Pretty amazing what passes for a workout these days.
I'm back blogging again.. not about Afghanistan this time. I've gone from writing about the challenges American soldiers are facing overseas to something more personal.
I've run into more than a few of those guys since I've been back.. even got Christmas cards from some of them- which blew my mind more than you might think. I spent two weeks with them 8 months ago, yet still think about them every day. Going on that trip really changed my perspective- and meeting so many fascinating men and women (Afghan and American) really inspired me. So I'm facing this struggle, this little bit of turmoil- and I remember how I felt when I was writing. In a word: better. Writing about that trip motivated me. It made me, for one thing, better able to tell the stories of those brave servicemen and women- which was extremely important to me. I need motivation now.. and I figure since nobody reads these blogs anyway, this is a safe place to write, vent and get my thoughts focused again. Nobody may ever read this stuff, but the fact that blogging puts it out into the world gives me reason to at least try to be coherent. The challenge, in short, is my badly broken body- and my need to set it right again. I'm just getting started doing that.. finally able to talk and write about it.. and I can tell that it's a long road ahead.
More on what brought me to this point later.. tomorrow, I hope. I did ten minutes on the elliptical today and started a blog- and for now, that's enough.
The day my little ordeal began.
A quick Saturday morning motorcycle ride. A little twist around town on my amazing '08 Buell 1125R. It's a pretty hot bike. Or, it was. You see where I'm going with this. I had a couple of errands to run, then figured I'd head home. But the day was too nice. I had to ride some more. Didn't have my gloves or helmet, but I had eye protection, of course- the ballistic sunglasses the Army gave me in Afghanistan, the dark lenses swapped-out for clear UV protection and great visibility. My trusty new leather jacket. My combat boots that have been with me on assignments all over the world. I was set. My full-face helmet and gloves would have been better, but I was set enough to head up the expressway and out into the 'burbs. Perfect day. Amazing. Everybody's in a good mood. I pull over to call my wife (she worries) and a bunch of kids in a red Mustang hoot and holler and wave at me and my Buell (it's hot, seriously). Perfect day. Bike's running like a top. Everything is everything. On my way home to River North, traffic's backed-up on the inbound expressway. No big deal. I get off at Harlem. Figure I'll cruise through my wife's old 'hood- Elmwood Park. Traffic's clear in my lane, backed-up solid the other way heading onto the expressway. Drag for those guys. I'm southbound, no one around me, loving this ride, this bike, this perfect day when something catches my eye-- a big car cutting out of all that stalled traffic, trying to get out of the jam. Who can blame him? But the Ford Crown Victoria is headed for my lane, headed the wrong way up a one-way street, headed straight for me- and not stopping, not slowing down, not even as I try to lock eyes with the driver, who I can see now just feet away. I feel like he's looking right at me- and he's still coming. Automatically, I feel my mouth form a dirty word. I've been riding for a long time, on the street and on the track. I've taken courses on the track to help me on the street-- specific courses designed to get you out of specific situations.. just like this one. I already know how this is going to end. While my mouth is starting on that bad word, my left hand's snapping in the clutch, my right hand the front brake. Way too late for the back brake. That hot bike and it's big front disc come to a screeching halt- which I believe saved my life. There's an impact, but I don't feel it. To this day, I don't remember it. Harlem Avenue goes white, then black, then comes back and I'm skidding along it.. on my belly.. on my new leather jacket. Leather and denim and flesh are tearing away. Behind me, plastic and steel are grinding down the street. I can still hear it. I don't have to look; I know the bike is gone. I'll never see it again. Last time I saw it was by the side of the road, with those kids in the Mustang and my wife on the phone. I'm still sliding, but I'm slowing down. I roll to my feet, and feel the knife in my back. It's metaphorical. The searing pain tells me I shouldn't be standing. I have a friend who has a friend who had a crash just like this. His girlfriend survived the hit from the first vehicle, but died after being hit by a second while down in the road, That's why I rolled to my feet. Even before I do, both hands are reaching for my phones. There should be a WGN BlackBerry in my right inside pocket and my iPhone in my left. They're still there. I pull them out. I feel like I've broken in two (it later turns out I have), but even the knife in my back can't keep me from stumbling to the safety of the curb. That's as far as I can go. I feel the warmth coming down my face and neck.
Stop reading now. I know nobody reads this stuff, but just in case- stop reading now.
