Over the last week and a half I coughed until I was dizzy, ached everywhere, breathed through my mouth and blew my nose a million times. Exhaustion took over my body and weighed down my limbs so much it felt like giant sandbags were attached to each arm and each leg. As my sore throat lingered and my head pounded, I barely resisted succumbing to the frustration and irritation of dealing with illness, yet again. My brief encounter with self pity quickly turned to overwhelming gratitude upon the realization that I was just sick, just sick with a cold, not a blood infection, not a bone infection, just a simple cold. Comparing my current, everyday cold to the previous illness filled years, immediately forced a new perspective. I used to feel the same, or much worse almost every single day for the last ten years and the luxury of consistently feeling well again and like myself caused a brief memory lapse...I almost forgot how truly lucky I am.
Recently, coincidences and their true meaning sporadically occupy my mind. Do they occur through happenstance, or are they a part of a larger plan, or do they happen because of energy or prayer or thoughts or are they a message or a lesson begging to be learned? I am not really sure of the answer, but good or bad, I try to use them as moments to sit up, wake up, and pay attention. When I look over the past several years, especially post accident years, I see many moments easily defined as bad coincidences or wrong place, wrong time moments. These experiences, of feeling blind sided by life, leave me questioning and denying a master plan or the idea there is a reason for everything. Believing suffering and misery are selectively bestowed upon people is an idea I am simply not willing to accept. I am human, bad things happen, they just do. But, if I take a minute, slow down, and pause, I also see the bright moments, the blaring joyful coincidences happening all around me. I desperately try to control the frequency of the good and the elimination of the bad, but I cannot. I can only be sure of my faith-the faith I will overcome, the love I extend myself and others despite how defeated or wounded I may feel, and the hope I pursue, instead of pursuing the fear of the unknown. I surrender to life waving the white flag of faith, love, and hope because I know these are the only weapons I need. Trusting in these defenses, allows me to persevere and succeed instead of crumbling and falling victim to defeat.
Immediately following my injury a chaplain visited often. By pure circumstance the hospital, where I stayed in the ICU, was in close proximity to an Episcopal seminary. And not just any Episcopal seminary, Sewanee, the University of the South. This is a seminary and liberal arts college I knew well and where I spent much time as a young undergraduate. Since it was the middle of July, most of the chaplains were doing their required hospital rotation. And because of my familiarity with Sewanee, I felt very connected to the chaplains, one in particular. Emily walked up to my bed and moved the curtain after she dismounted her motorized scooter. Emily was a beautiful, young, vibrant lady with a deep and loving heart and a melting smile, who also happened to be disabled. I am not exactly sure of her disability and it obviously doesn't matter other than she needed a scooter to help get around sometimes. Not only was Emily a student at Sewanee, she was also the daughter of my cousin's sorority sister and a friend of many of my closest and dearest friends. She popped by to chat multiple times a day and always stayed as long as I needed her to. On the last day of my two week stay, Emily came one last time to my bed side and held my hand, opened it, and placed a small, green and gold turtle in the palm of my hand. She looked my in the eyes and said, "This was given to me by a dear friend who told me to look at this turtle and remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. Days will be tough and painfully slow and sometimes the end or the light will seem so far away you want to give up, but don't, instead remember the tortoise and remember that slow and steady wins the race."
