A little story I wrote years ago, illustrating what it felt like in those times shortly after becoming a quadriplegic.
Imagine that every new skill that we acquire is recorded on our own personal chalkboard.
My chalkboard is nearly covered in writing as I study the top line.
“Rode a bike!”
As I glance at the words the image of a warm summer’s day floods my mind. A gentle breeze is blowing; the smell of freshly cut lawn permeates the air. I’m sitting precariously on a shiny new bicycle, pointed down the paved driveway that slopes gently towards the road in front of our house. There are already a few fresh scrapes on my knees, torn jeans, and a sense of excitement as I anticipate the next run down the lane. A quick push from my mother and away I go, wobbling and swerving as I concentrate on learning the correct moves to tame the beast. Success! A complete run down the driveway is made.
|Fishing with my brother, loved it since an early age.|
|The "New" Holiday Rambler and Travelall,|
many adventures took place in here!
I scan the board farther down and noticed in an adolescent’s writing: “ Fishing”. As my gaze stops on the words, I feel the world around me fade away and suddenly I’m standing in the front yard of our family’s house in a large city. It’s early June, I’m ten years old, and the weather is warm and sunny. Behind me sits our summer home on wheels, a 1969 Holiday Rambler proudly affixed to the rear of an old but eager army-green 1962 International Travelall. The unit patiently awaits our next escape from the city, complete with bikes on the front, and canoe on the roof. Gripped tightly in my right hand is a fly rod, released from its winter prison inside the camper trailer. Under my right elbow is a book held tightly against my body to teach me to cast using forearm movement only. “10 o’clock … 2 o’clock”, I repeat as I practice false casts over and over, until no more cracking of the whip is heard. I learn to drop the fly (a split shot weight) into any one of the number of ice-cream-pails placed around the yard. All the while I daydream of pristine mountain lakes teeming with trout to be conquered in two weeks time.
The word brings me back to the summer when I found the old unicycle in my grandfather's basement.
I remember asking him, “Who rode this thing?”
He just laughed at me and said, “Follow me.”
Even though he was seemingly an out-of-shape old man at the time, I followed him outside and stared in disbelief with my jaw open. He hopped on the unicycle and rode it all the way down the street, and turned around and rode it back to where I was!
He then handed it to me, and knowing I was going back home until next year said, “The next time I see you I want you to be able to ride this.”
That summer it was my mission to learn to ride the unicycle. Afterwards it became my main mode of transportation for many years to come.
“Motorcycle.” Wow, that brings back memories. I was 12 years old when our family got at 250 cc Honda motorcycle. The only one in the family that knew how to ride it when we first got it was my mother, so she patiently gave us all lessons. I remember bringing it on camping trips and even though I couldn't touch the ground I would run beside it and hop on as it got up to speed. I would have to hop off while it was still moving and run beside it, using the front brake to stop it. I've been intrigued by just about anything with an engine ever since.
“Water-skiing” brings back fond memories. We are out at the lake with several friends packed into the boat. I am on a slalom ski zigzagging behind the boat and trying to raise as much spray as I can. I cut hard to the right and bouncing over the wake let go of the rope with my right hand so I'm holding on with only my left. Leaning sharply to the left I cut as hard as I can. It seems as though my left side is going to hit the water and I can hardly hang onto the rope as it tightens up, but it pulls me upright as I rocket towards the wake left behind by the boat. I tense my legs and spring off the first wake and easily clear the second one, landing out in the smooth water beyond, what a blast! Next I am on two skis racing behind the boat. Up ahead I'm trying to time it to cut across the wake to hit the ski jump that a group of us built after school. I line it up, it grows bigger and bigger in front of me, my heart is pounding. I hear the skis hit the wood and the next thing I'm in the air high above the water! The last thing I see are the words "Good Luck" which are painted across the top of the ski jump! I come down quickly, there is a solid "slap" of the skis hitting water, I made it!
Somewhere near the middle of the chalkboard the word “Scuba” jumps out at me. I’m now one hundred feet below the surface of a clear, cold mountain lake at night. Our mission, as part of advanced certification in Scuba Diving, is to navigate a triangle pattern by compass in forty-five minutes, and end up as close as possible to the starting point. My diving partner and I are following our heading carefully using a hand held compass. The sting of the four degree Celsius water angrily infiltrates my ill-fitting rented wetsuit. As we make our way on the first leg of our pattern we by chance encounter a set of anchor cables in the narrow tunnel of light our flashlights provide in the inky black water, and tracing the lines upward, the beams reveal a diving bell filled with air. We enter the bell from the bottom, refresh the air inside with air from our tanks and proceed to laugh about the situation; chatting in a “room” about eighty feet below the surface of a mountain lake. At the appropriate time we don our masks and proceed to reverse our course back to our starting point, with full marks for our accuracy!
