“If you were to rush into this room right now
and announce that you had struck a deal
with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever–in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, in for ten more years as the person I was before–
I would, without a moment's hesitation, tell you to take a hike.”
Michael J. Fox, Lucky Man: A Memoir
We all wear multiple titles under our name: what we do for a living, who we are in our family and among our friends, our hobbies, accomplishments, and many other factors. In 1999, I gained two new and unwelcome monikers—“the teacher who fell off the roof of the school” and “incomplete paraplegic”.
I was teaching high school in 1999 and was asked by the Student Council to be one of the participants in a school-wide food drive. The students were given the challenge to bring in food donations and for every so-many pounds of food, they ‘earned’ a teacher to camp overnight on the roof of the school. When asked to be one of the campers, I firmly said “No.” After being asked two more times, however, I caved and agreed to it.
Why did I cave, you may ask. Well, I honestly believed in this litigious day-and-age that no administrator would allow this ridiculous idea to proceed. My gamble backfired and the food drive began. I was scheduled to spend the night on the second-story roof with two other female staff, so that we’d have an extra measure of safety in numbers. There had been many who had threaten to play practical jokes on us, including the football coaches who promised a fierce water fight. So we climbed up an extension ladder to the roof and pulled it up behind us.
The evening went well with many visitors, well-wishers, and antics. Once it became dark, as promised, the football coaches found an alternative way up to the roof and soaked us with water balloons.
All was well until we decided to make one last trip to the ground level before bed. We lowered the extension ladder to the ground and we put our weight on it to make sure it was firmly set and ready for our descent. We were all a little mistrusting of the ladder, because I remember distinctly, and presciently thinking, “I should go first; I’m single and the others have family at home.”
I slowly lowered myself onto the ladder and it held. Then I took my first step down and was instantly disoriented when the ladder collapsed and telescoped straight to the ground, leaving me alone with only gravity to help me with the rest of my descent. I’m sure the fall itself only took a second, yet that single moment is, to this day, burned into my brain. That unexpected and disoriented sensation of falling through the dark night has left as deep of a scar as any physical consequence that I suffered.
When I landed, it felt like I landed on a blowtorch. I grew up on a farm and had plenty misadventures during which I had had the ‘wind knocked out of me’. So despite the pain, I was convinced that it would be better after a few minutes. When it became apparent that the situation was much more severe than that, my co-workers called 911 from their perch stranded on the roof.
In future blog posts, I’ll chronicle some of the other colorful stories that unfolded from the moment the paramedics arrived through the two surgeries, months of rehab, and years of healing. But for now, I’ll focus on how that single moment in time changed the course of my life.
It turned out, I broke my back. An L1 vertebrae burst, to be exact. As I was wheeled into surgery, my parents arrived and the doctor told them that, although my feet were moving going into surgery, in 100 out of 100 cased he’d seen with x-rays that looked like mine, there was permanent paralysis. I would never walk again.
The good news is, although he had not given me even a one percent chance of walking, blessedly, my feet were still moving after surgery. The bad news is, my spinal cord had been damaged and I was an incomplete paraplegic. What that actually means I’ll reserve for a blog post for those who have an interest in the more detailed medical aspects. But for this post, it meant having to learn to walk all over again without the use of certain muscle groups normally considered indispensable to the walking process. It meant pain and grief, self-pity, bodily function dysfunction, and then some more pain. But it meant I could walk. And that meant a lot.
I was in the hospital for weeks and at home recovering even longer, but I called my doctor and begged him to let me go back to work too soon because I was laying around all day crying. I knew that if I had to walk into a classroom full of teenagers, there would be no room for self-pity or even grief because teaching is one of those jobs that you have to be fully present to do. And it worked. I pulled myself together and I taught (half time) for the rest of that school year.
The truth is, though, that the moment of my fall was a seismic event in my life. I was one type of person getting onto that ladder on the roof; but the person who landed on the ground was to become someone else entirely. Literally, in the blink of an eye, my life was irrevocably changed. Although I was aware of the change happening at the time, it wasn’t until years later that I was able to distinguish the why and how of my changes.
