Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

"A broken body is not a broken spirit"

Ever since I knew they existed I have been terrified of spinal cord injuries.  Having been active my entire life, I cannot imagine ever not being able to move or feel any part of my body.  One of the most traumatizing events that ever happened to me was someone else’s spinal cord injury.   I was 21.  It happened towards the end of my second year living and working at a l’Arche home, where people with and without intellectual disabilities shared their lives together.  At L'Arche, there was only one woman who had a physical disability as well as an intellectual disability.  Her name was Isabelle, and I’ve written about her a few times before.  Isabelle didn’t have a spinal cord injury, but she was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that comes in all sorts of manifestations.  For Isabelle, it meant that she was mostly paralyzed and needed help eating and changing her clothes and brushing her teeth.  She always sat in her wheelchair or lay on her bed with her hands held out to the side, her fists clenched and her  forearms forming 45 degree angles with the sides of her body.  Sometimes she said, “aaaa-aaa-aaa,” and often she laughed and smiled looked up with her eyes.  Looking up with her eyes meant “Yes.”  Looking down to the right-hand corner of her eyes meant, “No.”  She hardly ever said no.  Most of the time she was smiling and laughing and looking up. 
Isabelle at the river
It was easy to make Isabelle laugh and smile and look up more.  I knew all of her favourite songs.  I think everyone thought they did, though we were always singing different songs to her. Her very favourite was the ABC’s but she also liked Puff the Magic Dragon, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” James Taylor, the Beatles, Christmas carols all year round, and anything about Jesus.  Isabelle also liked it when you talked about her friends.

 Her favourite friend’s name was a like magic word.  If you talked about Elizabeth*, Isabelle would squeal and laugh, squeeze her hands close to her sides and look up with her eyes, over and over again.  "Yes, Yes Yes."  Elizabeth was a teacher at the Montreal School for the Blind where Isabelle went to school.  For around thirty years, she’d taught children like Isabelle, taking them swimming, singing them songs, reading to them, and helping them to communicate and gain as much independence as possible.  Though Isabelle had been in her class a number of years back, Elizabeth made the effort to keep in touch, stopping by Isabelle’s classroom regularly and organizing visits to Isabelle’s home.  During her visits, she’d drink tea and eat cake, take Isabelle for walks and read her poems. Elizabeth also recorded Isabelle tapes of her reading stories and poems.   She had a soft voice and lovely British accent.
“Hi Isabelle,” the tapes would begin.  “It’s Elizabeth.  I’m going to read you some poems.”  Isabelle loved Elizabeth's voice and she loved everything that rhymed.  One of her favourite Elizabeth tapes had Elizabeth reading William Blake’s songs of innocence and experience.  At the lines, “Tyger Tyger Burning Bright, in the forests of the night,” Isabelle would crack into joyful hysterics. 

Back when I used to live in the home, Isabelle cried about once a year, when all her friends went home from her birthday party.  All we needed to do to make her feel better was put on the Elizabeth tape. 
One Wednesday evening in the spring, I biked back to the home in pouring rain at the end of my day off.  Nathalie, my Francophone house leader was washing the dishes in the kitchen. “Quick,”  she said. “ Read the letter on the fridge.  I don’t know what it means.  It’s about Elizabeth.”  In my soaking wet clothes, I ran to the fridge. Over five years later, I have the letter memorized. 
On Saturday afternoon Elizabeth Freeman went for a bike ride and somehow crashed.  She endured several jaw fractures, but more important, was injured to the spine.  She has already had several operations and although it is too soon to make a prognosis, she may have done permanent damage.

For weeks, this letter was all that I thought about.  Why would this happen to someone who had devoted her life to empowering children who use wheelchairs?  Why would she have to be in a wheelchair too?  It was too absurd, too ironic.  I was devastated for Elizabeth, but also terrified for the fate of my own spine.  I rode my bike every day. It was just a matter of time before I would become injured to the spine too. 

 A month or so later, Isabelle was graduating from her school, since all the students graduated the year of their 22nd birthday.  We’d prepared cake and a thank you song for all of the teachers.  It rhymed and was to the tune of "Puff the magic dragon."  The teachers were touched and delighted.  Isabelle had been a big star at the school.
Still at the rehabilitation hospital, Elizabeth hadn’t been able to make it.  But she made Isabelle a tape for Isabelle to listen to at her party.  I have the words of the tape memorized too.

