This past July, recuperating from hospitalization, I missed my 48th anniversary of the plane crash that paralyzed me. I usually distinguish the occasion with the flying of handmade paper airplanes, rubber-band driven planes or cheap balsa wood replicas. Whoever is with me on that day must participate in a contest to see who can produce the most spectacular crash. No special effects allowed. No flaming fuselages or midair fireworks. Just release the plane from your hand and watch it soar for a brief moment and crash to the ground. I have found balsa wood planes are best, as they often splinter on impact, especially if you attach a weight to the tip of the fuselage and first propel it starward. When it reaches its highest point in flight, it stalls when it runs out of power, just as my friend’s Cessna 120 did 48 years ago. Then it descends at a sharp angle, smashes into the drought-hardened soil, and explodes into smithereens.
Of Irish Gaelic origin, smithereens — smidirín — refers to small fragments, the kind that can’t be put back together again. There is no such thing as a solitary smithereen; they only come in countless pieces, like confetti — like the myriad pieces of our lives that we must somehow pick up after accident or disease devastates us.
And that’s why I celebrate my accident. Because the worst of it is over and I have survived. I may not have accounted for all the pieces, but I have gone on to enjoy life again, and looking back, I know I have reason to be grateful. It’s a wonderful feeling, a deep source of joy, sadness, relief, and mystery — an emotion that has no name.
I remember when I first felt it. It was a couple of years after my accident and I was driving on a Los Angeles freeway, stressing about being late for a college poetry class. I imagined the class assembled, the professor beginning the lecture, and then, 10-15 minutes later, me — the guy in the wheelchair — quietly entering through the front door not far from the professor’s lectern and taking my place next to the door. There were no other options for parking my wheelchair. I was trapped at the front of the class next to the door, like a coatrack suddenly appearing.
Imagining this, stuck in traffic with all the other lemmings packed into the bumper-to-bumper mess, I began to feel a distance between them and me. I flashed back to the moment when I thought I was surely dying, lying helpless in the plane wreckage. The contrast between that terrifying moment and being stuck in a mundane traffic snarl released something within me. My smile broadened, and a providential wave of good fortune swelled within. I was alive, I had survived, and in the timeless sweep of fate, my being late to a lecture on structure and form in 18th Century classical poetry was not worth a smithereen of worry.
I had reason to smile, even celebrate, and still do.