The night before a bike ride that would change his life irrevocably, Paul Guest imagined his heartbreaking fate.
The night before I broke the third and fourth vertebrae of my neck, I lay in bed imagining what it would be like if that ever happened to me. If there would be pain. If I would die. I was twelve years old. My mother had checked out a book called _Joni_ from our Methodist church’s sparse library, giving it to me when she finished. I had ignored it for months, choosing instead the tattered Hardy Boys mysteries I loved, the comic books I kept in a cardboard box, or magazines like _BMX Action_. But that night, after my parents had put the newborn twins, Bo and Clay, down for sleep, after my seven-year-old brother, Chan, had gone to his own room upstairs, I turned to the book, thumbing through it. The story of a teenage girl who was paralyzed in a diving accident gripped me, at first, the way cheap horror movies on late-night cable did: the suffering seemed fiction. But when she wrote of awakening in a cold green room, her body naked except for a sheet that covered the body she no longer could feel or move, I could barely stand to read more. As the sheet began to slip away from her and onto the floor, revealing her breasts, her nipples prickling in the cold air, shame scalded her, and I put the book away. I didn’t sleep for a while.
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The next morning I woke early and dressed, excited. The day before I had graduated from the sixth grade, walking across an old stage in my school’s cafeteria to receive my diploma.
I was excited because one of my teachers had invited me to her home for a graduation party. Her name was Jody Benson and I had been her student since the first grade. Dark-haired, young, she had come to my classroom, asking for me before leading me to a room in the oldest wing of the school. The room smelled like old books, like binding glue and dust. The floors were wood, and high windows let in light that scarcely seemed to fall to where I stood beside a desk. She asked me to sit and placed a book on an easel before me.
“I’ve brought you here to test your reading skills,” she said, smiling. “Do you know what I mean by that?” I nodded. I had learned to read early, before beginning kindergarten. As a child, I’d demanded my mother read book after book, over and over again. Neither of my parents had attended college, marrying soon after graduating from high school. My father managed a grocery store in a local chain, having worked in the business since his early teens, and my mother claimed to hate school, to see no sense in most of it, all the while pushing us to do our best. I tried.
“OK, then. We’ll start off with easy words, words you won’t have any problem with, and go from there.”
The book was spiral-bound across the top edge of each page, designed to be flipped over. We began with words, then passages of text. They were easier for me than what I was reading at home. Books about the space shuttle, a history of the robot, mysteries, comic books—almost anything that I could find I opened up. Designed to measure a child’s vocabulary, her book grew ever more dense each time she flipped a thick, time-stained page.
After a while, Jody stopped, putting down the pen she had been making notes with. “We can stop there. You’ve read plenty.”
I was disappointed about not finishing. “I can keep going. It hasn’t been hard at all.” I wanted to please her. To impress her. I knew who she was and the classes she taught. I wanted to be a part of them, to be recognized, to feel special. Jody looked at me carefully, trying not to smile. After a moment, she flipped the page and picked up her pen. She motioned for me to continue reading. I didn’t stop until the book did.
At Jody’s house I found my best friend, Adam, waiting for me on the back porch. Jody was beginning to grill burgers and hot dogs. Inside, Christina, Gwendy, Missy, Lana, and Michelle, the other members of our gifted class, were playing with Jody’s newborn baby daughter. Adam and I were not much interested in that, sitting stoically on the bench while Jody cooked for us. Before long we grew bored, antsy, unwilling to join the girls inside. For five years, we had been the only boys in the class and Jody knew well how much we loved bicycles, riding, racing. She asked if we would like to borrow her and her husband’s bicycles until the food was ready. We jumped up, running to the garage.
I should have been wary. An adult would have known better than to ride those bikes. Leaned against the wall, festooned with cobwebs, skinned in dust, the ten-speed bikes had not been used in quite some time. Adam took the first and pedaled a few feet forward, stopping. The tires were flat. I looked down to see that mine were flat, too. Back inside the garage, we found a pump hanging on the wall. Adam inflated his tires quickly and then was gone. I began pumping mine back up.
I climbed atop the bike, feeling awkward from leaning out over the handlebars. All my life I had ridden singlespeed bikes with twenty-inch wheels, dirt bikes, BMX bikes with lightweight steel frames. I felt unsafe but pedaled on slowly.
