Trying To Find Meaning In An Accident

It’s been 2.5 weeks since I slid a few feet down a mountain, broke my ankle and the tibia and fibula bones in my leg, got helicoptered out, and had a surgery called Open Reduction and International Fixation, meaning I now have a rod and several screws in my leg and will get stopped whenever I go through metal detector (I think that last detail is kind of cool, at least in theory. At least my kids think it’s cool). I have spent most of my post-accident time staring at a lot of things. The lake outside my hospital room in the Adirondacks (Saranac Lake). The bright blue bruising on my thigh and big toe. The weird swollen transformation of my left leg. The mountains I wasn’t climbing. The photos my husband took of the people who helped rescue me and also the photo of me flying through the air on a harness up toward the helicopter. I thought I would also get a lot of reading and writing done. Or at least I could get caught up on email. But apparently you can’t read or write on OxyCodone. At least I couldn’t. 

Now that I am no longer in constant pain, and I’m off prescription pain killers (yes! because that was scary), it seems a good time to ease back into writing. But my brain is frustratingly resistant to this plan. I wonder why. Self defense? Denial? An absorption of bad habits (I did a lot of googling in the hospital so why not just keep googling away the mornings)? Laziness? Tiredness? Inertia? Self-pity? Disinterest? I’m hoping to ignore all of the unhelpful signals I’m sending myself right now (don’t write don’t write don’t write) (instead of writing, sleep! Stare out the window! Make granola! Buy weird things on Amazon! Do yoga! Sleep! Watch your leg!) and instead force myself to sit in this now uncomfortable desk chair and do the work. My plan: write 140 characters for Twitter. Write a few blog posts. Do some critique-free journaling about details of the accident. Respond to some writing related emails. Find a way to sit comfortably with my leg elevated. Send out a few stories to journals/magazines. Then start on a children’s story. Then get back to the monster project I was working on (before the “vacation”) about the end of the world.  

Thoughts about my accident and writing: I fell several feet coming down from Algonquin in the Adirondacks at a steep part of the trail. I must have landed in the worst way possible because several feet is not that far to fall. I don’t remember falling, but I remember suddenly being on my back, and a man — Tim, who I like to think of as my guardian stranger–rushed over and said, “Are you okay?” and “Oh God,” and “You are really hurt. You have a bad injury.” and “Are you hiking alone?” I looked at my leg and saw something was very wrong with it, it was twisted at an odd terrible angle, so I closed my eyes and didn’t open them again for a long time. Tim called for my husband. “Your wife is hurt,” he shouted. “Come quickly!” My husband must have started running, as Tim added, “Not that quick,” worried there would be another fall. Tim held onto my left hand. With my right hand, I gripped my husband’s arm and left nail marks in his skin as they tried to straighten out and stabilize my leg. My daughter’s stuffed animal lamb was used as a cushion. I really wanted someone to stick something in my mouth that I could bite down on, a stick, or ? That idea didn’t seem to go anywhere. At least no one agreed to put a stick in my mouth. Tim covered me with his rain coat. Passing hikers stopped by and asked how they could help. I was hysterical for a while. I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn’t have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil. Time slowed. My daughter held my hand and touched my face. This was not how I wanted my children to see me. I needed both of my hands held at all times as that grounded me. My legs were shaking and my teeth were chattering though I wasn’t cold, and the shaking made the pain worse. My husband tried to distract me by reading Castle of Llyr to my kids and to me. That book unfortunately is my least favorite Chronicles of Pyrdian book. Somehow our cell phones worked. A younger couple had called 911 and was connected with DEC dispatch, and was told a helicopter and some rangers were coming out, resulting in the longest 2.5 hours of my life. The rescue helicopter arrived, hovered over us, then flew off, then circled back again, hovered, and flew off. The helicopter blades created a tremendous noise and its wind shook the trees. The fly-bys were because the pilot had to burn fuel before evacuating me from the mountain. Something about the warmer weather. I closed my eyes and pretended the helicopter was never going to come, that this was my new reality, lying in the middle of the trail with my destroyed leg surrounded by my pain. When I opened my eyes, a ranger was next to me, preparing the harness. I assumed I would be getting pain meds. I assumed I would be taken up in some kind of cot-like stretcher. But no pain meds and no stretcher. At some point my husband was busy preparing to help move me to the pick-up spot, while my daughter was helping radio the helicopter, which meant no one was holding my hand. The feeling of my hand adrift left me panicked. I began opening and closing my hand, and when Tim saw this, he held onto me. The ranger said, “Grab onto this here, but don’t touch that,” pointing to the contraption that would be hooked into the wire lowering down from the helicopter.  I didn’t totally understand but then that might have been the point of the situation, a lack of recognizable logic and sense.   

