by Michael Collins
Anniversaries can serve a variety of purposes. They can commemorate the start of a married life together. Anniversaries can also be a reminder of a subsequent divorce, the birth of a long-dead president, the number of years since an election or the beginning or end of a war. We celebrate the anniversaries of graduating from high school or college by holding reunions, and our anniversary of starting a job might be the occasion for a well-deserved promotion or increase in pay.
For many of us who entered the world of paralysis through some type of injury, our anniversaries of that date may not seem like an occasion to celebrate, but I contend that we should look back upon that date as something special. Today marks my 23rd anniversary
. On this date I was hurtling down a race course in the mountains of Idaho when a fall, a fairly simple one, changed my life forever. In less time than it took to type one word in this sentence, I went from a committed weekend athlete to someone who was fighting for every breath and unable to extricate myself from the grip of the netting that had me wrapped around the base of a ski lift tower.
The days that follow major injuries are often shrouded or vague memories. Whether kept sedated through the miracle drugs that are administered to keep us alive or spared the realities through our body's reaction to the shock, there is usually a timeframe when we are not forced to deal with what lies ahead. After all, the human body is a wondrous machine that can heal itself, or at least be healed, as we have learned through a history of sports injuries or exposure to “miracle” stories on daytime television. This feeling of helplessness will only be temporary, or at least we tell ourselves that. I know that was the situation for me, as it took weeks or months before I was finally able to fully accept the reality that was my new life.
During those first few weeks one of my frequent requests was to meet someone older who was also quadriplegic, in order to refute the dire predictions about the shortened lifespans of those of us who are spinal cord injured. Since then I have met many such people, and am proud to say that I am now one of them myself.
Why in the world would somebody want to commemorate a day that had such a seemingly negative impact on one's life? Once again, I can only speak to my own situation. That date, and the months and years that have followed, literally served as a rebirth into a world that was the polar opposite of my first four decades.
I have been fortunate to meet many dedicated medical professionals, from nursing assistants to neurosurgeons, whose primary responsibility was to keep me alive and healthy. In the rehabilitation ward, strong bonds were formed between those of us who were struggling to regain as much function as possible before being turned loose upon the world that awaited us outside the sheltering walls of the hospital. We prodded each other during rigorous exercise sessions using weights that a kindergartner could handle, and applauded when one of us attained a victory such as regaining a function that had appeared to be lost. Such shared experiences form very strong bonds.
The date of my injury also marked the start of the period when many friendships, and my own understanding of the meaning of quality of life, would change. Some of those old friends who had been part of a relationship based only on our mutual interest in a particular sport, or through the accident of being neighbors, drifted slowly away. Former coworkers did the same, although new ones waited for me on the horizon along with the jobs that would sustain me during my disability working career.
Thankfully family is always there, even if hundreds or thousands of miles separate us at times. My family helped me celebrate my 20th anniversary by throwing me a party, replete with black balloons, humorous cards and much laughter. This year’s anniversary provided a unique opportunity; I was the judge for a break-dancing contest where the contestants were my three grandsons.
While some may think this statement is a little ridiculous, I actually think that the quality of my life has increased since my injury. We have always been advised to slow down and smell the roses, but traveling in a wheelchair and relying on others for assistance to do many of the activities we once took for granted results in a forced slowdown. It is no longer possible to rush through an airport, and every trip to the supermarket results in conversations with a series of willing strangers who hand us down items from the top shelves or hold open doors when the pushbuttons fail. I probably say “thank you” more times in a month than I did during 10 years of my earlier life. That is not a bad thing, as each time I do it signifies a positive interaction between two people.
The quality of my life has also been enriched by friendships and opportunities to interact with other individuals with all types of disabilities who have dedicated their own lives to improving the lives of the rest of us. I have been fortunate to meet or work with the visionaries who founded the independent living movement, and those who took extraordinary steps to ensure the passage of the disability civil rights laws that we all rely on for our own quality of life today. I've even had opportunities to testify to Congress about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to state legislatures about the need for enhanced accessibility in all aspects of our lives.
The other thing that makes me think that I have a good quality of life is the friendships I've been able to make with the future generations of young people with disabilities who have already become strong advocates and leaders in their own right. I know that the challenges we all face will be the focus of those young leaders and that through their efforts my own quality of life will continue to be protected, and perhaps even enhanced, long after the time that my peers and I have retired from the ring to leave the fighting to others.
Even though I should do it more often, I probably would not have reflected upon all of the above unless this was my anniversary. I'm glad that I am able to enjoy it, and am looking forward to celebrating many more. I hope that whatever anniversaries you celebrate are as enjoyable as mine.
© 2011 Michael Collins