perfect time to try Wishbone again. As we begin, I think back to a conversation we just had about swimming instead of riding. I don't know why I didn't choose swimming, for some reason I want to be swimming right now instead of riding. Oh well, I am doing this now, big deal, I think. Jennifer, another girl on the trail with us, decides to show us something she found the other day. It is kind of off of the trail, but we go anyway. Her parents own the camp, so she knows little paths and clearings of which none of us are usually aware. We follow her, but I start to get an uneasy, turn-around-and-get-out-of-here-now feeling. I ignore the chills and blood rapidly rushing through my body and keep trotting along. What we see are skulls. Dead animal carcasses, piles of them, strewn about as if they were torn and thrown, limb by limb. My sinking feeling turns into a desperation to flee. "I have to get out of here, " I say. I feel my heart beating steadily, but gaining speed with every pump, it is now pounding through my chest. Here is a moment where I feel literally out of my body. I feel a separation and a strong urging to make my body flee, return myself to camp. "Seriously, Jennifer, I am leaving." I turn my horse and start back. The other girls agree with me and we all leave. There is a small clearing in the woods where we meet and gather, discussing what just happened. I am frustrated and irritated. "It is almost time for dinner, the bell will ring soon, we need to get back to camp and put away the horses. Let's go." I say all of this while turning Wishbone around to head back. Jennifer turns Topaz around and starts leading us back.

I don't like Topaz. She is new to the barn. The day she I arrived, I looked deeply into her dark, big eyes and felt an intense and lingering fear. She is a thick, brown quarter horse lacking any training. Despite Neely coaxing and persuading her to ride a different horse, Jennifer insists on riding Topaz. I don't know why I choose to ride on a trail with this horse, but I do.

We start on the trail to return to camp for dinner. Jennifer is in front riding Topaz and I am right behind her on Wishbone. Two other friends are behind us riding Charlie and Honey. Everything is back on track and we are having a conversation about something funny while we are riding. We turn a corner, the last corner before the trail thins. Jennifer turns around and tells me she wants to canter. I tell her, "No, don't, Topaz doesn't know how to stop." But, it is too late. She gives Topaz the command as she is telling me. Like a shot out of a cannon, Topaz takes off. She is heavy and thick and breaks and snaps branches with every gallop. We are galloping now. Galloping on a narrow tree lined trail through the woods. I try everything to get Wishbone to stop. I saw the bit in his mouth and crane his neck. He is too spooked to stop and just wants to return to the barn. There are trees and rocks everywhere. I tell Jennifer to stop Topaz, but I know she will have to run her into something to get her to stop. Topaz doesn't know how to stop outside of the ring, I know this. I hang on so tightly, I feel the worn leather reigns digging into the palms of my hands. Then, I feel the reigns slip from the grip of my fingers and then it is black.

I open my eyes for a minute and see a bright light. It is so bright I shut them again. I open them again and I see the same light, but also a lot of women gathered all around me. One is in jogging clothes, some are in jeans, and most are wearing blues and whites, our camp uniform. I hear Jen, a different Jennifer, saying, "It's okay Sarah, you are okay, don't worry, just stay awake. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, you have to keep your eyes open. Sarah. Someone please, please help me hold her head up, my hands, my arms are killing me." Jen is almost crying she is pleading so hard for relief, totally petrified to let go of my head. She keeps telling me it will be okay, while trying to prop my head up with alternating hands so she can continue to rub my forehead. Everything is peaceful and quiet again, as if I am asleep, or so I think. These women organize help in a matter of minutes. Ms. MacMahon drives her van through brush and trees because the EMTs can't get their vehicle back to where I am. They load the stretcher in her van and rush me to the waiting ambulance. Then we drive to a helicopter. As we are driving I open my eyes again and see bright lights and a man. He is working so rapidly and moving and turning me and connecting tubes and masks to me. I close my eyes, only to find peace and calm again. I can hear the helicopter and see the propellers as I am being loaded onto it. I can see the owner of my camp standing next to me. She tells me everything will be okay and she will see me soon. I close my eyes. A huge shock and jolt wake me up and I see a different man, but I go right back to sleep. My eyes open again to bright lights, but this time there are a ton of people around me and we are moving very fast. I am lying on a stretcher and flying through doors. I start wondering where I am and what is happening. I think to myself, I have to throw up and I am not near a toilet. But it is coming up anyway and I can't control it and then I hear, "Roll her, roll her." I know something really awful is happening because people are rolling me so I can vomit. This doesn't seem like a positive sign.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sprite Rags

Posting the picture from the hospital reminded me of so many things, but mostly of a hysterically funny moment that left all three of us in the picture giggling and laughing so hard I had to push my morphine drip.