Jody’s house sat at the top of a long, steep driveway. To either side, green lawns sloped down to the road. I didn’t see Adam anywhere ahead. Already I was afraid I would wreck. The bike was getting away from me as it coasted down the long incline. I squeezed the right caliper handbrake but it was only mush, a sensation I had felt before on my own bike when the brake cable that ran down to the wheel had frayed or torn entirely. It was a problem I could fix myself but not in motion, not then. My fear began to grow.
I was resigned to the inevitability of crashing, and in those few seconds I had before the bike would be dangerously fast I decided it was better to crash on grass than to land on the asphalt.
I steered to the right, not into Jody’s lawn but the grass between her yard and her neighbor’s. I tried the useless brakes once more. Nothing.
_Maybe I can lay it down in the grass_, I thought, though I’m not even sure I knew what that meant. I was rolling over the smooth grass, frozen. I never tried to do anything but ride it out.
What I did not know, what I could not see, would be what changed the rest of my life. At the bottom of the slope, a drainage ditch ran beside the road, overgrown with weeds and thick tussocks of grass. I hit the ditch still traveling at speed. I was thrown from the bike, over the handlebars, catapulted, tossed like a human lawn dart into the earth.
I don’t remember flying through the air. Not because I lost consciousness, but because my eyes were sealed shut, out of fear. I came to rest like a bag of sand, sliding to a stop some twelve feet away, beside a thin tree.
I could feel nothing, no pain, no sensation, indeed, there seemed to be no body any longer below my neck, which slowly, faintly, began to register the dullest of aches. There is no real way to describe what this felt like, or did not feel like—the sudden, violent abstraction of the body, the brain left to believe all has vanished in a terrible, surgical instant.
My head felt like a stone and all that my mind could conjure for me to understand was that the rest of me seemed to float away.
Across my chest, my left arm lay crookedly, the radius snapped. My right arm was pinned beneath me, its wrist broken as well. My breath was labored. Something wet seeped from my nose. It felt like blood. I’d later learn it was spinal fluid.
I began to guess what had happened, though I knew nothing in detail about a broken neck, nothing besides what I had read in the book by Joni Eareckson, though I did not think of that then. Instinctively, I knew I’d broken my neck, that I was badly hurt, that I would not be dusting myself off, catching my breath, wincing over scrapes that would soon grow scabs.
Adam stood over me, out of breath, scared.
“Do you need help?” he asked, his voice high and near to flying apart.
“Yes,” I said. “Hurry.”
And then I was alone for a minute, maybe two. My breaths were ragged. Above me, a low green branch blocked the blue sky of the last day of May.
Jody quickly came to where I lay, dropping down to her knees, her face scared. I could see Adam and the girls standing in a bunch some distance away.
“Are you OK?” she asked, her voice strange.
“I think I’ve hurt myself,” I said, scared to say more.
By then her next-door neighbors had arrived, having seen the accident from their porch. A burly, middle-aged man squatted beside me.
“You OK, buddy? You took quite a spill there.”
His voice was better than Jody’s, more calm, pitched to comfort me. He placed his hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t feel it.
“We’re gonna get you up from here, OK? You’ve knocked the breath out of yourself. We’re going to get you up, OK?”
I knew enough to know that I shouldn’t be moved. I asked him not to move me, I begged him, but he lifted me easily in his arms, carrying me a few feet back from where I had come to rest after the wreck.
Someone else, another man, maybe his son, helped him stand me up, one of them on each side of me. They must have expected me to shake it off, to get over the scare, to stand on my own. They withdrew some of their support. My knees buckled. I dropped. My head fell over, like a flower on a broken stem. My cheek rested against my chest grotesquely. Without saying another word they softly laid me on the grass again.
I have no idea, no way of knowing, if this ill-advised movement made my injury worse, if the extent of my paralysis grew from any additional trauma. Before the men moved me, took me up in their arms, that fear lit up inside me: that further harm would happen to me if I were so much as touched. But a child is helpless when hurt, when no one really knows what the gravity of permanence feels like, and so it happened and then could not be undone. And in that awful moment, it became no different than the wreck itself, a terrible extension of it. In the time to come, when therapy and surgeries loomed, I put it out of my mind, one more event over which I had no control, not when it happened, and not in the drear, untouchable past. Doctors could only speculate softly: _no way to know, the damage was probably already done_. My parents spoke of it, if they did at all, in terms which minimized or negated any possible effect, but I could hear in my father’s voice, beneath it, choked anger, brokenhearted and immense, inconsolable.
