As I drifted into unconsciousness, the cool surface on which I lay the side of my face felt so soothing. Soft. How could pavement feel foam injected? And so perfectly cool?
I knew that a brightly-lit pink sky glowed overhead, one of those low-cloud nights where the ambient light from Manhattan and its eastern suburbs reflected back to Earth an industrial version of the Northern Lights. Just a few seconds before, the only thing I’d been able to see as my head yo yo’d loosely atop my neck like a video camera attached by a string to a pole and then batted about by a cat was that impossibly pink sky, the sky from which too-large wet snowflakes materialized and melted against my face and now bare head.
It was 35 degrees on the blacktop and I was warm. And as I closed my eyes and left the pink behind, I was comfortable despite the gnawing feeling that something was seriously amiss.
* * *
A parade of characters appeared at my hospital bed and then vanished.
The player from my soccer team. I didn’t recognize him in his Nassau County police officer uniform. It had decorations on the breast reminiscent of a 5-star general. He loomed over me. Maybe I could get a uniform like that someday? He looked snazzy. That would be cool.
He had the Nassau County blue and orange lion patch on the uniform’s upper arm. I had that patch. I remembered it. My mom had taken some post-grad classes. One of her classmates had been a Nassau County cop. He gave her a patch for her kid. He told her not to put it on any of my clothes because it was real. Only Nassau County cops could wear it. We lived in northwest Massachusetts at the time. Did the patch require that we eventually move to Nassau County? The medication told me that maybe it was a (gasp!) magic patch. Maybe the patch was why I ended up in the middle of a road that night. Being questioned (I was told) by Nassau County cops at the hospital about the events leading to The Thing I Couldn’t Remember.
My cop/soccer friend would later refer me to a world-class amputee sprinter. The sprinter told me to meet him at a track 90 minutes from my house. I went. He never showed up. More than a year after that, I saw a video of that sprinter. He was talking to a group of 5th and 6th graders at a local school. His presentation was long on self indulgence. He asked, “Don’t I get a hand for that?” after “revealing” his world-record time. It was short on meaningful content. I would remember that.
My father’s friend from England came. Cool accent and funny guy. I don’t recall him saying anything memorable even though he was normally witty. I wasn’t upset to have this casual acquaintance staring at what was left of me.
The guy from my law firm. I saw him every week at our Thursday afternoon in-firm cocktail party. Wine, beer, soda, and hors d’oeuvres surrounded by legal books in the firm library. I’d never said more than 20 words to him in the previous year and a half. Why was he here in the hospital with his wife? Oh, he had a story. Hit by a car in his late teens early 20’s. Limb salvage. Had both legs still, but the damaged one tended to snap frequently when he tried to play tennis. That didn’t sound so good – saving a leg so it could break every year or so.
Not a problem I’d be having in the absence of a leg to save. But good to know.
A box of chocolates came. From the girl whose car I had tried to push off the road. Gold box, Godiva maybe? My dad ate them one night in the hospital. As he ate them, I was quietly freaking out watching Millenium on the hospital’s TV ($9.95/day). The show didn’t bother me from the safety of my living room. But now in the hospital, Lance Henrikson’s fight against evil scared me. The insanity on the screen infected me.
My boss came by. My wife later told me that he had an argument with himself out loud before entering my room. He questioned whether he could face me. The situation reminded him of a childhood trauma of some kind. I never learned what it was – an injured or deceased sibling, maybe? It was nice of him to come into the room and talk with me.
My sister napped on the window sill.
Less than a week after my accident, a thirty-something guy wheeled me up a ramp into an ambulette van. I associated these vans with the transportation of people who were damaged beyond repair. I felt out of place as he strapped my wheelchair, sideways, into the floor of the van. The ride to the inpatient rehab facility didn’t take long. It was so sunny that day.
A week of physical therapy. Ann Weissberg, my PT, got me upright and moving. Long days where the sweat pouring down my face made me feel whole.
One occupational therapy session before returning home. How do you make a sandwich when using crutches? That was the quandary I and the OT explored together. It actually helped. Not for making sandwiches. Very useful, though, as a lesson that we have to sometimes think about basic things in fundamentally different ways to create solutions. Invaluable, actually.
She also gave me one of those scissor-handled things that picks things up if they’re too far away – up, down, behind something – to reach. I think I’ve seen ads for them on late-night TV. I lost it as soon as I got home. The lesson and the thingy that picks crap up: the yin and yang of OT.
One visit with a psychologist before being discharged from inpatient rehab. She asked lots of questions. I can’t remember her face, but can still see a messy desk and where I sat in relation to it. And her. Apparently, I did not impress her as a danger to myself. She authorized my release back into the wild. Where people with all their limbs stared at me. Like a giraffe or tiger, they had never seen one of me before.
My friend, Victor, who knew I wasn’t religious, sent me a Bible. I tried to read it. I really did. It didn’t take. But Victor’s son, also named Victor, ultimately became Born Again. Victor (The Older) did fuel my exploration of spiritual matters. Before my accident they ranked somewhere below Druidism and ghost stories in the realm of abstract things I should care about. I therefore appreciate Victor (The Older) and the Bible he gave me, even though I haven’t opened it in more than 12 years.
About 50 days after my accident I received my first prosthesis. And learned to walk again. Second day in I walked unassisted and felt proud. And knew that I would reclaim my life. Knew it with a certainty as unshakable of that of any religious zealot.
These pieces – all built on that blacktop bed on a pink night.
I’ve said many times that becoming an amputee is like being abducted in the middle of the night and flown to a foreign land. Then the person who stole you away pulls the hood off your head and says, “Function.”, leaving you to adjust to a place where no one knows you, no one speaks the same language as you, and no one looks at you as a “regular” person.
In the first year after my accident I learned more than I had in the previous 26. Since then, I’ve lived a more rewarding, fulfilling, challenging, and happy life than I ever could have imagined.
I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Including the return of my left leg.
Which I lost 14 years ago tomorrow.