I celebrate some strange anniversaries. Some people just focus on the wedding or first date, or the birthday, or the graduation or some other major life event that pinpoints how life was different before that day from how it would be after that day.
Today, I am celebrating 28 years since I was hit by a car while walking home from school.
I’ve written about this a decent amount before—at Katydidcancer. I wrote a fairly apt synopsis of how this event changed my life in a post I published on Day 11, before I really had any idea what I was facing with my cancer. I talked about how excited I was to see a friend who went to Catholic school; we had a “play date” before anyone had ever coined the term, and our entire plan was to have a leaf fight. We had to wait a full year to have that leaf fight; it was fairly epic, as I recall.
But on October 11, 1984, something else happened, changing the course of my life forever.
I was walking with a large group of kids. I sensed that something was wrong. I believe in nothing New Agey, for the most part, but I do believe that I had a very real premonition that day. I also believe that Augie is reincarnated from some kind of hard-drinking, smooth-move dancing traveling circus performer. I may not be religious or like yoga, but I do believe those two things.
I sensed something, and so I hesitated before crossing the street. I looked both ways at least five times. My friends were ahead of me. There were no cars coming in my direction. And then—well, my life flashed before my eyes. I knew I had been hit by a car, though I didn’t know how that was possible, or where the hell it came from in the empty street. I felt myself flying through the air. Random memories populated my terrified nine year old brain: learning to play tennis, walking in a park, my brother’s friend standing in our yard. I knew that when I hit the sidewalk, I would be dead. I wanted to stop time. I wished I could just STOP, right there in midair.
More than anything, I just couldn’t believe it.
This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening. But of course, it was—or I wouldn’t have been thinking this isn’t real this isn’t happening. I was a little kid, but I knew that if I was furiously denying it, it was true.
I hit the sidewalk and lay there in a crumpled heap. I couldn’t move. I heard people screaming. I saw a woman, a mother, I suppose, with her hands over her face, crying. I saw a car with a large dent on the hood, and I wondered how it got there.
That dent was the size of my body.
I wasn’t dead.
A little boy, who was probably younger than me, came over to me. He was very small in size, dark brown skin, long eyelashes over his black eyes, very short fade in his hair. He held my hand and told me that someone was going to get my mom and that I would be ok. When I close my eyes, I can still see his face.
I have never told anyone that detail of this story. I have never known whether or not it was real.
There is another detail, one that you might question, but I swear it is true. While the ambulance and fire engine sirens were wailing and adults were standing over me yelling instructions at each other, I looked down at my hand. There was a small pebble lodged in the skin of my right index finger. I removed it, and my finger bled. I told myself that I was still alive. Then I asked myself, if I really live through this, if I am still alive a while from now, wouldn’t it be stupid if that hole from that pebble was all I had to show for it?
And, to this day, it is. That scar remains, while no other physical scars are apparent.
My mother did arrive, eventually, though it was probably only minutes later. She screamed at the paramedics, who were trying to move me, because they asked me what happened and I said that I jumped out of the way. Clearly, I was in shock, crumpled up, and the child-size dent in the car should have made it obvious what happened. This was no hit and run; the woman who had sped out of nowhere was screaming and crying hysterically, saying, I hit that girl! I hit that little girl!
It would be quite a while before we learned that the police simply let her walk away, without taking her name or her license plate number. A tow truck came for her car. I knew who she was—she was a lunch lady at my school. Years later, I saw her riding the bus, and I felt sorry for her, because she looked so scared of me. I don’t know if she ever drove again.
My mom stopped the paramedics from moving me, since no one knew if I was paralyzed, near death, or what. A neighbor, the older brother of a childhood friend, had run home to get my mom, and he had told her “Mrs. Jacob! Katy got hit by a car! It’s her leg! It’s her leg!”
I think he was eleven. I don’t know how he could tell the nature of my injuries, but he wasn’t far off the mark. My mother told me later that she thought my legs had been amputated and that I was lying there, bleeding to death in the street. She must have run the five blocks in under sixty seconds.
I really didn’t want to get into the ambulance. I had been in the hospital for a week only six months earlier, suffering from what turned out to be a toxic reaction to my anti-convulsant medication prescribed to control pediatric epilepsy, but that is a story for another post. The point is, I begged them to let me go home so I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital.
I lost. In so many ways.
My mother was not allowed to ride in the ambulance with me, so I went to the dreaded hospital alone. I have no idea where my brother was, but he was in junior high school at the time, and was probably at home—maybe by himself? I never thought to ask. The ambulance ride didn’t take long. In the emergency room, they wheeled the stretcher at lightning speed, and a strange adult came up to me and asked me to sign a piece of paper. I was barely conscious. I was, also, myself. I did not trust this lady for one minute. I told her that I wouldn’t sign anything without my parents there. They must have seen this altercation, so they came over, asked what was going on, saw the piece of paper. It was a statement saying that we wouldn’t sue the Village for the accident.
