Finalist, Barbara Banks Brodsky Award for Excellence in Real World Writing, Fall 2006


Too steep a dive can cause your head to hit the bottom. This can result in a broken neck and paralysis. Dive only on areas of pools properly designed to accommodate diving. Know how to dive properly and safely. If in doubt don't dive!


--a sign hanging in my apartment

When I was growing up I could define myself very simply. Goalie. I played hockey, was a goalie, and was really, really good at it. I trained under Vladislav Tretiak, a goalie that Wayne Gretzky called the greatest goalie to ever live. I got recruited by multiple triple A teams. I had what it took. I had animal reflexes, my eyes could follow the puck regardless of how fast it was moving, I knew exactly whom and where the center was about to pass to because I could hear the wingers' skates behind me, and in flurries of activity around my crease I would enter a berserker state in which I'd do anything just to keep that damned puck out of my net: afterwards I wouldn't really know what had happened, other than I'd be upside-down, my skate caught in the net because [apparently] I had made a bicycle kick save on a rebound, or the puck would be between my shoulder and head because after a weird bounce I had effectively caught the puck by shrugging. The AAA team I ultimately chose won a North American summer championship. In that tournament, of the six games we played, I had five shutouts.

A week later, during the short break between summer tournament season and pre-season training, I broke my neck and never played competitive hockey again. It kind of sucked. This was August 27, 1998, at 7:30pm. I was thirteen.

I remember breaking my neck very clearly. I dove off a dock at too steep an angle. I had been diving off of it all day, but this last time I jumped in after a fat kid who splashed a number of people on the dock. They complained just as I jumped. I had just enough time to think that diving straight down would splash less, but not enough time to have the follow-up thought as to why one shouldn't dive straight down in shallow water...and crunch. Well, to me it was more like a thud, as everything went numb. The next thing I remember, I was looking at the bottom of the lake. I tried to move, and was a bit confused at the lack of limbs that I had apparently stumbled into. Nothing was responding. I figured out that I was screwed when I saw my arm float by, just kind of listlessly hanging out in the current with bits of leaf and fish crap, completely unaware that my brain was frantically trying to get in touch with it.

When I realized I was paralyzed, I heard Scotty from Star Trek yelling out, in his full Scottish brogue, "Captain, we've lost contact with decks one through twenty!" On reflection, this was particularly strange as I had never actually seen the original Star Trek series at that point, and only vaguely knew who Scotty was based on references like that scene inAce Ventura.

I was fully conscious, unable to move, and face down in a lake. I'm not entirely sure how long this lasted, as it was one of those moments that lasted forever or just a split second, depending on how I remember it. If I remember the parts where the waves sloshed just below my eyes so that I could see the grey sky, but not past my nose so that I could breathe, it lasted hours. If I remember the parts where I decided I was going to die and there was nothing I could do, it's just one timeless second where an infinite calm came over me.

Other people have told me that I was under for about two minutes.

Eventually a fat gay guy named Bill--the likeliest of all heros--pulled me out of the water. Bill was an emergency room nurse. I had managed to have a catastrophic injury at my mom's work picnic; my mom is a nurse and every adult present was an ER doctor or nurse. Ignoring the part about my newfound quadriplegia, it was an incredibly lucky day.

In the ambulance I had a blood pressure that can technically exist in the body of someone just pronounced dead. The hospital was surprisingly pleasant because, below the neck, my body felt oddly euphoric. Without any sensation, the fact that I had a thermometer up my ass never even came to my attention. It only got unpleasant when they had to put a tube through my nose and into my stomach, but at the same time I had enough morphine in my body to make an elephant have nightmares about a British hunter with a big bushy mustache and a comically large gun.

I spent the next eight weeks in hospitals working through a recovery that I could put on a string, drag behind my car, and get a few sob-story reporters running after me like stray dogs after a steak. After two weeks at Children's Hospital in Boston, I was flown to Shepherd Center, a spinal cord specialty hospital in Atlanta. At week six I walked for the first time since the accident. One of the things they don't tell you about is that when you have extremely limited control of your lower body, and very suddenly use it again, there's nothing stopping the torrent of blood that is sent downwards from giving you a full on erection. To a thirteen year-old with a crush on no fewer than two of his therapists (two twenty-something southern belles who were unfairly hot), the miracle moment was ruined because I was wearing mesh shorts that didn't even try to hold my penis in any direction other than straight out.

