Controlled Fall: Chapter 5 "Returning to School"

Posted on November 19, 2018


The partially subterranean first floor hallway and stairwell of Milliken served as my social reintroduction at a time when a keg of cheap beer and couple of sleeves of Solo cups constituted a party. In the hospital, I’d imagined scooting up those cement steps to my fifth-floor room the way that I’d hopped on one leg when I’d broken my ankle at nine or blown out my knee in high school. That Friday night, friends lifted me Cleopatra style to descend the half-flight. Parked in a corner, I became a stop on people’s trip to the keg.

“It’s really good to have you back. I could never do what you’ve done. You’re amazing.”

“Want a beer?” It might have been my roommate Ian or Frank.

“Sure?” I said, scared. One sip elicited a grimace and shudder. Tears moistened my eyelashes, but I didn’t get instantly drunk. Half beer in hand, I brushed my crotch and felt something wet on my jeans—a bullseye, dark circle just below my fly. No, no, no, I thought, not here, inhaling hard through my nose. The itchy smell of urine confirmed it and Ian and Frank had disappeared into the crush of people that bulged over and around me, down a half flight of stairs.

“Hey Wadds,” Sara said. Everyday pearl necklace, big smile and dark brown eyes that bore deep into mine the way they had when Brown Eyed Girl played the first week that Fall, just after Steph and I had broken up on the way to the movie. We’d kissed. I’d said something about my children’s book version of love—what I wanted, thought I needed or imagined I had had with Stephanie—and that stopped us. Sara was dating someone, which made it easier for me. I wouldn’t have a girlfriend for the next three years of college.

“Have you seen Ian?” hoping the dark circle wasn’t visible and contemplating spilling beer on myself to mask sight and smell. “I need to get going.”

“The party is just starting.”

“I know. I’m still pretty weak.” Finally, Ian and Frank came back. I convinced them to carry me up the stairs, an act equivalent to turning on all the lights. Everyone stopped and half of them had to move. I worried about the wafting smell. They pushed me across campus to my dorm room.

In my lock and key bathroom, I lifted myself by the wheelchair’s armrests, struggling against the bulky, plastic, turtle shell, body cast, hooked the top of my pants with my thumbs and pulled, but suction stuck them to my legs as pee flowed through the cushion collecting in yellow puddles. As my eyes drooped and energy ebbed, I thought of a childhood racetrack Christmas present. Matt’s blue car had lapped my yellow one every other turn of the track until its charge died commencing the agonizingly slow countdown of recovered ground. Mine always saved just enough to poke ahead. In real life, I was the blue car, but I had to become the yellow one.

Still I whined, “Come on. Let’s just get these off.” The suction broke. I wrestled the wet pile to a corner for the morning, gave myself a sponge bath and snuck down the hall with just a towel over my naked crotch hoping I didn’t trail those yellow puddles directly to my door and that the adhesive condom would stick this time. I released the Velcro clasps on the turtle shell and sunk into the waterbed.

On Monday morning, Susie, Katie and Amanda collected me for French, one of three, instead of the customary four classes, along with Micro Economics and Far Eastern Art. They took turns pushing me up the hills. My fraternity brothers stopped at my room to bring me to meals. They built a ramp for the one step into the front door of the Sig Ep house. Kate grabbed me for Far Eastern Art, but at 8:15 I didn’t go to that one unless there was a test.

After two months’ struggle to leave the hospital, recovery continued to take precedence over school. If I didn’t recover, I had no future. I would end up with an A and two B’s, but prioritized sending energy to my legs as I lay in bed. Effervescence bubbled in my feet, toes and legs if I really concentrated. Trying to move, they felt trapped in cottony casts. I imagined building those bubbles to strength to break those casts—because I was different from the other people in the hospital—because this was my opportunity to prove I was exemplary. Recovery—walking, skiing, returning to equality, being whole—that was my priority.

My parents knew, after a week apiece on campus, that I had to be on my own. I’m sure they left reluctantly, hoping that I’d be okay and wishing they didn’t have to relinquish control. One night, as I undressed for bed in my chair, I leaned vulnerably forward to grab my leg under the knee to swing it so that my ankle crossed the opposite knee, allowing me to take my shoe, sock, pants and underwear off that leg, but my leg spasmed, yanking and catapulting me face first to the floor, which I heard more than saw. Bones banged cement. The crunch traveled through my head. My chair piled on top, tangling my legs, which kicked out in spasm, pinning me to the ground.