I would have liked to see how that document would have stood up in court if I HAD signed it—a dying nine year old child.
And that’s what I was. I had massive internal injuries throughout my body; my heart and lungs were mostly spared, which probably saved my life. They didn’t know if I would make it during the first few days. It took 25 years and a cancer diagnosis for my mother to admit that to me. My pelvis was broken on the left side in several places—from the impact of the car. My pelvis was broken in a few places on the right side--from the impact of the sidewalk. I didn’t know at the time how nearly impossible it is to break both sides of your pelvis at once. My injuries were all internal or in the bone, and except for a road burn and some scrapes, I looked normal.
It is irrelevant to go over how fate determined that I wouldn’t die there, that I wouldn’t be paralyzed. It is irrelevant that my parents decided not to sue anyone, even though the police, paramedics, Village staff and others acted in such an egregiously incompetent manner. In the end, we received $1200 in insurance money from the whole ordeal, and with that money, my parents bought me an upright piano, which I can still only play with my right hand. Weeks later, I described the lunchlady to the police, very very accurately. Then, they proceeded to ask me—a nine year old girl—to describe the make and model of the car that hit me. I had no idea. Didn’t you take that information down when she was yelling and crying in the street? The policeman stared at me blankly as I sat in my wheelchair. I told him I thought the car was maroon, with a white stripe across the doors. It had four doors and was one of those big, classic cars, like one of those Lincoln town cars my grandparents used to rent for vacations, but I wasn’t sure.
It turned out the car was a brown Oldsmobile with white stripes, so the police decided my statement was worthless, even though I told them exactly who had hit me. Shifts were changing at 3:30 when the accident took place, and no one wanted to take responsibility. He made me feel like an idiot, like the whole thing was my fault, and I didn’t believe that, no matter how traumatized I was.
Between that, the Village official, the paramedics who could have rendered me immobile for life for moving me before ascertaining the extent of my injuries, and the orthopedic surgeon who was such a jackass that he threw a clipboard at my mother by tossing it across the hospital bed, WHILE I WAS STILL IN IT, and that clipboard landed right next to my excruciatingly painful hip, and it’s no wonder that I don’t trust authority figures easily.
But I digress.
I spent a week in the hospital. No one knew what to do with me. The doctors didn’t want to put me in a body cast, which was the most effective way to set my bones, because they didn’t want to stunt my growth. They decided against surgery on my hips and chose to watch me over time to see if my bones fused together naturally. Once it was determined that I didn’t need a blood transfusion, and that my internal hemorrhaging was subsiding, I was released.
I was released, but to what? I could not go to school. I was bound to a wheelchair, given no directives on how or when to begin to learn to walk again. I could not go to the bathroom by myself. I spent my days on the couch in our living room and we had a portable commode installed right next to me. My mother stayed home with me, though she received no support, financially or otherwise, for my care. My parents moved me so I would not get bed sores. My dad carried me up to bed at night. I stubbornly clung to my old ways, and I slept on my left side every night when my parents couldn’t see me. It hurt so much I could barely breathe. I began to have strange rituals; writing the same phrases in my diary every night. I had daymares—visions of my fingers on tires moving at 60 mph, flashbacks of asphalt that made my skin crawl. I began to have night terrors.
There was no Americans with Disabilities Act in 1984. I had absolutely nothing wrong with my brain, and yet, I was denied an education. Can’t walk, can’t attend public school. I had a tutor once a week, who taught me math and who taught me that a quick wit was more important than the fourth grade. I received no physical therapy at all. The rehab people sent us a walker made for an adult. I was supposed to use that to transition to crutches. I had to put my hands up to reach it.
That didn’t work.
So I used a wheelchair to get around for three months. Sometimes we tried to make a game of it, racing the wheels, doing tricks, but it wasn't actually fun. I was bored, and lonely, and traumatized. I was also happy, and busy, and accepting of my new reality. I learned that it is possible to be all of those things at once. I missed my friends, but I understood how hard it was for them to see me. Adults seemed to fear me, or pity me; they shielded their children’s eyes from me or looked at me openly with disgust. While my family picked pumpkins at a nearby orchard, I heard a man mutter under his breath about how people like me shouldn’t be allowed in family places like that, and my dad “inadvertently” ran into him with the wheelchair.
When we went trick or treating, my 12 year old brother was annoyed that he had to get candy for me. I’m sure he was too old for trick or treating, or at the very least, he was too old to be seen with his little sister. I did not make the whole thing easy on the family. I was terrified to go back to the intersection of the accident, so we only went to the blocks directly surrounding the house. My brother would go to a house, get his candy, and then ask “Can I have one for my sister who is in a wheelchair?” With the exception of the close neighbors, who knew the whole story, no one believed him; they assumed he was trolling for extra candy. So my dad would wheel me out from behind the bushes, and we got shitloads of candy that year.
