As I repeatedly asked about my shattered bones and the nurse continued to repeat her mantra, I slowly felt myself coming back to my body. Instead of being in a fog, the world around me was starting to become very clear and very real. My gut told me the truth about my injury, but I didn't want to listen. I chose to cling to hope and focused on the possibility this could all be an enormous misunderstanding and the feeling in my legs would return shortly and I would walk out of the room and head back to camp. Doctors started pulling the curtain and examining me. Finally, one of them stopped and stood at my bed and very kindly asked if I was aware of what had just occurred. I told him I was only aware of the loss of feeling from my belly button down and assumed it could only mean one thing. He wasn't able to answer my question either. He did, however, tell me the extent of the other trauma I sustained. My left leg clipped a tree on the trail, forcing me off of the horse, into the tree and then onto the hard, rocky ground. I didn't believe him. I was certain I let go, so certain it took me years of therapy to realize it was an impossibility according to all of the medical records. I blamed myself for not staying on the horse long and for not holding on tighter. But the force of the collision with tree is what forced me off. In the end, it doesn't really matter what happened, it was an accident and that is all that matters. I also learned when I hit the tree I shattered my left femur, broke my left collar bone, and broke all of the ribs on that side of the body. One of the ribs punctured my lung which was why it was so hard to breathe and the reason for the chest tube. My shoulder blade and twelve vertebrae in my back shattered because of the impact and force of my fall combined with the hard, uneven terrain. I felt almost entirely broken, because I was almost entirely broken. I still had no idea why I couldn't feel my legs.
Contrary to feelings during later years, I felt very lucky and hopeful in this moment. I felt elated knowing I survived several life-threatening injuries. The life flight crew surprised me with a visit because they both wanted to see with their very own eyes that I was alive and well. These two men, who were once strangers, stood by my bedside as the heroes who saved my life. The shock and jolt I felt were these two men struggling to prevent my body from coding. I'm not sure how you repay or express enough gratitude, but I tried. Their visit only added to my elation.
I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them the news, to tell them about the tree, the horse, and my damaged body. I could feel my spirit come alive again as I pulled my mask off and dragged the phone closer so I could dial and answer it myself. I was still inside, I was alive and this was enough for now. I still questioned my legs, but I didn't care anymore, I called everyone I could think of calling, my parents, my friends, my dancing teacher, anyone and everyone. The phone was ringing constantly.
The neurosurgeon finally pulled back the curtain. He had a very strong and reassuring presence. He stood by the bed and said he heard I have some questions. I will always remember the conversation. He was the perfect person to tell me. I asked him, "Well, I can't feel my legs and well, am I paralyzed for sure?". As if there is a kind of paralyzed. He said, "Yes, of the twelve fractured vertebrae, one cut into your spinal cord leading me to believe you are in fact paralyzed from T12 down." My reply was, "Are you sure, how sure are you, what are the chances this is true and I will never walk again?". "I am ninety-seven percent sure." "Oh,"I said. I turned my head to the right, the left hurt too much, and started to cry a little bit. He put his hand on my broken shoulder very gently and said, "It's okay to cry, but don't worry, you will still be able to do everything you did before. It may take a little time and a lot of work, but you will get there." I asked a few more questions and he left the room. Anne was making phone calls in the hallway. I turned to the right again, luckily it was away from the dreaded opening and closing curtain. I felt hot tears streaming down my cheeks again and put my one good hand on my one good leg and started rubbing it and telling it how sorry I was for hurting it. I apologized over and over to my legs and body. I felt so ashamed to have taken each and every part of its wonder for granted. I grieved heavy tears for my legs. I wrestled in my mind about why I let go, why I decided to ride that day, why I was working at camp, all of the whys simmered over until they were boiling and I was thinking too many irrational thoughts to process, I just continued to break down in tears. I hit the bed next to my right leg, but then would yell at myself for almost injuring something else.
Family and friends started arriving, chaplains became permanent fixtures at my bedside, and the long, quiet painful nights continued, one after the next. I would lie awake wondering how I would live, what I would do with myself. I tried to picture myself in a wheelchair but only grew more hysterical and angry. I remember cupping my mouth and sobbing uncontrollably. I questioned my ability to handle the surgeries and the healing and begged God, the universe, whomever would listen for one more chance. I sobbed with memories of all of the wrongs I committed and mistakes I had made, naively writing my accident off as some sort of punishment. I did all of this quietly and alone. I felt so ashamed and absorbed all of my blame, hatred, and anger as some sort of penance.
To protect everyone else from the darkness I felt, I happily progressed and diligently worked at therapy, but secretly planned to give it my all until I started walking, in just a few, short months. Remaining permanently in my chair was not at all a part of my plan.
The physical work was indescribably difficult and tears, nausea, gut wrenching pain, were all a part of my day. I shuttered and shook when I thought of the looming responsibility. When I wasn't shedding tears of loss, I was feeling the sting of change. I grasped to optimism and fought for joy. I knew there was a gravity and enormity of emotions that should be addressed, but my way of facing the unwanted fear was to persevere with what little hope I had left. Sure, I was terrified, and worried, and angry, and sad, but I still felt strong and alive and ready to face the challenge. I chose to focus on walking instead of a life in a wheelchair...denial was far easier than acceptance at this point. What I was unprepared for was what this mindset would to me, what would gradually metastasize over time, a feeling of disconnection and defeat so strong and overpowering I would be left feeling empty and vacant and alone. And lastly and most importantly, I never anticipated the wonder and discovery that come from taking broken pieces, broken bones, and building something out of what remains. The journey may be difficult, but it is oh so rewarding. Life goes on, and it is a lovely life, even sitting down.
This is the beginning, the tale of the day that changed my life forever. The day I woke up, not expecting anything more than the ordinary. There are many more stories of many more days to come, but this is the beginning. Thank you for your patience, I struggled to put it into words. The stories and days ahead are filled with many more trials, but mostly with hope, hope for a better day and a better life embracing my strengths, as well as my weaknesses.
Our bodies are given to us for a short time. Unfortunately and fortunately, they are delicate and unpredictable. Our body is our best guide and our best friend. It is there for us when we need it most. It fights injury and infection and wills us to never give up and only asks for diligent care and respect in return. In order for me to live the life I dreamed of living, I need a functioning, well loved body. If lying broken and motionless taught me anything, it taught me to honor my humanity. Listen to my spirit and my soul, but honor and respect the fragility and wonder of my humanity.