My life could have been different. I had plans, goals and dreams like every human being. It started well and I took it all for granted. I was happy with what I had already achieved. At the age of 28 I was a renowned ice hockey player for the Chicago Black Hawks. I had a lucrative career, a large apartment on a 39th floor in the city center with the most incredible views of Lake Michigan. As soon as I graduated from college, the NHL approached me with a four-year contract I couldn’t refuse. I gave my best as a striker for my team, and I was promoted captain with another eight-year extension. Without being a conceited person, because honestly I am not, I think I was a respected and well-liked athlete. According to my many friends, I was an upbeat and funny guy, friendly and always in a good mood, except right after a lousy game. Also according to my female supporters I was rather good looking, but unfortunately for all of them already taken. I was in a serious relationship with a charming girl I had known forever. As far as I can remember we were neighbors in a small town in Illinois, and we literally grew up together. The idea of getting married one day and start a family became natural, and more obvious as time passed by. It would also put an end to the harassing impatience of both of our families. But a twist of fate decided otherwise.
My whole universe was turned upside down in the blink of an eye. In a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins I, Matthew Vincent, leader of my team was knocked down pretty bad by an opponent. Hockey is a rough and violent sport, but we are all tough and well-trained guys who relish the rush of adrenaline and testosterone that boost us during a game. It acts like a drug which enhances our reflexes and increases our speed. We can easily forget our manners, and our self control can face a fierce challenge. Right now I can tell you both my mental and physical states are severely tested, because this fall left me a paraplegic. I broke my T10/T11 vertebras severing my spinal cord. The irony of the situation in all this mess is that right before the shock, I could score for the victory which led my team to the Playoffs, but I didn’t even see the puck enter the net.
Since my injury Melissa is devastated and withdrawn. Even if she doesn’t miss a day and doesn’t leave my hospital bedside, it is always with a rueful face and watery eyes. I hate so much those pitiful and painful looks she tries to hide without success. Sometimes she can’t help bursting into tears when she tries to assist me in sitting up in my bed, transferring into my wheelchair to go to the bathroom, or witness my pain and my acute spasms. I feel she is suffering more than me and it is unbearable. I don’t feel any comfort when she is around, and after her visits I feel more depressed with a total lack of energy. Am I asking too much from her? Should I hide my pain, my everyday routine as a paraplegic from the woman who is supposed to share my life for better or worse? At that time of our lives, it is not an understatement to say we are facing the worst, but it is going to be my daily reality for God’ sake!
As I am trying my hardest to cope and deal with this terrible blow, she is appalled and apparently in denial. She thinks I am going to walk again, thanks to some kind of science progress. And why not putting my ice skates on and go back to training? However, she is with me when the neurologist comes with his team to run a battery of tests on my entire body. I am stung, poked, prodded in every part of my anatomy for an hour, but I guess Melissa covers her ears not to hear the fateful truth:
- Incomplete paraplegia leading to the inability to walk. Maybe with a lot of exercises and months of training under a close surveillance, I will be able to stand with leg braces and crutches. What for? Taking a few steps with the help of therapists who will lift my feet one at a time to make me feel I’m walking? Terrific!
- Complete lack of sensation from the right hip to the toes.
- Partial feeling in the left side with 10 to 20 % sensitivity in the left hip, thigh and foot.
- No bladder control which will require a lifetime use of disposable catheters at regular hours. Lucky me, I escaped the indwelling catheter, meaning the permanent leg bag in a more informal language.
- Very little bowel control which will need a special program to be determined.
- As per the painful muscle contractions and the frequent spasms, a variety of painkillers, antispasmodics, muscle relaxants and sleeping pills will be tested. What an attractive future! I am going to become a wheelchair drug addict.
