A Memoir of Courage After a Life-Changing Accident

Released from the hospital once I was stable, I spent the next two months recuperating at my parents' house. I didn't experience high levels of pain, mostly discomfort at having to wear the brace and a slight revulsion at having to clean around the four holes in my skull. My mother cared for me all summer to the point of exhaustion. Slivers of comfort, of sensory pleasure, came by way of food and music. My mother took to driving weekly to a bakery twenty minutes from our house to get my favorite cake—seven thin layers of yellow cake separated by fudge. Rather than regular icing, the entire cake was dipped in gooey chocolate. What had once been an annual birthday indulgence became my daily fare. I ate slice after slice at nearly every meal. I whiled away the days of boredom watching James Bond movies and Zeffirelli's La Traviata. My best friends Peggy Schmidt, Betsy Schechter, June Varley, and Miriam Tennenbaum came over regularly to keep me company in this period of enforced immobility. Listening to Rickie Lee Jones and Elvis Costello, we would chat about all of the typical things that college students on summer break discuss: their waitressing jobs, dates, parties, sunbathing at the public pool, diets, and more dates. I am ashamed to admit that I have lost touch with all of these women except for Betsy; mostly because when the halo brace came off, I barely set foot back in St. Louis again.

At the end of the summer, the doctors told me that I was something of a medical miracle. Apparently, this vertebra, the C2, is so high in the neck that it juts into the skull, nearly touching both the brain stem and the spinal cord. The bone, destabilized, usually slices one or both in half, causing, if not death, then permanent paralysis. It seems that only the barest percentage of people live (5 percent)—let alone walk (5 percent of the 5 percent)—after breaking this bone. Yet my neck had healed; I had full mobility and no other internal injuries of any consequence. I would be just fine.

Most of the adults in my life attributed my good fortune to divine intervention. In my jaded opinion, however, no greater spiritual source accounted for either the accident or my recovery. When various well-meaning friends of my parents sent me copies of Harold Kushner's now classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (if I remember correctly, I received five copies in all), rather than read it or glean any moral or religious lesson from my experience, I instead laughed in the face of larger meaning. My friends and I had a ritualistic bonfire in my wastebasket, burning every last one of the books. I was young, fearless.

I went back to college only two weeks late and spent the next three years making up for lost time—a little wilder, a little more eager to party, perhaps. I looked upon Brown University not as an academic institution but as one big playground. I spent the year dancing at weekly parties that my housemates and I threw—Rufus and Chaka Khan, the Talking Heads, and Marvin Gaye blasting into the wee hours.

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