Running has been a great gift in my life. So many wonderful experiences have come to me through it, in many ways and person-by-person. It’s the thread that ties all of the disparate chapters of my adult life together, something I always come back to. Plus it challenges me like nothing else. Do you know what it’s like to keep going when you think you cannot?
This time of year I can’t help but reflect upon January 31st, 1989, the day that showed me just how quickly life can change. One moment I was a carefree high school junior, driving down a country highway in Central Wisconsin. Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was blaring from the car radio while Jodi and I talked. Next, I was waking up in dazed confusion, as if everything were in slow-motion. Metal upon metal. A high-speed collision with a semi trailer carrying a full load of lumber logs left me with a broken jaw, fractured femur, and shattered patella. I was extricated from my ’71 Chevy Chevelle Malibu by the Jaws of Life. I would later learn that a stainless steel rod had been inserted into the core of my thigh, and that pins and wires were holding my kneecap together. I was told to never expect to run again, that I’d likely always walk with a limp.
When I awoke from surgery, the first bouquet of balloons I found beside my hospital bed was from my running coach. Many more balloons, flowers, cards, and stuffed animals streamed into my room, as well as family, friends, and those whom I could have sworn didn’t even like me. One particular card had a profound effect on me; I still have it, all these years later. The girls on our rival cross-country team, at a high school just down the street, wrote a story about the bumblebee and how he isn’t supposed to be able to fly, given body mechanics, yet manages to do just that and produce a little honey each day. A glimmer of hope.
My 17th birthday arrived two weeks later. At my request, Mom took me to Michele’s Restaurant and Lounge, where I worked. They blended up soup to a consistency I could eat (everything went through a straw for six weeks). Just when ice cream with a candle in it came out, Patty (our waitress) sat down with us. She proceeded to tell us the story of when she was broadsided by a train while crossing the railroad tracks with her husband and daughter, and how she could feel her teeth in the roof of her mouth, how she had broken her back and sustained many other injuries far, far worse than mine. I had known Patty for a long time but didn’t realize that what I always thought were dimples were actually tucks from cosmetic surgery. She told us about how her family had been crying at her bedside, since she looked so different, and how she had told them to stop crying, because she was thrilled to be alive. She made light of my wired jaw, shared her favorite mashed potato/gravy recipe, and gave me more hope than she’ll ever know.
Love and support carried me through. My single mom nearly lost her job at a grocery store because she had to take so much time off of work to care for me: blending up my food, taking me to appointments, helping me with just about everything. Our excitement turned to disgust when she changed my bandage for the first time in my bedroom at home; together we gazed at the huge, discolored blob that my knee had become. “We’ll get through this, honey,” she said. My aunt and grandma stayed when they could. It is humbling when you cannot even bathe yourself. These were the days before cell phones, so I did things like bang on a pan with a wooden spoon (since I couldn’t call out in a loud voice with a wired jaw) in the middle of night, to alert my grandma that I needed help getting the immobilizer on my leg and getting to the bathroom. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she would say. And my friend Susanne was amazing. While our connection up till that time had been running cross-country and track together, she was the one friend who wasn’t afraid to see me when I was in a wheelchair. She came over often and our friendship deepened beyond running. Silver linings are very real.
The most pivotal moment came back at the hospital. I was there for a physical therapy session and Dick (my PT) told me to flex my knee. I tried, but nothing happened. Not even a ripple of muscle contraction. I couldn’t fight back the tears, or sobs. The magnitude of it hit me; I really thought my knee no longer worked and they just didn’t know how to tell me. Dick, wearing a very sober expression, said, “I’ll be right back,” and returned wheeling a cart over to the table I was on. He hooked me up to all these electrodes and told me to try (flexing) again. A tiny blip registered on his screen. “See?” he said, “It works.” He explained that indeed the message was getting from my brain to my knee, that everything was intact, “You just have to be patient.”
I remember feeling annoyed when people would ask if my knee hurt…"Of course it hurts!” I wanted to yell…but then a day came when it just didn’t. I don’t even know when that day was; it just happened. Then more days came wherein I regained full motion of my joint, and others followed in which I became fluid again. Next I shook the limp, even while running. Eventually my knee scar faded. Days turned into years.
Today I love it when I line up at the start of a race and people have no idea that any of this happened. They may even see me as competitive. It’s awesome when my mom can make it to a race. I find her on the sidelines: our eyes meet and we acknowledge an understanding through a smile. Perhaps others think running is just easy for me, that it comes naturally, or that I have loads of free time. None of this could be further from the truth!
I am that person who had to start from scratch in learning how to walk and then run again. I carry these memories into my stride. While I don’t know why I was so incredibly fortunate to be given this chance, what I am 100% certain of is what I am going to do with it.