Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination.”
--“What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes (1993)
The music group 4 Non Blondes didn’t last long as a band. The came together in 1989, had this one big hit in 1993, and disbanded in 1994. I can’t even name another song they did, but this one has always stuck with me. I was 22 years old when it came out, which was close enough to 25 that I could very much relate to the lyrics. I was still in college at the time, and *coaching baseball at Bothell High that spring. The lyrics “Trying to get up that great big hill of hope for a destination” fit me perfectly at that age.
* I coached baseball for two years at Bothell High. The first season I was an assistant with the varsity team and coached with the man who had been my coach when I had played there just a few years before, Ron Wayman. The second season, I coached the junior varsity. I really enjoyed coaching, but I didn’t have the experience at the time to be a good coach. I made mistakes and have some regrets. At the time, I thought that would be the beginning of a long career as a coach, but life comes at you pretty fast and things changed.
One year after this song by 4 Non Blondes came out, I had moved along the path of life a bit more. I had completed my student-teaching experience with a terrific cooperating teacher at Northshore Junior High and earned a degree in English from the UW, along with a teaching certificate for grades 6 through 12. It felt like the future was coming into focus a bit. I had taken my first few steps up the “great big hill of hope for a destination.” There was a rough outline of what my future might look like, but it was definitely written in pencil, not pen.
That car accident was half my life ago, but it hardly feels like it. It feels like the last 23 years have passed by much more quickly than the first 23 years. This isn’t unique to me and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the car accident. It’s the simple fact that people perceive that time passes more quickly as they get older.
Psychologist Williams James addressed this topic in Principles of Pysychology back in 1890. He wrote that time appears to speed up in adulthood because we have fewer and fewer memorable events. When you think about all of the memorable things that happened while you were a teenager (dances in the gym, football games, first relationship, first car, first job, prom, graduation), it’s hard to believe they all happened in just a few years. It’s one new experience after another and it’s an often confusing, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes excruciating time of life (most first loves lead to a first heartbreak). It’s the yin and yang of growing up. Then you get older and there are fewer and fewer firsts to experience.
There’s also a mathematical aspect to this. When you’re 10 years old, the last 5 years represent half your life. When you’re 40, the last 5 years represent only one-eighth of your life. The “ratio theory” goes back to 1877 (French psychologist and philosopher Pierre Janet). We constantly compare time intervals to the total amount of time we’ve already lived. Based on this theory, a year in the life of my 10-year-old niece, Ruby, feels five times longer than a year in my life.
It doesn’t feel like I’ve lived roughly half my life with a spinal cord injury. It feels like the majority of my life was as a person who could run football patterns in the park, go biking for miles and miles (sometimes in a torrential downpour) and, most important of all, play baseball with my friends. The memories are still strong. I think that’s a good thing as long as I don’t let it venture into regret about not being able to do those things anymore. Generally, I’m able to do that, but every now and then it hits me pretty hard.
I don’t have any memory of the car accident that nearly killed me. I had graduated from the University of Washington in June, after six years of college. Yeah, I know, I took the *scenic route through school. I enjoyed my time and wasn’t in a big hurry to enter the “real world” (not the MTV heavily-edited “Real World” TV show that was popular at the time, the actual “real world” that I was always warned about).
*I played baseball during my first year of college and took a few classes that were recommended by the baseball coach. One was called “Fundamentals of Baseball.” We got three credits for that one. It didn’t involve any actual classwork. If you were on the baseball team, you took “Fundamentals of Baseball” and you got an A grade and three college credits. Another class I was encouraged to take was a math class that was very basic for me. I was in advanced math classes all through high school and I killed it on the math portion of the SAT. I could tell the first day that I didn’t need to take that class, so I asked the professor if I could just take all the tests at once and not show up the rest of the semester. He didn’t like that idea, but he did allow me to skip his class during the week and just show up on test day. As I continued my way through college, I took classes I didn’t need to graduate but that sounded interesting, like History of Rock and Roll, Astronomy, and Human Sexuality. I got an A in Pickleball one semeseter. None of these classed guided me towards a degree. Eventually, I had to meet with a UW guidance counselor who strongly encouraged me to declare a major. I had taken more English classes than anything, so that’s what I became, an accidental English major.
There was another scenario I had in mind also, a very different possibility. In the spring of the year I graduated, I went to a job fair and talked to someone about teaching English overseas. I had relatives who had lived in Saipan and Ponape (islands in the western Pacific Ocean). The stories they told about life on the islands were intriguing. It would be something totally new and different for me. I don’t know if I would have gone down that path, but it was a fascinating possibility at the time.
