We arrived in Townsville just before dark and hiked across town to catch the last ferry to Magnetic Island. Just after sunset, the ferry, a hydrofoil, rose up out of the water and carried us into the darkness toward a place we had never seen, a place that only existed because our Let’s Go! Australia guidebook said it did.
The ferry was empty, as was the landing when we arrived. Tired and sore from travel, we found a bed and breakfast, and went straight to bed. But it was a humid, sticky night and my thoughts would not let me sleep. I knew it couldn't wait any longer. Around midnight I got up, put on my shoes, kissed Kellie’s proud forehead, and headed back toward the landing. The closest pay phone was about halfway to the pier, at the local beach. It was an odd place for a phone booth, exposed and isolated. There was the booth, a row of palm trees, about thirty feet of beach and the bay. The only light came from a single streetlight near the booth, yet the moon, the moon—almost full—powdered the darkness with particles of light. You could see clearly—many miles off—the tips of the bay tapering down to the ocean and the trees that undulated there in the wind. I hadn’t seen a soul since I left our room. Suddenly, in my fatigue, the notion that everyone on the island was dead and that I was the only one left alive seemed completely reasonable.
I was trying to take all this in, the solitude, the huge open night sky, the sound of the Pacific, and trying to imagine what Captain Cook must have seen all those years ago when his sails first broke over the horizon, that way I wouldn't have to think about what I was going to say on the phone.
That morning I had learned that my best friend Mark had broken his back diving off a boat into shallow water. They had drifted into a sandbar and Mark had volunteered to get in the water to push the boat off. Not thinking, he dove over the side. The impact had forced his head down to his chest, causing a burst fracture in the vertebra at the base of his neck. He was airlifted to a hospital in Cleveland, operated on, and put in a halo. Right now he was laid out in intensive care, unable to feel anything below his neck. As his best friend it is my job, or so I felt, to call and comfort him. But at twenty-one I had no training for this, no roadmap, no Idiot's Guide to Q uadriplegic Friends.
I had tried to call earlier, had even dialed the number, then chickened out. All day the image of him diving off that boat played over and over in my mind. I pictured him as I had seen him dive a thousands times before—off the raft at Jason’s pond on summer nights or off the diving board at Jennifer Winter’s house—and I imagined him diving as he always dived, his signature dive: head first with his hands at his sides. I felt horror, denial, and dread. And underneath there was something else, something I didn’t understand and didn’t like, a part of me that was keyed up and excited—made giddy by tragedy.
Now I made myself dial the number again. The phone rang five…six…seven times before a woman’s voice answered, it was his mom.
“Okay,” she said, “just a minute.” There was some discussion. The phone was being wrung between someone’s hands like a washcloth. I was suddenly struck with the fear that perhaps he didn’t want to talk to me, that it was completely inappropriate to call at a time like this.
“Hey, brother. How’s Australia?”
He sounded so normal that it caught me off guard. “It was going well until this morning,” I said. “What are you up to?”
“I’m laying here trying to move my fucking legs," he said. "What are you doin’?”
“I’m standing on the beach talking to you.”
“Yeah, is it nice?”
“Yeah,” I said, looking around. “It’s dark here, but I’m about 30 feet from the ocean. The moon is out and you can see its reflection on the water and everything. Here…” I opened up the phone booth and extended the receiver out the door. “Can you hear the water?”
There was a pause, then his voice came a little softer. “Naw, but that’s all right. Sounds nice though.”
There was another pause, and I heard the hiss of the line. My head was full of fragments: How are you taking it? How bad is it really? Is it going to be permanent? But they all really condensed into one question: Are you okay? But it didn’t mean was he okay. It meant was he going to be okay, was he going to keep going? Was he going to fight or was he going to let it beat him? That’s what I wanted to know.
Without me asking, proleptic from 10,000 miles away, he sighed. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re the one in the hospital and you’re consoling me.”
“Yep, and you’re not the first. When do you get home?”
“About five days.”
“Good,” he said, “that’s good.” And I was afraid he would want to say goodbye already, but he didn’t. “That’s good,” he repeated.
The moment had come. All day I had been thinking of the right thing to say, the right inspirational line, the life-altering truth, words that could sustain like so much cartilage and bone “I want you to know I have all the faith in the world in you,” I offered, but as soon as I said it I realized it was unnecessary. I hadn’t needed to say anything after all. Proof of any such faith lay in the months and years ahead, not to be summarized here.
“I know,” he said.
“Good,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll see you soon.”
“You certainly will,” I assured him. And we said goodbye.
I placed the phone back in the cradle and closed my eyes for many minutes before walking down to the water. As the moon and stars looked down on me I let the waves surge over my feet.
* * *
Five days later Kellie and I flew into Cincinnati. Mark had just been moved from Cleveland to Good Samaritan Hospital in Clifton. We went straight from the airport to the hospital.
