Get Up, Take Your Mat, and Go Home

I was seventeen. I played tailback and safety for my high school’s football team. I had a cousin back then who introduced me to Jesus. He was 5'9", about 205 pounds, but he benched 400 pounds and squatted 500. He told me to change my mindset. He told me to believe in myself. He said he believed he was better than everybody else. He wasn’t being cocky. He believed this, which was how he was able to perform.

You don’t tell anybody. You just believe it. That’s faith.

March 19, 2004: it was about 330 in the afternoon and my grandmother gave me a ride home. There was a party and family were getting the house ready. My girlfriend back then was at the Blue Line Station and wanted me to get her. Random stuff seemed to keep me from making this appointment. Family told me I needed to stay home and help. My dad wouldn’t give me bus money to the train station. At the corner, an old teammate stopped me and we talked smack. We were just playing around. This one dude I hung out with wanted to tag along. But he always came strapped and hid his piece in his pocket, and he made my girlfriend nervous. So I was like, We’ll hang out later.

Then three trains went by, each 15 minutes apart. I made it to the train station. I saw this girl I took out on one date. My dad didn’t like her. He never said why. We went out on a group date and I noticed things about her — she was involved in drugs and hung out with gang members. After that one date, I didn’t want to hang out. She took it bad. She’d get upset every time I saw her. She’d threaten to cut me, or make some jackass remark. I never took it seriously.

At the train station, she noticed me and she said, There’s the bourgeoisie guy. Are you from the hood? You know you ain’t hood.

I snapped back. I probably didn’t say the nicest things.

I bought my ticket. I got up on the platform. I sat on top of the rail and scrolled through my cell phone.

I saw the girl, this time with another girl and a guy. The guy was taking the lead and at twenty feet, he stopped. I think he saw how big I was. This was Watts: in the hood, you don’t approach strangers unless you want to do somebody bodily harm. You never know who’s carrying. He stopped and looked at me. He took a couple of steps and looked at the girls.

He walked a few more feet towards me and said, Let’s take a walk and get a quick fade (which meant he wanted to scrap). I knew he had a gun: he wanted to get away from the cameras that had a clear view of the platform.

He said, It’s for them. Me and you. Then he stood there.

I didn’t budge. He looked at the two girls, as though asking for permission.

I said, Let’s do it right here. He swiveled his head to look at the girls again. I rushed him. When he turned, I hit him square in the face. I grabbed him belly to belly. I slammed him to the ground. I got on top of him.

The two girls came from behind. One clawed my throat. Another kicked me in the head. I held on to the guy and pressed my forearm against his neck. Then I got kicked in the eye. I leaned over to grab the leg that kicked me. It gave the guy enough room to reach for his waistline.

I didn’t hear it. I didn’t feel the barrel against my flank. The bullet traveled in an upward direction and tore my kidney, liver, spinal cord. It collapsed my right lung and lodged in my lower back. I remember my ears were ringing. Then I couldn’t move. Even my view was fixed: I couldn’t open or close my eyes. I just saw them rolling me off. I thought I was floating because I couldn’t feel anything.

They threw me onto the train tracks. The first thing I heard were the bells that tolled and signaled that a train was coming.

Get up and run, I told myself. Get up. Run. But nothing moved.

I heard somebody from above the track: how many times were you shot? This one girl jumped down from the platform. I knew her. I was nice to her when everybody treated her like garbage. She called 911.

I wanted to call my dad: I wanted to tell him he was right. I wanted to say I was sorry.

I dialed but it went to voicemail. I dropped the phone.

The girl kept waving down the train to stop. The train engine broke and screeched to a stop probably 12 feet from where I lay.

I kept swallowing for air. I told God I was sorry. I was breathing shallow like a goldfish you leave out in the open. I knew I was going to die because I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t move. All I heard were people telling me to get off the tracks.

Police came by and the first thing he asked was, How old are you? What gang are you from? This was Watts.

Then I heard my dad’s voice: Who did this? Why would they do this to my boy? He jumped down the platform onto the tracks.

I got loaded onto a gurney. My dad got impatient with the paramedics and lifted the gurney himself onto the platform. He said it was taking too long. They rolled me into the ambulance. Everybody put their hands on me along the way — friends and family. The looks on their faces. It was like I was being wheeled in a casket on my way to the hearse.

At the hospital, what I remember is counting backwards from 100 before surgery. I woke a few days later in the ICU on a ventilator. I thought I was dreaming. I tried to hold my breath. But then I felt a gust of air blown into my lung. I told myself I was dreaming and went back to sleep.

The doctors fixed the lacerations to my organs, but couldn’t repair the spinal cord damage. They said there was a lot of swelling and bleeding around the cord and surgery would cause more harm than good. They diagnosed a complete transection of the spinal cord at T10–11, right before the curve at the small of the back. It was a complete separation of the spinal cord. They said I would be paralyzed from the waist down. The swelling went all the way down the small of the back.

They said I would never walk again.

I lost bowel function. I lost bladder function. I lost sensation. I couldn’t feel hot or cold or needles or electric shocks at my toes and feet. I told the doctors I felt knee pain, but they said it was phantom pain, the kind that amputees get at the limbs they’ve lost.

I was moved to a rehab center. I thought I was going to be one of those people that lived in a chair for the rest of their lives. The ones that were depressed all the time and smoked cigarettes.

While I was there, there were gang members and murderers who got shot and they were telling me how they were getting better. How they didn’t have to ram a tube down their penis to pee. Or how they could start feeling their toes.

I got angry at God. I wasn’t getting any better. But I didn’t understand then that there’s no such thing as good people. Everybody’s got something they’re struggling with. We’re all very broken. And I thought I was safe from harm because I was generally a good dude. The people in the neighborhood knew me.

Within a couple of months, I felt something in the lower part of my stomach and groin and thighs. The doctors said it was normal and that it was probably nerve pain. My dad kept saying, You got to fire at your nerves. Don’t stop. You have to keep trying. There’s a bridge your nerves have to get over. You have to tell yourself to move.

One night I stayed up trying to move my toes. I wanted to make them wiggle. Then I focused on the big toe. I said, Move. It didn’t. But I could see the tendon bouncing up and down. It wasn’t accidental. It did this on command.

I woke my dad at the bedside. Look, I said.

Keep trying, he said. I told you. Don’t quit. My dad was tired. We were losing the house and my dad filed for bankruptcy. He stopped working and stayed with me everyday. He dozed off.

I kept trying. The sun came through behind the blinds and the nurse came in and opened them. By that time, I could wiggle my big toe.

The doctors called it an incomplete transection. Students came by from UCI, Berkley, UCLA, Loma Linda. Residents. People that were almost doctors. I didn’t mind if they wanted to know what was going on. My dad didn’t like that I was like some mannequin when the doctors wrote me off. But they said they’d get in trouble if they gave me any kind of false hope. They were just protecting their license.

At first, I was lightheaded just getting up to sit at the edge of the bed. They put me in leg braces that ran from my hip all the way down to my feet. I used a walker and those braces to get from my room to the elevator. I almost threw up from the effort. I told my dad, I gotta quit. They drove me back to bed in a wheelchair.

Months later, I was using parallel bars to build strength and to walk even further. They cut my braces in half. The doctors never figured out how all this happened. They saw my spinal cord was severed. There were pictures. I left the rehab center walking. Yeah, I had braces and forearm crutches. But I was walking and I’m supposed to be using those crutches now.

Mark 2:9–12:

9Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

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