I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days over “forks in the road” and “circles of life.”
This week marks a cataclysmic anniversary for me. It marks the fact that it has been twenty years since I took a hard fall from a tall horse going over a fence, as I tried to distract my demons of personal discontent and frustration with a new challenge. When I hit the dirt, hard, I was in such pain I couldn’t breathe. An ambulance ride later, I was in a hospital getting the news that I had broken my back. Yes, it was all just about as bad as it sounds.
The doctors who examined me deemed my situation to be too risky to attempt to stabilize surgically, so they sent me home after a few drug-addled, painkiller-soaked days, my back slightly arched and my torso wrapped in a fiberglass cast from collarbones to hips while my crunched vertebra healed on its own. The cast had a hole cut in the stomach region so that I could breathe. Hugging me, so I am told, was like trying to hug a lamp post. My youngest child, only three, would stand behind me as I did dishes at the kitchen sink, and rest his cheek on my posterior, where the hard cast ended and the soft mother he remembered began. Sometimes, in the evening as we watched TV, he snuggled his cheek against my stomach via the front opening of the cast. I didn’t have too many huggable places for several months.
There was a lot of pain and discomfort while I was stuck in the body cast, but there was a whole lot of pain after I was cut out of it too. I remember I slipped and fell on some wet leaves that evening, hitting a cement sidewalk, and the shock that went through me was absolutely searing. For years, the residual effects of the experience were enough to occasionally shut me down entirely or land me in the emergency room.
But as much as the temptation would be to look back and say “what if,” I don’t. And the “what ifs” could be many. What if…I had refused my riding instructor’s direction to take that fence a second time although I felt I needed more practice on the lower one. What if…I had heeded my instincts and just said “no.” What if…I had quit the jumping lessons just one lesson sooner, as I had been sorely tempted to do.
Well, for all those high costs of pain and struggle, this turned out to be an extraordinary gift. From that moment on, I quit turning a deaf ear to my instincts, to my inner voice, and I started paying attention. No longer would I ignore what I needed, what I wanted, what I thirsted for, just to keep the metaphorical boat of my life on an even keel because that’s what everyone else expected.
I switched careers from journalism to law, entering law school as a part-time student when I was forty. I thoroughly kicked ass at it…but the funny thing is, I had already entertained the notion of becoming a lawyer long before when I was a journalism student. Then a job at a big newspaper had opened up, and I never followed through. Somehow, surviving the accident got me looking back at that early fork in the road, and I decided to give that a try.
A career as a criminal prosecutor followed, but the love of writing still drew me back to the keyboard. And as I started blogging, I found that for the first time ever, I was writing simply for the joy of it and not to please an editor or a market. And I found I could do both things—law and writing—with passion. Who knew? If my life had once resembled a roadway with two lanes and destinations to choose from—be a lawyer or be a writer—the two had met up once again and the rhythm and energy they created together felt as natural as breathing.
I eventually pulled the plug on my marriage of twenty-five years, which had been on life-support roughly since just before the accident. My older children heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Without the wakeup call that the accident presented me with, I do not know if I would have had the courage to start speaking my mind, to listen to my heart, to say “enough is enough.”
And in another odd meandering twist in the journey entirely sparked by that fateful fall, I have wound up almost literally where I started. As a child growing up in Chicago, I spent long, lovely days on the Lake Michigan shoreline with my two aunts. I was enthralled and entertained by the waves, the tiny shells, the white-caps, the wind. These were my favorite childhood memories.
I have spent more than three decades inland, raising four children (as well as horses, dogs, cats, a couple of chameleons and, briefly, a pair of mice which had been a gift) on fourteen acres of fields and forests. It was splendid. It was inspiring. And there were sojourns to Lake Michigan every so often, which just whetted my longing for the shoreline.
Well, as fate would have it, the job I took less than a year from graduating from law school was in a small city on the Lake Michigan shore. The courthouse where I work is only a few blocks from the harbor, and more lunch hours than not will find me on a breakwater or a path along the lake. And when it came time to finally sell the empty nest, that’s just where I moved. My nine-minute commute now takes me along a bluff above the lake, and in the mornings as I drive, I see sunlight shimmering like silver off the surface of the water. And I think, yes, I wound up where I belong.
Okay, so the “circles of life” I think of may not be perfectly even, or separate, or unconnected. They more resemble the pattern of a Spirograph instead, overlapping, intersecting, repeating, pulling away and then coming together.
All I know is, that twenty years ago, a new direction, a new journey, a new horizon was forged from a near-tragedy. And I lift my glass, and celebrate, and give thanks.