On June 18, 1993, my father dove into a pool, hit the bottom with his forehead, and was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. It was two days before my 8th birthday.
Being a child carries certain advantages in the midst of crisis. Most notably, adults never let you in on the most harrowing details. I remember walking into my father’s room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for the first time after the accident. He was covered in tubes and wires, his head immobilized by a halo vest. The man was in terrible shape, heartbreaking to look at, but characteristically optimistic.
Because he couldn’t turn his head, a stool had been placed by his bedside so I could stand tall enough to see him and he me. He smiled and easily assuaged my anxiety. As a child, my first impulse was—naturally—to ask a 1,000 questions, but I started with just one: “What’s on the inside of your vest?”
My father couldn’t speak. The severity of his injury made inhaling and exhaling next to impossible, so a tracheostomy tube had been placed in his neck to do his breathing for him. The operation left him temporarily mute. But, with big animated lips he enunciated silently, “SHEEP’S WOOL.”
I repeated it back to him, “Sheep’s wool?”
And he mouthed, “BAAAAAAAH!” Later we had banana popsicles and made a game of lip reading. It was a very good day made even better by the fact I had absolutely no clue my father had been given only ten years to live…tops.
Dad tells me that soon after the accident he found himself praying for God to let him die. If he couldn’t live his life from the neck down, he couldn’t find any satisfaction in living at all. Then he thought about me, his only child. He says he was immediately regretful and began to bargain instead. “Let me see him graduate high school. Let me get him through childhood.” My father decided that even if he had to spend the rest of his life sitting down, he could still be a good dad.
From that day on, my father lived, in part, for milestones. The first—see me graduate high school. Defying the odds, he met that one easily in June 2003, almost ten years to the day he broke his neck. So, he set a new one—see me get married. Five years later, he sat among 200 guests as I married my high school sweetheart of eight years. Having now lived half again as long as anyone thought he would, he set a third goal—see me have children of my own. On November 16, 2011, he was physically incapable of making the three-hour drive to see his grandchildren on their birthday. He was completely devastated.
Outliving one’s life expectancy is bittersweet, the bitterest year now almost behind us. When the doctors gave my father ten years to live, he budgeted his modest wealth to last right around 15…just in case. When his financial resources dried up in 2009, he began borrowing against the value of his home to pay for his 24/7 live-in caregiver. It wasn’t a sustainable endeavor, and he knew it. So, in September of 2011, my father sold his house, auctioned off nearly all of his possesions, and moved into a nursing home.
I don’t presume to know what astounding feats of personal strength it took for my father to live this long, both physical and psychological, but I know anticipating these milestones has sustained him. So, it was a really special event to watch my dad reach his third the day after Christmas: to meet his two grandchildren for the first time. It was something I don’t think either of us could have realistically hoped for a decade ago.
But standing there, watching him bask in the serenity of becoming a grandfather, I realized that this would likely be the final milestone he’d see me reach. And I wasn’t the least bit concerned or disheartened. He had already moved onto something new; we both had.
I can’t tell you how many more years my father has left: probably two, maybe five? It’s difficult to say. What I can say is that it feels good to step out of the spotlight and join him in the audience for our remaining time together. He’ll certainly be a wealth of inspiration and a lot to live up to. But, as I see it, if I can be half as devoted to my children standing up as he’s been to me sitting down, I’ll be the second best father who ever lived.