It was late August in the summer of 2004. The Nevada desert’s sweltering sun beat down on us as we cruised up to the Lake Mead loading dock. The familiar smell of gasoline bubbling to the water’s surface filled the air as my family loaded the coolers and launched the boat. We were off to the patch of sun-bleached shore where we set up camp at every year.
As we tore through the glassy stretch of water, I was filled with gratitude. “What more could I possibly want?” I thought as we turned the final corner and coasted towards the sand. Soon, water balloons were being launched, homemade chicken salad sandwiches were being passed around and margaritas were being poured. I was so caught up in the moment that when I jumped off the back of the pontoon boat to cool myself off, I didn’t even think to remove my sunglasses.
When I hit the water, I heard a deep thud, then total silence. As I floated, face-down on the surface, a flurry of thoughts raced through my mind. Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced when my girlfriend and father pulled me out of the water. My 220-pound frame — which had endured years of punishment playing sports — was totally limp.
I couldn’t move a single muscle because I had fractured my spine and broken my neck in three places.
Over the course of the next 10 days, I had two major surgeries to stabilize my fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. The trauma to my spinal cord had left me completely paralyzed from the neck down. When I awoke from my drug-induced coma, I had no idea how badly my body was injured.
To make matters worse, the doctors didn’t have much positive to say regarding my recovery. The life I had once known seemed shattered to pieces.
One of the only things that held me together was a very lucid dream I had: A Messenger had come to visit me before I returned to my waking life. This Messenger had come to offer me a riddle that would solve all of the problems that my existence once offered. If I was willing to change everything that I once knew, the answer to the riddle would reveal to me the true meaning of life.
But when I woke, it was to a nightmare: months of challenges, including a staph infection, bouts with pneumonia, a halo that was drilled into my skull to put traction on my healing spine, and numerous other pin pricks, CAT scans, blood tests and drug treatments.
My fear grew stronger with each doctor’s ambiguous remarks. In a search for answers I left the intensive care unit at Long Beach Memorial Hospital on an air ambulance to Craig Hospital’s spinal chord rehabilitation unit in Inglewood, Colo. During my stay there, I was bombarded by information promoting life from a seated perspective. Eventually I realized that the answers I was looking for were not going to be found in a medical explanation.
The answer to the riddle came on the day that I looked at the once-suffocating hospital walls and noticed that the room had taken on a whole new feel since I’d arrived. Pictures containing 24 years worth of incredible memories covered every empty space. The countertops were stacked high with cookies and candy that had been sent from all over the United States. There were so many cards that I didn’t have enough wall space to display them all.
That’s when I realized that everything was going to be OK. When my hospital stay came to an end, an entourage that made me feel like the new American Idol greeted me at the airport. The flood of compassion continued with newspaper articles, fund-raisers and outrageous donations. Prayers and warm regards filled my life with love, giving me a whole new understanding as to why we are all here.
The Messenger’s riddle was the riddle of life itself. I believe we’re all here to witness the miracles that exist beyond ourselves. I have faith that one day I will rise up and walk on my own two feet. But this will be no miracle. The miracle in this story can be found in the unconditional love and selfless compassion that came to me when I needed it most.
To each and every person involved in the process of helping me come to be, I offer thanks and praise. I will dedicate my life to paying it forward.