“Summer of ‘89”
I am often asked what led me to live the life I’ve lived and to pursue the career I have. The event that broke my heart, shattered my body, and changed me forever occurred in the hot summer of ’89, specifically June of 1989, when I was eight years old.
Although I cannot remember the exact date, I feel certain it was around the middle of that month, a beautiful June day that screams summer to one’s soul. I can still hear the birds chirping, feel the heat of the blinding sun, and smell the tantalizing odor of freshly mown grass. From 1986 to 2004, I lived the life of a suburban kid in an upper middle-class family in Farragut, Tennessee, a short drive from downtown Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, then and now my favorite team. My life was pretty typical for that place and time, yet I was always a bit more introverted than my friends and schoolmates and tended toward melancholy.
Just before the end of the school year in second grade, a year of agony under the tutelage of the tyrannical Mrs. Stanton, my mom bought me a skateboard. Fearful for my safety, she demanded that I promise to abide by her “rules of use” before she handed it over to me. Her biggest demand was that I never leave the driveway while riding it. Like most kids of my age, I made promises with my fingers firmly crossed, dreaming all the time about how I would take my skateboard off of said safe ground as soon as I could so as to raise hell with my friends. With an angelic smile masking my true intent, I said, “Yes mom, I promise.” She reluctantly handed over the skateboard and walked back into the house. My heart was full. Finally, I was able to do something cool that the other kids were doing. I mean my mom wouldn’t’ even let me get a cool Mohawk as a kid – I had to rebel somewhere and show my already growing anarchistic heart. My mother had good reason to worry, for since birth I have been plagued by a rare brittle bone disease known as osteogenesis imperfecta (OI).
My parents both believed that I should understand the nature of my illness and the limits it imposed on an eight-year-old boy who just wanted to fit in and be seen as “normal.” Nevertheless, out of a desire to see me be a “regular” boy as much as possible, and even though they fretted constantly about my condition, they encouraged me to play baseball and basketball. Surprisingly, my mother even let me try out for the wrestling team during my sophomore year of high school after the basketball coach didn’t pick me for the team since I was too short. By giving me a skateboard, she was demonstrating once more that she just wanted me enjoy the life of a typical kid.
So here I was with a skateboard, just like almost every other eight-year-old boy in town. And, like most young men my age, I thought I knew better than my mother and really didn’t need to heed her warnings. As a result, I almost immediately slipped out of our garage and proceeded to my best friend’s house, which was situated on the biggest hill in the neighborhood. His street had just been repaved, the fresh asphalt radiating heat and the pungent odor of hot tar. We carried our skateboards to the top of the hill and commenced making cautious rides down to the cul-de-sac below, sitting on our boards so as to control our rate of descent with our feet. After a few descents, we were emboldened, so we started keeping our feet on the boards, which increased our speed. And, when another neighborhood kid showed up with a skateboard and started riding standing up, we looked at him enviously and decided to follow his lead. When my friend flew down the hill standing up, it fell to me to prove my testicular fortitude by doing the same. Now, I knew damn well at that point I was already way outside the bounds of what my mother would approve. For a brief moment I wavered, telling my fellow skateboarders that just by being on this hill I was violating the promise I had made to my mother. Well, they weren’t having it, and they double-dog-dared me to go down the hill standing up. Humiliated by their gibes, I gave in to my competitive nature. I always competed with friends and classmates, and I was not about to let these kids call into question my courage now.
I walked my skateboard up the hill and looked down at what seemed like an Olympic level slalom course. I can remember how nervous I was. The heat was stifling, the sun blinding, and the cul-de-sac at the bottom far away. I put the board down, placed both feet on the board, and before I could change my mind, off I went down the slope. About halfway down the hill, I hit a rock, lost control, and fell; I remember lunging off of the board and hearing the loudest crunching and popping sounds I had ever heard before passing out. The next thing I knew I was staring at some old who kept saying, “Son, son, son lie still.” Then I remember trying to move and suddenly feeling intense pain in my right leg. Writhing in agony, I glanced down at my leg and saw my right foot lying perfectly flat on the asphalt, shattered flat to be exact, just one big disgusting mess I remember seeing. It was then I began to panic. I knew well enough that my leg did not look like that. I think the best most visually appetizing thing I could compare it to would be what pizza dough looks like. This is where it gets difficult for me to recall and to be honest, I cannot properly put into words the pain I was experiencing, because the pain does not stand out to me. I truly did not feel anything till the ambulance showed up. The thing I remember better than anything out of that day was how hot of a Tennessee day and sun it was. I remember the tears, oh how I remember the tears because they cooled my face from the blazing sun. Once I overcame the shock at this sight, I could feel the hot asphalt burning my back and began screaming about being burned, about the terrible pain of my broken leg. I could see that my friends were crying and that horrified adults were trying to comfort me by rubbing ice on my forehead, face, neck and chest. I lay there for forty-five minutes before an ambulance showed up.
The paramedics began working on me, one of them remarking how “gross” my damaged leg looked. I remember thinking the same thing whenever I would catch a look down and see my right knee rotated completely over to the left, knee cap resting comfortably on the hot street. When they put me on a stretcher, I truly realized the extent of my injury. I can still remember their wiggling a sheet under me to support the leg. Although they only had to lift me up one or two inches to slide me onto the stretcher, a rush of pain and nausea once more rendered me unconscious and the next thing I can recall all these years later is the ambulance ride to the hospital and the still agonizingly horrible pain from the middle of my back down my right leg. Between sobs and groans, I tried to focus on better times, calculating rather optimistically how soon I’d be able to play baseball again. Little did I know at the time that it would be six years of healing and rehabilitation before I would be able to overcome the incredible damage done in just a fleeting moment.
In the hospital that night, I was placed in traction and would remain restrained for two more days before finally undergoing surgery. The delay resulted from the fact that the only surgeon in Knoxville willing to take on my case was flying back from a vacation in Europe. Throughout my stay in Children’s Hospital, there were many volunteers who helped me cope with my long rehabilitation. I remember playing Candy Land, Monopoly, Battleship with them. Though I cannot remember their names, I still remember very clearly to this day their genuine concern and kindness. They truly helped me to forget, if briefly, the fact that my shattered leg was in traction. Even if they were exhausted at the end of a long day, they took time to comfort me as I awaited surgery.
After the procedure, I groggily returned to consciousness. The first thing I realized is that I couldn’t move or even feel anything. I began to panic, but as the anesthesia wore off, I realized I was encased in a full body cast. Other than an small aperture in the cast so that I could scratch my stomach and provisions that allowed me to urinate and defecate, my body was completely enveloped. Oddly, after all these years what I can still remember most are the terrible gray paint that covered the walls, the mothball smell, and the stupid IV machine that would beep annoyingly every time I moved.