Survival Day #17 – Year of Challenge

The 17th anniversary of the day that forever altered the course of my life occurred this past weekend, on Saturday, October 22nd… Time has wrapped around again to the Survival Day being on the same day of the week. It was a Saturday when the accident happened, after a long stretch of workdays, looking forward to a Halloween party and a few days of rest. Little did I know that I was about to take a six-week nap…by this date, October 26th, in 2005, I was already asleep, experiencing another world that would fill my mind with memories from that time that did not happen…at least not on this plane of existence. This caused a great deal of confusion as I regained both consciousness and cognitive acuity.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never allowed so many days to pass between a Survival Day and an anniversary blog update. This has been a challenge for me this year, due to many things, none of which really have much, or anything to do with the loss of my legs. Typically, I prefer to spend the anniversary in seclusion for as much of the day as possible. This gives me time to reflect, to acknowledge how time has marched forward from that day that became a new measurement of time for myself and those closest to me.

For those who don’t know, during my commute home that night, a sixteen-year-old driver made a mistake behind the wheel of another car. I had the right of way and swerved to avoid the collision, but the other driver sped faster into the intersection instead of hitting their brakes. After a heroic, divinely inspired rescue effort by normal people who didn’t witness the accident but were traveling the same dark county road and risked their lives to free me from the twisted burning wreckage of my Jeep Wrangler, I was Life-lined to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where I was placed into a medically induced coma. About 6 weeks later, I awoke to find that, among other injuries, both legs had been amputated from above the knee due to severe burns sustained in the accident.

It was a tragic event, more than a lifetime’s worth of physical, emotional, and mental trauma sustained in what seemed like an instant. It was also a miraculous event, in that I survived. That miracle took place over the course of weeks and was brought about through the hands of my rescuers, my first responders, my ambulance & LifeLine crews, my medical teams at both Methodist Hospital and the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Unit at what was then Wishard Hospital (now at Eskenazi Hospital), and my tissue donors. I recognize that I had a role to play in that as well, as did all of the people who focused their love, energy, prayers, spiritual strength, and hope on my survival.

As I said, I prefer to spend my Survival Day in seclusion; this year that was not possible. Sadly, on this anniversary, my family was gathered to celebrate the life of my cousin Susy’s husband John. He was the best of men with the kindest of souls. Cancer, a thing I fear even more than sixteen-year-old drivers, took him from us…less than a year after claiming their son Chris. With all I have experienced, I have no idea how to console John’s family with this loss. I know that both John and Chris live on in their own spiritual journeys and are part of the divine energy that permeates this universe, thus closer to us than they ever could be in their physical forms, but that does nothing to make up for their tangible absence in this physical realm. Their absence is felt, they are loved, and they are truly missed.

John and my cousin Chris were among those who focused on my survival seventeen years ago. They were among those who gave me spiritual strength when my body clung to life…I was told there was a point when my heart was the only organ in my body that was functioning without assistance. Over the past 17 years, I have contemplated what I experienced while my body was in that state, and I know that for a time I walked on the other side of the veil. I’ve been where they are now, and a part of me will be happy to return there when the time comes.

I am lucky to be alive and am grateful for that every day, though some days it is easier to be aware of that than others. I am lucky to experience each new day and as each year has passed, I find myself amazed at what has transpired. I think back on the progression from barely being able to sit up in bed, to being discharged from the hospital to mom & dad’s house at a point where their relatively new next-door neighbor had to help carry me upstairs to bed each night, to living in my own home again… John and Chris helped modify my home by personally installing a wood laminate floor so my wheelchair could move through the house unencumbered by carpet; John also helped build a deck and pergola in my back yard so that I could access and enjoy my outdoor space… to learning how to walk on three different sets of prosthetic legs, to becoming a husband and step-father, to the point in time that the seventeenth Survival Day has passed. The challenges that I have taken on this year, I would never have contemplated attempting even a year ago.

This has been a year of challenges. Not that every year isn’t full of challenges but, somehow, the time between the last Survival Day and this past Saturday has felt exceptionally full. Some challenges have been bad…two rounds of covid, just to name a few…and many have been good. I could take this in a dark direction but would rather focus on some of the positive challenges that I have faced with my family and friends at my side.

This past year I personally added a hardwood floor in our entryway, with the help of a friend…

I began practicing martial arts again, and modifying martial art forms, “Katas,” for both the wheelchair and prosthetics with crutches…

My father and I added a vinyl plank floor in our dining room…

The whole family flew west to Bellingham, WA for my uncle’s finale year as Artistic Director of the Bellingham Festival of music. While there, Irena and I went whale watching in a tandem open water kayak (has a rudder that Irena had to manage with her feet) and attempted to circumnavigate one of the San Juan Islands. (Currents were too strong for us to make good time so, our guide had us turn around).

The trip west finally presented the opportunity to introduce my beloved wife, Irena, to my aunt Jean. Aunt Jean lives on a remote and relatively inaccessible island in the San Jaun’s. My sister Sarah and niece Madeline made the journey with us. Her home is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen. To get there, you have to take a water taxi, then ride in her SUV as she drives up a steep gravel road to the highest point on the island, where she has a view of the Cascades, the Olympics, and Mt. Rainier (on a clear day).

The next day we drove to the top of Mt. Baker, which is the tallest mountain in the Cascades. I walked out to some places that I should not have. The view was worth it.

We returned home and I continued with a summer long project of turning over and rearranging all of the paver stones in our back yard to both create a new patio & firepit area, and to put landscaping fabric underneath the pavers. (I’m getting too old to weed whack from a wheelchair multiple times a year). After completing the paver/patio/firepit project, I designed a pergola to go over the deck of our “new” house. (We moved here five years ago, from the house that John and Chris helped modify…I’m now doing the things that they helped me accomplish all those years ago).

Friends and family helped me build the pergola, and I spent the day after my Survival Day adding the finishing touches. Tonight, I’ve enjoyed taking the time to contemplate my continuing journey, sitting underneath the lattice in a space that would not exist, had I not survived 17 years ago…and every day since, grateful for the challenges that have brought me through this Survival Day and into my new year.

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