My body was rapidly fluctuating from sweats to chills in a matter of minutes. The chills started and my body shook all over requiring layers and layers of blankets to calm the teeth chattering. Then, suddenly,  blankets were thrown off and sweat started dripping down my forehead. When this started, a quick solution we developed was to wet rags in cups of ice water and place them on my forehead and arms. This particular time, I was alone with my mom and grandma and started sweating. Right away, they jumped up and started wetting rags. I noticed a sweet smell on the rags my grandma was using, but I didn't care at the moment because my entire body felt like it was on fire. A few minutes later, Mary and Kelly came in and took over the rag drill. My mom and grandma left to get more water. I realized I was getting really sticky all over and then remembered the cup of Sprite I asked the nurse to get earlier for my stomach ache. My grandma was using that cup. I had Sprite rags all over me and was a sticky mess. Mary and Kelly figured it out at about the same time I did and I think we laughed for a solid twenty minutes. I have no idea why it was so funny, but it was and I loved it, covered in Sprite and all.

The weather is gorgeous here and I am heading to the river with my dog and later I am cooking dinner with a friend. I hope you enjoy your Sunday as well.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Weddings and Dancing

Sometimes, because of all of the medication I take, I have really vivid dreams. The dreams are always pleasant, just very detailed and very real. My favorite dream, that seems to reoccur quite a bit, is a dancing dream. I am a fantastic dancer, in my dream, much like a world champion. I am flying through the air, my feet and legs pumping blood with every leap, turn, and twist of the foot. My feet never seem to touch the ground and every step is fluid and executed in midair. My friend, Kelly, is always there, yelling up to me, "Berger, Berger, you aren't touching the ground, your feet aren't on the ground!". I always yell back, "Kelly, I know, I can't stop it, I can't stop my legs, they just won't stop!". We start laughing and crying because I am out of my chair and dancing, and my legs just won't stop for anything, it feels like magic, like I am flying.

I know why I have this dream. It is because one of my biggest hurdles was and still is, grieving the loss of dancing. Not just Irish Step Dancing, but all dancing. I know I can still move part of my body and there are many ways to still enjoy the experience, but I still miss real, unmodified dancing and using my two legs. It is probably a silly thing to miss in comparison to all of the wonderful things I am still able to do, but a part of me remains stuck. Admittedly, I may rock out, by myself, in my room to Mercy by Duffy here and there, even using a hairbrush or some other ridiculous prop as a microphone, but dancing it is not. The void stings a little bit every single time. Sometimes it lingers, but mostly, I don't even think about it or remember it and then sometimes I am in a situation where I am faced with it, head on.

This past weekend I went to a wedding. I have a thing about weddings. They terrify me actually. If I am asked to be in a wedding, it doesn't matter what role, I stress and worry about the inevitable fact that I will soon have to be in front of people, plain as day, no hiding. Because of my infection, I had a fever, felt miserable, or was emaciated while trying to attend and be a part of every single wedding I was included in during that time. And now, because of this, I associate them with so much pain and sadness. I had trouble focusing on anything other than how awful I was feeling and tried very hard, much to the detriment of myself, to put on a brave face and pretend like nothing was wrong. But, the dancing would start and I would feel the pressure, like a heavy weight, reminding me I didn't belong. I couldn't dance and I didn't want to pretend I could. I didn't feel well and I was terribly envious of everyone spinning and moving their legs and hips all around me. I always just wanted to leave.

