Childhood. What’s that? 

spinal cord injury

Before I go any further with the present, I want you to understand my beginning. I want you to understand why I deeply empathize with the human struggle and why I take it very personal when people judge people who have less or are struggling.

In August, 1980, my dad broke his neck after diving into our swimming pool from the 2nd story balcony at a family BBQ. My family and all of our closest friends were witness to the accident.

My 5 year old memory recalls about 30 people in my backyard that day. When I think about it, I can still see and hear the chaos, the yelling, the panic, and my neighbor running across the street in his knee high socks and tighty-whities to help until EMS arrived. I remember the front screen door swinging open so hard I thought it would break when the paramedics rushed in. My friend who was the same age lived across the street and she was with me. I will never forget the terrified look on her face and the intense eye contact between us. I can’t recall ever hugging anyone tighter! She is still my very dear friend to this day.

I vividly remember them pulling my dad from the pool where he was face down and unconscious in the water. They transferred his more than 6 foot long body to a gurney face up, wrapped from head to toe in a heavy white gauze material and wheeled out him out of my yard into an ambulance. He looked like a mummy and I thought he was dead. It’s not something you ever get over. It’s not something you ever forget. I’m not even sure it gets easier. It’s a horrific scene that still plays over and over in my mind 37 years later.

So, if we are ever swimming at the river and you let your kids dive off the rocks head first into the water, don’t be surprised when I school you on why this is a bad idea. I’m not judging your parenting. I’m simply letting you know that no dive is worth a broken neck. No one is too strong of a swimmer or too experienced of a diver. One slip of the foot and it’s over. It is all in fun, until it’s not. No dive is worth a lifetime of sacrifice, please believe me.

When my dad hit the water, I was swimming in the deep end with all the other kids in the pool. My mom was wading in the shallow end where my dad landed and floated to the surface in a typical, “dead man’s float” position.

My mom was 9 months pregnant with my sister who was born a week later. I started Kindergarten 2 weeks after that. My dad spent 6 months in the hospital in Santa Clara, CA, facing the reality that he would never walk again. My Kindergarten year we celebrated every holiday at the Medical Center in Santa Clara, CA. I looked forward to Frosty’s from Wendy’s because it was across the street from the hospital and it was a treat when we got to go.

I was a social 5 year old and I spent so much time at the hospital that I became a regular celebrity in the game room. Back then, it wasn’t unheard of to let your 5 year old go to the hospital recreation room unattended. The staff, patients and families were my pals. This hospital had specialty floors so most of the patients and families were there for long term recoveries and terminal illness.

I won the costume contest at the hospital in my pumpkin costume that my mom hand made for me on Halloween in 1980. I still have the first place ribbon. My new best friend was a long term patient of the burn unit and he was in his mid-20’s. He was bandaged from head to toe. We always played air hockey together and I’m pretty sure he let me win most of the time because I won A LOT! He had 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 80% of his body. My dad said when I brought him to his room to introduce him, it shocked him that I was not afraid of his appearance. How could I be afraid? I hung out with men in wheelchairs all day with gigantic halo supports screwed directly into their foreheads. Loud, rebellious men who drank and got stoned in their hospital room. It’s a good thing they were kind to their RN’s because they tolerated some real shenanigans caring for those guys.

The 4 of them were silly in every way and I cannot begin to tell you about the clouds of marijuana smoke billowing throughout their room. This is back when you could still smoke cigarettes in the hospital. Pot was not acceptable but the 4 stooges did not care, at all. They even escaped one night to go to the liquor store after they were all mobile in wheelchairs. When they were found, one of them said, “What are you going to do, arrest us for drunk driving?”

Of the 4 roommates, my dad is the only one who is still alive. One died not long after he left the hospital. He got settlement money and blew it all on cocaine. The other 2 roommates were lifelong friends with my dad. Art was the exact same age as my dad had the same exact injury, a broken neck, C7. They both broke their neck in the pool, just one day apart. The other roommate had a less severe injury from a drunk driving accident. He was the drunk driver. He was forever known as, “Crazy Dennis” and he wore the name proudly. I’ll have to write one day about life with Crazy Dennis.

My dad has outlived his medically diagnosed life expectancy by nearly 30 years. You’ll read a lot about our struggle and I’ll be direct about some very hurtful truths but let me be clear, he is my hero and I am here to promise you that the only true healer in this life (besides cannabis) is love. That sounds cliché but it’s true. Fostering the power of love is the only way to heal. I believe that because I’ve lived it. I truly know what unconditional love is, all its pain and all its glory. I am so very lucky for that.

During the time my dad was in the hospital, our home was under construction. He came home to a modified house, complete with ramps and handicapped showers. I’ve been very aware of people with physical limitations since I was very young and I’ve had to live within all of those limitations. Believe me, it changes who you are in every way. Homecoming wasn’t as exciting as you might think. It was a struggle. Everything from him getting in and out of the car to learning how to get in the doorway was a struggle. Bathing, getting dressed, going to the bathroom, moving throughout the house without getting caught in a doorway or on the carpet. Realizing he couldn’t reach the coffee pot or anything in the kitchen cabinets on the wall was traumatic. He never said the words but his reactions were evidence of his pain. It was painful to witness. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like from his point of view.

