Milestones — we all have them. Graduating from high school. Buying a first car. Maybe getting married. All those little things that mark “progress” through life. Today marks a unique milestone in my life, one of those milestones I imagined reaching at some far off point in the future, but not necessarily believing it really would happen. Today marks my 5 year anniversary of living life as a paraplegic post-spinal cord injury.
I’m not exactly sure what it is about that length of time, but it carries more weight than any of the past yearly post-injury anniversaries. I was google-ing 5th wedding anniversaries and it seems as though that’s the year where you seem to transition from newly weds to “you-should-have-this-kind-of-figured-out” weds. Also learned during that google-ing session: you know how there is a particular item/material associated with every anniversary year? Silk, crystal, china, pearl — all that kind of stuff? Well, guess what year 5 is…. Wood. It’s wood. Boy did that give me a chuckle. Oh the irony, but back to my point.
Five years is one of those imaginary but very real “line in the sand” kind of time frames. It’s a length of time that carries with it certain expectations, expectations about what you should be able to do, what you should know, how you should carry yourself, how “moved on” you should be. Five years means when someone asks you when your injury was or what your story is, you can’t say “Oh, I haven’t been in my chair for very long” because actually, you have.
It’s a surprisingly long period of time, and yet it has gone by rather quickly. Well, I guess looking back it feels like it went by quickly, but there were definitely months where that wasn’t the case. A flip through the journal I kept as I processed through so much loss in the early stages of my injury is pretty sobering…
“Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. I hurt so much, and in ways I never thought possible. I can’t wrap my mind around what I’m going through, and I don’t even know where to start. “
Even though those thoughts were written so long ago, I remember the fear, the anger, the stress, the utter exhaustion that accompanied each and every pencil stroke.
“I pray for God to give me strength, to help me work through all of this, but sometimes I don’t know where He is. I don’t know where to go for comfort.”
There are some things in life you can’t ever forget. Those first few months after coming home from rehab definitely fall into that category and while generally speaking, they were everything but enjoyable I’m grateful for the reminders. The reminders that I’ve been through a lot. Special emphasis on “through.” I think it’s one of those “you survived that, so you can probably manage whatever else comes your way” kind of deals.
No one wishes for some sort of traumatic injury to happen. To ask for such intense and persistent change in every imaginable aspect of life would be ludicrous. To have it happen to you, to have it happen to your family — it brings about feelings, circumstances, events, and dare I even say opportunities that would have been inconceivable prior. Qualifying for Boston Marathon…twice. Traveling around the country as Ms. Wheelchair America. Finding a passion in advocacy for persons with disabilities. Moving to Chicago and living 4 blocks from Michigan Ave. Finishing my first year of medical school.
Yea, how ’bout that. I’m officially done with year 1 and can now claim the title of an M2. Everyone typically wants to know how many years I have left as an MD PhD student, but lets just say it’s much less intimidating to think about what I’ve finished than what I still have to go.
Closing the test booklet for my final exam of the year this past Friday was a poignant moment, feeling both like a beginning and an ending. It was a powerful reminder of the impact this injury has had on the outcome of my life. I can promise you, if it hadn’t been for that dead tree, if I hadn’t been standing in that exact spot in its falling path — I wouldn’t be in medical school. I wouldn’t be residing in Chicago. I wouldn’t be living this crazy, terrifying, and amazing life that I wake-up to greet each and every day.
I don’t know why this happened to me. But I do know this experience has changed the way I view the world. It has challenged my faith and as iron sharpens iron, strengthened it as questions were asked and answered, allowing me to develop a deeper understanding of what I believe and why. It has resulted in my already close family growing even closer, in addition to creating countless “remember that time when…” stories and memories of shared tears and laugher (often within five minutes of each other). It has altered my career path, impacted my perspective for gratitude and thankfulness, and been the most overwhelmingly frustrating challenge I’ve ever lived.
Seemingly endless moments.
Moments filled with memories of a life not ended, just altered.
A life lived on wheels, surrounded by a God, family, and friends that make even the most arduous of situations feel manageable.
A life much different than the one I had planned, and infinitely more amazing.