Thursday morning, flying West towards Los Angeles --
When I was 21, I spent about six months living in the West. Its landscapes are woven into my memories because of the beauty and the pain that I experienced there.
Packing for this trip, colors started coming back to me. It was Arizona, not California, where I am heading now. But I think of them together, a stark contrast to the Deep South, the rolling hills of green, and my Florida hometown.
The colors come back to me because it’s where I almost lost them.
At 21, a brand-new college graduate, I drove my car cross-country, packed with all my worldly belongings. (Well, to be fair, a boyfriend did most of the driving while I started out the window and changed CDs.) Stopping along the way, I posted for photos at Graceland, in front of bull sculptures in Texas, at a random wax museum somewhere. This was back when we took our disposable cameras to Eckerd for glossy prints.
Now, when I pull those shots out of boxes I think, “What’s up with the high-waisted jeans and super layered short hair?” It was the 90s.
I went to Phoenix for a Pulliam Fellowship, a prestigious internship deluxe. (There was actually no difference between us and the other interns accept the term “fellows.” We all listened to the police scanners and pooled our money for beer.)
One weekend we went camping in northern Arizona, a mountainous landscape vastly different than that of the flat, arid Phoenix. I don’t remember anything about the trip, just what happened in the parking lot of my apartment when we’d returned and I was unpacking the car.
The trunk was filled with stuff – clothes, remnants of groceries, and beer bottles. I reached down and grabbed one to throw out. It was still full of beer and covered in gunk. Without thought, my hands sticky in the hot August sun, I walked to a dumpster and tossed it in.
The next thing I knew I was nearly knocked to the ground, with a flash and blinding light, a pain like I’d never known. I staggered to my apartment, looking at my hands, covered in blood. Only I couldn’t really see. Oh my God, what was happening?
My heart races as I write this, 20 years later on a plane to Los Angeles to visit my brother, a visceral, guttural feeling with the flashbacks of standing in the bathroom. What was wrong with my eye? Why was everything blurry? The blood on my hands, where did all the blood come from?
I don’t remember getting to the hospital, just my friend Alisa being there, and holding a towel to my face. I called my parents, who were visiting my brother in Hersey Pennsylvania, where he was working as a dancing chocolate bar.
And the waiting – I remember that. So long to see the doctors, with nothing for the pain. Just in case what? Just in case they had to operate? I knew that something was wrong, piecing together what had happened. The bottle, the dumpster, the sound as it hit the side. There was glass buried in my eye.
It’s a pretty freaky story, right?
The recovery was long and painful. The glass had torn through my eyelid, into my eye, and into the retina. The surgeon said I was within a millimeter of losing it, and that the surgery they performed wasn’t available a decade before. My father, having flown cross-country in a panic upon getting the hospital call, saw me in the hospital bed, the patch covering heavy gauze.
He was the first one, after the nurses, to change the dressing and apply the concoction of medicines to my eye, which was bruised and stitched, like I’d been beaten.
You learn things when you nearly lose an eye. Like, “You can tell a lot about a guy who doesn’t want to date a girl with an eye patch.” One of two boyfriends I had at the time (ah, youth) tried to hide his looks of horror. The other didn’t flinch, and patiently changed the dressing. Guess which one I dated the rest of the summer?
“Did you get in a bar fight?” the writers and editors at the paper joked. It was such a weird and horrific story, always ending in me saying, “And it happened in the middle of the day. I wasn’t even drinking,” which was true. It was a bizarre fluke. It was also painful and embarrassing and I was ashamed and carried the weight of shame though really it was just an accident.
So my Phoenix stay was extended, and I worked at the paper, learning to look at a computer with one eye and struggling with crippling headaches and the fog of pain meds.
With limited depth perception, I walked into things, and felt off-balance in every surrounding. When I could drive again I had to regain confidence that I could stay in a single lane. Driving at night? Nope.
When my friend Jenny visited me and we drove to the Grand Canyon I took one look at it and was all, “I’ll met you in the gift shop because I don’t want to fall in.” (Also I love gift shops, sometimes more than natural wonders.)
My roommate, a full-time newspaper staffer, opened her beautiful apartment to me and I watched as she navigated adult life effortlessly. Sundays were for cleaning, letter writing and phone calls. She was methodical and structured and I was 21 with an eye patch and no idea about what I’d do next.
I moved to Birmingham. I became a health reporter – totally by accident, as there was no one else at the paper to do that job. I felt a sort of comfort walking the halls of hospitals, drawn to stories of the body broken and repaired, or not. For years I made telling stories about that a career – as a health reporter, and then writing stories for a university cancer center. When offered a job at a magazine, surrounded by pretty things and not illness, I was ready.
As years went by, I thought less of the eye – really not at all – except for the yearly visit to the retina specialist. Each year he’d declare that the healing from my accident was a miracle, and that I was one lucky girl to have almost all of my sight restored. I wanted to vomit when they dilated my eyes, something that’s not fun for anyone, but particularly challenging if you were traumatized by well, a big piece of glass.
On my first trip for the magazine, I flew to Houston (strangely enough, where my LA flight departed from today). Accompanied by a photographer, I was writing a story on a new, urban park, a deep green in the middle of the otherwise grey downtown.
“Is something wrong with your eye?” he asked, as we ate sandwiches in the park’s snack shop. Panic. “Because one of your eyes looks droopy.”
It had been ten years, but the illness rose up from the pit of my stomach as I ran to the bathroom to make sure my eye wasn’t failing me. Looking in the mirror I scrutinized the lids. Yes, the left one was a little droopier than the right, with a long, faint incision across it, but no one would really notice unless they were staring really closely as I, or the photographer was.
By then my body had endured more pain – some joyous (like the C-Section to give birth to my son, him pulled from my belly), some horrible (like being hit by a drunk driver, smashed into two cars and left with crippling anxiety and physical pain).
The body has such a capacity to heal, to stitch itself back up and reshape itself. It also carries with us the scars of our trauma, the stories that are buried deep within. I gravitate toward these stories of brokenness and healing.
I believe that the body pain, trauma, secrets and believe this deeply and unfailingly. (See: Peter Levine’s “Walking The Tiger" for a start.)
Did the accident make me more empathetic? Did it make me stronger? Did it teach me the value of appreciating every beautiful sunset, and the clarity of working senses? Probably not.
These were lessons I had to come to later.
Oh the colors.
This is day 8 of 90 stories in 90 days.