“Para-sailing” blasts me back to seventeen years old. My brother and I find an old round parachute at my grandfather's army surplus store. While standing on the flatbed semi-trailer that the surplus was transported on, we each hold on to one half of the parachute lines and watch the wind fill it like a sail, no rips or tears! We’ve heard stories about people going ‘UP’ in parachutes, but in 1980 we hadn’t seen it done before. We rush to talk to grandpa who promptly donates the parachute in exchange for a front row seat to the action, and shows us where there are some harness parts. We’ve never seen a parachute harness, but using each other as a mannequin we put one together that looks right and safe … to us. So armed with three hundred feet of three eighths inch thick yellow nylon rope, one parachute and a Toyota Land Cruiser, we’re off to the unknown along with several friends that agree that this is a good idea. With two spotters opening the chute to the wind, the Land Cruiser takes off, four to five steps later I’m walking on air! The sensation is exhilarating, the view is spectacular and must be what a bird sees and feels. The Toyota looks like a toy running along the ground with a thin yellow string singing from the tension, tied to the harness above me. The large lake to the south is all in view from a hundred and fifty feet up! Uh oh, the truck ran out of field and has to turn around, wonder if these handles will steer me clear of the trees. OK, they steer a little but you seem to drop like a rock, gonna hit the field … gotta roll … bingo … made’r safe!
While gazing near the bottom right of the chalkboard, a smile appears on my face as I notice the words ‘Taildragger Time”. The room starts to spin until everything is a blur, and suddenly I’m sitting in the cockpit of a Bellanca Citabria, a one hundred and fifty horsepower two seat tandem wood and fabric aircraft whose name, 'Airbatic' spelled backwards, gives some clue as to its designer’s intentions. I’m sitting in the front seat on a warm August day, going through the scant checklist; seat belt on and tightened, slide the seat forward while pulling on the braces above the dash in my left hand, fuel valve on, mixture on the left side of the cabin set to rich, a couple of strokes with the primer, turn the key to activate both magnetos, grab the throttle knob with my left hand and hit the starter button on my right. The engine roars to life with a rumble that floods my stomach with butterflies and my face with an ear-to-ear grin. I warm the engine and complete the preflight magneto checks, set the radio frequency and don the headphones while gazing out over the nose to the gravel road we call an airstrip. Using my left hand I advance the throttle while gripping the control stick between my knees with the right, keeping the aircraft straight with the rudder pedals and brakes. I can feel the acceleration pinning me back in the seat as the engine roars to full power, push forward on the stick to raise the tail, keep her straight she’s veering left … no room for error on a narrow gravel road. Within seconds I hit sixty-five miles per hour, gently pull back on the stick and hold her just above the gravel until one hundred miles per hour. The fence posts are zipping by in a blur. I next pull sharply up and left (a procedure NOT found in the owner’s manual) … what exhilaration! I sharply climb to twenty five hundred feet above ground and look around for other traffic. Then pushing forward on the stick, the nose points down for a little extra speed. Next I pull the stick back and raise the nose so the horizon out the left side window shows a nearly vertical climb. As speed bleeds off I roll the airplane left and wing over almost completely upside down, let the nose fall through the horizon, roll it back to the right and pull back out level. I repeat this over and over, to the left, and then right, I just can’t quit grinning! I’m eighteen years old.
I notice more writing on the chalkboard. There is "Trail Riding", "Downhill Skiing" and "Hang-gliding". The memories are starting to conjure as I feel a tap on my shoulder ...
A man in a white coat appears behind me, and reaching over my shoulder he grabs the chalkboard away from me.
“Therapy time!” he shouts, “Do you need a push?”
“No, I’ll try to get there myself”, is my reply.
The wheelchair is an effort to turn in the confines of the pale green 1950’s style four-bed hospital room, pushing on one wheel while stopping the other. I finally make it down the one hundred foot hallway, thereby having an achievement to add to my list. As my chair enters the room I’m greeted by my therapist, who places a piece of chalk in a cuff, straps it to my lifeless hand and pushes me up to a table.
On the table lies the chalkboard, my chalkboard, with only one word written on it: “Quadriplegic”.
Everything else has been erased as a result of the car accident.
It’s time to start filling the chalkboard again.
If only we were allowed to write with indelible ink.