My time in Indianapolis with my brothers and their families and friends was amazing. We played a ton of golf, more golf than I’d ever played in my life. We hit the best courses in the area, even though our golf game was more suited to a city course. We were happy if we shot in the 90s. The three of us went bowling and played tennis and Ted and I went biking, played basketball, and went to the batting cages. Jeff hosted an annual horseshoe tournament that was the event of the summer. It was terrific, a time I will always remember.
The 1979 “We R Fam-A-Lee” Pittsburgh Pirates squad was my childhood dream team. I still know the starting lineup by heart. When I played baseball with my friends, I would imitate all of their batting stances. The heart and soul of that team was Willie “Pops” Stargell, who was a gentle giant of a man. In 1979, he was the co-MVP of the National League during the regular season, the MVP of the National League Championship Series, and the MVP of the World Series. He carried the team to the title both on the field and through his leadership in the clubhouse.
On this trip to Pittsburgh, I got to see the *city of Pittsburgh for the first time. I rode the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines and stood in Point State Park at the confluence of the three rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio). I visited the famous Primanti Bros. sandwich shop and was disappointed that they were closed by the time I got there that day so I didn’t get to eat their signature sandwich, which consists of grilled meat, an Italian dressing-based coleslaw, tomato slices, and French fries between two pieces of Italian bread. Of course, I got to see the Pirates play at home for the first time. The trip was incredible. It was the perfect culmination to a great post-graduation vacation.
*This was the first time I saw the city of Pittsburgh but a few years before this post-graduation trip to Indiana, I had ridden a motorcycle from Bothell to Chicago, where I saw the Pirates play live for the first time. That’s a story for another day (and one of the most amazing experiences of my life).
The next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital room with my arms strapped to my side. It was dark, with monitor lights flashing and blinking. I think my brother Ted was there and I was probably in the ICU. It’s all a bit hazy now. I was told later that my arms were strapped down because I had ripped out my IV.
That’s just kind of a flash of memory that I have. I don’t know how long I was there or how much time passed until the next thing I remember, which is being in a regular hospital room. I don’t have any memory of a doctor telling me I had a spinal cord injury, but that must have happened at some point. All these years later, I don’t remember having any sort of moment when I heard the news and broke down at the realization that I had a spinal cord injury. If I had that reaction, the memory is buried deep down inside.
I was later told about the accident and what they think happened. I can’t verify how accurate everything I’ve been told is, but this is the information I was given. Even at the time, it felt like hearing about someone else being in an accident. Not having any memory of what happened, I didn’t connect any feelings to the description of it. I still don’t have any emotional reaction when I look at the pictures.
Suddenly, the car veered to the right, across a couple lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. I hit a guardrail and likely slid on the guardrail until the car hit a column supporting a bridge overpass. You can see the guardrail and markings on the column in these pictures.
The car was crushed round me. People stopped to help but there was no way they could get me out of the car. I was told people talked to me at the time and I was answering their questions and didn’t seem panicked, despite being compressed in a small space and losing blood rapidly. At some point, I stopped responding.
*While I was being flown to the hospital, the state patrol in Indianapolis contacted the state patrol in Washington. Years ago, my mom told me how she found out about the accident. She could exaggerate at times, so I don’t know if this is precisely true, but it’s the story she told me. She said she got a knock on the door and a Washington State patrol officer was there. He told her that her son had been in an accident in Indiana. One of the officers on the scene relayed the message that it didn’t look like I would survive. As you can imagine, this was devastating news to hear. Devastating, overwhelming, take your pick. My mom had watched most of my games since I started playing baseball as a nine-year-old. Through rain or shine, heat or cold, she was there with her Diet Pepsi, bubble gum, and cigarettes. It must have been crushing news. I know I can’t blame myself, but I also can’t help but feel terrible about putting her through that, along with what was to come when she visited me in the hospital in Indiana and saw me in the hospital bed for the first time. A few years later she told me about one particular time when she was at home and happened to look out the window to the backyard and saw my mountain bike and she broke down in tears. The car accident was in 1994. My mom died in 2001. I’ve often wondered how things would have been different if I hadn’t been in the accident, not only for myself but for everyone around me, especially my mom. She had serious health issues the last few years she lived and I wasn’t able to do much to help her. I wish I could have. Maybe she would have lived longer.