Sure I’d broken a leg, and that I’d be stuck naked on the floor until someone found me, I asked, “Do you think you can get up?” In the hospital, I had been too fragile to learn floor to chair transfers. Reaching my left hand through the gauntlet of spasms to the padded side of the waterbed, I fumbled my chair upright with my free hand then pulled and pushed on it and the bedrail lofting myself from the ground and into bed. In my mind it was the equivalent of a mother lifting a car off her baby. My broken legs could wait for morning. With new daylight filling my room I pulled back the covers expecting the worst, but they weren’t hot, swollen or discolored so I got up and didn’t tell anyone.

Then I got angry blisters on each heel from borrowing a friend’s shoes for a fraternity semi-formal. Dr. Freed had warned me. I didn’t know how fragile I was. Now, he was right. They’d get infected and probably amputated. At the very least, the blisters meant my ticket back to the hospital. I’d fought and blown it. I called my nurse Jim, knowing that I’d be one of those guys who returned to the hospital because he couldn’t cut it, but he said, “You’ll be fine.” For the next two weeks I looked ridiculous in open-toed, egg-crate lined, foam boots lashed with Velcro, but I didn’t return to the hospital.

Then my phone rang. “Hi, my name is Craig, I’m a lacrosse player and my best friend in high school had a spinal cord injury. I’d love to help. Would you like to go to the gym sometime?”

“That would be great. I’m going crazy because I haven’t done any therapy.”

After my first set of bench presses I transferred back to my chair and a flash flood of electrical energy rushed through my legs. “I think they’re waking up,” I said.

“That’s great,” he looked a little stunned, “You should meet my friend Chris. He’s been getting a bunch of return working with the Miami Project.”

“Return, that’s the key. They told me in the hospital that it’s the first year when your body settles down and you figure out if you’re going to get anything back. If he’s still getting return years afterwards that’s amazing. It was great for me to come back here, but I’m worried that I’m wasting opportunities to get better.”

“I’m definitely not an expert, but I bet being back has helped you become healthier.”

“Definitely. It’s just the recovery part seems like the most important part right now.”

“I’ll give you Chris’ number. Give him a call. Maybe you can visit the Project.

“I would love that. Thanks.”

I opened the door to my two-door, white Honda Accord, purchased with money donated by friends and family, to return to my dorm room, but couldn’t budge the manual seat to pull my chair behind me. Each attempt toward the steering wheel slid back. Finally, someone walked by. I had to force myself to ask, “Could you push my seat forward?” My car stayed in the parking space next to my dorm for the rest of the semester.

When the doctors finally freed me of the turtle shell body jacket, I wondered when I got fat. I’d lost fifty pounds, yet I had a beer gut—an old man gut—a skinny, fat gut. The injury meant that I only had movement and sensation in the muscles just below my sternum. The rest sagged to my crotch.

The day before Spring Break felt like water dripping from snow banks, growing mud that would last until the week of exams. At Eaglebrook and Deerfield, Spring Break lasted most of March. While friends vacationed in the Virgin Islands, Florida, Arizona, Hawaii we skied. Sometimes Paul, our coach, would drive us to the top of the course on the four-wheeler when the lifts had closed. At the Waterville Valley Eastern Cup races the year before, it had rained so much they’d had to set the course around a mini-river at the bottom. Ski racing was our vacation, but this year I would get warm and see the Miami Project in Florida.

At the airport my forty-one-year-old mother juggled so much luggage she looked as though she were traveling with an infant. A cardboard box, fourteen inches wide and six inches deep, carrying a travel bench seat for the shower, rested against her sternum. At her feet sprawled a garbage bag, the yellow ties pulled into a handle, which covered the padded toilet seat. A box of catheter kits and a bag with a rolled foam egg-crate for the length of my bed so that I wouldn’t get pressure sores hung off her shoulder as she negotiated the excess baggage with the agent.

In Miami, as the automatic doors opened, unaccustomed soft, warm air slid across my skin. White lights illuminated palm trees from below, a reverse silhouette against the dark sky. I’d never seen a palm tree. Pat Lucas joined us at her aunt’s high-rise apartment on the beach in Hollywood, Florida. She and Tom had gone to Merrimack with my parents and had been at the hospital from the beginning.

The next day when we parked in front of Chris’ white stucco, red roofed Spanish style house, he bounced down the tile steps in a wheelie.

“He has mountain bike tires on his wheelchair,” I noted to my mother.

Dark hair, dark skinned like he spent a lot of time in the sun, fit, wearing a soccer jersey before they were popular, he said, “Are you guys ready to check out the Miami Project? Oh, hold on. I need to grab something.” He rolled up the steps, warping my sense of gravity and physics. Then he was back. “I’ll drive my car. You follow me.” He jumped into his Jeep Wrangler and threw his chair in the back, seemingly in one motion.

