Even at the outset I wasn’t a typical eight year old. I read the newspaper and encyclopedias, and I watched Saturday Night Live. I had started watching baseball the year before, and found myself enthralled with the fact that Scott Erickson had thrown a no-hitter just a few months prior to the day in question.
On July 17, 1994, I became an even more atypical eight year old.
They say time heals all wounds but quite frankly I don’t think that’s true. The wounds improve, then fester again, and maybe crack open to let a little more hurt come inside from time to time. I think going through heavy stuff as a kid is easier. Well maybe easier isn’t the right word. I think when you’re young and your psyche and mentality are most fragile and underdeveloped, it becomes easy to assimilate tragedy as normal — especially if you endure a lot of it.
I won’t say I had it worse than anyone else, but as kids we went through a lot of tragedy in our youth. In addition to the day in question, my grandma passed in 1996 after what felt like years of battling cancer. I was 10 and don’t remember her not being sick. My brother had various health complications that at times left him near-death. I don’t even remember the gravity of the situation; I think I was desensitized to it. And in my junior year in the spring, exactly six weeks to the date apart if I’m recalling correctly, two of my classmates were killed in separate accidents, with one other — a childhood best friend — left with permanent brain damage.
In fact it’s a weird parallel between that latter accident and ours that will draw us full circle here. The night before our accident I had stayed at a friends house. That friend was Dustin Wyberg, who’d be injured in that accident nearly nine years later. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we lived in a trailer park east of town a couple miles, and that made for ample opportunity to make friends. There was a very strong neighborhood feel to Oak Manor, and if we’d had a mind to we could have probably been the real-life version of the The Sandlot. But I’m rambling.
Saturday night I stayed at Dustin’s place, and we fell asleep to Saturday Night Live. Early Sunday morning I made my way home to Lot 31, maybe a quarter of a mile at most. I pushed open the locked door and made my way inside, and as a family we got ready for a planned trip to the lake.
We never made it. The last thing I consciously remember was watching the county fair rides leave town to the west as we waited in the IGA parking lot for mom to come out with whatever food we were going to bring. Mercifully I fell asleep sometime in the next hour; I don’t remember actually waking up until a few days later.
Somewhere around Gatzke — just a shade under 30 miles down the road — a car ran a stop sign and broadsided us, I would assume going near 50-plus miles per hour. Sensing danger my stepdad Scott leaned over my mom and infant brother Tanner to protect them; he died in my mother’s arms. My almost three-year-old brother Taylor was thrown clear, and broke his leg and suffered a collapsed lung. The lap belt I was wearing destroyed my insides, and for the next five months I had to wear a colostomy. For an eight-year-old kid, that’s pretty heavy.
My mom only sustained minor cuts and bruises, but her wounds were psychological. At 26, she was widowed with five children — three injured badly — and what I didn’t know at the time was there was a sixth on the way. At 26, and at 24 — Scott’s age when he died — I mentally pictured myself in those situations. I was only graduating college at 24. In fact we were virtually the same age on the day he died and I graduated. It was on that day I vowed to do my best, to take chances, and to make the most out of the life I had been given. Similarly, at 26, I had just been married for a year. At 28 I still don’t have kids, so I can’t imagine the internal hell my mom was going through. At eight you just don’t process the struggles those around you are coping with; you care about who gets the last corn dog or who gets to ride up front on the trip to Pamida. I have nothing but a world of respect for my mom for going through all that and still managing to face the world each day. I love you, mom.
My brother Cody, pictured here with me at the All Star game on Tuesday:
…survived only because of the sheer luck that someone in a nearby car performed CPR on him and got him breathing again. He had a broken neck and a severed spinal cord. Odds say he’ll never walk again. His wounds are permanent.
And that leaves just me left. I can’t even begin to explain how fortunate I am health-wise. In addition to the colostomy, I broke my spine. I had it fused. So on my stomach I have scars that run perpendicular to each other, one about eight inches top to bottom around my navel, and one forming a right angle with it heading left about 6 inches. On my back they form a 45 degree angle, sort of like if you were watching Bronson Arroyo do work.
I think my injuries are symbolic for the situation on the whole. My back will never actually heal. Some days it feels great, other days it feels sore. In that way, I think we can draw a parallel to how we rise through tragedy. Defeating it isn’t the goal, but managing and caring for it should be.
I’ve had this day circled on my calendar for a long time, to be quite honest. Last year’s anniversary plunged me into a month-long funk where I just passed through life. Nothing had meaning. Food had no taste. My wife, life, and baseball brought me no joy. I managed to find some herbal supplements at Whole Foods that helped a lot, but it took some time. If these are the worst of my wounds though, I still can’t help but feel blessed, if not unfairly so.
This month is huge for me for a lot of reasons. The anniversary, the All Star game, and starting my first real-life, honest to goodness adult job. Part of this 20-year anniversary of the worst day of my life is to vow that I’ll never stop trying to be the best human, the best man, the best husband-son-brother-friend-worker that I can be. I hope to make you all proud. I hope I do. I love you all.