Now, as I am starting to recover from a long battle, the progress very slow, but very steady, my healing is taking many forms. I'm not just physically healing, but am emotionally healing as well. And part of repairing the emotional damage involves finding new ground for once wounded relationships. When I was newly injured, I found it most difficult returning to my Irish Dancing family. I couldn't accept myself as I was and didn't want to be a part of that world as I was, a paraplegic. I still wanted to do everything I did before and not compromise at all. Some of my toughest trials occurred because of my reluctance to change my view of my dancing relationships. I refused to accept my condition, especially in this scenario. So many things were happening to me at this time, holding tightly to a slipping grip wasn't working anymore and I finally just let go of my longest and dearest friendships. I was suffering so much and so fearful I turned inward rather than let anyone know how I was truly feeling. I just stopped calling.

Each relationship deserves its own story, but one of the most important is the relationship with my former dancing teacher, Mary. Irish dancing isn't just a sport or a hobby, it is a community and a family. National competitions are held in big cities and fancy hotels. Everyone stays together and competes all day and celebrates all evening. Bonds are formed likened only to sisterhood and everyone is there for each other in more ways than can be imagined. Mary and I shared that bond. The day I fell from the horse, I talked to her on the phone. She was one of the first people to come to my bedside following my accident. Actually, three people, other than my family, came to the hospital in Chattanooga and Mary was one of them.

Me, Kelly, and Mary. I am so swollen because of all of my injuries. My entire body was swollen, head to toe, much like the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.

She fought for me and helped me with every ounce of her heart. My hospital room was always full of McGing Irish Dancers. Madeline, who was a very, young girl at the time, crawled in bed with me and Deirdre would wear my back brace and play "Sarah Berger" and transfer in and out of my wheelchair, while I sat in bed with Madeline and laughed and laughed. They came everyday, all of them. Bringing cards, well wishes, and love. I went on trips to out of state competitions and tried to hang out with everyone at the hotel bars. It was just how it should be, only, I couldn't do it. I couldn't be a part of something I loved so much and not participate the way I wanted to. The constant reminder of what I was missing was too much to bare. Several stressful and upsetting conversations boiled the tension over and finally it was done and I was alone. This world was gone. I became far too sick and far too detached to think of it as anything but a memory. The thought of starting over, being honest about wanting to give up while hating every push of my wheelchair, and having to share the envy I felt every time I watched the kids run through the halls with someone else or witnessed everyone carrying on with teaching, organizing, and running errands without me, was more than I could handle. I just stopped, I had to.

Mary never stopped though. Every year, during the ten years we hardly communicated, she called. She would call either to say "Happy Birthday", or to say that she remembered it was July 17, the day I fell. Sometimes we would even go to lunch. She never asked for more, just a brief chat and that was okay with me. I couldn't handle much more. She never gave up, slowly pulling me back in. Recently, her daughter, Madeline, was preparing to leave for college and asked if we could all have lunch before her departure. At the lunch, Mary said she sensed something different in me, a wellness and the return of a spirit that had been lost for quite sometime. A few months went by and she called again and asked me to see Deirdre star in Lord of the Dance. I went. I saw all of my old friends, my old world, face to face. The vivid and jarring losses were painful, but, much to my surprise, overwhelming feelings of calm and peace replaced the anger and hurt. I was finally comfortable with my new self in this world. I will never be a part of it in the same way again, but that doesn't mean I can't still participate, just in a new and different way. Since the show, I've taken necessary and long over due steps to begin mending meaningful and needed friendships and I shattered my walls, allowing new relationships to form out of the rubble. Everything is a work in progress, but when there is so much love, the ride is very smooth. Open arms don't even begin to describe the response. I didn't expect it, but should have known it.

Sarah, Mary's niece, was married Saturday evening and it was beautiful. There was a ton of dancing, both Irish and not so Irish. Tons and tons of girls sweated it out on the dance floor and barely stopped for a break. Dancers, young and old, lined up and took turns doing steps two or three at a time, one right after another. It was a perfect evening. Joy filled the room and echoed down the hallways.

Earlier that day, the same wedding trepidation returned, but, as the evening progressed, I noticed it wasn't so terrifying after all, I figured it out - I discovered how to attend a wedding. I did what was comfortable for me, choosing to stay close to the bar and chat with old friends and laugh with young people who are all grown up. It was a perfect and lovely evening. One point, Mary, the world's greatest arm grabber and puller, pulled me on the dance floor and I reluctantly surrendered. I tried to turn around and sneak out, but she grabbed the back of my chair and yanked me back. I danced with all of my friends for a song and returned to sit on the side with another old friend. Everything was okay, I was okay. I said to my friend as we were sitting and watching, "Oh, it just bugs me I can't dance," and he very gently and sympathetically said, "I know, I know." And that was all. It was just a moment and then it passed.