The paramedics carefully slipped a hard collar around my neck, a body board beneath me, all to stabilize whatever might be broken or injured. They lifted me into the ambulance and sped away. The paramedic seated beside me, monitoring my vital signs, spoke calmly, reassuringly for a few moments. He mentioned that he had gone to high school with my mother and her brothers, that they had played together as children. He radioed ahead to the hospital.
_Probable cervical injury_, I heard him quietly say. I don’t believe I knew the meaning of _cervical_ then, but I understood it intuitively, and fear began to take greater hold within me. I began to feel a permanence rolling over me like a wave, that this injury might not be something that would heal in its own good time. I stared up at the roof of the speeding ambulance, listening to the clatter of things jostling in their drawers and the siren wailing through our passage.
The opening of ambulance doors is a curiously fraught moment: the world outside may never again be as it was. There is a certain staginess about it, a level of focus, from which all one wants to do is hide. By now I wanted it all to be a dream.
My clothes had been cut from me, yellow shorts and a yellow shirt, razored away with no regard to possession. I had no idea this happened, that I lay in the rolling, swaying bay of the ambulance with nothing on. I could feel nothing, and an oxygen mask hissed against my face. I couldn’t move. The entire world was a vague sensation of speed, a muffled siren, the practiced calm of a paramedic’s voice. Sometime later, in the hospital, while my mother waited in the hallway, a paramedic handed her my shredded clothes in a plastic bag.
When the doors opened, the summer light, the humid air spilled in. I blinked reflexively, over and over again. I could see doctors and nurses in their scrubs, waiting. I could see my mother. We lived closer to the hospital than to Jody’s home and she had arrived minutes before the ambulance. Jody had called my mother, saying there had been an accident, that it looked like I’d broken one of my arms, that they were going to get me into her car and drive me to the hospital. My mother insisted on the ambulance.
They lifted me out, quickly rolling me inside the emergency room. The ceiling ran above me, down one hallway and another. I was transferred from the stretcher to an examination table. A doctor began to look me over, asking me questions, my name, where I lived, what happened, if I could remember any of it. He shined a penlight into my eyes, asking me not to blink, to follow his hands. Before long I would be whisked away again, and there in the hall my mother and father waited. I began to cry.
“I want to go to sleep, please let me go to sleep,” I pleaded. If I could sleep, then maybe this was not real, a nightmare. Maybe I was not injured so badly. Maybe I would awake to, at most, a broken arm, a body that remembered pain, could move once more. That was my desperate, impossible hope.
My father walked beside me briskly, as I was sped toward more intense examination. “You can’t do that,” he said. “Not now. You have to be brave. You have to let them help you. Stay awake, let the doctors look at you. You can do that, can’t you?”
If he thought I was only scared, or if he feared I had sustained a head injury, that I was slipping off into unconsciousness, I don’t know.
I was taken to a freezing room, dimly lit, and lifted onto another table. A doctor removed the collar stabilizing my neck. The faintest hint of pain, like a fever almost but stranger, less apparent, ringed my throat. The doctor looked down at me, speaking calmly, his voice insistent, grave.
“You must be perfectly still now. Whatever you do, you cannot move your head, or your neck. Do you understand, Paul?”
I looked up at him and after a moment said yes.
A woman’s voice spoke, disembodied, tinny. The table I was laid upon began to recede, sliding back into the bodylong tube of an MRI scanner. I’d never been claustrophobic before, but inside that cramped machine I felt the wild stirrings of panic. Whatever calm I’d managed to hold fast to began to slip away. I rocked my head from side to side, wanting out, begging to be let out. I knew this was no good, that I could hurt myself even further, thrashing about, but that only meant that I understood a simple, mortal fact, not that I could stand it without terror. Was this less harmful than being stood, than that blind, dumb courtesy of an hour ago? I didn’t now. I couldn’t stop. This at last was too much.
A man’s voice buzzed from speakers which seemed to be placed inside the machine. An odd mixture of tones played through his speech: wan sympathy, boredom, an air of command. _Be still_, he said. _Be still_.
I held my breath. The scanner began its clatter, dowsing me in a magnetic field which would reveal an image of what I’d broken, the unseen wounds.
