Nine years paralyzed and still saying Yes

Today is the nine-year anniversary of the fall that paralyzed me. It’s been an unpredictable day in the past.

The first year felt so momentous I could hardly breathe all day. The second was utterly, and surprisingly, glorious. We went back to Charmlee Park, where the accident occurred, and I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience. It was so powerful and affirming, I was high for a week.

Years three and seven were the hardest. I don’t know why. I didn’t see either one coming.

Year three was the first time that I lost all hope of ever recovering. It was odd, really, because recovery wasn’t a big priority by that point. Still, something in me snapped and I wept the evening away on the couch. The next day, I felt tender, but sleep had restored my customary sense that the future was unknown, the present worth living, and I would be fine however life evolved.

Year seven wasn’t that simple. It marked the deepest, most prolonged grieving I’d ever done. For three solid weeks, I couldn’t stop crying. I was completely consumed by my losses. It took days and days of just accepting and being present with what was true until I slowly started to emerge. It was a hard trek. I felt glimmers of that pain for another two months.

The other four anniversaries were mostly unremarkable, some only noticed because friends and family noted them.

Still, October 4 is always an opportunity for me to reflect and see what comes up.

Today, I’m in the Bay Area preparing to speak at Samuel Merritt University. I’ve been there maybe five times before, a community of students, faculty, and staff I really treasure. I’m with my beloved husband, who took our adorable son and fabulous dog out this morning so I could work. He came back with yummy eggs Benedict and potatoes, WITH a side of bacon (having a pro-protein, pro-fat breakfast!). While we lounged on the bed eating, Aidan played happily in his Go Crib, Reba sat next to the bed looking up at me (or maybe the bacon), and I thought, good Lord, this is a good life!

And it is. Every day. Even when it’s really hard, which isn’t exactly rare. But even then, it’s just so rich.

You know, after I fell, as I was lying alone on the ground waiting for Dean and the paramedics, I could here the sirens bouncing off the canyon walls. And I knew they were coming for me. I couldn’t move and I could barely breathe but I wasn’t panicked. Instead, I was acutely aware that I was at a threshold. Say no, and continue to spin in a life unfulfilled, or say yes, and open myself to unlimited possibility. The choice was clear. In fact, I’d made it before I even hit the ground. It was time. And I was ready. Come what may, I would now say yes to my life.

Hands down, the best choice I’ve ever made.

So, today, I’m enjoying the fruits of that choice: a super happy marriage; a gorgeous, healthy family; a successful and satisfying career. The fact that I am paralyzed, even as it affects my every day, is largely irrelevant. I’m living the life I want and having a great time doing it. Because I’m telling you, it’s not about the chair. It’s about saying yes and going forward from there.

I think we should make October 4 “Say Yes! To Your Life” Day. Anyone want to call Hallmark?

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“Good Girl”

When Aidan was first born and we were all staying at my mom’s, she used to tease us that Aidan’s first words would be “good girl.” Why? Because we say it about a hundred times a day.

Reba was trained with a very specific command structure, the end of which is “Good girl!” So every time we ask Reba to do anything, and she successfully does it, we say, “Good girl!” Of course, I’m asking Reba to do things all day long, and she is, of course, doing them successfully, so “good girl” is a rather constant utterance.

Well, last weekend, Aidan and I were up early and taking Reba out for a walk. The three of us walked out the front door, then I sent Reba back inside to grab the tug rope that hangs from the door and pull the door shut. This, by the way, is one of the most important functions Reba performs for me. She saves me from having to go down my ramp blind, backward, and without hands on my chair, which is what it takes to close it myself. Reba dutifully walked back into the house, sneezed at the threshold (which she almost always does for some reason), grabbed the rope, backed out of the house while holding it, and pulled the door closed. As I regained her leash, I said, “Good girl!” Just like I always do. And Aidan, who was sitting on my lap, said, “Ga ga!” with the exact same intonation.

Coincidence? I wasn’t sure, so I said it again. “Good girl!”

“Ga ga!”

“Good girl!”

“Ga ga!”

“Good girl!”

“Ga ga!

Reba’s head was beginning to swell, so we stopped. But, no mistaking, Aidan was imitating my speech and, wouldn’t you know, he started with, “Good girl!”

Later that same day, we were reading his animal sounds book and I said, “Rrrruff!” He suddenly looked at me very intently and I realized he was interested in the word. So I said it again, but more simply.

“Ruff.”

“Uh.”

“Ruff.

“Uh.”

“Ruff.”

“Uh.”

He couldn’t wrestle his lips into the “rrr” sound or the “fff” sound, but he got the “uh” in between and used, again, my intonation. Tee hee.

I love that his first attempts at English center around dogs. If it wasn’t going to be food, dogs is definitely the next best thing!

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Transfer Awry

Tonight was one of those nights I’m reminded just how legitimately vulnerable I am.

Dean was out enjoying a whisky tasting hosted by his best friend. My mother had left about an hour earlier, and Aidan and I were getting ready for bed. We’d taken Reba out, washed our hands, and secured a clean diaper. We wheeled into the bedroom, I put Aidan on the bed, and then started my transfer. But something went wrong.

