I need to start at the beginning and write my accident story. I know this and have known this, but have been avoiding it. For the past week, I knew I needed to start here, at the beginning, because the day to day stuff has so much to do with the moment that changed my life forever. I don't want to write it because I know I will have to relive it in detail. I've thought about the day many times and talked about the day with friends, family, and therapists. There were many, many stories about what happened and what really happened. I thought for the longest time I did something to cause my fall. It is time to write it, the correct way, as it happened. I've thought about it enough. I've written a lot about my feelings about the past twelve years, but never ever I have written out the story of July 17, 2000. It seems insurmountable to put it into words, but I will try.
Every day we wake up, live out our routines, expecting one thing to happen after another. Even though we know the moments come, because we have seen it many, many times, we still never expect that day to come, that bolt of lighting striking out of no where, leaving us burned, shocked, and changed forever. The burns may heal, the shock may wear off, but the change, it comes in waves, until one day when we least expect it, we realize we are new and different. This moment, which is so fleeting it seems unreal and dreamlike, becomes a lifetime of adapting and accepting.
The summer of July 17, 2000 I decided to work at camp. A summer camp for girls in Crossville, Tennessee. I lived in a cabin with six little girls and a co-counselor. The girls attended different activities throughout the day, moving from one forty minute block of time to another. The counselors organized, ran, and taught the activities, ranging from Nature, to Canoeing to Horseback Riding. I, along with a few other counselors, mucked stalls, brushed manes, saddled horses, taught ring exercises, and led trail rides. It may have been stinky and muddy work, but it was shaping up to be one of the best summers of my life. Camp is a place where I feel at home. I like throwing my hair back, pulling on boots, braiding six little heads of hair, and corralling the little chatty Cathys to sprint up the hill because we are late to breakfast again. Living with all girls and women for a summer while working outside is a priceless experience. General noise about boys, shoes and who wore what where is replaced with confident tales of skiing on one ski for the first time or finding and catching a four foot snake while on a hike. The Appalachian Trail Hike and The Two Mile Damn Swim are the topics of conversation and one evening every week, each girl is recognized for her achievements in whatever activities she chooses. One activity doesn't take precedence over the other, they are all equally important. Singing and making bracelets are the past times and stormy afternoons are spent listening to the melody of the rain on the tin roof while playing cards on the floor. It is welcoming, peaceful, and freeing. Removing the outside facades of make up and perfect clothing, exposes people's hearts and true personalities. It requires sweat and endurance to keep up the momentum for the entire summer. We worked hard and played hard, sleeping very little in between. The work and responsibility of being a camp counselor, however demanding, become insignificant compared to the life lessons gained and learned.
About six or seven weeks into this particular summer, we just finished a day of working in the barn and several of us decided to go riding. It is nice to take a slow, short trail ride at the end of the day. The horses like it and the adults need it. Almost every night we go riding if we are able to. Always the same trail, always the same field. There is an intuition I believe we all have, I am not sure exactly what it is or where it comes from, but it speaks to us and sometimes we listen and sometimes we don't. Most of the time we don't even know it is trying to communicate with us until intuition is shouting and yelling, but it is too late, we didn't heed the warning. When I look back on this day, July 17 2000, it was filled with whispers, knocks, and screams of danger. I don't blame myself anymore for denying the nudges, rather I use it as a lesson to trust myself and my gut feelings. This idea of sensing something imminent or out of body also adds great substance to my ever increasing understanding of our spirit/body relationship. Many times I felt a separation from my human body. I only interpret this as chance to increase my understanding of and relationship with a higher power. These thoughts and ideas marinate and develop over time, they too like my healing, don't happen in an instant.
