In April I took a trip to California for a number of reunions, but the one that surprised me the most was when I reunited with myself.
If you have lived the dual life that comes with spinal cord injury or a similar condition, you know how you can run into your “other” self when you go back in time. On this trip I visited friends I met 40 years ago, attended my 50-year high school reunion, and reunited with others I had known for over 60 years. Since I was injured at 20 and had not seen some of these people since then, there were a lot of awkward handshakes.
My wife Sam and I flew into San Jose to see Bob and Deb, who we befriended when we first moved to southern Oregon in our hippie days. These were close friends we got crazy with back in the early 1970s. We picked up right where we had left off, drinking margaritas (but no more smoking pot), talking and laughing nonstop. In those hippie days we rafted, sailed and camped together, and my wheelchair was invisible. Deb and Sam would carry me down to the wild Rogue River, each grabbing a skinny leg, and toss me into the icy water. One time Bob wheelied me across an old swinging rope bridge — with planks missing — above white water. We thought nothing of risking our lives in pursuit of good times.
By contrast, reuniting with another friend on this trip — someone I had known since childhood — transported me back to a moment when my wheelchair was considered an embarrassment. Not to him, but to his mother, who took me aside and told me at his wedding reception a few years after my injury: “You know, you would have been in my son’s wedding, maybe even best man, had you not been paralyzed.”
There it was — the attitude we have all encountered — the viewpoint that once we sit down in a wheelchair, we become something to hide away, avoid, or disguise.
At my 50-year reunion, I decided to seize the opportunity to assert an image rather than sit passively and let others decide who I was. I wrote a skit and recruited classmates to act out the parts. It was a sophomoric skit that gave us license to act like immature 18-year-olds having a good time. And the “reviews” made it all worthwhile — 50 years post-high school, none of us had changed all that much.
Then came the moment I did not expect. I sat down, for the first time since my plane crash, with John, the younger brother of the pilot — my good friend Jim — who died in the crash. John and I, mature now, felt very close, reunited by our shared loss. So many years had passed, so much had changed in our lives, yet somehow time was suspended. For a few moments, Jim was with us again, eternally young.
So it is with our memories, our fleeting lives.