The Embodied Life of the Mind: An Anniversary

It’s been one year exactly since I crashed my bike and badly broke my right wrist.

From nearly the moment of impact, I’ve had remarkably good care, from the good Samaritan football players that called 911 and watched over me until the pros arrived, to the orthopedic surgeon who managed to put my mangled wrist back together, to the donor whose bone graft enabled the surgery, to the excellent hand specialists at UMass Med in Worcester, MA who hastened my recovery even while I spent the year in a research residency far from my home base.

While my wrist flip isn’t spectacular (I’m not sure it ever was), I can comfortably throw a ball, lift heavy objects (including children), write, type, play musical instruments, wash dishes, and the general array of things I was used to doing with my hand before the accident. Scars and an odd bump where the surgical hardware holds my radius together are daily reminders of what I’ve been through, but all in all I’m extremely fortunate.

Looking back, I’m not sure how to remember that flashback-inducing day. A loss? I’ve regained virtually all the strength and mobility I had before. My oldest son this year lost his favorite stuffed animal, a green-eyed tabby cat he’d fallen in love with at age two and kept ever since. He suffered a real loss. I don’t know that I have.

A wake-up call, maybe? The accident certainly led to a  drastic reframing of my sense of my own ability, and with it my identity. We moved to Massachusetts for a year twenty days after the accident, which means my wife and a team of paid and unpaid assistants moved us. I could barely snag a wandering toddler in the chaos of that time. I tried out voice-recognition software for writing, which completely failed, not because of the technology but because I found I couldn’t compose paragraphs out loud. For months, I trudged the two miles each way to my physical therapist multiple times a week, stretching out traumatized muscles and waiting for the point when I could move a pen or work a keyboard without undue pain or trembling. As ability gradually returned, I found great joy in the sheer act of putting pen to paper, of holding a book to learn from it. And as I somehow finished two books this year, it became clearer to me how much a gift this work is. But the bone-shattering wasn’t earth-shattering, not in the way other family crises have been.

Some things do seem fundamentally different. I’ve been back on my bike a few times this year, but a wave of panic goes through me every time I start to ride, and the realities of Worcester roads and trails are so bike-unfriendly that I’ve largely left the bike alone, afraid of having another accident. I’ve walked more, gained weight, and found my energy levels lower, the old specter of depression creeping into my peripheral vision again. I’m hoping that the better, nearer trails of the Lehigh Valley will make my transition back to regular biking trips happen, but I’m not sure. In that way, I find myself less free, more tentative, less happy with my body a year later.

I’ve also found myself less interested in doing things like this blog post: reflecting on my experiences, talking about my life, doing things that can feel self-indulgent but I hope are more life-giving to others. I’ve turned inward since the accident, partly because I’ve spent the year in a new place where those around me don’t have larger context—most of the people at work and church this year met me with what one AAS fellow called my “lucky fin.” Somehow, the sight of me with a brace on my arm told my story, incomplete as it was. What was there to tell? What was there to say?

I’m now less than three weeks away from returning home to Pennsylvania, and less than two months away from getting back into the classroom after a 27-month hiatus (I’m still off the bike—not tempting fate on that one!). I’m eager for both those returns, but it also feels like I’m about to learn how much I’ve changed, as well as how much the home scene has changed, since I’ve been back. A number of dear friends have moved away from Lafayette since I was last “on duty” there. Several new people have arrived. Neighbors have grown, changed, possibly moved. The political tensions in the classroom that I’ve watched friends wrestle with over the past year will be new to me.

And me? I’ve seen so much more of the country than I had before this sabbatical. I’ve gotten to watch up-close as my children grow up, discover, struggle, and light up the world. I’ve learned so much in the archives and break rooms of the libraries where I’ve had the privilege of being a fellow. I’ve written so much so often that for the first time in my life I’ve embraced the identity of being a writer, enjoying the surprise of ideas and words flowing through me and finding the patient endurance to get them in shape. And I’ve broken my first bone—several at once, actually—and worked and watched as I gradually formed a new whole, one that doesn’t quite fit in the same way as it did.

All these things are somehow of a piece, and they’ve all made something new compared to what I was when I walked out of a Pardee Hall classroom in May 2015. Who that person is, and what he’ll do next, and who he will prove to be and become, I can’t say. But I can say this: thanks be to God for the gift of time, and of healing, and of words, and of love. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far—and “safe” is a very full, complicated term—and grace will lead me home.

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