The Day I Beat Death
In the blink of an eye, my life changed forever...
An endurance cyclist, I was about to have a date with destiny.
Nothing in life can prepare you for something so unexpected, so violent, so utterly obscene as being hit by a car.
I went from being a vibrant, alive, healthy and outgoing human being to someone who would later be labeled as "permanently disabled" by a leading neurologist in less time than it just took you to read this.
Two ticks of a clock.
3:45PM... My favorite band blasting in my MP3 player. Twenty-two miles under my belt. Sun on my face, smile in my heart. A true state of bliss.
3:47PM...IMPACT. In a millisecond, everything changed. I was airborne. The most surrealistic experience of my life. The best way to describe it: time "stretched". Though physics would only allow me a few seconds of Superman Flight, my mind's eye made it felt like a full 20 count. There was an odd peace in my spirit as I soared. Flying through the air, maybe living, maybe dying. I watched the road below, and marveled at the composite material. The glitter of mica and the way it sparkled made me think of Disney. I could not believe how long my flight lasted.
And I thought, "it's really gonna suck when I hit the ground."
Fate was kind and stole the memory of impact from me. Closer to the truth- I was knocked senseless.
Flashbulb/strobe light memories came next.
"Call 9-1-1. Call 9-1-1," screamed someone.
I opened my eyes. Flat on my back, I was incapable of moving.
More screaming. "Has anyone called 9-1-1?"
I watched bystanders weep. I will be forever haunted by the woman standing by my feet, hand over mouth, tears streaming down her face.
As I lay there on the street, I wondered if this was the part of the movie where I would fade to gray and be gone from this life forever. The final act of my life. No encore, no hidden track. Just a fade to gray lying on Main Street. I felt the tears slide down my face and thought of Sarah.
"Call my wife. 205-xxxx. Call my wife. 205-xxxx. Call my wife. 205-xxxx"
I must have said this twenty or more times. Jim, an unknown passerby did just that.
The wail of an ambulance. Rescue vehicles. Lying on Main Street, maybe living, maybe dying.
Strapped to a body board by paramedics. I see nothing but the ceiling of the ambulance. IV's... One, then two needles. My veins accepting their destiny.
"What's your name?" "What day of the week is it?" "What city are you in?" I knew the drill. Making sure somebody was home. Just because my lights were on did not mean I was present.
Listening to the scissors as they cut my cycling clothes off, assessing my beaten and broken body. Not wanting to be outdone by the ambulance siren, I wailed too.
"We can give you something strong for pain. Something very strong..."
Wanting my wits about me, I declined heavy painkillers.
I was alive.
I bit my lip and settled into a bit of relief brought on by intravenous Advil.
The EMT's called ahead to the Trauma Unit and briefed them.
Finally heeding my constant calls to call Sarah, one the medics in the ambulance called her cell phone. And she followed the ambulance to the ER, her soul mate strapped to a body board in the ambulance in front of her.
Funny thing about being immobilized... you can only stare straight up. As they wheeled me into the trauma center, Sarah's face came into view.
Her eyes swollen. A forced smile on her lips.
"I love you bunny" she said, then, in a heartbeat, she was gone.
I mumbled... "and behold, the face of an angel looked down upon him..."
Somewhere, someone laughed.
# # #
My old life ended that day. Life as I knew it was about to be turned upside down. And my new life was about to begin.
A couple of weeks after my accident, the investigating officer let me know that my bike, heretofore impounded, could be picked up at our local police station. Still unable to drive, Sarah drove me over to pick up what was left of my bike. The investigating officer, only a few years older than one of my own sons, let me know that the family of the young man who hit me had been desperately trying to reach out to me.
This young man, not knowing what shape I was in, was completely devastated by the accident. Privacy laws prevented our local PD from releasing any information about my condition to his family. The officer politely asked if he could provide the drivers family with my phone number.
As a father of four sons, the "dad" in me kicked into high gear and I let him know that releasing my number would be fine. At the time, I expected nothing more than a possible conversation, and nothing more.
We came home from the police station that day to our phone ringing off the hook. It was the mother of the young man who hit me. We spoke for ten to fifteen minutes on the phone. Her son, rendered almost non-functional since the accident, was alternating between bouts of uncontrollable crying and what looked like depression, The family was on the cusp of getting him outside help.
And she asked if we could meet him.
Not thinking before I spoke, I asked her to put him on the line. It was purely an act of impulse and one that I do not regret to this day.
Here was another human being who was suffering. I held, at least in part, the key to emotional freedom for him. Being a dad with sons, my mind kept wondering what I would have said had this been one of my own sons.
