I’ve spent the last ten days with a geologist trekking around Iceland who managed to cross glaciers and lava fields and climb one difficult path after another up and down volcanos — all with a bad limp and a walking stick. This guy, who is a college professor now and spends his summers leading geology-based tours for Smithsonian in Iceland and the Galapagos, I learned, had had a stroke at the age of 27. He was in northern Maine when it happened, at the threshold of a career that was 100% field-oriented. OK, well, not entirely field- oriented — he would become a professor, so there was all that classroom time — but geology is about rocks. And rocks, well, they’re out there. In the field. Or on the mountain. Or under the volcano. So, as he was poised to climb the highest mountain, cross the widest valley, forge the Mid-Atlantic rift, he was struck down. Today, twice his lifetime later, he is dauntless, physically. He is out there, doing his geologist thing, every day. He could have curled up and withered away, that day in Maine when the earth shifted beneath his hopes and dreams. Or not. He chose the later course.
Twenty-five years ago today, the earth shifted beneath my own feet, and my life was re-arranged accordingly. It was a sultry summer night at the Sconset softball field. I loved playing that game, as an adult, as a business owner, as a woman. I felt empowered all the way around. I saw that game as social license to run around, scream, throw and hit things, a release of all things adult, an embrace of all things dream-bound. I was pitching that night. It fed my starved female athlete’s psyche to take the pitcher’s mound. I’d played first. I’d played center field. But pitching was my dream. As a kid, learning how to ‘throw like a boy’ in my father’s backyard tutorial, I wanted to grow up to be the first female Whitey Ford (a lefty like me) in the game. No matter what my father or anyone else every told me, I couldn’t understand why it was not possible. Even though it wasn’t. Still isn’t.
That night in Sconset, conditions were peerless. A dark summer blue night. No clouds. No moon. Under the lights. The hum of cicadas off in the distance. I was chuffed, as the British would say, to have been tapped to pitch. Pitching is like quarterbacking: it’s the position of champions. My night was going well. No screaming errors nor humiliating gaffs. This was women’s softball, after all. On Nantucket. So expectations weren’t low so much as geared toward the obvious: having fun.
The pitch went dead over the plate and the batter connected. The next thing I knew, I’d been hit, knocked not only down but off the mound. I remember how pissed I was and how I got her out at first, in spite of it all. The referees and ump all flew to my side, as if they knew something I didn’t and maybe they did. I limped off that field. And would limp forever more.
Eight hours later I was in the ER. As dawn broke, I was flown off Nantucket in a plane the seats of which had been removed to accommodate my stretcher. A nurse flew up to Boston with me, marking my back like a whiskey bottle, to see if the paralysis would rise high enough to take my diaphragm.
Turns out, the best guess as to what happened is this: the batted ball hit me in the thigh so hard that it sent a fatty embolism coursing through my body. First through my heart, then my lungs, then my brain before finally spending a little too much time in my spinal cord. By the time I got to Boston, the clot had dissolved but I was paralyzed on my right side.
I’ve walked with a limp ever since. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not aware of each step I take, of fighting for my mobility. For a quarter of a century. But I’m not so different from the geologist in Iceland. When you’re life gets rearranged, when your dreams and aspirations and self-image get drastically redirected, you have two choices: feel sorry for yourself or get up and gimp across life’s lava field,
I was not as young as my kindred spirit, the geologist, when I got hurt. But I was young enough. When shit happens, you are always too young. That goes without saying. Because it’s not your chronology that gets upended but your self-image. And self-images are perennially youth-based. The real curiosity, though, is the much scoffed at, inevitable silver lining.
A friend challenged me the year after my event to compete in the New York City marathon. I would never have run a marathon. I may have been an athlete but I was not a runner. Twenty-six point two miles and eight-and-a- half hours later, I crossed the finish line. Humbled. Mightily humbled. I competed with the the blind, the infirm, those wearing prosthetic limbs or riding in wheelchairs. I rose, like a phoenix, from my self-pity because I was oh-so-lucky compared to many of the people who fought their way through five boroughs. Indeed, I was honored to be among them. And ever since, I have looked at my fellow humans with greater compassion. That was the very first, and only the very first, silver lining.
And on this, the silver anniversary of losing the full use of one leg, I can say I remain humbled. And determined. And up and running.
— Belle Songer