I know I'm going into shock. I also know what that warm stuff is, now soaking into my favorite vintage t-shirt. I shift my phones into my left hand and put my right hand to my skull. It's soft. I think I'm touching my brain. Literally, that's what I think. My hand comes away filled with hair, covered in thick blood that looks more black than red. I don't feel bad, except for my back, which is on fire. I know I shouldn't be standing. I fall down on sombody's lawn and try to dial my iPhone. My blood-slicked fingers and impact-addled mind are doing me no good. I want to call my wife. She's expecting me home right about now and I'm bleeding by the side of the road. I wonder if I'm going to die. I'm pretty sure I'm going to pass out. What if I pass out without calling her? What if I die? What if I pass out then die? Or wake up in a hospital and she has no idea what happened? Or I wake up and don't remember? This is the stuff that runs through your mind while you're going into shock, I decide, as I go into shock. I'm still fumbling with my phone. Should I call 911 first- or her? A voice says they've called 911 already. A louder voice is screaming at me to stop texting. Stop texting? I tell her to stop screaming. She's weird, man. This lady's hollering like I fell from the sky and landed in her yard- an alien from outer space. Come on, this stuff has to happen here all the time. My mind's not right. I can't work this iPhone. It's the user interface- it's just not made for situations like this. I switch to the work BlackBerry, press the wife speed-dial key. The lady's still hollering. Now she's talking to the 911 center, yelling that I was yelling at her to shut up. This whole thing's bizarre, but I'm trying to manage the situation, control what my wife will hear. I don't want chaos and mayhem and screaming ladies. I want to sound like I haven't got a care in the world. I take a deep breath, steady my voice. She picks up. I sound fantastic; straight and calm and easy-going. This is a walk in the park. Even the screaming lady has moved away. Then the siren of the approaching ambulance blows the whole thing. There's no way they're here this fast, but here they are.
More later. It's late and I spent all day chasing the Scott Lee Cohen story. It's worth checking out. Illinois politics: You can't write it.
Anyway- I'm beat. That ten minutes on the elliptical yesterday about knocked the life out of me. Couldn't even get on the thing today.
Ran a mile this morning. In about 16 minutes.
Even those of you who don't run so much can probably surmise that that's not a very good time.
It's a good time for me. Right now, anyway. That's the first mile I've run since that September 5th thing I've been blogging about. As I was out on the bike that day, I remember thinking about how nice it would be to go for a run by the lake. "Maybe when I get back," I thought. Five months, almost to the day, I take the first uncertain steps on a 16-minute mile. Brutal. Maybe it was 15. Like that would be so much better. My back and core have been killing me ever since, but I actually welcome the pain. I honestly feel pretty positive about it- like it's a sign I'm getting stronger. I am.
Never been much of an athlete, but I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2006, 2007 and 2008. I didn't say I won it- but I ran it. '07 was the year of the terrible heat. Scores of runners got sick. I saw people collapsing in the street. One poor soul died. It was awful. I think I walked a lot that year- but there was this one dude I met along the way, right near the end- a Chicago teacher who recognized me from the news. We sort of kept each other moving.. pacing each other in.. and finished. The guy really helped me out, 'cause I was about done when he came along. I've accepted a lot of help since then.
I watched the 2009 marathon from my balcony. The runners were blocks away on LaSalle, and I was leaning out over my balcony- a glass of scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The cigarette is really alarming. Can you imagine a guy who ran 26.2 miles the year before doing something like that? The scotch (scotchy-scotch-scotch) was a gift from my brother. He actually picked it up at the distillery in Scotland. The cigarette was a bad choice. That one was all me. I started-up again a little bit in Afghanistan. Seemed like the thing to do. I dropped my last pack in the trash on the way out of Kabul, never touched them again until after the crash. Then I (wisely) hid them from my wife, occasionally dragging myself out onto the balcony to light one up. I'll never forget the one I smoked watching all those runners stream by. That was a dark time. I was walking, but doubted I'd ever run again. In fact, at that point I was pretty sure I never would. What a horrible thing for a guy who had been so healthy and carefree weeks before to feel.. but it happens to healthy, carefree people all the time, doesn't it? I was all banged-up- with a huge bruise on my hip, an 8-inch gash up my spine and an array of scars over the rest of my body. Under doctor's orders to stay healthy, I followed those orders most of the time.. except for the occasional lapse into smoking and drinking and feeling sorry for myself. I wondered if I'd ever go back to work again.