After I was released from the hospital and returned to college, I couldn't wait to travel to London, England and visit two of my favorite and best camp friends. We planned this trip before my accident and I was going to go through with the plan. We visited Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, Burberry and Harrods, had tea at the Ritz, and sat thirty feet from David Beckham while he kicked the ball for Manchester United during a match of the European cup. We saw countless plays, devoured art and literature and relics at museums and cathedrals and traveled to Leeds to visit and stay at their flat and experience university life. I couldn't ask for a better trip with better people. However, as excited and overjoyed as I was, and believe me, I was pinching myself the entire trip in disbelief, I was also struggling with huge pangs of sadness and loneliness and fear. I remember one morning just sobbing in the shower while the hot water ran down my scarred back. I wept because I was, while having the time of my life, also deeply feeling the sting and realization that I was different, I was disabled. Traveling to another country is forever changed. Accommodations need to be made, friends have to go to extra lengths to make things work, and sometimes being carried up a flight of stairs repeatedly has to happen just to be a part of a group. My friends were more than accommodating and worked out every accessibility detail, but still, since this was my first time in another country in my newly paralyzed body, I was feeling detached and isolated. I didn't like the dependency I was feeling, I never like feeling dependent. Dependence leaves me vulnerable and exposed. I start to worry I am a burden and a bother to those responsible for me. It is a issue I still have, a feeling I cannot shake. I dressed every day and went along with the plans because I wanted everyone to see the smiling side of me, the side that laughs about her discomfort instead of giving into the tears. I pretended I was just fine while craving my home. I put a smile on my face and new boots on my feet and headed out the door desperately willing a feeling of comfort. After a night of tenth row seats at the Lion King and a good sleep, we headed out the next day to see a production of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and were crossing the street of Piccadilly Circus when time stopped and I took a breath and paused in awe and wonder at the goodness of life. Before I left for England, I arranged to meet a dear, dear friend, Bayard, in London for a night. He was living in Spain and planned to venture over to London since we hadn't seen each other in months. If anyone was home at this point it was the other half of two of my closest friends, Briana and Bayard. Cell phones and international calling were still difficult to use at this point, so getting together with Bayard was proving more difficult than expected. We tried and failed to connect...several times. I was sad we weren't able to meet, but knew I had only four, short days left and I would soon be home. Katie and I crossed the wildly busy street that is ridiculously long and chatted away, not paying attention to anything but traffic. As we chatted and flew towards the other side of the road I felt a breeze, a gust of wind. And then, almost dream like and surely in slow motion, I heard a voice, "Sarah, is that you, Sarah, Bayard's friend, is that you?" I turned around, certain I was hearing incorrectly or was having a dream, but as I turned white with disbelief I saw a group of Bayard's teammates. They were equally thrilled to stumble upon us because they were struggling, along with Bayard, to connect with us. We exchanged phone numbers and information. Later that evening, I finally talked to Bayard and planned to meet up the following night. All of my friends and a few more, dressed up and hailed a black cab and headed into London to meet Bayard's team at a club. Everyone was giddy with excitement. Inside I felt like crying, but not because I was sad this time, but because I was so happy. So happy I would be seeing my friend. A person I knew loved me no matter what and had already been there for the tough stuff. He and Briana came to my bedside in the hospital and never left. Seeing Bayard would make it okay to be broken because he would know. I wouldn't have to tell him it was great, but it was also really, really heart-wrenching and painful. He would just know. He would be proud of me for being there, but know how much it hurt. His face would be familiar among all of the wild and unfamiliar spectacular chaos and take away the loneliness because he knew my new life, my new life in a wheelchair I was adapting to and working so hard to live with, he already knew. We arrived at the club and Bayard was outside waiting. He ran over and gave me a hug and I cried. I let out what was trapped and bottled inside and he didn't let go until I was done and played it off like we just missed each other. His friends, my friends, the music, the lights, the dancing, all were picture perfect for a night out clubbing in London. We all left, dancing, laughing, hugging, and posing for pictures in London streets at three o'clock in the morning. His friends walked away, headed the few blocks to their waiting hotel room and we loaded up once again in a black cab. As we were getting settled, Bayard came running towards us yelling, "Wait, wait!", I was not yet in the cab and pivoted my chair around and immediately saw Bayard with open arms heading towards me. He was asking us to wait just to hug me one more time. He knew I had four days left and wanted me to know it would be okay. On the way back to Katie's house I was quiet. I was thinking about the evening, the week, my trip. Thinking how eager I was to get to London with these new friends I made over the summer. Desperate to feel our bond and relive our memories and determined not to allow my wheelchair to change anything. Thinking about how difficult this adventure truly was, how dependent and broken I really felt, wondering if I would ever try something like this again. And as I felt a hot tear trickle down my cheek, I remembered Emily's words once again. Slow and steady wins the race. I wanted to run to London despite my new life and challenges and wanted to do this with people I only met a few short months before. I wasn't feeling upset because London or traveling was upsetting, I was upset because I expected too much too fast. At a time when I needed familiarity and protection, I forced myself into isolation and vulnerability. I thought checking an adventure off of the list would make me feel whole again. But, what really happened, what really left me feeling whole again, was knowing that when I felt the loneliest and most fearful, something good happened and that good was in the form of a friend, not a destination, a vacation, a thing, but the face of a friend. The fear of the unknown, particularly of new challenges never leaves, but the faith that good things do happen all on their own, when I need them most and I don't need to force them...I needed to know this and it happened.
