Climbing — like running, owning a business, facing a fear, or being a human— at times asks us to suffer.
I’ll save the story of my accident for another day, as right now my mind is flooded with memories of my recovery.
I fell 15 ft while lead climbing on this day last year, suffering a three-column compound burst fracture of my L1 vertebrae, retropulsed bone fragments 8mm into my spinal canal, and a triangular fracture of my T12 vertebrae. In non-medical terms, this is code for “hurts like hell.” I should have experienced nerve and neurological damage, if not death.
Instead, I was told I could recover. After an invasive spinal fusion surgery and six brutal days in the hospital, the medical staff sent me home with one simple command: walk.
So, every day I pushed myself up out of my geriatric recliner and gave thanks that I hadn’t lost feeling in my legs, that I could still feebly get myself out the door, to stand in the sun and remember that I was alive. I was given another day.
I cruised the sidewalks around my neighborhood, slow at first and then swiftly. Paired with my methodical, step-and-breathe routine came a newfound awareness of my body and surroundings. I began to intimately pay attention to the neighborhood I had called home for over a year, yet barely known.
Every day, I walked by the “weave on Marie street” — a sad, abandoned clump of hair that once resided on someone’s head. I passed the shirtless, overweight man at the top of the hill who routinely yelled in a monotone voice, “beautiful day”. I frequently passed a sharply-dressed elderly man who was always chasing a family of kittens around his yard. I anticipated waving to the two women who sat in rocking chairs on their porch every afternoon. I winced at the effects of gentrification weighing on my fellow neighbors.
I noticed a familiar determination in the young boy who practiced basketball in his front yard, without a hoop. Neither of us had the immediate gratification of a scored goal, yet we labored on.
On one particularly rough morning, I turned a corner to stare at the face of Jesus on a pillow in the middle of the sidewalk. I took the encounter as a divinely comedic reminder that healing also requires rest.
I routinely smiled at the shy, awkward neighbor who religiously tended his garden. He was the proud owner of an albino turkey that squawked every 30 minutes. I learned to walk-sprint by the man who always, without fail, let his damn dog chase me a block before he called it home.
Over the span of a year, I counted 15 abandoned diapers, watched the construction of an entire row of new houses, and developed a deep admiration for the guy who built out three Volkswagon camper vans two blocks from my house. And as I grew more aware of the world around me, what was broken within me healed, a little stiffer & a little stronger.
I watched spring shift to summer, day-by-day. This is not a sudden process. It happens gradually, patiently, faithfully — and most of us feel sideswiped by the change because we are too busy being busy.
I walked and I walked and I walked. My neck brace was removed, and my wobbly, tentative stride took a more purposeful pace. My lungs regained their strength, and I learned about balance. I relearned how to trust. Eventually, I could bend and touch my toes. Then I ran, over and over again, arguably faster than I’d even been before my accident.
I can’t help but think: what if I paid this much attention for longer than a span of a few months? What would I see? What have I already missed?
To my friends & family: you were my backbone when I was broken. Thank you for the meals, the walking buddies, the hugs, the listening, the truth-telling.
A year later, I stand a little straighter, stretch longer, breathe deeper. A year later, I continue to say: Thank you God, for this day. Thank you God, for this body. Help me to steward it well.
Climbing also compels us to reach. It demands that we stretch beyond our limits and muster the strength to pull ourselves up, crack-by-crack, finger-by-finger, breath-by-breath.
May we all look back, bless how far we’ve come, and never stop reaching.