Ah! I am about to forget the most important part of my anatomy: my reproductive system. This one is much more complicated and less precise. It depends on which nerves are damaged in my back, so it is going to be a step by step discovery. Anyhow, my spinal cord is still too swollen to perform an accurate diagnosis yet. One physiological certainty though: if I ever have an erection again regardless of stimulation, manual or chemical, I won’t be able to feel it. It will purely be a mechanical reflex. But I knew this from the beginning. If I cannot feel what’s between my legs or when I need to pee, how could I feel if I have a hard on? I have one consolation prize nonetheless. I am told to be lucky to ‘only’ have a rather low injury which leaves me with full control of my arms, torso and part of my abs. I will still be able to be completely independent, work out, swim and maybe practice an adaptive sport for the disabled.
Melissa doesn’t ask any questions about all these medical issues. She seems to be only concerned about me walking. Is she really giving up on sex? We had an active and harmonious intimate life. I was her first and that made her special to me. But now I could never make love to her the way I used to, and I am not ready to experiment what this part of my body is still capable of. Not anytime soon and not with her. The idea of being naked in bed with her seems surreal. I see how she reacts when she looks at my bare lifeless legs or my scarred back and it upsets me. It is like she is ashamed of something or worse: disgusted. As if she is looking at a poor cripple, a total stranger and as days go by, this is exactly what I feel. We became strangers. This is why I decide to break up with her and call my best friend Ted for support. I ask him to keep her away from me, take her out and do anything in his power to make her forget me. I know they like each other as friends, but I also expect they will become more intimate. You are going to tell me: Why on earth would you be so masochistic and throw the towel so easily? Ask your close friend to go out with your future wife to be and be ok with it? That’s ludicrous. Of course Ted has the stormy reaction to be expected in such an akward situation,
“What? Are you insane? Are you sure you didn’t have a concussion or some kind of brain damage to be so full of shit? You have known each other forever, she loves you, you are getting married remember?”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you. It is not going to happen and I mean it. My brain is perfectly fine and I have thought this through for days and nights, believe me. All I could do those past few months is: think. This accident made me realize I like Melissa as a childhood friend, a best pal whom I grew up with. We have fond memories, a similar past and a lot in common. She is a beautiful and smart girl, but this hardship made me realize that I don’t love her enough to spend a whole life with. I am sure her feelings for me changed too, and her reaction is not the one I expected it to be. I don’t want to be a lifelong ball and chain for her. Without a doubt she is uncomfortable with my disability and I can’t stand the pity in her eyes, the sadness and the constant embarrassment she is unable to conceal. When she happens to touch my paralyzed legs, when she sees me insert a catheter into my dick, or when my whole body is struck by a bad spasm attack, she breaks down. That’s what my fucking life is going to be! Who would want such a weight on one’s shoulders? Not her, obviously.”
“But she’s just scared. Give her some time to process. Don’t be so harsh on her. You know it’s taken a toll on everyone’s spirit too.”
“Don’t you think I’m scared too? I’m the one lying on this bed for weeks depending on good Samaritans or humiliating devices to take a piss or a shit. I would have expected a little more support from Mel by now. All I get from her is pity, compassion and constant tears. I know she is depressed, but I don’t want to be the one to cheer up the other. I can’t pretend to be the strong one and tell her all is going to be perfect again. I need to get a grip on myself. In order to do so I need some back up and stimulation. Please I really need a hand right now. It will be hard at the beginning but a relief in the end for both of us. I can’t do it on my own and I wouldn’t ask anyone else.”
