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In early March of 2013, I bought a guitar, because I wanted to take guitar lessons.
It was one of those things that I had always wanted to do, but never got around to accomplishing. Something always seemed to get in the way of trying. I was too busy, learning would be too expensive, or self-doubt would creep in. Eventually, I decided to stop making excuses and just do it.
I bought the guitar, found a local teacher, and started taking lessons. I loved it, and within a few weeks, I started to feel like I was getting the hang of things.
I was reminded of all this recently when I saw a “Facebook Memory” of my oldest son playing that same guitar in my living room, just weeks after I bought it. You would imagine that would be a happy memory, but it actually filled me with a sense of dread. That picture, it turns out, has become an almost yearly reminder of the day after it was taken, when I nearly died.
On March 21st, almost exactly 10 years ago, I got into a terrible car accident. To this day, I still do not remember the exact moment of the accident itself. As I described in a column months after the accident, my only memory was of another vehicle coming into my lane as I was driving on the Washington Beltway. It clipped my car and sent me spinning, at 70 miles per hour, across multiple lanes of traffic and into a cement barrier on the other side of the highway.
Once my car came to a stop and the shock of the moment melted away, I started to realize that something was wrong. I had destroyed two vertebrae in my back, my head was bleeding, and I was having a lot of trouble breathing. One of the only clear memories I have is of a motorist who stopped, saw me bleeding, and gave me a towel for my head. I never learned his name or saw him again after that, but that simple act of kindness will always be something I remember.
First responders used the jaws of life to get me out of the car, and I was sent to the hospital in critical condition. I was there for 12 days, through Easter, which I celebrated in a hospital bed. I needed a spinal fusion to correct my shattered back, which immobilized eight vertebrae, and has caused me pain ever since.
In the aftermath of living through something like that, it is fairly common for people to claim a “new perspective on life,” having seen theirs nearly end. I’m not sure that happened to me, but I certainly gained a lot of appreciation for the hundreds of people that stepped up to help me, from the doctors, nurses and surgeons in the hospital, to the army of friends who visited me and helped my family afterward, to my family who dropped everything to help me. I appreciated them before, but that appreciation grew exponentially after I saw what they were willing to do for me.
The perspective I gained actually took a lot longer to develop. As the years passed and new life experiences piled up, I began to consider all the things that would never have happened if things had gone just a little differently that day. Since the accident, I’ve spent more time with family, gotten healthy, and written more than 500 columns for the Bangor Daily News. I moved back home to Maine, started a new career, won some professional awards, started graduate school, and had three new children. Now it is those kids, rather than me, who are taking the guitar lessons.
There have been challenges, disappointments, and failures too. Many of them. Whether good or bad, though, those experiences are all a “bonus” to a life that was very nearly cut short 10 years ago. Now, almost a quarter of my life later, the consideration of that terrifying truth has given me a sense of appreciation for life — and yes, a perspective — that I never had before.
As a result, I think I am happier, I’m more of an optimist, and I’m more enthusiastic about living as fully as I can in the time I am afforded. So, in a strange way, I’m glad I got in that car accident, and I’m glad my back was broken. Odd as it may sound to say, if it never happened I don’t think my life would’ve been anywhere near as good.