This month’s cover story is about the out-of-the-box practice of commemorating the onset of paralysis — 10 stories of readers who celebrate the day that changed their lives forever. It has helped me appreciate, once again, the power that our individual stories hold.
But soon after I finished writing the stories, I realized my own date, July 11, was upon me, and I had no plan for celebrating the 52nd anniversary of my plane crash.
In my early post-injury days, I would party, even if alone, a kind of private rebirth day, feeling fortunate to be alive. Later I would invite friends, who were always happy to have an excuse to celebrate anything. In time, the celebrations became a symbolic ritual involving launching and crashing various flying objects — paper airplanes; rubber-band propelled models; larger, more aerodynamic hand-thrown replicas.
This year, due to a time crunch, it would have to be paper airplanes again. At the last moment I invited my daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons to join my wife and me on the deck for guacamole and chips, margaritas, and barbecued burgers. But first I had some deck repairs to do.
My faithful worker-friend, José — who comes each growing season from Mexico to our farm in Oregon to live and help — 28 years and counting — assisted me with the deck repair. When we were half done, I explained to José in my best Spanish that we needed to hurry to finish for the celebration. He looked up, puzzled. “Today’s the day of my accident,” I said. He looked blank. “I’ve told you, right? About the plane crash in California? My friend, the pilot, died?”
“Noooh,” he said. “California? I thought you were in a war.”
Twenty-eight years and I had never told him. Out of respect for employer-employee personal space, he had never asked. So for the first time I told the full story in a foreign language. José listened, rapt, his eyes large. When I reached the part where the pilot, my friend Jim, dies in the plane wreckage, I detached, looked away and stared at a rough spot in the deck.
We completed the repairs and the party began.
The grandboys played in the yard with their dad while I sat with my wife and daughter, now 30, on the deck. My daughter asked if there was an article about my plane crash. “Article?” I said. “Haven’t I … have I ever told you the full story of that day?”
“Not with any details, just that you crashed,” she said.
I had told the full story countless times, but never to my own daughter. So I began the detailed, unadulterated version in English. This time, when I got to the part where I heard Jim take his last breath, I stopped, hearing it again, as if for the first time. Then came real tears. Fifty-two years and the emotion still surprises me.
Later, amid laughter, my wife broke out the rocket-copters she had secretly bought for the occasion. We took turns launching them, especially the boys, watching as they catapulted into the sky, then floated safely to the grass.