As an adult, I have never done a load of laundry at home; I mean the completing the entire process of washing, drying, and then later, folding that laundry while sitting on a couch in my own home. For many years, I was a patron of laundromats. I used to know the ins and outs of every local laundromat: the ones that offered change, the ones that had machines that actually dried the clothes, and the ones what that had a nice spot for me to smoke a cigarette. Whenever I visited family or friends I was never without my dreaded friend: a bulging bag of dirty laundry that lingered in the back of a car while I waited for the right moment to ask: “Would you mind if I did a quick load of laundry?”
On Feb 6 1992, my annoyances of using public laundry money-sucking machines to do something so basic would be changed forever.
I was living in a third floor apartment and had recently started working the restaurant a couple of months earlier. I persuaded a friend, Darren, to drive me around to do errands. I loaded several bags into the back of his Chevy Blazer. I had written up a short list of things we could do in the area, but he made it clear that he did not have much time. It was a normal Tuesday late afternoon, and the shopping plaza where the laundromat was located was becoming busy. I liked this particular laundromat because of its location. I went to this shopping center as a child. My mother would stop at the bakery there. It still exists but has since moved to another part of town. It also was the home to the Amazing Store. The infomercial-type name of this business precisely described what the store contained. They carried things only found on television or things, well, not found anywhere else. The Amazing Store had tacky commercials and advertisements that one could not look away from. They sold candles that crackled with wicks that burned down the middle of the candle. They sold things that even today the junkiest of stores would not be allowed to sell. The Amazing Store always held the promise that it would have something that you did not know you needed, but you could get it cheap.
“Can you bring me to the Laundromat?” “AND…hey, we can go to the Amazing Store!" I realize that nowadays there are several stores that offer a similar format, but back then the Amazing Store was one of the first of its kind, long before the Odd Lot, Dollar stores and Christmas Tree Shoppes.
So while my laundry was going through the drying process at the laundromat next door, Darren and I walked around the Amazing Store. I sensed Darren’s impatience. He had a big crush on me. It was one of those things that I chose to ignore. I imagined if I gave words to his affection, then it would become reality. I liked to believe that I did not take advantage of Darren, though I could have been rationalizing my conduct, especially because I was always in survival mode. Darren was a big help to me because I did not have a car. I shared my weed with him and he drove me around. At the time, it seemed like a fair deal.
The day was growing dark quickly. It was a typical New England winter afternoon. I had been back to the dryers, moving my clothes to a different machine because the previous machine had not done its job of drying my clothes. Finally, I gave up and filled two duffle bags full of soggy clothes. I headed out through the automatic glass doors of the Laundromat. The creeping darkness outside gave the doors a mirror effect. I glanced at myself the moment before the doors opened. I was wearing a borrowed pair of jeans. The owner of jeans had drawn an intricate design down both legs. There were small, abstract shapes and subtle colors. I was also wearing a black tee-shirt. It had been given to me by my father, and it had small green letters on the top right side of the shirt that read Kool, as in the cigarette company. I wore a blue flannel over the tee shirt, with my own pack of cigarettes in the pocket, and had purple converse sneakers on. I had rings on each of my fingers.
Darren had parked in the fire lane. He was sitting in driver’s seat of the parked Blazer and flipped the switch to unlock the back hatch. I looked down and realized my shoe was untied. I saw Darren’s face in the rearview mirror. I saw that he was growing more annoyed by every passing second, so I skipped tying the laces. I think back about forgoing this one action, and how if I had only listened to my mother’s perpetual advice about tying one’s shoes to avoid injury, the outcome of this story would have been death. Instead, I opened the top window of the back of the blazer and placed one of the bags in the truck. My thighs were pressed against the back bumper. In the next second I heard a bloodcurdling scream, a scream unlike any I had ever heard. It was a scream that would continue to haunt me for years to come. It was coming from deep inside of me. Simultaneously, I heard a loud thump, the sound of metal hitting metal. I looked down at my legs and I could no longer see them. I saw the bumper of the Darren’s green Chevy Blazer and the bumper of another car, but not my legs.My legs that were crushed between two vehicles. I felt a pain so deep that it was like not feeling anything at all. It was a physically and mentally numbing pain. I then twisted my body around and yelled to the woman behind the steering wheel of the other car. It was a red Pontiac sedan. I swore at her. She just sat there, presumably in shock. In a matter of seconds, I saw men pulling her out of her car, throwing her to the ground and backing the car away, off of my legs. I fell to the ground.