When I’ve gone through traumatic and difficult events in the past, I’ve always felt like I’ve had two selves experiencing the scene: my writing self and my regular self. The writing self takes a step back, taking notice of small details, and points out interesting observations, assuring me that whatever I am going through, it will be worthwhile, as I might be able to use it in my writing somehow. This accident was strange because it was like my writing self jumped ship and abandoned me, and all I had was myself, freaking out from the pain, and from the uncertainty about how and when I was going to get down the mountain.

Still, I knew I wanted a notebook with me as a kind of talisman. When the helicopter was on its way, I asked my husband to gather together a few items I could bring to the hospital. My phone, insurance card, kindle, and most importantly this green notebook and pen. I kept repeating myself, asking him to make sure the notebook would go with me. I imagined writing down a narrative of the accident, and writing down how it felt to be raised in a harness toward a hovering helicopter, meaning I left my children and husband below on the ground, while the sun was about to settle behind the mountains, knowing my family still had three hours of hiking left to go. The final light on the tops of the trees was golden and powerful. That narrative never emerged. I would go on to write only three small pages over the next 2 days in the hospital, and after that, up until this point, I’ve written nothing. I want to understand this block, my disinterest, for the first time, in recording a dramatic life-changing event. But I don’t understand it. I only know it’s still there and I still need to push against it, this curtain surrounding the actual experience around which it’s very difficult to form the words.

I think part of the difficulty in writing about this is that it was a freak accident. No one can be blamed. I was wearing trusty hiking boots and poles. I was going slowly. It was just that the trail was wet. Everyone was slipping. My husband had slipped minutes before. A woman had slipped and split open her arm a few minutes before that. Me crashing down there and having surgery and having to hobble about on crutches seems to be serving no higher or interesting or illuminating purpose. There seems to be a lack of complexity in this situation and perhaps the point of view that I’m most familiar with–mine–is the least interesting and most predictable point of view, for storytelling purposes at least.


When the author Colum McCann spoke in Syracuse last year, he touched upon an assault he experienced after intervening in a domestic dispute, and how afterwards, something changed in him, and he felt it necessary to go back and revise most of the stories in his upcoming book Thirteen Ways of Looking. It sounded like he gained some deep understanding through his own pain and from the violence inflicted on him from another person. Is it different when one’s physical injury comes from an accident? In such a situation, can anything be gained?

I think so, though some of the revelations I’ve had are very personal and perhaps less relevant to everyone else. For instance, I had never before reached my limits of how much physical pain I can endure. Now I can say that I’ve been there to that bleak place. Previously the most pain I felt was natural childbirth, which didn’t come close to approaching the feeling of having my leg splinted sans painkillers before I was taken up in the helicopter. (I also wonder productive pain–i.e. you will have a baby when you’re done with this!–may be easier to bear than non-productive pain.) I would like someday to try and describe the experience of that pain more, how animalistic it was, overriding any rational thought and hope. How even though it lasted only 2 minutes, that time expanded and became everything. I think I may only be able to describe it through metaphor. 

Another revelation: there is still such kindness in the world. How beautifully intuitive it is, to reach out toward a person in enormous pain and hold their hand. The fact that humanity is still a kind species is so easy to forget if you read the news. There are so many little incidents of kindness that I’ve experienced these past two weeks. How the man who held my hand on the mountain, Tim, walked with my family down the mountain in the dark back to our cabin. How he offered to carry my daughter when she started hiking slowly. The PA at Lake Placid who told me I needed to have surgery. After he told me this, I began crying, and he placed his hand on my arm. After feeling such enormous pain in my leg, his simple touch was a revelation, compassionate and gentle. The high school girl who kept me company beside Heart Lake and I swear I saw in her glimpses of my 8 year old daughter. I thought, I am seeing how good and kind and empathetic my future daughter is going to be. It was a beautiful vision and I was so grateful for it. Everyone who shared their stories of how they healed from similar injuries. The woman in her 80’s who was grocery shopping in Lake Placid, she was leaving the store bathroom while I was entering, and she held the door for me. A minute later, she re-entered the bathroom, and said she was going to wait for me, because the door was very heavy and she didn’t want me to be trapped in the bathroom with my crutches. While I washed my hands, she struggled with the automatic paper towel machine and handed me a neatly folded paper towel. It’s not like she was in great health herself. She told me she was a retired nurse and knew how hard it was getting around on crutches. She opened the bathroom door for me, which wasn’t a simple task for her either–what’s up with such heavy non-automatic bathroom doors, people?!–and then she wished me luck and went on her way.

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