As I opened my eyes that morning, I had a strange feeling of something exciting to come. I peered over the covers at the falling snow outside my window and leapt out of bed, dancing and twirling around the room as a sudden whisper of a promise came out of my mouth, “Today is going to be the best day of my life.” I would later come to appreciate the true gravity of those words, laced with irony and premonition as they were.
A whole day cancelled from school certainly did not disappoint – my mother and I giggled our way through sledding and movies, and the pure joy of being together. For most of my life, it had just been the two of us. We depended on each other because that was all we knew; we were the dynamic duo. This applied in life but also on stage, as we were becoming known for our powerful duets. In fact, later that night we headed to our church to practice a song we had planned to sing that Sunday. Microphone in hand, I sang my heart out in that church. Tears began to stream down my face, and the powerful emotion from that morning returned, this time in a way that was stronger than I had words to describe.
Drowsily we bundled up to get back in our car and go home. Per custom of the past several years of my life, I went to sit in the seat directly behind the driver’s seat in our little Honda Civic. A sudden thought flashed across my mind, “I am going to sit in the middle seat tonight – why not mix it up a little?”
“This is just going to be a body retrieval.” One EMS worker sickeningly thought as the ambulance pulled up to the wreckage of something that looked like it could have once been a car. As they raced to investigate the situation further on that cold, icy night, the screams coming from inside proved him to be wrong. While they were able to get the frantic woman out, it quickly became clear that her true source of concern was a little girl who was trapped in the back. The car had collapsed around the girl, crushing her inside. They pried open the hot metal and pulled her out, only to realize that it was just a matter of time…
There was just too much blood. Too much damage.
The stream of medical updates given to the woman at the hospital were a string of horrors. “We cannot be sure that she will make it through the night.”
“She has severe trauma and bleeding in the brain.”
“If she does live, her injuries will be catastrophic.”
“She may never speak, move or function normally again.”
“She has to be sent in for immediate surgery due to broken bones and internal bleeding.” `
Almost two weeks went by as the girl laid unconscious in the hospital bed, the mother by her side constantly, waiting for her baby to wake up and wondering if she would be the same.
The day finally came when the girl opened her eyes. As she looked out at men in white lab coats peering down at her with pained, contorted faces, all that she wanted to do was run away. As she tried to jump out of the bed, she was suddenly met with a terrifying surprise – she couldn’t move her legs.
That is a moment that I will never forget.
The weeks afterward were a blur. In and out of hospital rooms, rehabilitation centers, classes on how to do normal activities like put on pants, people explaining to me what it really meant to have a “spinal cord injury” – one that I had received due to the lap belt in the middle seat smashing against my spinal cord. At ten years old, I was doing good just to wrap my brain around the idea of never walking again, let alone the many complexities that came with a contusion to the spine. The nurses kept referring to me as their “little miracle” because I seemed to defy the doctors’ diagnosis at every turn. Against all odds I had survived, against all odds my brain was functioning normally, against all odds I wasn’t paralyzed throughout my whole body due to having broken my neck. I certainly had a reverence for the horrors that I had so narrowly escaped, but I didn’t understand why I had to be left with the injury that still left me paralyzed from the waist down. If God had saved me from the other terrible fates, why couldn’t he have saved me from this?
After the endless months of being in a hospital, I was finally released to go home. The controlled hospital setting had shown me how to manage my injury on a base level of daily survival, but I was in no way prepared for what was about to come my way. As my mom and I pulled up to our house, it quickly became clear that the challenges would be far beyond dealing with not being able to move my legs anymore; I had re-entered a world that no longer welcomed me. My house had too many stairs for me to get in. My school was not accessible for a wheelchair, and I was told that I had to sit downstairs away from the other kids, or leave. The church we attended looked at my mom and I with disdain. Surely we had done something horrible to deserve such a fate! As they took my hands and commanded me to walk, I willed everything in my body to stand, but could only sit there with tears welling in my eyes. My faith was obviously not strong enough, and I had to take my punishment and go. As we looked around us to find even a crumb of support, one by one it seemed that everyone had started to fall away. All we had was each other.
In the times when it felt like my body and mind were breaking in two, I would look up to the sky and ask God why he had let me live. “What purpose do I have? Why am I here if it is only to face so much pain – to feel so worthless?” There were many questions in my mind – while I would put up a brave, strong face to the people around me, there would be many times I didn’t know how I would make it through. One day, my mom and I had both reached our limit. She had to devote so much time to take care of me that she barely had time to work anymore. She didn’t know how she would keep her job or our house. We didn’t know where I would go to school. We didn’t know how to manage my body. And we honestly didn’t even know how we would pay for food the next day. We simply sat in the floor and cried.
With a tear-streaked face she looked up at me and said, “Madeline, I want us to play a little game. It will be our gratitude game. We have to take turns listing everything that we are grateful for in our lives and whoever can think of the most things wins.”
We sat there together on the bathroom floor and one by one listed off everything we could be thankful for. At first it felt so forced, but slowly we both got into it, until we were laughing together again in a way that we hadn’t for months. It had given us a sense of perspective. Even though it felt like we were being attacked in every way imaginable, we willed ourselves to be aware of all of the blessings we still had in our lives. Once we looked at all there was to be grateful for, the things that seemed simply unbearable didn’t have as much power anymore. The situations in our lives could not define us, because we had the control to look at the blessings and opportunities instead of the “curses” and inabilities.
Years passed and seasons changed – some things got easier, while some things got harder. A man had come into our lives and had quickly won over our trust, but destroyed it with the slow spiral of abuse that followed. I would stay awake late at night fighting the hate for him that would rise in my chest. I would then think about the list of people who had hurt me so badly over the years since my accident – people I had trusted implicitly – who injured me worse than I could have imagined with their actions. I eventually came to the realization that while I had learned to empower myself by taking control of my mindset regarding my injury, I was still handing so much power over to these individuals, I was letting their “poison” seep into the beliefs that I had about myself, the way I measured my worth, the way I looked at my potential. I couldn’t let them determine how I reacted to my world or let them only make me see my weaknesses and inabilities. I had to learn how to say:
“I forgive you – I release the anger, I release the resentment,
I release the betrayal. I am free.”
I release the betrayal. I am free.”
By learning to see the best in my circumstance and to rid myself of negative emotions and past hurts, I was able to overcome the true “dis-ability” that had resided in my mind. While it was a many-year journey toward finding the Madeline who felt like she could lift her head high, at the end of my teens I embraced a new sense of confidence, bravery and passion that I had never known. I began speaking, blogging, and filming about how to overcome adversity and worked toward inspiring individuals across North Carolina. I recently graduated from college and began a non-profit organization called “Live Boundless” that helps to motivate people to live a full, healthy and vibrant life regardless of their physical condition. As of two months ago, I even won the national Ms. Wheelchair USA competition, and now get to encourage others all across the country.
I look back at the experiences I had in those early years and feel a sense of gratitude that I could never have imagined. Because of those trials and hardships, I was forced to find a strength and courage that I never knew I had. I was forced to be brave. I was forced to learn how to forgive and find the beauty in life through the pain.
My journey has guided me to learn the most important lesson of all: The true challenge does not lie in the physical situation that we face, but rather in our ability to learn to master our own reaction to it.
Madeline may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org