My experience in the hospital was generally awful. There were mistakes made by doctors and nurses that shouldn’t have been made. I developed a pressure wound that kept me in the hospital for about six months longer than I should have been. Nurses were sloppy with the wound care, which led to infection. I was given the wrong medication at times. It was unreal how many things went wrong. A person with my level of injury would normally be in the hospital for two to three months, then move on to a rehabilitation center. I was in the hospital for around eight months before moving to the rehab center.
At one point, I was eating a breadstick and everything stopped. I had a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure and it looked like death was knocking on the door. My mom and a longtime friend, Les, were in the room. My mom didn’t understand what was happening, but Les saw the changes in me. He said I looked like a statue, no movement, no breathing, just frozen in time. He ran out of the room, physically grabbed a doctor by the arm and pulled him into my room. He very likely saved my life that day.
Ted, in particular, was there almost every day. He would get off work and come to my hospital room, sometimes with what they call Cincinnati Chili. It’s chili with spaghetti noodles, which is something I’d never heard of before. Apparently, some people really love it. Ted usually stayed until Jeopardy! came on TV. We made a rule that he had to stay and watch the show until he got at least one answer correct. There were days he stayed the whole show, which was nice.
Another bright spot during my time in the hospital was an occupational/recreational therapist named Lisa. She was about my age, beautiful, and quite lovely to have around. Everything seemed better when she was there. She would come into my room with weights and rubber cords so I could exercise my arms while in bed. Les did everything he could to keep her in the room as long as possible. He set out a nice plate of food and a cold drink. She would sit and eat and talk with us while I occasionally did the exercises I was supposed to do, trying to drag out a 15-minute session into 45 minutes or an hour just so she would be there longer.
When I finally left the hospital and moved over to a rehabilitation center, Lisa visited me there. When I was able to get out of the rehab center for a day trip, Lisa went with us to a restaurant, then later to a movie theater. It just felt really good to have a pretty female my age want to spend time with me. When I was injured, I was in the best shape of my life. I had played sports for many years—organized baseball, football and tennis with friends, bowling, shooting baskets at the end of the street—and that summer I regularly lifted weights, was an avid mountain bike rider, and frequent golfer. I was also playing in an adult baseball league with some guys I’d played with in the past that was put together by my old Little League catcher, Tad.
Then, suddenly, I was a paraplegic. My body changed. No more athletic legs, no more bike riding, or playing baseball. I had scars on my face and the back of my head. I was still new to all of the changes in my life and it was hard to feel attractive or desirable to anyone. Why would a girl be interested in me when she could go out with someone who could walk and run and hike? When Lisa come into my room at the hospital for a 15-minute therapy session and stayed for an hour, it was the highlight of my day. I looked forward to her visits at the rehab center and was amazed when she suggested we go to a restaurant or the movies. It was much needed emotional therapy. Here was a pretty girl choosing to spend time with me during her non-work hours, despite how I looked post-injury. She didn’t have to do that, but I’m glad she did.
There was a warm and friendly African-American nurse, who was always referred to as a “male nurse” because it was such an uncommon thing at the time. A respiratory therapist named Timothy was one of the hardest-working, most positive, and most eager-to-please people on staff. He was there to help me with my breathing after I got off the ventilator, but he did much more than any other respiratory therapist did. He’d ask if I wanted any snacks or something to drink. I asked for grape juice one time and he said he would be right back. It took him close to an hour, but he came back with the grape juice after searching all through the hospital for it. I thanked him and he said he would “go to the ends of the earth” to get what I wanted.
One of Lisa’s friends on staff was an androgynous and very flamboyant guy named Jarel. He loved to laugh and tell stories, which always included exaggerated flourishes with his arms and his voice going up a few octaves at the culminating moment of the story. One of his favorites was about the time he was at home and had just come out of the shower. He said, without explanation, that he still had curlers in his hair and was in a pink bathrobe when there was a knock on the door. It was a salesman of some sort and the man saw Jarel and as Jarel tells it, “Oh child, he thought I was my momma! I just laughed and laughed!”
There was an ancient African-American cleaning woman named Ora. I should say “Miss Ora.” That’s what the other cleaning women called her, always “Miss Ora.” She was the matriarch of the crew and treated as such. She looked like she’d been there since the Civil War. She didn’t have many teeth left and spoke in a way that was hard for me to understand, like some variation of the French Creole spoken by Louisianans. Even though I could only make out a few words in each of her sentences, She was as pleasant and optimistic a woman as I’ve ever met, generous with a compliment and her beautiful toothless smile.
