In our young minds, the mile-long path down the cliffs between the campsite and the shore was much too far to walk. There had to be a quicker way, so my brother and I set out to find it.
In truth, it would have taken less than twenty minutes to hike the trail, but thirty minutes after wandering off into the bush, our thoughts had wandered off of our original mission of finding a shortcut to the beach, and we were fully engaged in the new adventure of exploring the sea bluffs of coastal Orange County, California.
Just looking at those pictures reminds me of what it was like to be nine. Growing up watching kids in G.I. Joe commercials push their toy tanks through the massive craters and monolithic dirt piles of their television studio backyards had left my brother and I feeling a little inadequate about our own more ordinary outdoor play space (which, in suburban Los Angeles terms, was actually rather generously sized and filled with plenty of Tonka-Truck-worthy obstacles… but the grass is always greener on the other side.) Suffice it to say, we were having the carefree time of our relatively young lives, traipsing around in the valleys of erosion lining the top edge of the majestic bluffs.
The story of exactly how I found myself dangling by my fingertips from a ledge some thirty-five feet above the hard-packed dirt and rock base of the cliff is one of those mysteries lost to the memories of boyhood. I’m sure the series of events which led to that situation made perfect sense to us at the time, (and, were I nine again, they might make perfect sense even now,) but the fog of responsible adulthood has overtaken and clouded the particulars. Yet I do remember the dangling. And while my twelve-year-old brother frantically searched for a means by which he could safely extract me from my predicament, I remember my arms getting tired. I remember the ledge starting to crumble. And, as the reality of discomfort began to distort and obscure the consequences of gravity in my mind, I distinctly remember making the decision to let go.
The possibility that someone could survive such a fall didn’t really register as a realistic one to the hiker on the trail below, but he scrambled up the scrub-covered embankment towards where I had landed anyway. The first thing he saw when he got there was me trying to sit up. “Don’t move!” he barked. And I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I had landed on my back at the rocky foot of the cliff; the rounded surface of a boulder protruding a few inches through the packed dirt had served as a pillow to cushion my head when I hit the ground. I don’t remember much about the next few minutes as the hiker summoned some beachgoers who transferred me to a surfboard and carried me up the trail to the top of the bluffs.
These were the days before cell phones or the widespread proliferation of 911, but it seems to me that the paramedics were already at the top of the cliff by the time we arrived there. My brother had charged back into the brush towards the campsite to find our parents. They were on their way to the scene. An ambulance was bouncing up the dirt road towards us. I remember being most concerned about the fact that the paramedics were cutting my favorite shirt off of me (it was a shirt my grandparents had brought back from Hawaii for me, and everyone in the family had a matching one. Now I was going to be the only person left out – stupid paramedics.)
They kept missing the vein they were trying to get an IV into. They were on one of those phones-in-a-toolbox-to-the hospital, like Station 51’s Kelly and DeSoto used to talk to Dr. Brackett back at Rampart in the television series Emergency!, which was a favorite of my brother’s and mine at the time.
Apparently, Dr. Brackett told the paramedics to forget about the IV and just get me to the hospital. But an ambulance was apparently not an expedient enough conveyance, and the bumpy dirt road presented the added risk of compounding the multiple fractures I was sure to have. A helicopter had already been dispatched. It was landing as my parents ran up to the scene. In one of the cruelest bits of misapplied imagery ever, I’m told the paramedics pulled a white sheet over my head as my parents approached (in an effort to keep the dust kicked up by the rotors out of my eyes.) I think my mom needed as much medical attention as I did at that moment.
I remember hallucinating in the helicopter. I was the only passenger, but I remember having conversations with all the other patients on board nonetheless. I remember overhearing the pilot tell the co-pilot that we were going to crash because we were running out of fuel (is it even possible to overhear someone ten feet away from you in a helicopter mid-flight?)
I don’t remember being taken into the hospital, but I recall experiencing the first of the many massive and recurrent headaches that continue to this day while lying on that hard table under the blinding lights and X-ray machines. I remember being mortified that they were trying to take my swim trunks off (the two X-ray techs were girls!) I didn’t know where I was, who these people were, and why no one that I did know was around. And for some reason, everyone seemed to be very concerned with not letting me fall asleep…
…I remember waking up on a gurney in what seemed like a hallway, with tubes running into my nose and arm. Things were beeping. There were stitches in my head. Someone wearing scrubs stuck a needle into one of the tubes. I slept again. I don’t know what else happened. At some point, a doctor had apparently told my parents that I would most likely be quadriplegic if I survived.
I remember being pushed outside in a wheelchair and put into a car. I slept again. I remember waking up on the bed in our motor home back at the campsite. I was many shades of black and purple. A tanned teenager poked his head in the door and asked if he could get his surfboard back. Apparently, it was only the day after the accident.
A few days later, I would join my family for one last look out over the ocean from a vantage point near where the helicopter had picked me up (and from which the picture at the end of this story was taken twenty-three years later.) I would walk there on my own power.
The original diagnosis of paralysis was probably made before the doctor even saw me. It was clearly a jump to what seemed like a logical conclusion; no one could fall that distance and land like that in those conditions and walk away. It would be remarkable if they lived at all. But the X-rays taken by the hospital revealed not one broken bone. Not a single one. None. I sustained a concussion. I think my brother was examined for the scratches he received from charging through the brush to make sure he hadn’t been bitten by the snakes that inhabited the scrub.
Premature or not, that original diagnosis has always stuck in my mind as something significant. I don’t think it was unrealistic, or not medically well-founded. I shouldn’t have come away from that accident in the condition I did – a fact I’ve tried not to lose sight of since.
I don’t claim to have been healed of those terrible wounds – I believe I was protected from ever sustaining them in the first place. In the nearly twenty-five years since that day, I’ve given quite a bit of thought as to why.
There is a great myth perpetuated among mankind that each of our lives is centered on some singular great purpose. Many of us are in search of that defining moment: the act, experience or time that will leave us resolved that this was what I was made to do. But in our zeal to find and devote ourselves to that one great thing, we may miss the real purpose and joy of life along the way.
If I bought into that myth, I might be inclined to wonder if that thing already happened for me and I missed it. Maybe it was in college or at some former job, or in something that happened in Malaysia or Lebanon, or maybe it was in giving that shoeless guy a ride home a couple of years ago. Maybe it was all of that and more. Maybe my purpose has been accomplished by now, and I’ve just been lucky enough since then not to have been caught in a situation that, without some sort of intervention, should logically have resulted in my end.
I think a lot of us spend so much of our time and energy preparing for where we might end up that we have little left to spend on where we actually are. We’re afraid that exploring the edge of life will leave us unprepared for the “next big thing,” and so we stick to the safe path that we think will lead us somewhere productive. Or maybe we live in the fear that the next cliff we encounter will result in the end of our story (or at least our paralysis,) and that thought makes us want to stay away from the edge altogether.
But when we stay away from the edge, we miss the beauty of the ocean view.
Jesus knew it would be our tendency to be preoccupied with our future, and he shared His thoughts on the better way to live when He said that our heavenly father knows our every need (see Matthew 6:25-34.) His alternative instructions:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (v.34, The Message)
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