There are really two phases of any traumatic incident that robs one of a physical ability: the first, the realization that the ordeal has been survived; the second, the question of what survival means. I was 34 years old, walking to work along the highway as I normally did when I was on the day-shift. A friend, Frank, was coming down the road behind me at his habitually high speed. He honked, I turned and waved before I even knew who it was, as is the custom in small towns.
Frank made a playful gesture as if he had lost control of the steering wheel, taking his hands off of it and feigning a scream. Sometimes, irony is particularly cruel. As he made the gesture, his car hydroplaned, veered out of the lane and came directly toward me. I ran across the yard toward the house, trying to make it to the steps that had become a life-or-death goal but I never made it. The car hit me in the back as I hit the first stair, knocking me forward. The car continued forward along behind me and I fell under it.
Its driver’s side front wheel came to rest squarely on my back. It’s an odd feeling to wonder if you’re dead. The fire department came after what seemed like an eternity which I spent looking up through the kitchen window at my son, 8 years old, who didn’t really realize what was going on. The fire department jacked up the car and pulled me from under it. I don’t remember much of it in detail, really. Sometimes the memories themselves seem grainy, like an old film of a family vacation.
When I woke up in the hospital, drugged to the point of having only a faint notion of pain in my back, I was convinced that the injury must be so superficial that I could have made it to work, if only a little late. The pain didn’t really set in until a couple of days or so after I got home. Once it arrived, it never left. Most of the tissue in my lower back had been mangled. Where there was once muscle, there was now scar tissue. I had been strong. My grandfather has used to say I was strong “like bull” in his thick Polish accent. I don’t mind admitting I felt a little proud of that.
I’d been a National Guardsman, a motor pool sergeant, no less, a job that required a great deal of heavy lifting, laying on the ground and climbing around various equipment. I’d gone through phases where I’d taken up running when I really wanted to be in good shape and never had really fallen into bad shape even when I’d given up an exercise regime. I used to feel capable of anything. Now, lifting a frying pan can sometimes cause a spasm. In fact, lifting anything these days requires a great deal of planning if I wish to avoid spending the rest of my day on the couch.
Walking becomes a painful affair after 30 minutes or so. And, sometimes, especially in those years right after the accident, the other injuries I suffered, those that crushed my pride and ego, manifested themselves in ways that required me to apologize to those closest to me. There is always great anger when someone is denied something to which they once felt entitled, such as a whole body. Sometimes that anger can explode, and I could be every bit as out of control and destructive as the car under which I was pinned.
But, sometimes I felt as if dealing with the people around me was harder than dealing with the injury. There’s nothing like being asked, over and over again, if your back hurts when you have a permanent, screaming backache. Then there were the instant heroes, “Oh, can I do that for you? ” and there are literally gallons of condescending sympathy behind their eyes. The hardest thing was convincing people that I’m really quite good at getting by, that I wasn’t defined by an injury and that talking about something with which I dealt every day magnified the problem.
No wonder I was angry. I wasn’t even what I would call “disabled” and everyone wanted me to be in a wheelchair. It occurred to me more than once that being in a wheelchair must require more patience with people than it does with physical inconveniences. It took them awhile but, eventually, they got over me being the “hit by a car” guy and life moved on. I move slower now but I still move. Life, in a not-unpleasant way–moves slower as well. Gardens grow slowly and I have several. It’s not hard on my back to tend to them and it’s easy on my mind.
I developed sort of a hobby of buying old lawn tractors and restoring them so that I can haul the heavier gardening supplies around the yard. I’d never fished much before the accident; a couple of times with my son but he never much cared for it. I do all the time now. In the winter I go ice fishing, in the summer I go in my brother’s boat or canoe down rivers with my wife. None of that is particularly hard on me and, if I never had an imperative to slow down, I may have never noticed how much enjoyment such simple activities could provide.
I learned patience because it was my only option. I’ve gone from the family hothead to the conflict-resolution expert. I was probably–well, definitely–more adventurous in my actions before life slowed me down but I think I’m more adventurous in my mind now. No one really expects me to be athletic anymore. Being old and wise has its advantages that way. The mechanics of adjustment to my injuries were simple compared to what many have suffered in this life. I have all my limbs, all my mental clarity and I can walk, if at a slightly reduced pace.
I managed to work until retirement and started a small business of my own after. I know they were trying to help but I never much took to asking doctors for advice. They’re there to treat ailments and I’m not sure I have any. It always seemed like they wanted me to have one. I get around fine. I hurt, a lot, but not nearly as much as a lot of people hurt. I had it in my head for a few years there that my body was weakened from its injuries. I’ve learned since then that the depth of a scar tells one a lot more about its wearer’s strength