Tick. Tock. Tick Tock. The ticking of the large clock above the couch in our family room is usually drowned out by the noises of our home—one of our kids playing piano, a dog barking at someone walking down the street or the shriek of a little sister not getting her way. But sometimes, when the house is empty and quiet, I hear it and feel uneasy. It’s the incessant reminder of every second that passes without pause or consideration for the events that unfold within its unrelenting grasp. Did you know it takes less than one second to fall 10 feet?
Tick. The ground disappears from underneath me. I see nothing but black as my intact body free-falls before it slams into the hard earth below, leaving me broken. Tock.
Everything in my world stopped when I hit the ground. But the seconds—steady and reliable—ticked on. One, two three…
Four seconds after impact and I’m flat on my back still catching my breath. All I can think is “What the hell just happened?”
Four minutes pass. I’m listening to Ian’s side of the 911 call as though I’m eavesdropping on a conversation I am not meant to hear. I lay in disbelief that he is actually talking about me.
“We need an ambulance. My wife fell… She’s conscious and talking to me but she can’t move her legs… I don’t see any blood… She is in a lot of pain.”
A noise catches my attention and I look over to see the dog—Lucy came for me and I almost start to cry. Ian follows and kneels next to me “I’m here.”
“Where are the kids?”
“They are inside and they are safe. You don’t need to worry about the kids. I will call someone to come watch them and then meet you at the hospital”
“Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. You need to get a ride. Call your sister”
I feel his attention shift back to the voice on the phone—he never could do two things at once. He looks at me “I have to go up and meet the ambulance.”
I reach up and grab his hand “No, don’t leave. I’m scared.”
“It’s going to be okay. Help is coming.”
Four hours have gone by but the ebb and flow of natural light doesn’t exist inside a trauma room and underneath the artificial glow of fluorescent bulbs I have lost track of time. Another doctor walks in and asks “Can you feel this?”
I want to yell at them to stop asking me. No, I can’t feel you wiggle my toe, poke my calf or brush my upper thigh. I didn’t feel it when you stuck your finger up my ass because a rectal exam is—I have quickly learned—an integral part of paralysis diagnosis. I can’t feel your pin pricks or the soft touch of your cotton swabs. I couldn’t feel it when the paramedics, nurses and doctors before you asked, and I can’t feel it now. So stop asking me!
That’s what I want to say. But I don’t. Instead I take a deep breath and play along.
“Can you feel this?”
“How about this?”
I close my eyes and sigh, biting my bottom lip as I shake my head. The neck brace pinches and the blood pressure cuff strapped to my arm tightens. “Can I take the neck brace off?” They say I can’t. A nurse places another warm blanket on me in an attempt to curb the chills of shock that have been coursing through my body for hours.
Nobody has any answers for me except “We will know more after surgery.” But every time someone asks me if I can feel their touch—and I can’t—I am more convinced that I never will again.
It’s been Four Days. My kids came to visit earlier but I struggled to fully engage with them. It hurt my body to hug them and hurt my spirit not to. After a one-hour visit I’m exhausted and wondering how I will ever have the strength to be Mom again. Ian, the nurses, the doctors—everybody—remind me that my recovery just begun and things will get easier. I nod unconvinced.
The pain radiates through my upper body but I can’t adjust myself to find a position that might take the edge off. It takes two people to turn me over and cushion my body with pillows—a vain attempt to find relief. I can’t tolerate one position for long and so we repeat this process again and again.
I lay on my side and feel my hand and arm start to tingle. Without warning or even a pause to consider a more rational explanation, I am thrown into hysterics. I start yelling “My arms are going numb. It’s getting worse! It’s getting worse!” My head spins in the terrifying belief that the paralysis is spontaneously spreading up through my body. “Get help!”
“It isn’t getting worse. We just need to move you.” Ian tries to calm me down as he and the nurse roll me over. My heart races and I struggle to catch my breath as I change positions. When they’re finished I break into sobs on Ian’s chest and cry myself to sleep.
Four weeks later we are living at the rehabilitation centre. Ian is sitting across from me on a blue patio chair circa the year 2000, under the covered deck on the spinal floor. We are in the middle of yet another Scrabble game to help pass the time and distract our minds from all of the unanswered question that linger there. Also it is the one game I usually beat him at.
“22 points” I lay down my word and pick up my new mug and take a sip. Mine is a long-neck dinosaur and Ian’s is a seahorse. Both are painted in bright colours with “I heart Mommy + Daddy” written on them. We take pictures to send to our boys so they know we are using them.
I let my gaze wander out to the residential street below us. People are parking cars and heading up the paths to their front doors—back from work to enjoy their ordinary lives. My life feels anything but ordinary and I hate them all just a little bit.
I ache to be home with my kids. To make them breakfast, take them to school, build a train track and put them to bed. Instead my days are filled with crash courses in how to live with paralysis and many—mostly failed—attempts at transferring myself in and out of my chair unassisted. Instead, we are playing scrabble on a run-down patio watching other people carry on with their normal, spinal-cord-injury-free lives like they have no idea how lucky they are.
Four months have gone by. Back in my own bed at home, I pull the blankets over my head trying to ignore the summer sun shining in, telling me it’s morning. I can hear Ian and the kids in the kitchen and instantly feel like the odd man out.
I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m exhausted from trying to join in. I’m tired of changing the way that I play and altering our routines. I’m done with needing help to shower and pee. And I’m overwhelmed by the relentless pain that wraps around my rib cage. I want my life back and—not for the first time since this journey began—I wonder if everyone would have been better off if the fall had just killed me.
Ian walks in and sits on the edge of the bed “Are you ready to get up? You have a driving lesson today”
“I’m not going. Please cancel it.”
He takes a long deep breath and rubs his eyes. It reminds me of something I do when the kids are testing my patience. “I need you to go to the lesson. I need you to drive again.”
He hasn’t asked much of me in the last four months and his request reminds me of the responsibility and pain he is carrying. The guilt bubbles up in my throat and I swallow hard. We are silent for a long time. He stares at me and I think about getting out of bed—I owe him that. And I do want to drive again—it was one of my first goals when I started rehab. I tell myself “Just get up. Get up and start your day. You’ll feel better” But then I break the silence.
“I don’t want to drive if it can’t be with my legs. I’m not going.”
He left. He cancelled. Later my guilt and his anger were replaced with mutual understanding and forgiveness as we reminded ourselves it’s only been four months.
March 10, 2020, marks four years since the day—the second—that changed my life. Time has passed in its expected fashion but it is not what sparked healing in me. Held within the constraints of time—all of the anger, sadness, frustration, panic, struggle, relationships, love, laughter, conversations, writing projects, exercise, strengths, weaknesses, understanding, failures and triumphs—is the work that sparked healing in me.
Right now I’m sitting with my laptop on the big circle chair in our family room. It is the perfect chair for snuggling in front of the fire, watching TV and has the best view of the Christmas tree in December, making it my favourite spot in the entire house. My kids are all asleep and I hear Ian in the kitchen, working on something and occasionally talking to the dogs. It is simple and I am happy.
It is in these simple moments I often find myself with the most gratitude. Being home. Putting my kids to bed. Driving them to school. Reading them a story. Watching Netflix with a glass of wine. Its within these quiet, sometimes seemingly mundane, moments that I realize my life is so much more than what I’ve lost.
The ticking clock on the wall grabs my attention again but the uneasy feeling doesn’t come. Instead of getting caught up in the one second that changed everything, I’m immersed in the growth and change—the story—that happened in all of the seconds that followed. And—not for the first time since this journey began—I’m thankful that the fall didn’t kill me. We are all better off together.