We start out on the trail. I am riding Wishbone. I like Wishbone, he scares me a little bit because he is so tall and a retired race horse, but I ride him anyway. He's a good horse and I am working on overcoming fear of riding different and new horses, so this seems like a good time to try it. It will just be a quick evening walk, about fifteen minutes, a perfect time to try Wishbone again. As we begin, I think back to a conversation we just had about swimming instead of riding. I don't know why I didn't choose swimming, for some reason I want to be swimming right now instead of riding. Oh well, I am doing this now, big deal, I think. Jennifer, another girl on the trail with us, decides to show us something she found the other day. It is kind of off of the trail, but we go anyway. Her parents own the camp, so she knows little paths and clearings of which none of us are usually aware. We follow her, but I start to get an uneasy, turn-around-and-get-out-of-here-now feeling. I ignore the chills and blood rapidly rushing through my body and keep trotting along. What we see are skulls. Dead animal carcasses, piles of them, strewn about as if they were torn and thrown, limb by limb. My sinking feeling turns into a desperation to flee. "I have to get out of here, " I say. I feel my heart beating steadily, but gaining speed with every pump, it is now pounding through my chest. Here is a moment where I feel literally out of my body. I feel a separation and a strong urging to make my body flee, return myself to camp. "Seriously, Jennifer, I am leaving." I turn my horse and start back. The other girls agree with me and we all leave. There is a small clearing in the woods where we meet and gather, discussing what just happened. I am frustrated and irritated. "It is almost time for dinner, the bell will ring soon, we need to get back to camp and put away the horses. Let's go." I say all of this while turning Wishbone around to head back. Jennifer turns Topaz around and starts leading us back.
I don't like Topaz. She is new to the barn. The day she I arrived, I looked deeply into her dark, big eyes and felt an intense and lingering fear. She is a thick, brown quarter horse lacking any training. Despite Neely coaxing and persuading her to ride a different horse, Jennifer insists on riding Topaz. I don't know why I choose to ride on a trail with this horse, but I do.
We start on the trail to return to camp for dinner. Jennifer is in front riding Topaz and I am right behind her on Wishbone. Two other friends are behind us riding Charlie and Honey. Everything is back on track and we are having a conversation about something funny while we are riding. We turn a corner, the last corner before the trail thins. Jennifer turns around and tells me she wants to canter. I tell her, "No, don't, Topaz doesn't know how to stop." But, it is too late. She gives Topaz the command as she is telling me. Like a shot out of a cannon, Topaz takes off. She is heavy and thick and breaks and snaps branches with every gallop. We are galloping now. Galloping on a narrow tree lined trail through the woods. I try everything to get Wishbone to stop. I saw the bit in his mouth and crane his neck. He is too spooked to stop and just wants to return to the barn. There are trees and rocks everywhere. I tell Jennifer to stop Topaz, but I know she will have to run her into something to get her to stop. Topaz doesn't know how to stop outside of the ring, I know this. I hang on so tightly, I feel the worn leather reigns digging into the palms of my hands. Then, I feel the reigns slip from the grip of my fingers and then it is black.
I open my eyes for a minute and see a bright light. It is so bright I shut them again. I open them again and I see the same light, but also a lot of women gathered all around me. One is in jogging clothes, some are in jeans, and most are wearing blues and whites, our camp uniform. I hear Jen, a different Jennifer, saying, "It's okay Sarah, you are okay, don't worry, just stay awake. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, you have to keep your eyes open. Sarah. Someone please, please help me hold her head up, my hands, my arms are killing me." Jen is almost crying she is pleading so hard for relief, totally petrified to let go of my head. She keeps telling me it will be okay, while trying to prop my head up with alternating hands so she can continue to rub my forehead. Everything is peaceful and quiet again, as if I am asleep, or so I think. These women organize help in a matter of minutes. Ms. MacMahon drives her van through brush and trees because the EMTs can't get their vehicle back to where I am. They load the stretcher in her van and rush me to the waiting ambulance. Then we drive to a helicopter. As we are driving I open my eyes again and see bright lights and a man. He is working so rapidly and moving and turning me and connecting tubes and masks to me. I close my eyes, only to find peace and calm again. I can hear the helicopter and see the propellers as I am being loaded onto it. I can see the owner of my camp standing next to me. She tells me everything will be okay and she will see me soon. I close my eyes. A huge shock and jolt wake me up and I see a different man, but I go right back to sleep. My eyes open again to bright lights, but this time there are a ton of people around me and we are moving very fast. I am lying on a stretcher and flying through doors. I start wondering where I am and what is happening. I think to myself, I have to throw up and I am not near a toilet. But it is coming up anyway and I can't control it and then I hear, "Roll her, roll her." I know something really awful is happening because people are rolling me so I can vomit. This doesn't seem like a positive sign.
To be continued...