I have to tell you how hopeful everyone was during the first few months. See, Mark had not actually severed his spinal cord. He suffered a burst fracture in his C6 (sixth cervical) vertebra—the one you can feel between your shoulders when you put your chin down—so it was possible, although unlikely, for him to have a full recovery. And in Cleveland they had tried what was then a new technique: injecting large doses of steroids into the spinal cord. Very promising. Today, twice what Mark received is recommended. But spinal cords are tricky. Every case is different. In burst fractures the damage comes from the swelling, blood deprivation. The nerve cells die. You get 90% of what you’re going to get back in the first six months, and everything you will ever get back in two years. About six weeks after the accident Mark got his right leg to move a little bit in therapy. I remember how we celebrated. That was all he ever got back.
All the day-to-day processes of life now had to be relearned. Showering, changing clothes, and using the bathroom were now protracted exercises requiring step-by-step procedures and training. The “transfer”—the simple act of getting himself from his wheelchair into a car or another seat—took months to perfect.
By Christmas Mark was out of the hospital and we didn’t have to sneak past the nurse’s station with McDonald’s bags anymore. A month later, he was back at Ohio Northern taking classes; living the life of an ‘incomplete quad.’ All of his limbs had been affected by the injury but he kept—hence incomplete—good use of both arms, especially the right. He moved into a ground floor apartment, scheduled this classes at the handicapped accessible buildings, and had his Honda outfitted with hand controls.
I tried very hard—we all tried—to empathize with Mark. When I drove his car I used the hand controls; when we would watch movies, he would transfer to the couch and I would sit in his wheelchair—a blue and black titanium thing that even he could lift with one hand. Sitting there I saw the world as he saw it, the height of a ten-year-old. I would make myself do everything from there: negotiate the living room, the kitchen, open and close the fridge, get a glass from the cupboard and the bottle opener from the drawer. But after two hours of sitting in his chair I would stand up and go home. I wonder if, no, I’m sure, I’m sure I made mistakes. I’m sure I did and said things that hurt him. I’ll just run out to the car. You know you look like a monkey when you hold a pen? I wonder how he felt when we made a game out of how fast we could get him in and out of a car, take apart his wheelchair, and put it in the trunk (84 seconds). All the little things. But he never said anything. Never stopped any of us from trying; never said no when we invited ourselves over; never told us that it was none of our business. And, perhaps most telling, he didn’t think twice when we all—Lee, Glenn, Quinn, Quinn’s dad, Mark, and I—got drunk and piled into Lee’s hot tub. Mark sat there, beer in hand, grinning like Sunday, his catheter bag bobbing in the foam like a jellyfish in the surf.
* * *
I am still learning about the accident. You would think that I would know everything by now, but I don’t. I always felt a little awkward asking him about it. When Mark hit his head on the bottom he was instantly paralyzed from the neck down, but he never lost consciousness. “Sand is pretty soft,” he said, “I just floated to the top.” His friends pulled him onto the boat and began to call for help. A guy on a boat close by said he couldn’t spare his radio because he was waiting for a call. After a while another boater called for help. A fireboat came but couldn’t reach them because of the sandbars so they put Mark on an inflatable raft—supplied by a child playing in the water—and towed him over. But the fireboat didn’t have a backboard so they had to wait for a paramedic boat. Meanwhile Mark began to have trouble breathing—no chest muscles. Finally, the paramedic boat came and he was taken to the local hospital then airlifted to Cleveland.
Those are the facts, but I don’t think about those things. The facts don’t change the image I have of that day. The image my mind made when I first heard that he dived. It is that one second of judgment that I always come back to, that I can’t get out of my head. Perhaps because I have done a thousand similar things and come away unscathed.
“Somebody needs to push us off.”
“I’m on it,” I imagine him saying, and over he goes. That moment. That is where I get stuck. The moment of that reaction/decision. The last time he was on two feet. How often did he want to take back that moment? No fair. Do over. Take it back. It is a moment he says he doesn’t think about anymore. Maybe he did have to let it go, but I find that hard to believe. And I wonder if, despite all his efforts not to, he dreams about that moment. If his mind takes that second—that one zealous moment—and divides it into its smallest parts, then changes just one of those parts so that maybe, maybe….
* * *
Part of me believes that this is where I tell you the lessons I have taken from this. That, like a good fable, it is time for me to give the moral and to show my hand so that you can learn from this too. I am thinking of the self-help tapes I listen to on my way to work. They have such simple points—messages of caring, sermons of love and neat epiphanies on how to live life to the fullest. Perhaps that is what I need here: my message to you. A message not to take anything for granted. To live every day as if it is your last. And run. Run until your legs are burning and your heart is leaping against your ribs. You should appreciate your good fortune, just as I do. Perhaps that should be my message. But if I said those things, this would no longer be a true story. The truth is I only want you to believe that message because I would like to believe it, too.