An endless, watchful stream of nurses marked my first night: vital statistics were measured, my temperature taken, sleep always interrupted. I wanted sleep, I’d said, the blinding occlusion of dreams, a world in which I was still tethered to my life. My old life. I wanted my room at home and the bed which was ancient and looked it: bent nails in the battered wood were hammered back in. How old it was, where it came from, to whom it had belonged a long time ago, are details in stories I can’t remember, or was never told. Now it had passed out of my life forever. Now I slept, or tried to, in an intensive care electric hospital bed, which would raise and lower and had chrome rails along its whole length; the mattress was dense, sealed in vinyl to protect against incontinence. I wore a child’s diaper.
The following nine days fade into the blur of trauma: much of the time, I was sick, unable to eat or keep water down. I sucked ice chips from a paper cup, a few at a time: nurses rationed them, afraid too much would stir up the nausea which sloshed in my stomach all the time. I still felt nothing below my neck, less than nothing. I felt hot, burning up, yet I couldn’t feel temperature at all. The rest of me had become a blankness, a screen upon which my nervous system attempted to project a self which no longer existed and with every insensate day grew more remote.
My parents took turns sleeping in the room, waking up wild-haired and bleary-eyed. My father was thirty-one, my mother thirty, both of them younger than I am now.
Relatives orbited during visitation hours, full of scattershot encouragement, half understanding my diagnosis. I stayed in bed, miserable, bored, scared, waiting for something to happen, to change. I could hardly sit up in bed without the room spinning, my blood thudding through my head, vertigo swamping me. The television anchored to the wall bleated all day.
By degrees I could sit upright again after a few days had passed, though I felt little better. Doctors came and went, and their demeanor became a kind of running commentary: one seemed kind and one arrogant, abrasive, indifferent; others were good-humored, encouraging. All spoke to me mostly of the present and recent past: this had happened to me, and this was now happening to me. Their words deftly dodged the impending future, speaking to my parents the hard words, the final ones, that I wouldn’t walk again.
Soon I could be pushed around the hospital floor in a wheelchair. I was grateful, even for this little change in surroundings. The hallway walls were painted with aggressive cheer. Animals gamboled about in primary colors. A boy pedaled a bicycle made of paint. Pushed for short walks around the floor, I would dread the turn that revealed him, all his danger.
It seemed like a long time had passed, that this was my life and always had been. The days settled into peculiar rhythms, the space between catastrophe and convalescence, which hadn’t even begun. Inside my body still were two fractured vertebrae, a bruised and swollen spinal cord, and in each arm a bone knitting crookedly. I couldn’t exist this way forever, without decisive treatment, rehabilitation, and my parents knew this, investigating as best they could available options, but keeping their efforts largely secret from me. I could scarcely imagine what one day would be like, let alone the prospect of leaving, transferring to another hospital in another city. I had become more stable now and though I didn’t speak of it, I knew this waiting could not last long.
And it didn’t. I can’t remember a single distinguishable thing about the man, but when a doctor entered my room the morning of the fifth day, carefully, looking first to each of my stricken parents, I knew that whatever he had to say could not be good. Lying on my left side, facing the door, I wanted to shrink away, to vanish.
The doctor pulled a chair close to the bed, sat down. He spoke.
“Paul, it’s time that we talked about some things. Hard things. I’ll come right out and say it: you bruised your spinal cord severely. That much you already know. It’s not what we call a complete injury. The cord wasn’t severed. You’re lucky. But, even so, the chances are great, they are overwhelming, that you won’t be able to walk again. You might regain some function. Your arms, maybe, your fingers. A leg. You might not. We don’t know. In a few days, you and your parents will make some important choices about how and where you’ll begin therapy. But you will be in a wheelchair the rest of your life.”
My parents, listening, stricken, seemed to bristle. The air felt like the prelude to thunder.
I made a bad joke: “Would I still be able to play the piano?” I knew that it was a clichéd trope of rehabilitation narratives, or a joke my father might make, but it was the only thing I could think of. I didn’t feel like laughing. Or crying. I felt flattened. Drained. Acutely aware of my parents’ anguish. Their grief was worse than mine, more immediate, crushing and unbearable, and through them I could better see, more deeply understand how radically changed the rest of my life would be.
I was twelve years old. A quadriplegic. I barely knew the word’s meaning.
Paul Guest is the author of three poetry collections, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World, which won the 2002 New Issues Prize in Poetry; Notes for My Body Double, which won the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize; and My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge. The recipient of a 2007 Whiting Award, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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From the memoir One More Theory About Happiness by Paul Guest. Copyright © 2010 by Paul Guest. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.