With apologies to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Four and 20 years ago I come into this life." Actually for me it was 25 years ago, and it was not my birth, but the accident that left me paralyzed. Dec. 20th stands out on the calendar as a personal holiday of indeterminate emotion. That accident in 1988, 25 years ago, ended my walking, but it was a beginning too. On March 13th of 2009, I crossed the threshold of what we wheelchair users call our half-life -- half my life walking and half my life in a chair. There's no name for my present stage, or at least none that I know four years into it, but I think it has something to do with no longer needing to ask permission.
Not so long ago I listened in on a conversation between the female friends in my writing group. They unanimously stated that their forties were their favorite decade because they didn't have to "dress up" for anyone else. Finally, they were their own people with spectacular confidence and the experience to know what they knew and what they didn't know and to be okay with both. That's how I envision this next phase for me. For the second 20 years of my life, I apologized to myself and to others for my accident. I apologized as I competed, trying to gain back the recognition that the accident had taken away. I don't feel like I need to apologize any more.
With my foundation, One Revolution, I visit and present to schools all over the country. During the Q&A portion of the presentations, students often ask if I could go back to that day when I lost my ski in the middle of a turn making me fall and breaking my back, would I change that it happened. I love that they ask this question because it gets to the heart of our Nametags program, which tries to help students get beyond the labels and limitations that they put on themselves and others. If we embrace that our lives will take many twists and turns then the difficult twists won't seem quite so difficult and might even seem like opportunities. I answer the question saying emphatically "No, I would not want to avoid my accident." I realize that sounds strange because I'm supposed to want to walk. When I was in the hospital, I thought that walking was the only way to be whole again. I'd been a ski racer. I was fit, able, young and virile with a ton of opportunities, but I wouldn't change that moment because I wouldn't want to lose the experiences that I've had since and the person that I've become. The Dalai Lama once said, "Sometimes not getting what you want is the greatest gift of all."
As I answer that question I make an assumption that my life would have been different than it has been. I think that's a safe assumption. I would have ski raced in college, but I wouldn't have been anything more than a "weekend warrior" after graduation. Maybe I would have run a marathon or two or a triathlon. I most assuredly would have been nervous on the starting line, but I would not have felt pressure to win. I would have felt pressure to finish and to hit my time goal. It's an exercise in the hypothetical to picture where I might be on the silver anniversary of my accident if I didn't have a back full of Titanium. I assume that I would have gone into a more traditional profession, probably something in finance. Most likely I would have married earlier than I did at forty-four for the first time, and I'd probably have kids. In many ways I might have been more traditionally successful and secure. I probably would have been paid every two weeks. I probably would have had a more distinct career path. I definitely wouldn't make my living as a speaker because I hated speaking in front of groups. I wouldn't have competed throughout the world. I wouldn't have done open-mic nights at stand-up comedy clubs as many times as I did, or even once, for that matter. I wouldn't have acted in a soap opera. I wouldn't have received an award from the Dalai Lama. I wouldn't have thrown out a first pitch in Fenway Park. I wouldn't have driven cross-country. Or would I?
Like my female friends in my writing group, I feel my voice beginning to develop. Maybe now that I'm starting the third stage of my life, I no longer feel the need to "dress up for other people." I've written three children's books that hopefully will get published. For the past ten years I've been working on my memoir and I finally feel that I've reached an honest enough place to tell the real story; one that will be universal, because I've come to understand that the more specific I am about my struggles, the more I can represent the human struggle. My accident gave me an opportunity to do and try some things that I never would have done. That's cause for celebration on this Dec. 20th, 25 years later. It's cause for celebration because I don't know what the future brings and that's a very good thing.