My dad broke his neck at 30 years old. Yes, 30 years old, father of 2 and a husband. Let that sink in. We were a boating family and he loved to fish. We hosted every family party and he was the grill master. Being paralyzed from the chest down made those things difficult. My parents’ marriage only survived 5 years after that and when my mom decided to move on, my dad insisted she leave my sister and me. He definitely loved us more than anything in life and I know he felt like his injury let us down. I hope today he knows how much it taught me and that I respect him for trying when some parents walk away when things are too hard.

I was 10 and my sister was 5. My mom was 35 and tired of it all. Who could blame her? My dad was 35 and angry. Who could blame him? So, the marriage ended. I can’t speak for the details of their relationship because I don’t want to imagine what it was like for either of them. What I do know is that their decisions at the time of separation were built on the best of intentions but intentions don’t always work out.

No 35 year old quadriplegic man can raise 2 daughters, work full time and maintain a 3000 square foot, 2 story home all by himself. My dad is a super hero but he is only human. My mom was DONE. She decided to find a boyfriend, drink vodka grapefruits with her younger friends after work and moved to a single girlfriend’s house where she didn’t have her own space for more than a year. Any time our mom showed up to take us somewhere, her new boyfriend was with her. He was creepy AND he was married. I was disgusted by him from the beginning.

Her priorities had clearly shifted. At 10 years old I became the proud new inheritor of all things adult; caring for an impossible younger sister, cooking meals for 3, doing laundry, cleaning a huge home and at 10 years old, I sucked at all of it. My dad’s anger reminded me of that. My Grandma Pat (paternal) was critical of me and protective of him. I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes. She showed a up a few times a month to “help” and that always turned into a lecture about where I was falling short. I still had my homework, school and friends but those became my last priority.

The expectation of the adults around me was very high. I suppose they were surviving too and forgot I was only 10. My Grandma Norma (maternal) lived upstairs in our home which was self contained with her own kitchen, etc.. She lived like a hermit whenever possible and didn’t interfere with our life downstairs. She always allowed me to escape in the spare bedroom, though. She had a “kids room” with all our toys. My cousins and I spent a lot of time in her upstairs spare room on the weekends when they visited.

My parents couldn’t afford the expense of a babysitter after they separated so I changed schools in 6th grade to a school closer to home and became a latchkey kid. Prior to that, I had been in school closer to my babysitter. After 2 weeks in a new school, the school district said the class was too full so I had to take a school bus to a different school across town. I changed schools again. My sister was in pre-school so she was put in a private school which allowed my dad to drop her off on his way to work because of the location. After school and evenings, I filled the caregiving gaps.

I think donuts and cupcakes were my savior, hence my extreme obesity problem throughout life. The truth is, when you are 10 and you start every morning before school trying to dress a crabby 5 year old while walking on eggshells around an angry adult who needs help putting his socks on, cupcakes make life better!

My dad’s frustration turned to anger and I clearly recall him exiting stage left in a rage during one too many family counseling sessions, To him, this was just a bunch of know it all’s trying to interfere in his business. I needed out. I was not allowed to have feelings or an opinion. I was to shut up and handle it all without question. My mission in life became clear;  escape being the target of his anger.

By the time I was 15, I could manage household basics, well. I could hold down a job, well. I could go to school and maintain a C average, just skating by in every class so I could pass the tests. I had a few teachers that had a sense of what I was going through but I don’t think it was within their control to react. In high school, making it to my 1st period English class my junior year was hard. Really hard. It’s not because I wasn’t applying myself. It’s because I worked late the night before.

After  huge blowout with my dad, I left home. I was 16 and still a junior in high school. I stayed with my mom for a few weeks which was just enough time to get my drivers license. That ultimately led to my freedom.

I rented a room from a friend’s grandmother for awhile. I had attended church with the family in the past and felt a sense of fellowship in the beginning. I think it made me feel “normal,” whatever that means. After several months I was overwhelmed with school and work so I chose not to attend church service some days and eventually was told I couldn’t live there unless church was a priority. Paying rent wasn’t enough. This was my first experience with organized religion and how I learned there are conditions of acceptance. I started out couch surfing after that. Believe me when I tell you that I will never forget the first and last name of every single person that took me in. Words cannot ever express the depth of my gratitude. I could not have made it without them.  I signed my first lease at 18 in the most disgusting apartment ever but it was mine so I didn’t care. For me, childhood is just one of those things I wish I had. Moving out and finding my way was the beginning of my trial and error. It’s how I ended up living in 5 states and 14 cities (If I’ve counted right).

It’s been a colorful experience. I’ve started over too many times to count. I’ve started over, alone in a new state many, many times. I have gained an amazing chosen family along the way. Life has kicked my ass, it is true. It’s a blessing that I have survived, persevered and am here to tell you about it. To me, that is everything.

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