I imagine myself sometimes having a really tough problem. The days are bad. Something has happened at work, or on the road, or with a friend or family member. Some conflict has unsettled me. Perhaps my administration at work made a decision that pissed me off. I sit there with this problem, and my mind turns it over and over. I’m reminded of an interesting exercise that bubbled up in my thoughts several years ago.
I’m sitting on my bed in the evening, and I close my eyes and I visualize myself there on the side of the bed. I get up, and brush my teeth, go to bed, sleep well, and get up in the morning. I get ready for work; shower, brush my teeth, dress, eat, etc. I get in my car, and pull out of the driveway, and head down the street. It’s a nice day, sunny and warm. I get on the freeway, and as I wonder what the day’s work will bring, a full-size Dodge truck travelling in the oncoming freeway lanes, blows a front tire, loses control, and crosses over the center lane. It’s headed straight at me. I try to swerve to the right to avoid it, but I slam directly into the full-sized SUV beside me. The SUV gives a bit but collides with the concrete barrier on the shoulder, keeping me from moving any further right. There’s nowhere to hide. The grill of the Dodge truck comes on with incredible speed, then slams face-first into my car, and all is black.
There is no perception of time passing. The shattered windscreen and explosion of crushing metal is replaced instantly with ceiling panels and a hushed beeping. I look down. An IV is in my arm and drapes surround me. I’m in a hospital bed. The drapes pull aside, and a woman enters wearing dark-blue scrubs. She’s a bit heavy but healthy enough and has the practiced joviality of someone who’s learned how to cope with a rough job.
“Oh, you’re awake! Excellent.” She touches my arm. “I’m going to go get the doc. Give me a minute.”
I try to say something but realize I can’t speak. There’s something down my throat, draped across my tongue, and I somehow know right away that it’s a feeding tube.
How long have I been here?
It’s then that I realize that I can’t feel anything below my waist.
The doctor comes in. He doesn’t have much practice at joviality. This is a man, like my father, who has been warn thin by years of witnessing tragedies. Or maybe he never cared.
He asks in a somewhat friendly tone. “Hello, good to see you up.” He smiles, but it feels wooden because it doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Thanks?” I try to say around the tube down my throat.
“Just a minute,” The doc says and takes hold of the side of my face. I feel tape pulling away, and then he unceremoniously pulls the feeding tube from my throat which makes me gag a big.
The doc gives a halfhearted chuckle as he says, “I’ve been told that’s not a very nice feeling,” but he offers no apology for his actions. Then, without preamble he says, “You’ve been in an induced coma for three weeks. You had head trauma that involved some nasty swelling.
You’re on the mend though, so we brought you out. How are your legs?”
“I can’t feel them.”
He nods as though considering a car with a dent. “That’s what we expected. Your back was broken at L4, cut your spine cleanly in half. We expected you to have 100% disability below your belt-line.”
With that life-shattering news dropped on me, he flips my blanket off, to expose my legs that I have no connection to aside from visually and the sensation of having nothing there is terrifying. He grabs ahold of my foot.
I shake my head no.
He grabs the other foot. “What about here?”
“Well,” he says standing, “You’re lucky to be alive. I saw a photo of the car. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone live through a car being ripped in half like that. We have a lot more tests to run to fully establish your disability. Don’t worry, we’ll get you all setup with a wheel chair and a counselor to help you establish disability payments and so on.”
And with that, he walks from the room leaving me with a hurricane of thoughts. My jiujitsu career is over. Can I even do my job anymore? Can I drive my car? Wait, my car is gone. Then I think of the stairs in my house. I think of my rooms upstairs. I’ll never be able to walk up those stairs again. My practical mind starts to skip the grief and try and go to solutions. I’ll need ramps everywhere. Then the thought of a colostomy bag rears its ugly head. I unfortunately, due to a novel I was working on once, know a great deal about stomas and colostomy bags. I look at my legs, still well-muscled, and I understand that they will begin to waste away. I’ll never dance with my wife again. Run. Surfing is gone. Swimming in the ocean. I imagine myself on the shore sitting in a big wheeled sand wheelchair watching people swim. I won’t be able to spar with my son. In one blown tire, I’ve lost almost everything I hold dear.
Then, I come back to now, sitting on the side of the bed in the evening and I feel my legs. I wiggle my toes. I lean forward, and I stand up. Who the fuck cares if something at work happened that I didn’t like? It’s still a good job. I couldn’t give two shits if my bills this month were a lot more than I’d hoped. Why? Because I can walk down the stairs, pick up my wife and spin her around. In that moment, I feel like the most fortunate man in the world.
Often, our state can change dramatically with just a little perspective. This is not intended to minimize pain. People need to honor their feelings, and to be given the necessary time to process their grief. However, I’ve found gratitude to be a huge powerhouse of perspective changing and awakening. When things are really bad, I stop, wiggle my toes and think, Damn I’m so grateful I can do that.
There’re people in the world who can’t. The thing that’s really interesting about most of the people I’ve met who can’t, they have some extremely positive attitudes. What I’ve learned is, they’ve had no choice but to find that perspective. There’s an excellent documentary titled Murderball about quadriplegic wheelchair rugby players. Yes, you read that right. I cannot recommend it highly enough just to see how many of those athletes over and over again say that they’d love to have 100% use of their limbs again, but they’d never give up their injuries if they also had to give up what they learned about themselves and life. If your public library subscribes to Kanopy, you can stream it from there. I highly recommend it for a healthy dose of perspective and inspiration.