Holy depressing. Seriously. But what's great is how far I've come since then. Exactly one mile.
Been picking up the pace a little bit.
Actually, that's a lie. I haven't been going faster, but I have been going farther. I'm up to two miles on the treadmill some days.. but my body's really feeling it today.
So when I left off a few days back, I was lying on the ground somewhere around Harwood Heights, listening to the siren getting closer. The next little bit's a bit of a blur. The ambulance crew arrived- God love 'em. Just before they did, the lady who would yell at me but not help me moved on.. I remember wondering if maybe she'd get a rag or something from her kitchen to help stop the bleeding from my head. No luck there, but then this nice young guy came over with some of those yellow napkins from Wendy's- a whole bunch of 'em that must have come with his lunch. He smiled at me kinda shyly- like he didn't want to get too close- and said, "Here- press these to your head. You're bleeding pretty bad." They smell like cheeseburgers. I jam them against the top of my skull. Then there's the nice lady from the Cook County Sheriff's Office. I never really got to thank her. She stopped her car and came over to offer help. Once I had the cheeseburger napkins in place, there wasn't much left to do, so I eventually put her on the phone with my wife while the Paramedics did their thing- just so Sus was connected and could be told what hospital I was going to. It was Resurrection. She got that news and got off the phone to head that way. The medics got me out of my bloody leather jacket. A fireman said, "Your bike's over there. It's pretty trashed." Couldn't have been more matter-of-fact. You know he sees this all the time. Bikes. Bikes and cars, man.. What are ya gonna do?? Fireman jams the key into my hip pocket. "What on earth am I gonna do with that?" I wonder to myself. They're getting me onto the backboard.. gently easing me onto it.. and I let out a scream. Like a real scream. It took me completely by surprise- seriously- it was jarring. I couldn't believe it was me. Then I'm in the air and lightly bouncing into the back of the ambulance. There's an oxygen mask and some scissors- and pieces of my favorite gray vintage t-shirt are coming off. The EMT even asked if she could do that. I kind of laughed. I'm a little giddy now that all the screaming's over. That little girl sure had some lungs.. They're cleaning me up and they couldn't be nicer. I pull the mask off, tell the ambulance guy I don't think there's any air coming out of this thing. He says it's fine- just keep it on. I ask him his name. It's Biff. For some reason I think this is funny. "Am I going to die... Biff?" I ask, in mock dramatic fashion. We both laugh. I'm laughing a little too loud.
So we get to the hospital.. Resurrection.. and I'm wondering why my back hurts so much. But to be honest, my head is what really worries me. I've mentioned how it felt the one time I touched it- right after the crash. Mushy. Soft. Seriously, just bad.. and I'm really worried about that. I know I look pretty rough. I'm covered in blood, woozy.. I really don't know how badly I'm hurt, but I think it's pretty serious. I keep thinking back to the moment right before the impact- when I saw that car and was pretty sure I was about to die...
Anyhoo- I'm good now.. at the hospital. My wife is here, too, and she looks worried- but I'm acting all upbeat.. working some manly-man bit (that came out of nowhere) and they're doing tests and giving me morphine..lots of morphine..and 19 staples are being punched-in across the top of my head. Morphine or not, those hurt. A lot. So all this is going on and I'm moving around- and every time I move, my back just screams. I mean, seriously. They do x-rays and a CT scan and I think an MRI. My brain is fine, they say, but my back is broken. Really broken. Now, I'm gonna get this all wrong.. or maybe not.. but as I recall, it's broken badly in a couple of places; one of my thoracic vertebrae is cracked right where it's met by my ribs- so they're not really worried about that one. In fact, they say, they probably won't even fix it, but let it heal on its own. Further down, that's where the problem is. A couple of lumbar vertebrae are badly broken, and pieces of them are threatening to pierce my spinal cord.
This is the part that to this day I have trouble even thinking about, much less writing about. The doctor tells me that to have escaped an accident like this without serious brain damage is one miracle, but to not be paralyzed.. well, that's something else altogether. I should be a paraplegic.. that's what he's saying. The fact that I'm not, given the circumstances, is another enormous stroke of luck. To stay lucky, I have to stay still. If I do too much moving around, those loose pieces of bone could move just enough to guarantee I never walk again. They say they'll get me into surgery just as soon as they can. I lie very still.