This past weekend I decided to volunteer. It is crazy to think back at my high school days when my mom “forced” me, per say, so lend my time to others. Now, it almost comes naturally. With 7 months of San Diego sunshine under my belt, I think it was time for me to give back to the community, and of course, I chose Therapeutic Recreation Services. For those not familiar with this organization, TRS is focused on special needs inclusion; they put on recreational programs for kids and adults with disabilities all year round.
I woke up Saturday feeling a little groggy. I don’t know why (perhaps it’s the unemployment bug), but it has been very difficult to get out of bed in a good mood lately. After 2 outfit changes, I was greeted by warm ocean air as I stepped out the door. If you haven’t been to San Diego, there is just one thing you need to know: EVERYONE loves activity. It was barely 9am and there were people everywhere. Walking, jogging, biking, skateboarding, elliptical-riding (don’t ask me the technical term, but that’s exactly what it looks like), and of course, hand cycling.
I volunteered for the hand cycling program, geared towards getting participants without full lower body function up and moving. Allow me to introduce the hand cycle:
Though it seems like an innovative, breezy ride, let me tell you, you’ve got to have some serious guns to operate it. Hence, the star of my story emerges. Bill was a 60-something man who had wheeled in, in what I could describe as a ‘groggy’ mood (coincidence?).
“Mariana, you’ll be escorting Bill. Grab a bike” the volunteer coordinator directed me
I am not going to lie. It was a very intimidating feeling. Transferring him from the chair to the bike, strapping on his helmet, and buckling him in, felt a lot different than my usual 8 year-old encounter, but after a few helmet changes, we were ready to roll ( pun intended).
“This helmet is so fashion forward Bill!” I said, attempting to break the ice
“Fashion forward? What does that mean?” He inquired about the foreign terminology
After a very comical explanation (I’m a hand talker), Bill and I were both a little more relaxed. It took me a few minutes to realize that his disability was only physical, but a lot longer to discover that this would be one of the most interesting bike rides I had ever been on.
“I traveled around Europe for 100 days in 1970. Hitchhiked the whole way and only spent about $850,” he narrated in such an enticing way that I almost crashed my bike a few times. He explained how normal that was back then and the 35 cent nightly rates you could score at youth hostels (I know!).
“I traveled for 23 days and spent triple that amount!” I countered back to him.
By now, you might be wondering the same thing I was 2 miles into our ride.
What had gone wrong? Why was this traveling college math teacher in a wheelchair?
I wasn’t keeping track of the mileage, but I do know that 2 hours had gone by before we decided to stop to rest. It was then that I mustered up the courage to ask him about the accident.
“It happened a year after my Europe trip, in 1971. I was graduating college in Minnesota, and a few of us were partying deep in the woods. Laughing, drinking, and jumping off a small cliff into the water were the activities running the show that night. I was one of the last to jump, unaware that the raft sitting on the water had shifted positions. I hit my head so hard that the next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital”
According to the kids who found him (15 minutes after the fall), there was no pulse. CPR and 45 minutes later (waiting for the EMTs), and Bill had had his whole life changed in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t until he regained consciousness that the doctors realized he had no feeling in his lower extremities.
“I still have the travel bug though. I went back to Europe 8 years later and I sat in my chair observing travelers go about their way,” Bill continued, as if I wasn’t still processing Part I of that story.
I guess I have a tendency to ask myself the wrong questions sometimes. It wasn’t about why he was hurt, but, instead, why he was still alive? Why was he there on Saturday? Why was I his escort?
“Bill, but how did you deal with it? I can’t imagine having my legs taken away from me,” I truly couldn’t stop asking him questions about his transition back into the world.
“ I remember looking out the window with frustration and seeing everyone doing the things I was once a part of, but then I remembered: I’m alive”
Bill is fearless.