Source: Dietmar Rabich/wikimedia commons
There’s a new man at the Spinal Cord Injury Support Group tonight. The group always welcomes people, and there is often a spontaneous moment of testifying about how helpful the group is as the new person settles in. I notice that the young guys are particularly reassuring to the new young guy: “Hey man, good you came. This group keeps me going,” and “Good to see you.” All very casual, all very heartfelt. The new guy, Dwight, smiles and turns his chair to meet the eye of each person who speaks to him. “Yeah, thanks. I have been wanting to come, and tonight my dad could bring me.”
India starts the group with a friendly “Hi everybody!” and for the first time in my experience she says “We’re going to follow the rules tonight!” I had no idea that this free-wheeling but very effective group has any rules, so I’m curious. “When we’ve got somebody new, we introduce ourselves this way.” And beautiful, sunny India, with her hair down and her eyes bright, starts us off.
I’m sitting to India’s right, and the introductions move around the circle to her left. Each person says when and how they got injured, in which part of the spine, and whether the injury is complete (no feeling or movement below the injury) or incomplete (some sensation or movement below the injury).
I hear “I’m India” (or Eleanor or Ed or Rocco or Bob). “I’m a T6 incomplete” (or T5 complete or T7 incomplete….)” “I was injured in an ATV (or motorcycle, car, or diving) accident in 2005 (or 1983 or 2014 or 2012 or 1995).” I absorb the information, which comes fast and flat: these are facts that each person has told so many times that they hold scarcely recognizable meaning, like phone numbers or dates of birth. But to me, it’s “Boom!” “Boom!” “Boom!” “Boom!” “Boom!”
There’s a pause in the rhythm of the recitation when the circle gets around to Dwight. The facts aren’t fast, aren’t flat for him. His facts are still too new. The group anticipates his compulsion to tell his story: they sit quietly, eyes on him, listening. Eleanor and Bob remain expressionless; India smiles encouragingly; Ed looks down at the floor; Rocco hangs on every word. “I’m Dwight,” he says with his warm smile. Tall and thin, with a toque on against the winter cold, he looks like a movie star on a break between scene, handsome, charismatic, and utterly out of place in the wheelchair. He looks around the room, and then focuses on India, who sits across from him in the circle. Her big deep eyes shine back at him.
“I’m a T4 incomplete.” He pauses. India prompts, “When?” “Oh, last September, September 16, 2017.” Another brief pause. “I was on a motorcycle. I went around a curve and swerved to avoid hitting something in the road.” His voice gets quiet. “I was going three times what I should have been doing. I had a choice to go into a tree or up over the edge of the road into a field. I should have gone into the tree. But I let go and flew 75 feet into the field.” Rocco whistles. “Wow, man,” he says. I assume it’s empathy in his voice, but it sounds a lot like admiration. Dwight goes on: “I never lost consciousness. I lay there a while. There was nobody around. Finally, I had to use my cell phone—which I had on me—to call my brother and my dad.” His voice flickers, and I wonder briefly what those calls were like.
India is nodding at him. Ed’s gaze remains on the floor ahead of him. Eleanor is looking directly at him, still expressionless. Bob, solid, big Bob, sits with his eyes narrowed, breathing. Rocco is still, shaking his head, impressed by the details, or perhaps by the fact that Dwight is sitting next to him, alive. Dwight takes a deep breath and says in a rush, “I was going 158 miles an hour.”
“Whoa!” Rocco exclaims. Eleanor looks away. Ed flinches. India maintains her smiling gaze, but I see her back press against her wheelchair, braced against that speed. Dwight says, very softly, “I probably shouldn’t have done that on a road I’d never been on before.”
Rocco describes his motorcycle accident briefly: in town, but like Dwight’s, a curve, a quick choice. As if to offer solidarity, Rocco notes the repercussions: “I couldn’t let go fast enough, so my hand got caught in the handle, and the bike fell on me. I lost my leg,” he says, gesturing to the folded trouser covering the stump. “It was rough.”
Dwight says, “Sorry, man.” Rocco shrugs. “Hey, I’d ride again if I could.” India laughs. “I know, me too. I wish I could.” Dwight looks relieved, amazed. “Me too.” Ed’s gaze comes up from the floor. He sits still, but I see his hands tighten in his lap. Eleanor speaks: “Thrill-seeking,” she comments, no judgment in her tone.
India nods vigorously. Rocco says, “Yup.” Dwight, relaxed now to be with other people like him, says “Yes, thrill-seeking. Speed.” The expressions on India’s, Rocco’s, and Dwight’s faces remind me of a client who used heroin; he got the same dreamy, longing look when he talked about the pull of his preferred drug of choice.
India looks at me, ready for me to start the discussion on tonight’s topic, “Family Dynamics.” I notice my own body; I want to climb into bed and ease into a deep sleep under the down comforter and not wake up until the weight in my neck, chest, and hips—all along my spine—has lifted. Instead, I say, “Let’s talk about some of the ways your family reacts to your injury. Maybe, since Dwight is relatively new to the experience, some of the things that your family did to help when you were first injured.”
India laughs. “My family sent me away!” And we’re off on a discussion that I barely hear, and do not facilitate with my customary interest. I’m far away, envisioning a curve on a hilly country road with no traffic, and then a beautiful young man lying in a field, fully conscious, getting ready to call his father and tell him where he is.
Source: By SORG Rollstuhltechnik GmbH+Co./wikimedia commons