It’s amazing how fast time flies when you’re busy “doin’ life.” The 6 months since I last posted have been a bullet train of consecutive surreal experiences, so buckle up for another crazy update!
The shenanigans all began at the end of March when I attended peer mentorship training through the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. While the training itself was a little on the mediocre end, it was the people I spent the day with that left the lasting, tangible impact; a dozen or so folks – students, athletes, musicians, husbands, wives, fiancés, parents, you name it – all out doin’ life despite various degrees of paralysis and looking to help others do the same. In short, I had finally found my tribe.
But it’s not as if these people all suddenly crawled out from their respective hiding places in one day. In fact, some of them may have been at the various spinal cord injury (SCI) forums I’d attended years ago but quickly abandoned because I never saw anyone with an injury as high or severe as mine. To paraphrase the old Buddhist proverb, it is only when the student is ready that the teacher will appear. Well, I guess a few more humbling laps around the sun were necessary to realign my perspective, because I was able to approach the day with a new set of eyes. This time, looking for the similarities rather than the differences, it was much easier to find the common thread of frustration with a life of impaired ability in a world not built for us.
I don’t think it was even a week later that I was contacted by a nurse working with the USVA asking for my input on an disaster preparedness kit/protocol being developed for distribution to every paralyzed US veteran. When I first got the call, my initial reaction was one of “Why me? I’m no expert.” But when I took a moment to look back on the almost 10 years of paralysis I’ve endured, I realized how many hard lessons I had learned that others could benefit from, and the question quickly flipped to “why not?” After all, my last post was about putting my story to use, right? The next thing I knew, my late spring calendar was littered with public speaking engagements at various high school graduations and SCI-related events.
Whoa… wait, what!? As outgoing as I’ve always been, I have never been comfortable speaking in front of large groups. I still remember being so nervous for my 10 minute speech in my ninth grade history class that I blazed through it in about 90 seconds. But just like with my writing, I’m slowly finding that, if it is a topic that I know intimately or am passionate about, I have no problem blathering on and on to whoever will listen. So suddenly there I was, parked in front of hundreds of people telling my story. Yet again, what I’m beginning to refer to as my doctorate in life was leading me in directions I never could have imagined. Little did I know, it was all preparation for an emotional summer adventure that loomed on the horizon.
It all started when one of Kristen’s former classmates, Kori, who has become one of my closest and dearest friends, invited me to her pinning ceremony for graduating from RN school; a celebration that might’ve been my wife’s as well if life had taken a different turn 18 months earlier. In my rush to get to the event, I forgot to bring her graduation present. Ever the word geek, I’ve always been a fan of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as gift for friends and loved ones – it’s an especially effective tearjerker if you have them read it on the day of. But when Kori mentioned Kristen in her graduation speech as her inspiration & motivation to push on when times got tough, that completely trumped any sentiment I could’ve hoped to convey with a silly children’s book. Gotta love that woman. Fortunately, I still was able to drop it off to her a week later as I headed out of town on my way to California to see my grandparents.
It was my first substantial road trip since Kristen had passed, and quite similar to the one we were scheduled to embark on the day after she died. Having just enough self-awareness of my perfectionist nature to know that I might drown under the minutia of such a large trip, I chose to take off with no plans whatsoever. No itineraries. No hotel registrations. Just a couple of my caregivers and a list of people and places I wanted to see. What resulted was a supercharged romp down the West Coast covering over 3500 miles in the span of three weeks. With extended stops at the lively beaches of San Diego, the bright lights of Las Vegas, the sweltering heat of Twentynine Palms and the ever-offkilter wackiness that is LA, the whole adventure felt like it could have been penned in equal parts by Dickens and Homer; flashes of Scrooge’s time warp to days past, present and future, all in a vehicle called an Odyssey.