 “Hi Isabelle,” she said.  You could still hear her British accent, but her voice was a bit muffled.  As soon as she heard her voice, Isabelle started smiling and looking up.  “If I sound a little funny, it’s because my jaw is stuck together with wires and an elastic band.  As you know a little while ago, I had a bad, bad bicycle accident.  I was riding long and my bicycle hit a bump.  I went flying over the handlebars and landed on my back.”  Matter of factly, she went on to say that she couldn’t feel or move her legs.
“So like you Isabelle, I have a wheelchair.  And the people here use a lift to get me out of my bed and into my wheelchair.  It was scary at first, but I’ll get used to it.” She said that her arms got tired from pushing herself in her wheelchair, but that too she’d get used to.  Then Elizabeth said that she was sorry she couldn’t make it to Isabelle’s good-bye party, and that they’d have to get together sometime soon.  Isabelle laughed and looked up.

“Yes, Isabelle,” Elizabeth said. “Some day when it’s really nice outside we’ll get together and we’ll go for a walk.  I don’t know how, but we’ll manage some way.” 
Since that party, Isabelle and I have had several visits with Elizabeth.  She’s truly a delightful woman. At one point there was hope that the swelling in her spine would go down and allow for more movement and sensation, but that window of possibility has probably passed. 

“Of course, I would love to walk,” she said to me.  “But I know that people can have valuable and enjoyable lives in a wheelchair.”  Then she looked over at Isabelle.  “Right Isabelle.”  And Isabelle laughed and said yes with her eyes. 
A couple of times, Isabelle, Elizabeth and I went swimming.  Elizabeth was lowered into the water on the chair lift first.   Isabelle went next and I waited to catch her in the water.  Before her accident, Elizabeth had taken children like Isabelle swimming so many times.  She would have loved to help Isabelle swim again.  But how could she if she couldn’t make her feet touch the bottom? Elizabeth didn’t complain, but I just thought of all the other people in the world who would never think of taking Isabelle swimming.  It wasn’t fair. To this day, I might be less accepting of the whole ordeal than Elizabeth is.

After I moved out of the house for people with disabilities, I started to practice Ashtanga yoga every day.  Although having the opportunity to practice was a total grace, I remember feeling immensely conflicted about it.  Headstands, backbends, all this was meant to take me deeper into myself.  But how could they be that important when other people couldn’t walk?  How could these postures relieve my suffering when wonderful, giving people like Elizabeth were stuck in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives?  What will happen when I fall off my bike and everything goes to shit? 
Over five years after beginning a daily yoga practice, I try to be grateful for my life and my body as it is right now.  Despite this, I often feel frustrated by my body’s trivial limitations, and terrified that all of its abilities will be taken away.  And I feel guilty for feeling all this, because it seems shallow and not very spiritual. 

Yesterday, I came across this beautiful TED talk by Janine Shepherd, an Olympic hopeful who was severely injured during a training bike ride.  

I highly recommend that you watch Janine’s magnificent story.  Her talk is called, “A broken body is not a broken spirit.”  It's a really good reminder.
The End.

*Name has been changed for privacy.  If you meet Isabelle and would like to know the real magic word, let me know and I'll tell you.

Isabelle looking angelic.
A broken body is not a broken spirit. And what does broken mean anyways.
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  1. What a beautiful, moving and meaningful post. I really look up to people like Elizabeth, she has a lot of strength, courage and appreciation for life! We can learn so much from them!

    Stories like that make me stand back and think how often we take our physical (and mental of course) health for granted and how little we sometimes cherish it. I gets me thinking we should be more thankful for everything we have, complain less, respect and love ourselves more and not focus in small meaningless things.
    Thank you for the wonderful post.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Olympia. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      I too am mesmerized by people who have overcome great obstacles, though sometimes I feel overwhelmed that if such a thing were to happen to me, I would be unable to rise to the occasion and demonstrate a strength of character... Probably that's not the best way of looking at things. In any case, I am very grateful to know both Elizabeth and Isabelle. Isabelle's birthday is on Tuesday and she will be 27 years old, just like me. It's amazing.

      All my best,

    2. Erica those are my thoughts exactly. When I think of me in a situation like this I am afraid I won't be able to cope with it.
      I am so bad in remembering days so I am wishing both of you a happy birthday in advance! We sagitarrius ladies rule! Just joking.

      Have a wonderful day,

  2. This is my first time visiting your website, but I found a lot of interesting information.From the volume of comments on your posts, I guess I am not the only one! Keep the good work up.
    Ashtanga Yoga

    1. Thank you for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoy it. I will check out your site as well. All the best, Erica.