A few weeks ago, I went to a bar with some friends. Bars are still difficult for me. For some reason I feel very awkward and obviously in a wheelchair when I am in a bar. The space is not plentiful, people constantly move around me and bump into me, I'm constantly apologizing and drawing attention. I basically see mostly crotches and belts and waists. Independence is not an option and because of this my frustration and feelings of defeat usually fester. I feel more than comfortable most places, so when I am confronted with this uneasiness again, I must resist feeling defeated and broken. I left the bar, yet again, feeling pathetic. Why is a bar so difficult? I wrestled and agonized for days. After a discussion with a fellow paraplegic friend experiencing similar issues, I learned I am not alone and bars are just something to overcome and I resigned myself to understanding maybe they will just always be difficult, but it doesn't mean I can't adjust and do my best to make them work. Around the same time I went to visit a very sick friend in the hospital. During the visit, my friend's nurse continued to return to the room to change her IV bag or give my friend a pill to swallow. I was sure I recognized the nurse, but assumed it was because of my frequent past visits to the hospital. As I was leaving, the nurse stopped me in the hall and asked if I was Sarah Berger. When she was a home nurse, eight years ago, she saw me at my old apartment and commented how sickly and close to death I was then. She more than complimented my current health and was astounded to learn about my tumultuous journey of achieving the newly found health I do have. She was a reminder of where I had been, how hard I had fought, the mountain I climbed. I met her at the beginning of my illness and back then she was impressed with my ability to fight, she didn't even see the years that followed, the nights filled with sweats and vomiting. My friend's suffering and illness combined with the nurse's elation and surprise to learn I was well, were enough to knock me out of any pathetic or self loathing feelings I was having about a stupid failed experience at a bar. Seeing my sweet, very sick friend and knowing I was not too long ago, the person in the bed, the one wondering my fate, gave me enough courage and strength to let go of the force and speed I am using to forge my dreams, and to once again, slow down and remember where I am going and where I have been. Slow and steady wins the race. I don't have to master each challenge with any sort of speed. This nurse didn't question the length of time it took me to get well, she asked about how I was able to heal, how I found the right doctor and while we talked I couldn't help but think back to myself at the time she was my nurse and how hopeless I felt, how alone and scared I felt. Floods of memories rushed back and I saw the moment I found my doctor because another doctor went out of town and how it all just worked out. And how this doctor is still my current doctor and can fix any problem I have and consistently checks and rechecks his diagnosis and orders. PICC lines and hospital visits are now a blur and regular life becomes what is important instead of fevers and antibiotics. How contentment and hope once again a part of my vocabulary. This encounter, this brush with the past, left me in tears. I cried heavily when I finally arrived at my car.
A few days later I had my weekly doctor visit with my regular, amazing doctor. He did his regular check and when he was finished, he shook my hand and said, "Nice work, keep it up, we are almost there, slow and steady." My jaw hit the floor and I tried to shake his hand back, but I have no idea what I did because the rest of the visit is hazy. I couldn't concentrate on anything other than his words, Emily's words, slow and steady. As soon as I fell and learned my fate, I couldn't wait to get back to my life. I couldn't wait to do everything I did before and do it just as I had done before. I didn't want to wait and relearn anything bit by bit. I wanted to do it all by myself and as quickly as possible. Each time an illness or issue was discovered, I wanted to solve it and heal it and move forward at warp speed. I wondered why bad coincidences were outweighing the good and realized they weren't, I just wasn't allowing the good to happen. I was forcing so much to happen and so fast, that bit by bit, I was literally falling apart. An illness, an injury, an abrupt life change takes time and patience. The physical healing and adjustments require so much diligent care and attention, the emotional damage is left to smolder. My mind, my spirit wanted to return to my old life, the person I knew and the plans I made. I had no idea my dreams could still be my dreams, I just had to adjust how I achieved them. Running and escaping and avoiding and trying to pretend my paralysis didn't exist, caused deep and excruciating physical and mental wounds. When I finally slowed down, when I finally paused long enough to make a plan, a steady plan, I started to see progress. I started to see all of the good that "suddenly happens". I started to look back and see love and friendship popping up all along when I needed them most, I started to see a pathway opening up to healing and how to grab a hold of it and not let go, and I started to finally understand what Emily was trying to tell me when she gave me that gold and green turtle and told me to remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. The race isn't towards a finish line or to another country, or to be the best paraplegic ever, it is the race with myself. The race of discovering what is truly important. But the goal, the prize of this race isn't a gold, silver, or bronze medal, it is the moral, if you will, the discovery that life, even though it is filled with the unexpected, the difficult and the oh so challenging and soul crushing, doubting moments it also bursts spontaneously with goodness and light and a hope that sustains through the toughest and longest of journeys. Our scars and damages become our war wounds and the magnificent moments and people peppered along the way become our medals. We just have to slow down and be willing to stick it out long enough to notice.