As I feared they both refuse my proposition. Ted calls it indecent and the most fucked up idea he ever heard. As for Melissa, I have to witness more sobbing, a complete lack of understanding and bitterness. That day she leaves telling me angrily, “Call me when you come to your senses”. I feel more downbeat than ever and guilty to be so blunt, seeming senseless. But I have to start this new wheelchair-bound life from scratch. Instead of hanging on to my blessed past I want to put it all behind me to erase what I have been as an able-bodied athlete. I don’t call her. She comes back more than once trying to change my mind but each time I do my best to discourage her. I am distant, I don’t get out of bed on purpose; merely talking and answering her questions curtly, even in an unfriendly tone. Worse, I don’t take my meds so she can see my spastic legs jumping and twitching like a leaf under the sheets. I hate myself because I am not that kind of guy and I only behave so wickedly with her. I am still the optimistic and cheerful friend to all my teammates, and my hospital room is always packed with people. My parents and my little sister are among the most faithful ones, and they alleviate my pain and my low spirits as soon as they show up. The nurses have to keep an eye on a few of my visitors though to prevent any bottles of alcohol from passing my doorstep. I heard the Russian player Yuri Wasylov who put me in the hospital tried to visit me, but my teammates are still so pissed off they made sure he won’t feel like coming back. That day he was admitted to the ER for a broken nose, a swollen lip and some stitches on his jaw. I didn’t want that. I don’t seek revenge. The police was called on the scene, but there was no complaint filed by the injured unwelcome visitor. He is definitely not my favorite player but unlike my friends, I frankly doubt he charged me on purpose and intended to put me in a wheelchair. I was right in front of the goal, ready to score. He went after the puck at full speed from behind and rammed into my back as it could happen to anyone in every game. Except this time ‘I’ was the one and I left the Arena strapped to a stretcher with a broken back. Do I wish him the same fate? No. Am I full of hatred? No. Am I outraged? Not even. Just a little bit angry at Lady Destiny.
After showing Melissa my worst side with a constant bad mood and an excessively unpleasant behavior, she starts to space out her visits. I am not proud of myself seeing her completely discouraged but still trying to be patient and ignoring my cynical comments. I am relieved though.
“What’s with you? Why are you so mean? I am trying to help you to get better. Why don’t you try harder? I don’t recognize you. You seem to have given up. I can’t do this. You are not the same anymore.”
“Of course I am not and I will never be. I am not asking you to stay with me and I don’t want you too. The little boy next door who played with you in the park is gone and our teenage years are over. We had great years together but it was in another time. Don’t hang on to those memories. They belong to the past. I am not that man anymore. Now you have to think about your future and it has to be without me. I set you free. I want to be by myself. Go out with your friends, travel, enjoy life. Melissa, I am begging you to forget me. We thought we were meant to be together but let’s face it, this hardship proves us otherwise. You would stay with me by duty and fidelity. This would be a big mistake. You think you still love me but you don’t. Not enough to overcome this. Don’t try anymore. I won’t hold it against you and I don’t blame you. I am the one who’s asking for this.”
Who can know her better than me? She knows I’m right. For a few weeks she tries again to talk me out of it, but I can feel she is not convinced herself and my decision is made and final, regardless.
When I am transferred to a rehabilitation center I firmly ask her using more harsh words to never come and visit me. I am aware at that time Ted followed my advice, reluctantly I have to say, but after my continuous hassle, Melissa has a shoulder to cry on and I feel less shameful. Plus he isn’t in the hockey field at all, so I can avoid them for some time and hang out with my sport buddies without bumping into them in the places I use to patronize.
I will not elaborate on my physical struggles in my four months rehab, because there is nothing pleasant neither funny to talk about. Except for maybe one episode when a bunch of friends, twelve to be exact, show up with the team bus to literally kidnap me to celebrate a good game. I am not ready for this, but I’m happy to leave my prison for a few hours. They have to haul me out of my wheelchair, carry me up in the bus and stash my gear in the luggage compartment. I am a bit anxious being seated in a normal seat and not having my chair close by, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal for anyone, so I relax. It is my first outing since the injury and oh boy, what a night! We go in a famous bar where everyone recognizes me and I am the hero of the place all evening as if I won the Stanley Cup. We have dinner while I get a precise report of the tonight’s game with lots of beer and wine glasses to drink to our victory. They bring me back in the middle of the night completely wasted, and looking back it was a stupid and dangerous thing to do. When the league and the coach hear about our nightly getaway, the whole team receives an official warning for improper conduct and the players are recalled for practice one day before the end of their break. As for me I learn the hard way painkillers, Baclofen and alcohol don’t get along. I have the worst spasm attack than ever for two days nonstop, and that is not taking into account the terrible hangover with a killing headache. The doctors have to strongly sedate me so I can relax and sleep.