On February 4th 2008, I sent out an invitation for students and staff members at my school to participate in the This I Believe project. I had no way of knowing that I was about to reexamine my own beliefs.
In January of the same year, I sustained an injury to my back. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time one day—namely, a stairwell leading to a staircase that a student was trying to run down in an attempt to leave the secure setting of the residential treatment program where I work. Due to concerns that she would be at risk to hurt herself in the community, another staff member and I stepped in and took her arms, holding her until she was able to calm down. As I moved to take hold of her left arm, I twisted my back. I knew immediately that something was very wrong and was diagnosed with a pulled muscle causing severe back spasms that had me out of work for three days.
During the first weeks of February, I was telling myself that the pain I felt in my hip was in no way related to the events in early January. Come the middle of that month, however, I found myself out of work again, this time visiting an orthopedic surgeon. Following three weeks of agonizing back pain– not entirely numbed by heavy doses of narcotics– I had surgery to remove a herniated disc. As of today, April 21, I have a 66% chance of recovering without needing further back surgery and suffer from foot drop in my right foot, a condition that makes it impossible for me to lift my foot at the ankle.
My grandfather was a World War II veteran who was a double amputee as a result of injuries from shrapnel that buried its way into his legs during the Battle of the Bulge. He had wooden legs that he would don when we went on outings, but most of the time he was at home he used a wheelchair. I didn’t realize that other kids’ grandpas didn’t ride around in wheelchairs until I was ten or eleven. My grandfather never complained to me about losing his legs, even when I was old enough to learn from him about his experiences as a soldier and the injuries that ended his active army career.
The last time I saw my grandfather was a few months before his death from lung cancer. We sat on the porch of his home in California, surrounded by his favorite fig and lemon trees. He turned to me and said, “Just remember this: big things are big, and little things are little.”
I may never chase my son across the park again, but I am still able to hug him, work to help adolescents in need, and love and be loved by my friends and family. These are the things that I believe are big, that sustain me.
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