We have a new crib for Aidan. We use it as a sidecar to the bed, but it’s normal crib size and doesn’t leave me much room to transfer. Plus, when I have Aidan alone, and I’ve just put him on the bed, I prefer to transfer in such a way that I don’t have to turn my back to him. So, it’s a little tricky.

Well, tonight, my feet slipped in the middle of the transfer and slid behind me. It’s hard to describe what that means in a practical sense but, basically, it dragged my body down and eliminated the leverage I needed to get my butt where I wanted it. Suddenly, all of my weight was on my arms and there was no way to actually get on the bed.

As I hung there, Aidan crawled out of his crib and onto the bed, heading for the pillow barricade. Instinctively, and conveying everything I could with my tone, I said, “Stay right there.” To my surprise, he stopped dead and looked at me. Afraid he’d start crawling toward me and the unprotected edge of the bed, I didn’t say anything else to him but just turned my attention back to my dilemma.

I tried to reverse direction and just get back to the chair. But the position of my legs was such that my knee kept getting wedged in the chair frame, and the more I tried to free it, awkwardly twisting and thrusting my hips, the further away I pushed the chair.

For what felt like ten minutes but was actually only about two, I wrestled with my body and the chair, desperately trying everything I could think of to save the transfer. Thankfully, Aidan didn’t move that whole time. He just sat on the bed watching me. But my positioning went from bad to worse and in a rare moment of panicky doubt (in the past nine years, I’ve blown dozens of transfers but failed to save only a handful), I actually called out, “Goddess, help me!”

But there was no way out. I was going down.

My focus shifted to getting myself down in such a way that I didn’t break anything. I’ve had three breaks since being paralyzed and two of them were really severe. I really, REALLY didn’t want a fourth.

I was pretty tangled in the chair, and I couldn’t see clearly exactly where each leg was. Aidan got busy with a toy and eventually crawled back into his crib, so at least I could focus more intently on myself. There was really nothing I could do but let myself down as gently as possible and pray that nothing snapped.

Eventually, enough of my weight was resting on the chair that I could get a hand free. Up until that point, my hands had been busy holding my body up and weren’t good for anything else. But once one was free, I reached down and started untangling my legs.

I think that was the scariest moment of all (well, next to the split second Aidan was heading for the edge of the bed furthest away from me). I’ve had so many fractures already, and my bone density has diminished since I’ve had Aidan. This situation was just prime for busting something.

But thankfully, that didn’t happen. I managed to get myself unwound, and my butt on the floor, safely.

But, then what?

Floor to chair transfers are difficult and dangerous, at least for me, and I’d never actually done one successfully in my current chair. My phone was on the bed out of reach, and Aidan was only secure in a designated area, one he had the power to leave any time he wanted.

My first thought was to figure a plan for the worst case scenario. It’s an interesting tactic but it seems to be always what I instinctively do when I’m in a jam. I guess knowing that the worst is handled frees my mind to focus more calmly on the immediate.

I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I couldn’t get off the floor. And the most vulnerable place on the bed for Aidan was actually right by me. So, I figured if I couldn’t get up, I’d coax Aidan out of his crib onto the bed near me where I could grab him. And we’d go to sleep on the floor until Dean got home. That didn’t sound too disastrous. And, sure enough, having a plan for the worst relaxed me. Reflexively, I took a deep breath.

Aidan got curious by this point and crawled over to the slats of his crib nearest my face. He sort of squatted down and looked at me like, “Hi, Mama. What you are doing down there?” Our faces were really close, close enough to kiss between the slats. I wanted him to stay calm and amused so we played for a bit, an odd form of peekaboo through his crib. Such a sweetie, him, smiling and babbling at me.

Then Reba got into the act (not to be outdone). It’s very rare that I’m on her level — in fact, the last couple of times have all been distress moments like this one — and she’s responded the same every time. “Ooooo. You’re down here with me! I can lick your face and bury my nose in your neck and sniff and snorfel your ear. Wanna play? Can we play? I think we should play.”

Fortified a bit by my two precious gems, I set my sights on getting off the floor.

The first thing I tried was the floor transfer I was taught in rehab. But it was a swift and total failure, though thankfully, also benign. I’m not sure I expected it to go much better than that but it was still a bit of a bummer.

Next, I started experimenting, doing various lifts and presses to see what I could do. It was, actually, a very typical process, one I’ve gone through countless times since I’ve been paralyzed. I just puzzled it out. I thought about various options, saving my strength for ideas that seemed most meritorious. I thought about the physics, observing what happened in each failed attempt and trying to figure the appropriate adjustments to make in my technique. Periodically, I’d stop to play with Aidan, just to keep him happy and calm and, hopefully, in his crib. I even wondered if there was some way Reba could help, but encouraging me with unconditional love seemed the extent of her likely contribution.

Each attempt was daunting in a way, partly because each failure chipped away at my confidence and my calm. But mostly because, for the period of time I was actually trying, my hands were busy holding my weight. That meant, if Aidan suddenly bolted for the open edge of the bed, I wouldn’t be able to stop him.

