I sat in my wheelchair eating a sausage and bacon roll as the wind gusted through the tented café at Henley Royal Regatta. Little has changed about the place since I first raced there as a 19 year old, the café still faces the river, the boat tents are still to my left and the Stewards’ Enclosure still over to my right filled with people dressed in rowing club blazers and summer dresses.
This year I was in at 8:30 am on the Saturday morning, early to avoid the traffic for my 1996 crew reunion lunch, the anniversary of our semi-final exit to Yale 20 years before. My carer dropped me into the Regatta Café and I waited there alone as he drove to Heathrow to collect my Dad and my mind gave me no choice, left alone and idle in this tented café, it has to re-live this day 6 years ago.
It’s like a bad movie that replays every year. My mind watches the laughs of the day and feels the pain of the night. Each Henley Friday I walk through a movie I know does not have a happy ending. The morning of Friday, 2 July 2010 I’d enjoyed breakfast with a friend in the same Café where I sit now. That night, after racing finished, I walked the small triangle from the Stewards’ Enclosure to the Leander Club. Standing in the home of British rowing, I had laughed and joked with the others, before heading back to the house and going to bed.
A short time later, I fell two stories from an open window and became paralysed. I don’t know what happened, nobody does, but most likely I was trying to find my way to the bathroom and running my hand along the wall as a guide I tipped out the open window.
It is always the first Friday in July and I am always at the Regatta.
As the footage replays in my head, there is a sense that somehow the fall didn’t happen. That somehow the ending is different. But it never is. The window remains open and the fall happens. It is an illogical mental exercise.
This year on the Friday, I was alone in my hotel room, thinking of my fiancée Simone, my family and my friends who saved my life. Some called and we talked about it. Some texted. And, some simply never mentioned it at all. Everyone deals with things in different ways.
The Friday is always difficult.
On the Friday I am comparing my life today in a wheelchair with my life when I could walk and feel and use my body. I was blind but that doesn’t seem to figure in the feelings of loss in this memory; I miss my body running the towpath before the day’s racing.
On the Saturday mornings the comparison is different. In Henley eating my sausage and bacon roll with the wind gusting through, I know this year is so much better than that Saturday morning 6 years ago when I was lying in intensive care, my family and Simone arriving; the devastation. On this Saturday morning I had a deep sense of how lucky I am.
The ending of this movie could so easily have been fatal. For at least one day every year I remember that no matter how hard my life is, living with all of the crap that goes with spinal cord injury, encountering death and getting another chance puts that hardship into perspective. It informs a lot of what I do; it helps me to live life the way I do.
It has been two weeks since I got back from Henley.
Time relentlessly moves on and as this year’s anniversary joins the others as memories, the words from that incredible piece of writing by Mary Schmich, made into the song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” reminds me not to worry about the Friday, I never knew it was coming.
“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”
The blindside happened on that idle Friday night. Yet in the replay of that day my mind tries to worry with the benefit of hindsight, to worry about something that can never be changed. Maybe all I can do, all any of us can do is to focus on the other memories. To remember that though I am sitting in this café in my wheelchair, sad that I am sitting, I am ecstatic to be alive.
Maybe I’ll try to focus on the Saturdays, the unexpected truth of this story. A truth that is days of spectacular sadness, struggle and survival. A truth that is anniversaries of rowing races and running, of love and nurture and the force of humanity. A truth that is those people who kept me alive and give me so many reasons to keep moving forward.