When we parked, he came to our car to coach me as my mother brought my chair from the trunk of the rental car. I pushed myself hard to the edge of the seat like I was lifting my butt out of a hole surrounded by loose dirt and stuck my feet out to the footrests.

“Watch out that you don’t sprain your ankle,” he said as I gave my best effort to heave myself into my chair trying desperately to make it look effortless, “If you put them on the footrest then they can twist. You don’t want to sprain your ankle.”

Disappointed, I followed him like a puppy to the entrance. Glass and light, soaring ceilings, high-tech science and the feeling of sport, the Miami Project couldn’t have been more different than University Hospital. This is where I could walk again.

“Hello,” “Hello,” “How are you?” “Great to see you,” Chris knew everyone.

A guy in a tech jacket gave us a tour. “This is an FES bike,” he said, “Do you know what an FES bike is?” he asked me.

“I’ve read a bit about it,” I said. “It’s where they attach electrodes to make your leg muscles fire so that you can ride a bike and build muscle.”

“Well, you can’t really build muscle,” he said, “but you can maintain what you have. It’s also really good for promoting blood flow, bone density and overall health of your legs. When are we going to get you back in here?” he said to Chris.

“I’m working on my own stuff right now,” Chris said. I looked at him, expecting a bit more of an explanation, but got none.

“You know that we’d love to have you back,” he said.

“I know, but I’m onto some good stuff.”

“This is the bio-feedback lab,” the tour guide said. “Here we can measure the muscle responses,” showing us a computer screen with color patterns looking like thunderstorm cells on the weatherman’s chart. I wanted to get right on and wake up my muscles. Let’s measure them. Let’s push them. Let’s make it happen. This I could understand.

“How long have you been in a chair?” he asked me.

“It’s been three months,” I said, “It’s been three long months.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” he said, “We can’t take patients until at least a year after the trauma. Your body changes so much during the first year. It’s still in shock and will take a long time to return to its new normal. We can’t really do anything until at least a year from the injury. I’m sorry.”

“Really? I’m back at school, but I’m not doing any PT. It’s been great to be back with my friends, but I feel like I’m wasting my time.”

“I know it’s frustrating and I’d recommend doing some PT, maintain your range or motion and flexibility so your legs are ready. It’s important that your body has settled when we start. That takes a year.”

Chris took us to Sea World, where again he knew everyone. We watched the show from the deck with one of his friends.

“Are you still swimming with the dolphins?” she asked.

“Every chance I get,” he said, turning to me, “They are the most therapeutic animals in the world. They care for their sick. I’m completely embraced into their pod. Communication happens on a totally different level. There’s so much that we haven’t explored. I have this friend that when I want to connect with her, I just send her a mental message. She called me last night.”

“Like ESP?” I asked.

“Sort of, though something deeper and more personal. It’s communicating with someone on a foundational level. I started exploring it a lot more after my accident. Everything is so straightforward with medicine. They’ve made their decisions. This is more intuitive and really primal—like what we had to do before we thought we could explain everything.”

Back on campus, hanging by the fraternity house pool table, Matt Martin said, “Well someone needs to address the pink elephant in the room,” his smirk stating that he got things others didn’t and he did. I was human and flawed, not just an “inspiration.” With that we became great friends as I bided my time before I could head to Shake-A-Leg, where they would accept me even if it hadn’t been a year since the accident and where I would walk again even if no one else thought I could.

When I finished the semester, I read all the books that Chris had recommended to stretch my mind and prepare the connection to my body. One day, at home alone, I looked outside to see my car sitting idly in the driveway. I’m going to figure this out, I thought. Surrounded by the trees that blocked any watching eyes on North Street in Granby, I transferred in and scooted the seat forward. It wasn’t even that hard, so I went for a drive along the Connecticut River, on a route where I used to ride my bike.

I drove my car to Matt’s graduation from Burke Mountain Academy. The day before, he and I hung out in the living of the rented condo. I did wheelies while we talked, until I leaned a little too far back, spilling on the ground, my legs tangling with the chair. Matt didn’t budge from the couch. “Can you get up?” he asked with studied casualness.

“Oh yeah,” I said, only having risen from the floor that one time. I extricated my legs and again used one hand on the chair and one on the couch to return back to sitting. “See.”

I couldn’t control the fall, but I could get up. Returning to Middlebury proved that, and that I had more love and support than I’d ever imagined.

Chapter 5 Read by the author.

Middlebury Dean Ann Hanson invited my mother to tour the campus to determine how they could make it accessible for me as I prepared to leave hospital for school. We recreated the tour this summer.

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