Finally, I stumbled on a press that, though it failed, suggested an adjustment I could make that might work. I glanced at Aidan while making some playful noises that I hoped, somehow, would say, “Aren’t we having fun? You should stay right where you are so we can keep having all this fun.” Then, I moved the chair accordingly, tried again, and boom. I was sitting in my wheelchair. It was actually very easy. Grossly easy.

I still had to get on the bed which meant attempting again the transfer that had caused all this drama. That was a bit of a tense moment. I was scared it would go wrong again, of course. But then Aidan, seeing that I was on my way to the bed, starting crawling out of his crib towards me. It’s a common problem, actually. He wants to be where I am and not only does he put himself in harm’s way, but he prevents me from getting on the bed. But, we managed. The transfer wasn’t graceful but it was successful. And Aidan and I were reunited. At last.

You know, as soon as I was successfully on the bed, I felt this intense wave of… what? Exasperation? Frustration? Like, how can I deal with anything while I have this going on? Suddenly, everything in my life — work, husband, baby, family — just seemed ridiculously more than I should have to handle, absurd to even try. And I was pissed. And resentful.

But it didn’t last. Truth is, my life is exactly as I want it to be.

It’s funny how I can be surprised by the difficulty of my life. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would forget, but I do. I guess I’m just focused on living, exactly the way I want to, chair or no chair. But then something like this happens and I think, “Right. This shit is hard! Everybody go away!”

I also felt a wave of fear but it was just a delayed reaction. Gotta keep that panic at bay while I’m figuring it all out. But once it’s over, well, all those stress chemicals flood.

The irony in all of this is that, as my mother was leaving earlier in the evening, I mentioned that Dean was going to be out for the night, to which my mother replied, “Are you sure you’re going to be all right?” I was annoyed by the question because, for months now, I’ve been routinely alone with Aidan one night a week when Dean plays basketball. In and of itself, being alone with Aidan is not cause for concern.

But even though this time her concern was warranted, I still want to object. I’m never sure I’m going to be all right. No one is. All we can do is prepare as best as possible then trust ourselves and maybe God to handle things as they come up.

My mother loves me tremendously, and her question was an expression of that love, I know. Still, it’s remarkable how much difference the packaging makes. I hope I remember that when Aidan is older and I’m worried about him.

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The Grass Right Here Is Just Fine

It’s amazing how early it starts.

The other day, Aidan was sitting with me on the couch. He had access to three of his favorite toys, a clear, plastic cup, all the other toys inside his toy bag, the toy bag itself, two favorite books, a frozen teether and a dish towel… All treasured play objects. So what did he do? Over and over and over, he tried to clamber past me to get to a bowl of oatmeal on the table next to me. A bowl of oatmeal I wouldn’t let him have.

Isn’t that just so typical? I don’t mean of babies. I mean of humans! With a couch full of wonderful things we love, and can have, we choose instead to clamber for the thing we can’t. What is that about?

You know… The really great guy/girl we’re ignoring because we want the one who doesn’t know we’re alive. The good job that barely registers because it isn’t what we thought we’d be doing. The satisfying life that goes unappreciated because so-and-so has such-and-such and we don’t, or because something isn’t what or how we imagine it should be. The grass is always greener, right?

I remember being up in the tree in Charmlee park, minutes before I fell, having climbed to a spot that looked really appealing, only to spy another spot, a bit below me that looked even better somehow. I clambered down (must have that spot), got myself situated, discovered that I felt no different than I had in the original spot, and then the branch broke.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to better ourselves and our lives. I’m all for self-improvement and conscious evolution. It just seems like, sometimes, we waste a lot of good chasing what might be better.

It reminds me a little of the first years I was injured. I was pretty focused on recovery, trying all different kinds of therapies, trying to get my head in the right place. And it wasn’t a useless effort, even if it didn’t lead to recovery. But if I had kept it up, I might have missed out on a really wonderful life, the one that was readily available just waiting for me to live it.

Now, that might have been a different story if I LOVED the recovery effort, if that was the path of my joy. But it wasn’t. I was chasing what I used to have, how I thought it should be. I don’t blame myself for doing it, of course. And I’ll be mighty happy if those things ever come back or happen. But there was SO MUCH goodness right where I was, right where I am. And once I stopped chasing, I was able not only to appreciate what I already had, but to dive in and relish it, to feed it and make the most of it. One of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

I tried to tell Aidan, every time I scooped him up mid-clamber and re-deposited him on the other side of the couch, that he’d be a lot happier if he learned to enjoy the things around him instead of coveting what he can’t have. Didn’t work. And I don’t expect it will for awhile. What’s the toddlers’ motto? MINE! But someday, I hope he’ll get it. I hope he’ll learn to take a look around and see what’s already there for what it’s really worth, and treasure it.

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Ordinary Beauty

It’s Sunday morning. My son is asleep across my lap. The sun is streaming across my legs. And for one moment, this moment, everything is all right.

I don’t want to move. I want to just savor this. It’s a reminder that in the midst of the chaos, right next to my self-doubt and fear, there is this perfection, this ordinary beauty. And my whole life is a gift.

Joyous day to you. May a moment of ordinary beauty fill your heart and renew your soul. I’m thinking of you.

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