On the Fourth of July 1999 I was bicycling across the bustling Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, on my way to an elderly woman’s home to help with her yard work. That’s what my former girlfriend tells me. I don’t know what thoughts passed through my mind or what my plans could have been for the evening of fireworks. I can’t remember if I was hurrying, pedaling hard and breathing deeply, or taking my time, enjoying the beauty of an island afternoon. I cannot remember because my body shattered the windshield of a car, and I landed in a comatose heap in the middle of an intersection, all thoughts and memories from the previous two years erased in one instant of violence.
I was unconscious for three days, but existing in such oblivion was the easy part. After finally coming to, after returning to the world of life, being me was difficult. My jaw was broken. Doctors suspected a tear in my heart and performed a risky operation whereby a long instrument was inserted in a vein in my leg and snaked up to my heart. But mostly, being me was difficult because my memory was badly damaged. I asked my nurses and parents and friends: “Why am I in the hospital?” I asked again in two minutes. I asked again in one. Occupational, speech, and physical therapy followed, and I began to struggle with a steady, draining depression, lost in a search for who I was.
In one moment of impact, my life had been swept away. I was no longer slated for college. Running, one of my passions too central to forget, was made impossible by my inability to breathe through the taut wires fastening my jaw. Scarce memories of my girlfriend drove an awkward wedge between us. I was irritable, slurping milkshakes and Cream of Wheat and pea soup through straws. I was feeble from weeks of lying in a hospital bed.
It is now in retrospect that I understand how the loss of myself offered me an opportunity that few people have: the ability to reinvent me. Gradually my memory improved. Suddenly all that I was reading, all that people said, all the colors and sounds and shapes of the world were deliberately tested for value. I was touching the fallen leaves of maples, using words of love and hate, exploring ideas by which most people mechanically live their lives. With pure strokes of chance and luck, by slowly whittling down the bulk of existence, what I believe came into shape before my very eyes.
Finally, two months later, I returned to Martha’s Vineyard. I rediscovered the island. I rediscovered morning light dancing on a harbor and the calm rhythm of waves. I strolled through towns and forests, held the hand of my lover, visited the elderly woman whose house I had never reached on that Fourth of July. In curiosity, I walked to the intersection that had stolen my life, and I stood there, renewed, understanding in a fresh way how lucky I am to be alive.
Life is luck, and luck is beautiful. This I believe.
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