I take everything for granted. My legs, my feet, my arms, my eyes, my touch, my back, my voice, my balls. The list goes on: My parents, my sisters, my brother, all my friends. Kellie. Like the rising of my diaphragm, the greater the import, the more certain I become of permanence and, accordingly, the less I take care.
I tell myself that it must be this way. That taking things for granted is a byproduct of an ambitious nature. That if we want to get ahead and be successful, then we must build on our gifts and not obsess about the maintenance of people and objects previously acquired. After all, if you live every day as if it is your last, you’ll only be right once.
But these are my thoughts when I am strong. Every now and again I get my reality check. A linchpin I didn’t know was a linchpin is pulled and I am sent into depression, regret, and melancholy. I never see it coming. How a seemingly small matter like a friend leaving town or Kellie spending the holidays away from me can have such a devastating effect. I marvel at my own fragility, how the tearing of one muscle leaves me defenseless. So mortal. In the end, it is only in loss that I see the importance of things. Which is something you already know.
So there is no message. I have no epiphany for you. And even though there is no lesson, there are still two things that I have to tell you.
The first was an observation. It was many years after the accident, ten years after. After everything was over, after the hospital, after rehab, after undergrad, after Mark and Cobin’s wedding, after his first teaching job, after his first winning season as basketball coach, after a decade of New Year’s Eve parties, and after Kellie went to graduate school and I did not follow her. After I was far away from Ohio. After all this, when the accident seemed like just another part of growing up, I read a poem by Walt Whitman. I read it in the Alexandria City Library just before nine, just before closing. I read that poem about the man adrift in the night, near death, crying out to the sea, the sky, the stars and the whole world—Oh give me some clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,) O If I am to have so much, let me have more. As I read this, I remembered that night on the beach—the waves, the wind, the moon on the water—and in my mind’s eye I pictured myself as that man in Whitman’s poem, far out at sea, cut adrift; small in the oily swells. And I saw that memory for what it was. The memory of an event that had not seemed so unique at the time, yet one that my thoughts had returned to again and again in dream and daydream until it became, like a brand, burned into my memory cells. The realization of my impermanence. Though I scarcely knew it, that night the darkness had huddled close and private just for me, and—caressing like a brother—hissed melodiously….Death, death, death, death, death.
And I have kept it with me, that word, and shall keep it with me, as if it were tattooed into my back, raised up and scarred, always there, but caught only in glimpses.
That is the first thing. The second is a scene that has remained very vivid in my memories of Mark. I cannot say—even at the moment of writing this—exactly why it belongs in this story, yet I still know it belongs.
It was the Sunday night before first semester finals, junior year. The snow that was coming down was heavy and wet, the kind of snow that might freeze overnight and leave a layer of ice on the roads, the kind of snow that gets your hopes up. By dark there was already a good foot of it on the ground. At ten o’clock Mark and Glenn came knocking at my window. Mark had on a black knit cap over his mullet and when I lifted the window he stuck his head inside.
“Ready for a little sledding, brother?”
I looked over at my desk; the textbook spot lit by the reading lamp. “Have you studied for trig?” I asked. But I knew the answer. He never had to study for math. Advanced-placement-merit-scholar punk.
The eyes in the talking head rolled. “Come on. It’s a study break. Play in the snow for an hour, that’s all.” It wasn’t a hard sell. Mark drove, Glenn rode shotgun, I was in back. As we drove through uptown the snow sifted down through the yellow streetlights and spread out over the windshield like streamers in a wind tunnel. On 97X they were already announcing school closings in Cincinnati. We hollered our approval. Mark cranked “I am Superman,” bouncing his back off the seat as he sang along.
The best hill in Oxford is behind Flower Hall on the North Quad of campus. While Peffer Park is wide and straight, Flower is steeper and with moguls. The place was teeming with Miami students. They were sledding on anything remotely slick, plastic bags, textbooks, trash can lids, and dining hall trays. The noise of it!—screaming like a carnival.
We joined the multitude, living the Sunday night as if it were Saturday morning. We did it all, snowball fights, snow angels and run after run, plunging down the slopes until the sum of our screams and laughter lifted the snow back skyward.
I remember, hours later, being at the top of the hill looking out over Bachelor Woods, at the snow piled onto a hundred thousand branches like web work. You could see forever in that special light the night has when everything is covered in snow. And in the short spaces between screaming and laughter I could hear the creaks and groans from the woods as all those branches struggled under the weight of ice and snow.
Then Mark was climbing the hill in front of me. The snow was still coming down, but softly now. Not hurrying. Mark grinned big. “Whataya think, brother?” He looked up at the sky and the sky dusted his face and shoulders. “School tomorrow?” I motioned with my hand that he should come closer. The answer is important. When he did, I gave him a shove. He started to go back, then I heard a brush of nylon on nylon as he caught my sleeve. There was a split second where I thought I could shake him off, but he pulled me with him. We tumbled together, kicking up snow on the way down.
We played with faith, sure that there would be no school tomorrow. And we played desperately, as if there would have to be.