Every destination offered some little nugget from my history. I got to spend time with both my elementary and high school crushes, an old sidekick and her new baby, a smattering of friends, cousins, aunts and uncles, and the two families whose legacies are my namesake. But a rendezvous with a few old wrestling buddies in Vegas offered a glimpse into the future when I met with the cast on the set of the upcoming season of the MMA reality TV show “The Ultimate Fighter” that is scheduled to air starting in September on Fox. If it doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor – after all, we are talking about reality television here – you might see a familiar face as a guest/motivational speaker right before the semi finals towards the end of the season. Yep, I’m probably going to be on TV again. But that experience (and many others) probably never would’ve came about if it weren’t for a chance encounter on the boardwalk of Pacific Beach on the third day of the trip.
We had just arrived in San Diego, and I was completely on edge. The rawness of being there without my wife made every minor snag feel like a world-killer, and our first night in a horrendously inaccessible “ADA” hotel damn near had me at my tipping point. We found another place to stay right on the beach in PB, but I was still a little uneasy about what to do or where to go. It was right then that a guy rolled up in a power chair and introduced himself and his family. He said his name was Gus, he was a C2 quadriplegic of 16 years from a car accident, and he just had one question: “Where did you get that?” as his mother and brother about pointed to the back of my wheelchair. He was asking about my water bottle.
It’s a prototype my father and I developed after a chintzy plastic bottle I’d bought a while back had fallen apart. The plastic one cost $50, and our much sturdier aluminum upgrade cost less than $25. Sadly, that is how it goes with anything tagged medical in this day and age. Even more frustrating than that was the fact I was sitting in front of someone who’d been paralyzed for over a decade and a half, and hadn’t even heard of it. But I told Gus he was in luck because I had an extra one in the back of my van. His mother cried. His brother tried to force my caregivers to take money. I told him I appreciated it, but couldn’t possibly accept, because this is a big part of what I want to do with The Here and Now Project – my slow developing passion project centered on connecting people with the technologies they need most. To be able to provide them with something so vital was a privilege and an honor.
From that point forward, nothing else mattered. It reminded me that I’m going to end up exactly where I’m supposed to be when I am supposed to be there. So every setback, sidetrack & hiccup I encountered the rest of the trip were merely chances to learn and grow. Once again, my perspective was realigned, and I was able to be fully present and embrace every opportunity that presented itself along the way. Some were exhilarating, others, heart wrenching, but that’s all part of the human experience, so I wouldn’t have changed them if I could. It paved the way right up until our very last stop on our way up Highway 101 – Cape Disappointment State Park, the breathtakingly beautiful (albeit unfortunately ironically named) place where Kristen and I eloped – that provided a bittersweet, yet perfectly fitting end to an amazing journey.
It was the first time I’d been back since the day of our wedding almost 2 years ago and I had no idea what to expect. Just as she had before, she rode on my lap as I made my way down to the bluff where we were married, this time in a small urn holding some of her ashes instead of the gold strapless dress she’d bought for $50 at Nordstrom Rack the day before we shot over to the coast. I found our spot almost instantly, the gravel crunching under my wheels in an eerily familiar way as I came to a stop. Everything was the same. The wind. The weather. All of it. I couldn’t tell if I’d been there two years ago, two minutes ago or two decades ago.
But as I sat in the shadow of the lighthouse where we took our vows, reflecting on all the people, places and situations I was fortunate enough to experience over the previous three weeks, I couldn’t help but think of the book I’d given to Kori before we took off. For a brief moment, It was almost as if she was back in my lap, leaning back into my chest as her eyes and voice danced along with the good doctor’s words, her fingers leaving a little wrinkles of dogeared destruction on the corner of every page that she turned. I could imagine her jabbing me in the ribs with every verse she thought particularly applied to me, as if to say, “See! This is everything I wanted for you.” As usual, she was right.
I didn’t leave her ashes there when I left. I guess I wasn’t quite ready. But as I drove back up the hill, it felt like she was giving me that extra push to go out and “do life” – as large and free as I possibly can. And of course, I’d barely made it home, when the next opportunity showed up in my inbox. Oh, the places I’ll go, indeed.