I was picked up off the ground by some men from the nearby hardware store. They opened the tailgate of the blazer and placed me on it. They then covered me with a heavy tarp. I was shivering, but not crying. I could not feel the lower half of my body. I involuntarily rubbed my legs and moaned. I was still yelling at the woman. At that moment my survival instincts took over I calculated the cost of my apartment and the necessity of working my newly coveted shifts. When the ambulance finally arrived, I was carried to the back and the doors were closed. I looked up at the two handsome paramedics. They were trying to ascertain the level of my injuries. One of them said that he was going to have to cut my jeans off. I told him that they were my friend’s jeans, and that she had drawn on them, but that it was okay to take them off. I tried to pull myself up but could barely move. The paramedic said: “Do you realize you were hit by a car? You are seriously hurt.” He repeated this to me over and over again. I was in denial. They took my vitals, and looked for any apparent wounds, blood or any other obvious damage. As I lay there I finally burst into tears. I let the reality of the situation take over. I sobbed from fear, but also, as the shock wore off, from pain. They strapped me onto the bed and placed cuffs around my ankles, telling me to not move my legs. I could not feel them, not any part of them. Subconsciously, I was afraid to look down at them, knowing something was wrong, and feeling like they were no longer attached to me.
Things become slightly cloudy and surreal at this point. I had already experienced many deathly and frightening events at that point in my life, and, in retrospect, I know now that this was my way of dealing with them. I went into a complete shutdown. I was rushed to the hospital. They took X-rays, cat scans and MRI’s. They would not give me anything for the pain until they knew what they were treating. It turned out that I had severe muscle loss in the front of my quadriceps muscles in each leg. To this day I have significant dents above my knees. While others rarely notice them, I am always aware of this physical imperfection. They continue to be tender points on my legs. I had the imprint of the bumper, as well as severe bruising, all over my legs for several months after the accident. The doctors could not believe that I did not lose my legs. They have recounted their disbelief to me over the years following the accident. They have assured me that if both cars been the same model or type of car, I would have lost both of my legs. I certainly did not go away unbroken. When I twisted my body to look behind me, I ripped apart my tibia bone. I shattered the bone so severely that I needed several surgeries, pins, plates and therapy to walk again. It was almost a full year before I could place my left foot directly on the ground or raise it up more than a half inch. I walked with a cane for one year.
I remember that first night in the hospital. They wanted to keep me there for weeks. I begged to leave. I had spent months in a hospital previously for other reasons. I wanted to go home to my mother’s. My mother and her husband assured the staff at the hospital that they could get me up and down the stairs in their condo. The hospital reluctantly let me leave. My mother and her husband helped me into their place. I could not walk at all. They had to slide me across the wood floor and up each stair to the spare bedroom they had. I remained in that room for several months. My life as I knew it in the outside world ceased to exist. My new life became doctors’ appointments, and being carried outside to smoke cigarettes. My mother showered me in my bathing suit. She would lay me out on a lounge chair in the tub. I would sleep with the lights on, or I would not sleep at all. When I would sleep I would dream I had died. I would not dream of the actual accident, but would dream of that scream that came from within me from the moment of impact. I remember seeing other accident victims in therapy. They were angry, and would yell to me in a crazed voice that the doctors would never help me. “Look what they did to me!" They would yell this as they limped out of the rehabilitation offices. Their words tainted my view of the rehabilitation process. To me, at such a young, impressionable age, my life seemed like a horror movie.
In the end I walked again. I even have a normal gait. I felt deformed for a while. To this day I still am uncomfortable showing my legs. The dents diminished slightly over the years. The worst part was the anxiety I continue to have about automobiles. I began to perceive them in an entirely different way. I saw them as bone-crushing, killing machines. I could not drive for many years after this accident. I still get a deep pit of anxiety when I walk through a parking lot. Unfortunately, I have instilled this in my son. I know that the actions of the driver from my accident were not intentional, but they were careless. We have all been in those moments, whether we have been the driver or the pedestrian. Yet, I know that this accident gave me my first full blown portion of gratitude. Most times that I finish a run I am thankful that I have the legs to do so. There are days that I push too hard, that I do not care for my body the way I should. There are also those days when I am one of those careless persons, oblivious to what is around me. However, when I see my scar or the dents on my legs or when I see someone running past me at a race with prosthetic legs, I am brought back how important it is to live an intentional life in all regards. I forget to include this story when I recount the tales of my life. I wonder, even as I write this, why I do not give enough worth to physical issues, even ones that carry so much physiological damage. I found myself stopping and starting the writing of this piece several times. Reliving the freakish physical things in my life can be so consuming. Yet everything that happens to us makes us who we are at the moment we are in: the gratitude, the fear and the anger fills another page in each of our stories. Reliving those experiences years later also helps us to grow. We reflect at an older age, going back to that moment from another time. We find it in that first step we take every morning, when we get out of bed and know that in a second the life we know can change.