I was in the hospital as summer turned into fall and fall turned into winter. I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my birthday in the hospital. It was not the ideal place to spend the holidays, but Les did everything he could to make Thanksgiving feel like Thanksgiving and Christmas feel like Christmas.
When I was finally healed enough and strong enough to move from the hospital to the rehab center, I looked forward to learning the things I needed to learn to get on with my life. So I learned how to put on clothes and tie my shoes and open doors. It was like being a child again, figuring out how to do really basic things. It was really frustrating at times, but I got through it.
There’s the saying, “I complained that I had no shoes, until I met someone who had no feet.” That was true for me at the rehab center. There were people much, much worse off than I was. For one thing, despite the trauma to my head, I had no brain damage. I met people in the rehab center with traumatic brain injuries. I could see how difficult it was for them and for their loved ones. Some who suffer head injuries seem to become *different people than they were before. I met others with higher-level spinal cord injuries than I had. They struggled with things I could do easily. It wouldn’t be fair for me to complain when I was around people who had it much worse than I did.
*I’ve wondered about these people with traumatic brain injuries. I’m sure it’s different for different people, but I’ve wondered if they know what they’ve lost. It takes a certain amount of cognitive ability to realize that you have the ability to use your brain in certain ways. When someone has a brain injury and are no longer able to do what they once did, do they realize it? Do they remember being able to think things through in a way they no longer can? I remember reading about a baseball executive from the 1950s who had an incredible ability to do math in his head. He never needed a calculator. He could look at the numbers on the page and do the math easily. I’m pretty good at this myself. Then one day this baseball executive looked at the numbers on the page and couldn’t do it. He lost that ability and he knew he had lost that ability, which made it even more difficult for him. It was the beginning of a downward slide. He likely had dementia or Alzheimer’s but not much was known about it back then.
Periodically, I had to meet with a mental health professional. He or she would ask me questions. We’d talk about what happened. They gave me tests to assess my mental health. I was always a good test taker and did well on them. When you’re good at taking tests, you can get inside the head of the person who created the test. What are they looking for? What answer would be best here? In this case, the test had the same question posed in multiple ways. It was designed to determine if someone is struggling with negative thoughts/depression, etc. It wasn’t hard for me to recognize this and I knew what the best response would be to get good marks for mental health.
The reality was maybe a bit different than how things appeared. I did handle it well, but that was mainly because I didn’t want to be someone who didn’t handle it well. I didn’t want to make the people around me feel bad for me. I didn’t want to be the cause of those negative feelings. They were all dealing with what happened just like I was. It was better for everyone that I didn’t get depressed about it.
This carried over to my life post-injury, especially early on. Once I got out of the hospital and rehab center and returned home, I continued to work hard to not have anyone feel sorry for me. As a wheelchair user, I wanted everything to look easy for me. I didn’t want people seeing me struggle to do something, because of the negative feelings it would cause for them. I bought slip-on shoes because I didn’t want anyone see me struggle to tie my shoes and ask if I needed help doing something so basic. When I’d come to a door that I needed to open and roll through, I wanted to swing it open wide and roll right through with ease because it looked so much better than if I were there fighting and struggling to get through.
In one of the first few years I was back from Indiana, I met a friend for a stroll around Green Lake on a very hot day. My body does not handle heat well since the injury. I get overheated easily and it’s hard to bring my temperature back down. As we circled Green Lake, I could feel my core temperature rising and I was feeling worse and worse, but I refused to let her know. After we finished circling the lake, she went off to her car and I went to mine. I struggled to transfer myself into the car and struggled to get the wheelchair in after me. Then I started the car, turned on the air condition and sat there in a daze for about 20 minutes until I felt clear-headed enough to drive home. When I got home, it was another struggle to get out of my car and inside. I had to lie down for the rest of the day with cold packs on my head and chest. It was colossally stupid of me, but that’s how important it was for me to appear like everything was always okay.
Even now, I still try to make things look as effortless as I can, which can pose a problem when I confront a hill. Because of stupid gravity, hills are difficult for wheelchair users and I don’t want it to look difficult. I also don’t want any help. If the hill is steep enough, a choice has to be made, either get help or struggle. I almost always eschew the help and go with the struggle, with the main exception being the hill I have to climb after Aquasox games. I let my niece help me get up that hill.
I worked hard to learn what I needed to learn and to gain strength in my hands and arms. I got high marks for effort and enthusiasm. The nurses and therapists remarked at how well I was handling everything and how dedicated I was to getting better. I generally was handling it all well, but there were difficult moments when it hit me hard.