First, why was this seismic? People are in accidents every day. Why was this so transformative? A couple of different reasons emerged over the first couple of years following the fall. One reason, that may seem unrelated at first glance, comes from the fact that I was adopted and my family who raised me did a great job, but as a group, they have a fundamentally different disposition than I. So growing up, I adopted an artificial, public persona that matched my family. However, after the accident, between the effort it takes a body to heal, the ten or more medical appointments I had each week, and what it took from me to go back to work teaching teenagers- I did not have one scrap of energy to devote to anything artificial or inauthentic. Before the fall I never understood what was meant by the cliché “one day at a time”. Afterward, there were times when I survived by focusing on one hour at a time, with nothing left over to pretend to be something I wasn’t. Looking back, I imagine that the moment my back broke, so did the invisible outer persona.
Another reason the event was so seismic was also related to my adoption. My parents did a phenomenal job of orienting me to being adopted. They normalized it at such a young age that I just thought of it as another descriptor about myself: brown eyes, freckles, and adopted. However, there was still an inexplicable hole in my heart. Prior to the fall, I had been described as angry, overly-emotional, and even passively self-destructive. When I tried to understand those traits, it came down to a white-hot hatred of my birth parents that I couldn’t explain of justify. I think at the heart of the matter, I wanted someone to help me sort out this pain I was carrying around. I wanted someone to acknowledge this injury I perceived inside myself and, honestly, to feel sorry for me.
Because the fall happened in such a public manner, on school grounds during a school-wide fundraiser, I received an extraordinary outpouring of support. I received hundreds of cards, dozens of flower arrangements, daily visitors, and immeasurable support. Thousands of people prayed for me. Even years later, when the topic came up, people I had never met would all exclaim the same thing, “Oh, you’re the teacher who fell off of the roof. I remember that!” I was so grateful; I’d never experienced that kind of outpouring. I know a tremendous portion of my healing came from that support—including my parents, who temporarily relocated to my house while I was in the hospital so they could be with me every day.
Overtime, though, the public factor also had a downside. A week didn’t pass that someone didn’t have advice for me that I should sue the school or try this medical solution or that. Eventually, I began to feel like I had had enough. I wanted to deal with my ongoing medical problems in private. It was time to get on with my life, and for the first time ever, I didn’t want sympathy, pity, or special consideration. Apparently, I had finally had my fill of people feeling sorry for me and now wanted to feel as normal as possible.
In addition to why the fall led to such a seismic change in me, I began to identify how I had changed.
Previously, when I wrote about letting my artificial, public persona go, in lieu of a more authentic self, it probably sounded like a good thing, right? Except that my artificially persona was way more likable than who I really am. I worked hard to always be accommodating, funny, friendly, hard-working, and most of all loveable. Please love me, please!!! Don’t get me wrong, I can still be as co-dependent and pathetic as the pre-fall version of myself; but the difference is, it is only with loved ones—not every living person on the planet. I swear, before I fell, I wanted the person in line in front of me at the grocery store to love me. All-in-all, though, I think I do retain the best of my old self, but in a much smaller measure. I have more genuine self-esteem, but on the other hand…I may not always appear to be as nice of a person.
Another major change was in my job. I was adopted into a family of educators and ended up as a teacher. I had considered journalism, law, sociology, and communication; but I played it safe and became a teacher. I loved it. I gave my students the very best of myself during my twelve years in the classroom, and I know I helped many students. But, I was up until 1 a.m. grading papers and up at 5 a.m. preparing lessons. Looking back, I feel like I joined a convent and made my teaching my sole priority. After the fall, as mentioned above, I had neither the energy nor the need for everyone to love me…so I realized it was time for a change to a job where I could be more of emerging self.
As a minor example, we went to the rodeo tonight with my husband’s family and I swear that I caught sight of lil’ Paloma out in the arena barrel racing- just like when I was a kid. I loved it at the time; but it wasn’t really my thing. It was my parents’ thing; and I was only doing it as some self-imposed duty to make them happy. But after the fall, I started asking myself what had been given up so I could have time for other people’s stuff?
Looking back on the legend that has formed around the teacher who fell off the roof, it was awful and I face significant consequences to this day. However, in my heart I know it took a seismic event to shift my life just enough for me to become the best and most authentic version of myself. I’ve had many discussions with friends about whether God did this to me, allowed this, of had no influence into it at all. I’ll save my answer to that question for another day. But I will say this: If God offered me a do-over, no fall, no pain, humiliation, grief, rehab, or incomplete paraplegic label; but also no seismic shift to who I am becoming today, I believe that, similar to Michael J. Fox’s conclusion from the opening of this post, I would politely decline.
Now it's Your Turn
Have you faced tragedy or obstacles that have made you better in the long run? Use the comments section below to tell your story.