I step through the metal detector.
The airport security agent waiting on the other side perks up. “SIR, are you wearing a belt? Anything metal in your pockets?”
“No. I have a metal rod in my leg.”
The agent frowns. “I need you to step back and remove your shoes. Come on through,” he adds to the person behind me, in a tone that says, Sorry about the troublemaker.
I sigh and do as I’m told, knowing it won’t make a difference. I walk through again.
“Stand over here and spread your arms and legs for me, please.”
The agent waves a wand across my body. It beeps when it passes over my right leg, then beeps again at my clavicle.
“Metal in my collarbone, too,” I offer apologetically.
“Okay, I’m just going to give you a pat-down. Do you mind?”
What do you think? “No, go ahead.”
Beep, frown, beep, pat-pat, move along. Lather, rinse, repeat ten times from Boston to Brisbane and back.
In a bad movie, this would be the part where the narrator breaks in and says “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here.” But chances are that if you’re reading this, it’s no great mystery.
Eleven years ago today, as I was walking to the bus stop near my mother’s house, I was run over in a crosswalk and dragged down the road by a paratransit van (always on the hunt for new customers!). The accident turned my collarbone into a fine powder and caused a compound fracture — that’s the kind that sticks out—of my right tibia and fibula, among other injuries. If you don’t know the rest, you can find the modestly gory details here.
Every year since then, I’ve marked February 20 as my Vanniversary—a celebration of the day I took a drive on the underside of an Access-a-Ride and lived to tell the tale. There’s usually a cake and several rounds at the bar.
Some people—my people—get the humor of the Vanniversary, and understand why it’s a happy occasion. Others greet the story with an awkward smile: What kind of freak wants to wallow in his most painful memories? Why is he telling me about his bones? How do I change the subject?
That’s missing the point, of course. The Vanniversary isn’t really about getting hit by the van; it’s about everything that came after, and everything that might not have if the van had been going a little faster, or I’d been positioned a little differently, or there had been more surgical complications, or, or, or… It’s a tribute to the fact that we’re all here now, together, and a reminder that this wasn’t guaranteed, and neither is anything else.
No matter how safe and comfortable we may feel on any given day, there could always be a van rounding the next corner that we haven’t noticed yet. But it does us no good to look ahead with fear or look back with regret. We just have to roll with it.
Sorry about the pun.
The metal is annoying. It contracts and expands and aches when the air pressure changes, and yes, it sets off alarms and causes minor scenes in airports across the world. I have the option to get it removed, and I might one day, but I’m in no hurry to go back under the knife.
Titanium and bone have grown together, fusing into techno-organic hardware that lets me walk and helps me breathe. The metal has become part of me, and in a strange way I’d miss it if it were gone. For the same reason, I declined to have surgery to correct the scars on my face. I could have them “fixed,” but doing so would not give me my old face back; it would give me a new one.
This is my face now, eleven years on. These are my bones, for better or worse. They have traveled with me to sixteen countries and four continents, carrying me through the towering hills of the Highlands, the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, and the dusty back roads of Jinja.
Time travels forward without pause or mercy, like a white van bearing down on a pedestrian crossing, but just as bone can be strengthened by titanium, joy is made stronger by the memory of pain.
My wife and I recently returned from an 18-day trip to Australia and New Zealand. It was my first time in either country, but it was something of a homecoming for her as we toured the coastal city of Townsville, where she obtained both her master’s degrees.
The timing of the trip so close to the Vanniversary was a coincidence, but it kept coming to mind unbidden. Eleven years ago I was about to be hit by a van, I would think as we circled an active volcano in our rental car. Ten years ago I was struggling down subway steps with a cane, I would think as I picked my way through forest trails and glow worm caves.
On the last night of our journey, as I stood on the beach and gazed out at the dark waters of the South Pacific and the bright stars and gibbous moon above, it felt like another moment worth remembering. There I was at damn near the bottom of the world, 9,600 miles from where I was born, taking in a view of the sea and the sky that I might never glimpse again.
Despite being a writer, I’ve always struggled to find the right words on the spot. So like a school boy saying his penance, I silently recited an Our Father and three Hail Marys, hoping the prayers would serve as an IOU. Then I turned away and walked off into the night, taking my metal with me.