Ten years ago this week my husband Ralph had an accident that left him a C-4 quadriplegic. Cruising down Claremont Avenue on his Italian racing bike, just above the Claremont Hotel, his front tire went flat and he sailed over the handlebars, landing in the middle of the road. He slipped in and out of consciousness until a passerby discovered him and called 911. An ambulance picked him up and delivered him to Highland Hospital, where emergency room doctors monitored his vital signs. When I arrived at the emergency room the prognosis was not good. I was warned that he might not make it, then later informed that if he did pull through he wouldn’t be able to use his arms and hands again. Twenty-four hours later we were told that he would probably remain paralyzed from the neck down.
For awhile, Ralph and I operated on hope, and then later on drugs, coffee, and alcohol. But within two months we began to realize that he would not get better, that he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, unable to eat or void on his own. We were relieved that he could still use his brain, but we were unprepared for the lessons that lay ahead.
Each year when the anniversary of his accident comes around, we both ignore it. It doesn’t help to dwell on the past we tell each other—just keep looking forward and try to get through the current day. For the most part, I think this philosophy has served us well. It suits our personalities and our psyches, keeps us present in the here and now, living one moment at a time. But at some point I do need to look back and see where we’ve come from and how far we have traveled. I remember 10 years ago being hopeful, praying for a miracle, and frantically looking for answers. Then slowly the truth crept in and I knew that I was going to have to accept the reality of Ralph’s paralysis or lie on the living room couch forever. That was not an option. There was too much to do.
So how far have we come? Pretty far, I think, although we’re still at the same address and Ralph rarely leaves his bed except to attend board meetings at the Center for Independent Living up on Telegraph Avenue. He has learned to manipulate an electric wheelchair with his head, hold a mouth stick between his teeth, and tap out letters on his computer keyboard. On good days, when everything is working right, he can change the channels on his TV. Several years ago, he made some money on the stock market, and then a few months later he lost it. He’s become an insatiable sports fan, surfing from channel to channel to watch whatever game is on. He’s collected film noirs until the house is overflowing with video boxes, and he has become an expert on letting other people do for him the things he cannot do for himself.
As for me, I have practiced patience and the art of trying to pace myself, postures I was never good at before the accident. I have grown more tolerant of certain behaviors; conduct I thought I could never live with, I live with quite comfortably now. I understand a little better how the world works, how our society views the severely disabled and the people who assist with their care. I’ve gotten a first-hand education from the disability and caregiver communities on marginalization, racism, drug addiction, prison life, and the art of survival when the chips are down. These are things I wasn’t interested in learning before Ralph’s accident, didn’t even know I needed to learn them, hadn’t known what I’d be able to do with them once learned. Although I knew Ralph was a tough cookie when I married him, I have discovered that he is a lot tougher than I ever imagined, and, as a consequence, so am I.