I let him know that I was alive. That I would recover. And that they are called "accidents" for a reason. Trying to inject a bit of humor into the conversation, I said to him, "You are a lucky kid. Odds are that you will only hit one cyclist in your entire lifetime. Two important points to consider. At least you got it over with early in your driving career and, better still, you had the wherewithal to hit a nice guy."
He laughed and asked if we could meet.
His mom came back on the phone, we decided to meet a few days later at a bit of a neutral spot, the parking lot of our local high school.
My mindset before meeting the young man who forever changed my life was not one of nervousness. It's important again to reiterate that at the time of our meeting, I was blissfully unaware of my brain injury. Battered and beaten, bruised and sore, I was still most likely in shock as my body was just beginning the long, slow crawl toward what would become my new normal.
As I was still held hostage by an arm in a sling and a booted left foot, Sarah drove to the local High School for our meeting. Of all the high emotion events that followed my accident, meeting the driver of the car that struck me was, by far, the most emotionally charged.
We pulled into the high school parking lot. It was a quiet, albeit short ride from our house to the school. To this day, Sarah carries allot of anger toward him. I've never made her wrong for this, as we all have our paths to walk. We move forward through life not at a pace defined by others, rather, we come to grips with events that come to pass in or own time. I have no right to make my schedule hers. We all find our own truths.
We got out of our cars at close to the same time. It was still a struggle for me to move at that time, but I was out and on my feet... um... on my foot, in no time.
We stood there, face-to-face, eye-to-eye for a few seconds in a bit of stunned silence. He was a young man tormented for weeks about the fate of someone he had yet to meet. There I stood, high emotion right under the surface, looking at the one whose actions caused so much pain, so much strife, so much anguish.
And the clock ticked for a few more seconds as we sized each other up.
What I recall most clearly is the sense of innocence he projected. No arrogant demeanor, no punk attitude. In front of me stood a young man who was clearly hurting, who had experienced sleepless nights and tormented days, not knowing whether I was capable of walking, of talking, of carrying on even the most basic of life's functions.
His red-rimmed eyes stared up at me, almost hauntingly. I did and said what any dad would do.
"Come here and let me give you a hug."
In hindsight, it was the most apropos thing I could have said. I offered a heartfelt, though one-armed hug, and the conversation opened up. As noted already, being a dad of four sons offered me what amounted to the best "on the job training" I could ever have hoped for. I was presented with what amounts to a very unique and God-given opportunity. I looked him in the eye and let him know that in no uncertain terms, everything was going to be fine.
Time is a funny thing. With the passage of time, new perspectives are gained, new insights emerge. I have often thought what I might have said to this young man had I known the extent of my brain injury at the time we met. How would I have reacted had I known that the very course of the rest of my life was changed the day of my accident? That I was to have struggles unimagined.
Truth be told, had I knowledge of what was going to come to pass, my actions that day would not have changed. Somebody much wiser than me said once that resentments are like wanting someone else to die, but you take the poison. To this day, I wish nothing but happiness and peace to him.
Life happens. Accidents happen. And life invariably does go on.
We stayed in the parking lot for close to half an hour. Sarah and I, the young man and his mom, talking under a waning winter sun. His mom asked if it was OK to stay in touch. They even made our Christmas card list that year. Though 2011 would bring unforeseen and difficult challenges, I was grateful simply to be alive. Not every cyclist lives after meeting metal at close to 40 MPH.
Sarah and I got into the car to head home. The young man came bearing chocolates, flowers and other sundry treats that helped soften my heart. Those who know me know that I have a vicious love of all things sweet. Though my life is much different today, chocolate still resides quite high my list of all time favorites.
The short ride home was a bit on the quiet side. Sarah was lost in her thoughts while I was grateful to be part of helping this young man let go of something that he might of carried for a lifetime. I don't think about him often anymore. Our paths converged the day of the accident and diverged the day after our meeting. He made a cameo appearance ealier this year as I, quite unexpectedly, saw him graduate from our local High School.
My hope is that he doesn't thinks about me often as well, as odd as that sounds. He is a young man with a full life ahead of him. A life brimming with promise, opportunity and unfulfilled dreams. As time passes, my normal life seems like a distant dream. To spend too much time looking backwards is to slow my progress moving forward.
Each year, the CDC estimates 1.7 million people sustain a Traumatic Brain Injury. Brain injury. Brain Injury is now America's Silent Epidemic.
You have just met a brain injury survivor.
My tale continues on my blog at http://surviving-brain-injury.blogspot.com/