To really be honest, though, I didn't enjoy walking again. When I first did, the room stopped. Dozens of people who were far worse than I--people who weren't there to recover, but rather to learn to live without a body--were watching me. Luck is getting something you didn't work for: something you don't necessarily deserve. I wasvery lucky, and at that moment I knew exactly how much I didn't deserve it. It's not as if I were a bad choice, but what made me special? There are tangible reasons I recovered (youth, athletic background, having professional care two minutes after the accident, etc.), but who decided all of those things would coincide on me? All the luck in that room fell on my legs. I would have sat down right then and stopped trying except that I knew the people who would never get my chance would kick my ass if I did. the very least they'd be pissed and run over my foot, or something, and those motorized wheelchairs are heavy fuckers.

You never know how much a spinal cord injury patient will recover. Nothing's impossible, and nothing's guaranteed. I didn't do anything crazy like walk when the doctors said I never would again, but I took their best case scenario and sped it up by about two weeks. I made it home by Halloween, when my costume was a wheelchair with a UFO built around it. Bill made it for me, complete with flashing lights. I got three times as much candy as my friends, as half the time, when stairs were involved, they took my pillow-case up with them and used the line, "This is my friend's bag. He's the one in the wheelchair over there. He just got back from the hospital where he learned to walk again, but he's still not strong enough to walk around all night." Then I would wave from the street and whoever had answered the door would just empty the candy bowl into my bag.

By the time I left Atlanta I was walking with a brace on my left leg and a Tiny Tim-esque crutch on my right arm. My body was radically changed forever. In the first week after the accident I lost twenty pounds despite not pooping. It took two years to gain that weight back, and by the time I did, I had grown five inches. After the initial paralysis subsided--there's this thing called spinal shock, when the whole system shuts down on injury and you only really find out what is truly damaged a week or two later--I was left with a severely deficient left leg, and my left hand left with a dexterity that would not be noticeably different if I had lopped off the hand altogether and replaced it by jamming my stump into a roast chicken.

Strangely enough, I could feel things just fine with my left side, and not so well on my right. The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice-versa. The nerves have to cross, but the sensory and motor nerves cross at different places. If you get hurt on one side of the spinal cord between where they cross, you'll be like me: one side immobile, the other unfeeling. While my right side is pretty much normal at present day (sensory nerves just recover better because they are one-way and don't require nearly as much coordination), it was not without incident. Shortly after returning from Atlanta, I went swimming in a friend's outdoor pool. Bear in mind that this puts me swimming in late October. The water was freezing, but my right side did not know this. There was a distinct line down the center of my torso, to the left of it icy death, to the right, euphoric ignorance. I felt as if I were in two different places at once. There are few things in life that are quite as confusing.

In the eight years since, I have gotten better...slowly. Therapy turned into therapeutic workouts, which eventually just turned into working out like a normal person in a normal gym. I still limp a bit, and my top sprint speed isn't quite what it could be. My hand is still about as functional as a roast chicken, but just as Jackie Chan can turn anything into a weapon, after eight years I have learned all the tricks you can pull off with a roast chicken for a hand. Most people are shocked to find out that I can hardly move it.

It's because of the hand that I'm now a fencer. Once I saw the sport and realized that the entire job of the fencer's off-hand is to stay out of the way, it was perfect. I had stayed with hockey for a while, acting as a goalie coach for my teams. It was only a matter of time, though, before my teams dissolved and people went their different directions. I can skate almost normally these days, but missing high school hockey made it impossible to carry on in competition. I started to stop following hockey when my teammates moved on. Three of my teammates are drafted right now--one in the first round--and if I watch, it's far too easy to start thinking what would have been if I had dove in at a slightly different angle. What Ifs, though, are dangerous things. I usually tell myself that a slightly different angle in the other direction and I'd be dead now. So instead I move on. I started fencing just long enough before college to make the team by the time I got here. I find no end in the pleasure it causes me to know that of my all-male, sports centric high school, I--the nerd with the limp--am one of three NCAA Div. 1 athletes of my graduating class.

