For me, tomorrow is more than simply a national holiday—it’s a celebration of life. Tomorrow marks ten years since July Fourth, 1991, when I was seriously injured in a bicycle accident at Girl Scout Bike Camp in a small town in Southern Ohio. That day we were taking a particularly hilly route, and as we rounded a bend, I began to pick up an unbelievable amount of speed. I remember seeing the turn, feeling my wheels slide, tightening my fingers on the brakes and closing my eyes…
When I opened them again, I was flat on the asphalt. I saw blood on the street. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, x-rayed everywhere and told that I’d broken both legs and my right arm. Seven hours after the initial accident I was wheeled into surgery and emerged fully encased in plaster from mid-chest to toes. I would spend the next seven weeks confined to a rented hospital bed on the lower level of our house.
With that much immobility comes much time for thinking, and I can assure you I did a lot of that—perhaps more than was healthy for the average 9-year-old. I was very worried about death, no doubt from the close brush with it I’d had. I struggled with the vastness of the universe, the ineffability of God, the helplessness of my situation. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I was extremely temperamental and emotionally erratic, lashing out unreasonably at those around me (who, unfortunately, were the people who cared about me most). I regret very truly the person I was back then, but that summer I did a lot of growing up. My teenage years have been relatively calm compared to most others my age, and I firmly believe that it had everything to do with that incredibly sobering summer. I had to take things one day at a time; I had no other choice. I had to know that I would heal someday, and that with the help of my faith and the love of those around me, I’d eventually succeed.
“Eventually” came longer than I’d hoped. My left leg had broken along the growth plate above the knee. In two-thirds of these cases the break heals without incident; I however, fell within the “lucky” third whose growth plates stop growing. I could potentially lose up to 5 centimeters of my adult height in my left leg. I opted to try a revolutionary procedure in 1996 that actually lengthened the bone itself by stretching the gap of an artificially-made “break” in the leg with a device on the outside. Our bones are versatile enough that they will bridge up to 3 or 4 centimeters of separation. The process spanned 4 months—once more, summertime. And once more, I found myself at camp, only this time I entered on crutches. It was a week at Wittenburg University that I’ll never forget, if only because of what I discovered I could accomplish with a little perseverance. Despite my disability, I climbed up inside a two-story pipe organ, I hiked on crutches all over a nature preserve, I did everything every other student did—but most importantly, I didn’t let myself be a victim. I took control. I lived my life to the fullest, and I can’t even begin to express the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I felt when, at the end of the week, I looked back at all I’d managed to do despite obvious obstacles. I began to realize that all of us are stronger than we realize, and sometimes it takes an unpleasant situation to kick us into high gear and enable us to perform at our best.
I don’t wish my kind of tragedy on anyone—but I do encourage each of you to take a moment and stretch your mind a bit. Tap into that indomitable part of you that won’t let yourself be trapped by your obstacles, but rather comes to life in the face of them. You have it within you—I know. I’ve been there. We each have power beyond our wildest dreams, particularly when that power can be reflected in the strength and support of those that love us. We have the ability to go it alone, but we don’t have to. Therein lies the glory of the human experience.
The passage of time never ceases to amaze me. I still find it hard to believe that I can meaningfully relate to things over a decade in the past. Now that I’ve reached the ten-year anniversary of my accident… it very nearly brings tears to my eyes. So much has happened since then. So much that I’m not even sure I’d recognize myself without this checkered history of mine. I cannot help but feel amazed at how much of my life has been shaped by that single event. The physical scars are so very much a part of who I am that I don’t even notice them anymore. I do get asked about them from time to time, though, and I’m more than willing to explain why I have them. What I can’t verbalize in that brief moment of conversation, however, is what my experiences have taught me about the incredible elasticity of the human spirit. I can say for certain that despite all the pain, the problems, and the helplessness, I’ve discovered just who I am and what I can do in the face of adversity. I also know what a remarkable place this world of ours is, and that those who love you are never far when you need them. I know that faith, faith in anything, can make worlds of difference. I know that optimism is at its most precious when it is at its most difficult to summon. And I know that I’ve already achieved a personal independence that would’ve taken me far longer to realize without my accident and its years of consequences.If you’d asked me ten years ago, I never would have imagined that it’d turn out this way: that I’d actually be grateful for what my accident has taught me about myself and about the world in which I live. While a part of me really wants to be home tomorrow, it seems fitting that on the ten-year anniversary of my accident, I’m having the first truly independent Independence Day of my life. God bless each of you and may you all find your own independence this Fourth of July.