I knew how close I was to death, and it was very hard to understand and to accept. It took a long time. I went to therapy, and I just talked to the counselor about what I thought he wanted to hear. My pediatrician knew what was wrong with me. He told my mom: “That car accident scared the shit out of her.” I heard him say this. Somehow the counselor couldn’t get that out of me. I didn’t sleep at all for months. I drove everyone in my house nuts. One night, I watched a made for TV movie about a little girl with cystic fibrosis. Why my parents let me watch Alex: The Life of a Child, I will never know, but thank God they did. The little girl dies when she is eight years old; it is based on a true story. I lost it afterwards, beating my little fists on the ground, crying, screaming, and my mom had no idea what to say to me or do with me. Finally I shouted: “IT’S NOT FAIR! IT’S NOT FAIR THAT SHE WAS SO LITTLE AND SHE HAD TO DIE AND I COULD HAVE DIED TOO! IT’S NOT FAIR THAT I’M GOING TO DIE!”
And after that, I slept just fine, grimacing through the pain in the hip I shouldn’t have borne my weight on. I didn’t need therapy. I just needed to accept my own mortality—at nine years old. Simple, right?
No one ever told me I could have died. No one ever told me I might not walk again. No one ever told me I wouldn’t be able to play certain sports, or bear children. No one told me, and maybe that was why some of those things became true, but most did not—because I didn’t know what was possible and what was impossible. I just lived my life.
I went back to school like nothing had happened, though I was devastated when a teachers strike pushed my return back a bit. I remember learning how to walk. Think about that. I REMEMBER LEARNING HOW TO WALK. How many people can say that?
Eventually, I stopped playing basketball. In sixth grade, I was one of two girls who remained at the end of the season on the co-ed team we had joined months earlier. All of the other girls dropped out. We were mostly taller and faster than the boys, but we rarely got to play. I told myself later that was what beat the love of basketball out of me, but that wasn’t really true.
It hurt to play basketball. It hurt to jump rope. Years later, I would learn how much it hurt to use a high-impact rowing machine. As a child, I learned that I couldn’t run as I had once been able to do--at least not without pain. When I say pain, I do not say it lightly. If you were to hand me one of those hilarious smiley-face pain scales, I would still have a little smirk on my face at the point at which everyone else was bleeding from their eyes. My tolerance for pain is very high, and I am proud of it. So when I say that some activities hurt my hips, imagine your bones being placed in a vise and slowly crushed.
Even at nine years old, I never slept for more than an hour at a time, when I would wake myself momentarily and switch sides, lest my hips just locked up. I didn’t know what “high impact” activities were, so I just assumed I wasn’t particularly athletic, though I had played basketball and floor hockey for years, could throw a perfect spiral and jump rope for two hours without stopping for more than a minute or so. I just thought I had changed, and that was ok. I wasn’t competitive, didn’t care about winning, and so probably wouldn’t have pursued sports seriously anyway.
It’s interesting, though, how I never made the connection. My hips hurt before the rain. As a teenager, I learned that if I didn’t walk every day, I would feel like an old lady deep in my bones. But I never thought to myself, oh, that’s because of the car accident. To me, that accident was something that turned me into myself, gave me a deep and everlasting perspective into suffering and not taking things for granted, that made me wise beyond my years, that got me accepted into every college that received that moving essay.
That accident was an experience, a fact, not a commentary on my body. I never felt “less,” and I never felt broken, and I never felt sad for the things I had done easily that I could no longer do. I was more comfortable in my body than almost any other adolescent girl on the planet, probably, and that car accident was a big reason why. I had nice legs, sure. But damn, how they could walk!
I guess I got some things right.
I just didn’t make the connection. I got my first period when I was eleven. I wear the same bra size today (even after two kids, and breast cancer and everything else!) that I wore when I was 14. And yet, my hips didn’t grow until I was 21. I was stunted, as the doctors had feared—but, in the end, even me stunted was ok.
For all intents and purposes, I shouldn’t have been able to do many of the things I’ve been able to do—such as carry and deliver children without necessitating a c-section. But I didn’t KNOW that. So I did it anyway, and they obliged me by being small (in Lenny’s case) and by arriving 3 weeks early (in Augie’s case). My ob-gyn was surprised, but only slightly, that my body adapted so well.