Looking at my right side, you'd probably believe that. I have this impressive-ish arm, with the muscles and the size, and then a fancy leg with all kinds of crazy definitions and bulges that let me jump, run, kick, and curtsy better than your average street-goer. Then you look at my left side. My left leg is barely respectable looking, if only because it [quite literally] is forced to carry its own weight. My left arm, however, is noticeably smaller than it's counterpart, and has a smooth taper to its musculature that makes me look like a crazy vegan who neither exercises nor adds some form of voodoo protein powder to their diet.

A lot of my goalie habits still shine through, which can be bad. In fencing my best bouts are when I kind of lose conscious control, and all I remember is a very primal feeling when my body just acts on its own. Practices and lessons be damned; I'm not thinking about what I'm doing when I ram my weapon into my opponents neck, I'm making sure he doesn't first. I still have the reflexes; I will catch things I shouldn't, like when someone's hat blows off and I grab it in mid air; but when I'm playing softball and can't get my glove on a hard line drive, so instinctually make a perfect skate save, I spend the rest of the day limping in pain because I took a hard line drive to my ankle without the usual padding you have when making a skate save. It can be easy to forget my left leg ain't an all-star, and more than once it has made me fall in some hilarious way, like the time I was biking with a friend and stopped at a light. For some reason I went to lean on my left leg, and this plan just failed utterly.Standing still I simply fell over sideways, taking my friend out with me. Of course, at that moment the light turned green and we delayed traffic as we tried to extricate ourselves from a tangle of spokes and limbs.

Still, I more or less blend in. It's all strangely normal to me. Only rarely, in unpredictable moments of clarity, will I look at my left hand and think, "Man, not being able to use you isweird!" Then I'll stare at it for ten minutes just imagining it moving, picturing the exact command I would send to make the fingers twitch...but...nothing. I'm willing to bet that you don't really grasp the difference between thinking about moving and moving. I do. Hold out your hand. Stare at your finger, and imagine moving it without actually doing so. Do it again. And again. And again. When you've done it enough that you can't wait to actually move it, go right ahead and let it move. Then imagine what it would feel like after all of that tonot be able to.

People ask what happened to my ankle. Pretentious guys trying to impress their girlfriends try and guess which muscle I pulled playing which sport. Most of the time I play along. It's far too long of an explanation. At fencing competitions, where you shake hands after bouts with your left hand, I wear a finger splint and a lot of tape on my left hand so that my opponents don't get confused when I shake with my right. I'm not embarrassed, I actually love telling this story (once, while drunk, I told a thirty minute version of it to the utter horror of my friends); sometimes I just am bored with it. I have told it a lot, and no matter how I say it, no one is happy with a simple, "I broke my neck." (Well, except for the woman who asked, "Broke your neck? Any side-effects?" and was content with my response of, "No, just the usual.")

The show stopper, for those times I tell the story, is my scar. I crushed a vertebra in diving off of that dock, and that had to instantly be fixed so that my unstable spinal column wouldn't further injure the spinal cord. To stabilize things out, they put two titanium rods in my neck. The bone then grew around the rods, turning four vertebrae into one mega-vertebra. I have an eight inch scar on the back of my neck, about a half inch wide at its widest, complete with mini-scars lining it from the thirty-two staples that once held it closed. While I've never met anyone who has been bitten by a shark or tiger, I have never lost a round of "Check out my scar!" Also, in those awkward moments when you try to force dialogue with someone cutting your hair, it provides me a good ten minutes of conversation when they find it and exclaim, "What the hell happened to your neck!?"

Looking at the facts--I have a high-tech metal infused skeleton, fast reflexes, that berserker state in sports, and I recover faster than average--while also throwing out that I have a propensity to not shave for weeks, I arrive at my ultimate point:

I am the closest thing to a real life Wolverine that you are ever going to meet.


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