One really tough time I still remember vividly was the day I was allowed to leave the rehab facility for good, after many months in the hospital, followed by more months in rehab. It was just a couple months short of a year since the accident happened and I had dealt with so much over that time, both physically and emotionally. I would be staying with Ted until I was strong enough to fly back home to Bothell.
I was in the passenger seat of Ted’s truck, looking out the window as we drove to his house from the rehab facility. Everything was fine. I felt good. I was glad to be getting out of there and looking forward to having a bit more freedom. In a couple months, I would be back home.
Then I saw an empty baseball diamond and I was flooded with an incredible sense of despair. In that instant, seeing that empty baseball diamond pained me to the very core of my being. I physically hurt inside and tears filled my eyes as I looked at that empty field, with the pitcher’s mound in the center.
The last game I ever pitched was during the summer I was injured. We were playing at Lynnwood high school. I didn’t start the game, but came on in relief. And I started tossing knuckleballs, one after the other. The hitters were flailing at them, either missing them completely or making weak contact. I could clearly hear one guy in their dugout chastising his teammates for swinging at the knuckleball. He kept saying, “Just don’t swing at it! He can’t throw it for strikes!”
Then he got his chance to bat. I knew he would be getting nothing but knuckleballs. He probably knew it to, but he failed to head his own advice and couldn’t help but swing at them. I really tried hard not to smile after he struck out.
So, yeah, after everything that happened in the hospital and rehab center, it was an empty baseball field that hit me harder emotionally than anything else. Think about the thing you are most passionate about. Maybe you’re actively involved in acting or singing, hiking or biking, or creating art. It’s the thing you love to do more than any other. Then, suddenly, in a snap of the fingers, you can’t do it anymore. It’s been 23 years, but I can still see that empty baseball diamond.
While I stayed at Ted’s house, I tried to gain weight and strength so I could fly home. I also had the opportunity to go back over to Pittsburgh to throw out the first pitch at a Pirates game. Ted and I played catch in his yard for practice. It was fitting. He was the first person I regularly played catch with when I was a kid. He taught me how to throw a curveball that I used so well when I pitched in high school and summer league baseball.
I could throw and catch, but my range was limited. Anything too far to the left, right, or above me would sail past. An occasional ball was right in line but too low and would bounce off my chair because I couldn’t reach down that far. One went right off my shin. It must have hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but I didn’t feel it.
Les and I drove over to Pittsburgh so I could watch a game and throw out the first pitch. We got to the ballpark and were escorted down to the field through tunnels in the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium. I met a few players and coaches. Unfortunately, the game was rained out and I didn’t get the chance to throw out the first pitch that night.
I was invited back for the next game and a second chance to throw out the first pitch. It was disappointing, though, because they had me throw from about halfway between the plate and the mound and the catcher came out and squatted in front of home plate. With him being so close, I just lobbed it to him. It looked weak. I wanted to fire it in from much farther back. I may have lost my ability to walk, but I still had my pride.
As I rolled down the tunnel after getting off the airplane, I dreaded seeing the faces of my family and friends when they saw me in person for the first time. The moment of surprise, shock, call it what you want, it’s hard for anyone to stifle that look. Then came the lies.
“You look great!”
“You never looked better!”
“You haven’t changed a bit!”
Lies, lies, lies. I knew they were lying. They knew they were lying. I’m sure they knew that I knew they were lying. But it’s a social contract. They say something nice. I thank them. The moment passes. It’s easier that way.
Somewhere, in an alternate universe where everyone tells the truth, the conversation goes like this:
“Wow, you look like you drove into a bridge!”
“Damn, that sucks. Well, I’m glad you’re still alive.”
“Thanks, me too.”
In this alternative, always truthful universe, you can tell someone if they look fat in those pants or if their haircut looks bad or if they have an *ugly baby.
*The best option when confronted with an ugly baby is the Seinfeldien response, “he’s breathtaking.”
In this world, everyone told me how great I looked. Maybe I looked great for someone who had driven into a bridge and spent almost a year in the hospital. Take away the “driven into a bridge and spent almost a year in the hospital” aspect, and I looked awful.
But I had survived. I was back home. I didn’t know what the future would bring or what I would do with my life. I still had follow-up surgeries to get through and recover from before I could do much more than continue to heal from a life-altering event.
One year before, I thought I had taken a few steps up the “great big hill of hope for a destination.” Then, in an instant, the progress I had made was wiped out. I was back down at the bottom of the hill and it suddenly looked much steeper.