Mary pulling me in.
Me finally giving in and dancing.

I still struggle with so many issues and have many mountains yet to climb, but each time I take a step in the right direction, I confirm to myself, everything is just fine and will be just fine. When I let go of what once was, and start living as things are, my previously blind eyes begin to see what was there all along, people who love me, pulling me back in, just as I am.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Swim Your Own Race

This past Friday, after I finished breaking down my chair and getting in the car, I turned on the radio, as I always do, and immediately I heard one of the most beautiful voices reading this poem. I tuned in as the author was reading the first word of the title and I listened with tears streaming down my face.

The author of the poem is, Mbali Vilakazi, a South African performer and radio producer in Cape Town. This poem pays tribute to South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, the first female amputee ever to qualify for the Olympic Games. While this poem is written for Natalie du Toit, I believe it speaks to all of us. It hasn't left my mind all weekend.

Swim Your Own Race
by Mbali Vilakazi
There is life here
Beneath the surface tension
of shattered
bones, dreams and splintered muscles
things broken
and those that may never be replaced.
Pulling the weight of it,
you do not tread the water wounded
and in retreat
By the determined strokes of fate
you swim your own race
The shoulder of your strength leaning
against the turn --
the eye that didn’t see that day,
stopping the clock on the vision of your time.
You continue to beat
into the heart of the spectacle
Manchester City, Beijing, Athens and London.
In no ordinary silence
do we watch
our own feared hopes waking
and now, breathless
in awe --
you are unforgettable.
Woman of scars, and triumph
the dance is fluid
tears of loss flowing
towards your many firsts
You are the Order of Ikhamanga
in gold.
A flower,
beautiful and unique
among the baobabs of the land
Your shape shifting
The disabled-abled body
A quest
untempered by its tests --
“if you want to get there, you go on”
You have already won
You always do
And we do too
We are the believers.
The message in its possibility:
A new freestyle,
Long distance
And in your own lane.

If you want to hear it read by Mbali Vilakazi click on the link below. I recommend listening.

Have a wonderful Sunday afternoon and "swim your own race."


Thursday, August 2, 2012

From the Mundane to the Extraordinary

Today my thoughts remained strongly rooted in your comments, while drifting in and out of memories, both good and bad. I took breaks between loads of laundry and read each and every one. I am humbled by your stories and words and am strengthened by your kindness. The more I read, the more I became certain that our lives, despite how different, are woven together and meant to be shared.

"My cup runneth over" is how I would describe my feelings today.  I woke up today and was astounded to find so many messages of love and hope. I, honestly, didn't have a clue anyone would be interested in my story, much less want to share a piece of herself or himself with me. When I wrote Kelle the letter, my intention was for her to know how she has impacted my life and how her story has helped mold mine. I only wanted her to know this and nothing more. Sharing it with her readers wasn't anywhere on my radar. However, when she asked, I immediately, without hesitation, said yes. Over the next few days, I thought about the decision to open up to Kelle's large, loyal, and loving audience and decided it was time for me to share the difficulties and, especially, all of the triumphs because of the challenges. I thought, if I help one person, it will be worth it.