Some people work out three times a week. Often, I work out three times a day. It helps me sleep, no matter how restlessly. I have always loved running in the water, and it only recently occurred to me that it was because I can’t run on land. So I hang out at water aerobics with the old ladies, furiously pumping my legs while they look at me like I’m nuts. I walk, I do strength training, I spin. Spinning is just about the best thing that has ever happened to this body. It’s so low impact, and I feel so successful in the spinning studio. I sprint faster than everyone. I have strength, and endurance. And yet, spinning too is a reminder: If I go a week without doing it, my hips start to hurt so badly I wince. My body has become addicted to activities that attempt to stave off the inevitable pain.
Deep down, for all of these years, I have known that my “old wound” was a problem that had not corrected itself, no matter what I had done to defy it. This was confirmed for me when I finally got physical therapy for my post-cancer chronic pain and scar tissue, and my amazing therapist, incidentally a former collegiate rower, learned about my past non-cancer issues. As she tortured me by breaking up my scar tissue and I just gritted my teeth through the unbearable pain, I asked her:
Well, do you think anything would be helped by getting PT for my hips now?
How long has it been?
And they didn't set the bones or give you therapy or teach you the correct way to walk again or anything? Not ever? Well…just think about all of the things you CAN do. You are a very fit and healthy person. Concentrate on that.
Yeah, there are things I COULD do, but it hurts, and I’ve had so much pain in my life, I just don’t think I have anything to prove by hurting more, you know?
Right. Get down on the floor and do a plank for me until I tell you to stop.
All of this helped me with cancer, actually, as the bone pain didn't phase me until they absolutely blew up my bone marrow with the excessive neupogen shots. It didn't phase me to feel weak, to take to bed. I was hellbent on walking and exercising no matter what anyone said, because even with cancer I had a very clear and real fear of atrophy--of waking up unable to move, unable to use my body. I learned to accept pain, and not to medicate it away. I learned that it is better to feel the pain than to feel nothing, and that is a lesson worth learning.
And so for almost 30 years, I have become an expert at modifying. I know myself and my body and I know my limits and my strengths. I stretch, I do pilates, I have taught my lopsided, one leg longer than the other and one hip about to break body, to balance itself. I take warm baths when the pain is too intense. I know when to take aspirin and when to just grit my teeth. I know something that I knew 28 years ago without realizing it, and it was something that I had learned when I was six:
You might have certain limitations in your life. Perhaps you can't ride roller coasters, or go to a club with strobe lights, or get dizzy, or eat or sleep erratically, or you might have seizures. Perhaps you cannot do high impact sports without your largest joints giving out. Perhaps you cannot do pushups without exacerbating the problems that remain in your post-cancerous chest.
None of these limitations are real limitations. They are not relevant in the scheme of a long and happy life. There are many, many things I can do. I can sit here, and tell myself, look! Look at your body. Look at how it works--most of the time. I mean, my quads are killer, I have strong biceps and shoulders, my butt is rounder and stronger than ever. I can do a wall sit forever. I can do a plank for two and a half minutes. I can watch my muscles ripple and pull on the hair that has grown back so auburn on my head. I can stare at this computer for hours writing about a car accident, after taking a break from my job as a professional researcher, and my brain never misfires.
I can tell myself this: You are 37 years old, and here you are, your small stiff broken crazy body hanging out at about 17% body fat, putting you in that "athlete" category according to the gym, no matter how far that seems from who you thought you were, but there it is, even after having two children. And I can see those children, the girl who has already lived longer than I did without knowing that her body or her brain might not cooperate, the boy who received the vast majority of the nourishment that he needed to become the hellraiser he is today through my cancerous breast, and I can relax. I can roll my eyes at my husband as he lovingly caresses the stretch marks that his first-born child brought to my hips, which obligingly expanded again eight years after the first belated growth. I know that he sees only happiness there, not grief. I know something that all too many people know better than I do.
In all these things, the epilepsy, the car accident, the cancer--I have been one of the lucky ones. There is nothing to atone for, nothing to prove. I can blend in anywhere. I am lucky. I am still here.
And so it goes. What I have learned is that not all wounds heal, and not all problems are solved, and sometimes realizations come too late. But even within all of that, it is possible to just stubbornly do things that you might not have been able to do, if fate had moved you an inch, if there had been a stick pointing up on the sidewalk, if you hadn’t tried, if you hadn’t done things anyway.
I’ve learned that it is possible to always be nine years old, waiting to fight in the leaves, convinced that the best colors in the crayon box are burnt sienna and marigold, laughing while you eat the candy that some stranger gave to you while you were wearing a costume, wondering how it will be next year, when things will be different, when life will open up around you like a promise, no matter how crooked or stiff or imperfect. I’ve learned to live inside that promise, the promise of turning ten. And so it goes, that I have turned ten again and again, 27 times, each one as glorious as the last.
Someone once said "the thrill is gone." But for me, it isn't. For me, the thrill will always be there. May it be so for you.