There’s a funny story my mom loves to tell about my big brother when I was first born. They’d brought me home from the hospital and my brother, who was 5 at the time, was so excited to help take care of and love me that he could barely stand it. So one of the things he would do is put his face real close to mine, right in front of my eyes, to kiss me or make faces. What my brother didn’t know is that newborns don’t have very good eyesight and so when he would get that close to me, because of my inability to focus, my head would just instinctively turn away from him. And this was *very* upsetting to him. He thought it meant I didn’t love him and he couldn’t understand why. Mom tried to explain to him why that was happening but when you’re 5 and upset, the comforting and logical scientific explanation of a loving mother just isn’t always enough. Gradually the months passed and my eyes adjusted to the new world, and one day my brother leaned in and my eyes stayed directly on him and when he made a face I laughed and giggled. And mom said “See! He does love you.”
Four years ago, when I woke up in the hospital with a shattered c5 vertebrae and a neck full of titanium, it felt a lot like being born again. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t hold my head up. I couldn’t grasp the hands that reached for me in love and support. I couldn’t feed myself. I couldn’t provide for myself in any of the basic ways that I’d come to know and do so automatically over the last 28 years. I had to relearn so many things. Everything, in fact. And the road that stretched in front of me seemed both unforgiving and unending.
Often when I meet new people and tell them the story of how I got here, after the condolences and “I’m so sorry’s” the question that usually comes is “will you walk again?” And I think I understand why that is. Most people view walking as the most important thing. The thing you think “I couldn’t live without”. It always makes me think of that old song by The Proclaimers, blasting in my living room while we sang along on sunny Sunday’s- “I would walk 500 miles…” And it’s true, I miss walking a lot. Fall days I miss the crunch of leaves beneath my feet. I miss finding myself wandering down the middle of an empty street on a quiet summer night in the small town I used to live in. I miss running down the beach, kicking up sand on my way into the open arms of the ocean with its cold and salty embrace. I miss it all. But, when you find your body has been reset to zero, all the way back to the starting line, you realize how much there really is between there and the finish. The stops along the way that include things like: holding a fork, holding a glass, putting your own shirt on, fixing yourself food, writing your name, zipping your jacket, going to the bathroom, making your way around a city. In short, doing all of the things that can allow you to live a life resembling the independence you’d never given much thought to.
So here I am. Four years out. I eat by myself. I fix meals for myself. I can (partially) dress myself. I shop for myself. I used to be terrified of exchanging money with cashiers because my hands sometimes drop change or my fingers have trouble pressing the small buttons on a card reader but I’ve gotten over it. I know all of the bus routes that can get me around the city to see friends. I spend my nights alone and know what I need to do and am capable of helping myself if something goes wrong. I can write my name. I can write an entire letter in fact. Or story. Or poetry. I can put my dishes away and run my dishwasher. And on my worst days it’s easy to ask why I’m not capable of more. Why are there skills I’m still missing. But of course, in addition to starting over physically, the mental and emotional journey has been one to walk as well. Learning to see my new self and maintain perspective on time, fears, and the insecurity of never being enough. And you don’t need to be in a wheelchair to know just how difficult that journey can be.
So I understand now that people want to know if I’ll walk again in hopes of reminding, or perhaps assuring themselves, that broken things can be fixed again. Seeing me walk is as much a matter of faith as it is any practical care for my future ability. But what I would say to those people, what I often have to say to myself, is that I’m not broken or that, if I am, there’s more to being whole again than any one step could ever provide.
I think about my mother’s story. I realize that when I woke up in the hospital that day I couldn’t focus. Life, love, the help of others, a whole new world, all of it was staring me in the face and all I could do was turn my head. I had to look away. To forget the pain. To hide the tears in my eyes. To find my strength. But as time has gone on, all of those things are coming into focus. And I can see my brother. And my mother. And friends. And I can see a way to a new life. And I can laugh. And I can hear myself say “See! I do love it.” And that road I talked about…I’m still not sure it ever ends. But I do know it’s not without forgiveness. Forgiveness for the life that was. For the days that still hurt. For all the breakdowns that have yet to come, and hope…for all the progress that will come afterwards. Until then, keep walking everybody.