About two weeks before my accident I was walking up the gravel hill at camp and heard something from a friend that won't ever be forgotten and has helped me through some of my most difficult and darkest days. It was a comment so small and insignificant and I had no idea what it would come to mean in the difficult days that followed. I was working as a summer camp counselor at a girls' camp in Tennessee. Camp had perfectly moldy smelling wooden cabins, one large bathroom with stall after stall of showers and toilets, gravel paths, a giant bell to call the girls for meals or activities, and a beautiful lake filled with canoes and swimming ropes. The trees, the water, the horses, the arts and crafts cabin, are all reminiscent of The Parent Trap with Haley Mills. We had regular evening talent shows, while cricket and frog noises filled the air, and ate S'mores by the lake on the Fourth of July. Unaware of anything but this magical place and the spectacular time I was having, I walked up the gravel hill to the parking lot at camp with two new, but very close because that happens at camp, friends. I walked as if it was any other day, assuming this conversation with my two, new counselor friends would soon leave my mind and my thoughts. As we were walking, Katie and Lucy were struggling with their suitcases. Actually, I remember a ton of cursing about lugging huge luggage up a gravel hill. I forgot to mention they were both wearing heels because they are from London and were heading home and are fancy like that. I, however, had on flip flops, so I grabbed the suitcases and headed up the hill. Then, Katie said, in her perfectly British accent, "Spinky, you can do everything!". I laughed. For the next two weeks that followed, this conversation never once crossed my mind.

Spinky was the nickname Katie gave to me at camp. Apparently, there is a story in England about a washing woman that lives in a tree and washes clothes all day. Katie thought her name was Spinky, but her mom later informed us the character's name is actually Silky or Suki, I can't remember. But, Spinky stuck, and that was my name. I did a ton of wash at camp. The camp offered laundry services, but it just didn't smell Downy fresh when it returned. I appreciated the brown paper packaging tied with string, but I adore my laundry smells and chose to walk up to the office cabin and do laundry. I would offer to do laundry for whoever needed it. I've always loved tasks like laundry, dishes, cleaning, and organizing. I know I'm crazy, but I am aware of it and have come to terms with it.

After the fall, which was about two weeks after the great suitcase hill climb, I was alone in my hospital room. I think I was out of the ICU at this point because I was off of the Morphine drip and starting to have thoughts and feelings about what was happening and they scared me. Before, it was just about survival, and oxygen, and feeding tubes, now the pain and memories were seeping through the lingering drug induced haze. Fear crept in like I've never felt. I was flat on my back with twelve broken vertebrae and a slew of other broken bones, wondering if I would ever make it out of bed. My thoughts drifted to my future and the realization hit me hard and fast, I would have to fight for and work terribly hard for my independence, the independence I once took for granted. Going to the grocery seemed ridiculously impossible, putting clothes into a washer and taking them out of the dryer was a far away galaxy, and driving, well that was something I honestly did not believe I could do. I did not think I was ever going to make it out of bed; I thought this bed ridden condition I was in would be my life forever. Life as a paraplegic was not one I ever envisioned, so I was having trouble picturing anything, much less daily, mundane tasks. I started to think about camp and how much I missed it and how just a few days and weeks ago, I was caring for horses and running in flip flops over gravel. And then I thought about our walk up the hill and what Katie said, "You can do everything." I passed it off as some silly compliment, but now needed these words more than ever. I decided this would be my new motto, my secret thing I would say to myself that no one knew. It seemed so simple and silly, but it worked for me and I made a deal with myself to repeat it when I wanted to give up and to use it to remind myself that each challenge would be just another gravel hill and would soon become not a big deal at all.

Today, as I was folding laundry and hating every shirt, every sock, and every pair of workout pants I had to fold and asking myself why I wear so many clothes in a week, it dawned on me that I was doing something I thought would be extraordinary and impossible. I just did a mountain of laundry independently, just as I do every, single week. I fly through the grocery store, pushing the cart with one hand while wheeling my chair with the other and I don't even think twice about it. It is just my routine. And then I thought about the last twelve years and how every moment, every struggle, came and went, each day passed and time marched forward and how much I did everything and can do everything.  I realized I need to express how my mundane became extraordinary. These small facets of daily life help remind me that I still can do anything. Everyone can, anything is possible. Everyone's story has the few quick words or sentence that changes someone's outlook on life or sheds light on darkness, every one of us. I am sharing my experiences because the more I know and understand other people's experiences and lives, the more I believe, all of our mundane is extraordinary. We make it this way just by getting up every, single day and simply living our lives, all while carrying so, so, many burdens.

Thank you to all of you for your generous and thoughtful words. I hope to answer as many questions as I can over the next few days, but please know I am reading all of them and taking your words with me throughout the day.

And to Kelle Hampton, you have helped teach me to live again and I will forever be grateful to you and your family for sharing so much of your lives.

Peace and goodnight to all of you,