“…and we’ll be us; you and me. Soon!”

October 20, 2014.

Fish will remember. All his life and all his next life he’ll remember this dark, cool plunge where sound and light and shape are gone, where something rushes him from afar, where, openmouthed, openfisted, he drinks in river, whales it in with complete surprise.

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton, p29

 

G’day. Back in January I wrote here about an anniversary date in my life. 21 January. The date on which the car I was front-seat-passengering flipped and rolled on the Barkly Highway about 30km east out of Threeways. Not far from Tennant Creek. I was 19-years-old.

 

I previously wrote of physical injuries. An unspeakably lucky brush with quadriplegia, yet difficulties accepting physical limitations. A cricket comeback at Banyule Cricket Club. A flickering fire of competitivenes, desire to prove myself (to myself, others). And then the collapse of that fire. Extinguished.
Rulebook Ashwood (OBP) insightfully asked about the mental side of this recovery, though, and it’s something I have thought about a bit. I’d like to tell this story. Trouble is, it’s a mystery.

 

Anatomically, I suffered a closed head injury as the front seat passenger in a car rollover (1969 HK Kingswood). Frontal lobes affected. I was wearing a seatbelt. I was knocked unconscious in the accident; 21 January 1995. The next thing I remember well is an orderly in Royal Adelaide Hospital pushing my bed onto a plane that would take me to Melbourne and the Austin Hospital on 14 February.

 

I’ll be getting about life as anyone else would, picking up a Snickers, riding my bike, when out of nowhere I’ll be whacked across the chops by images and scenes and events of long ago. As Fish Lamb is imbued with the Swan River, I’ll be taken along the Barkly Tableland, by road, by air. I float around the intensive care ward of Royal Adelaide Hospital. I’m in the Austin, overhearing a nurse explain to the patient opposite that he “will never walk again.” I’m pissing the bed again in the Royal Talbot Rehab Hospital’s Acquired Brain Injuries Unit. I’m laughing along with “inmates”. I’m avoiding the screaming tantrum next door. I’m unable to push my wheelchair in a straight line. The right tyre must be perennially flat. I’m having sputum sucked out of my trachea by a vacuum cleaner. Over and over. Pleasure and pain.

 

The something that rushes me from afar, though, is the dust and the heat of the Barkly Highway. That’s inside me now. It leads to those other places. But not every time.

 

Rulebook, you ask about how it affected my outlook on life.

It’s simple. But it’s not.

I reckon I see everything now as temporary. And I try to look after people.

I’m pretty good at this, but I’ve come to understand over the 20 years that the first person I need to look out for is me. Like they say on aeroplanes, look after yourself before helping the person next to you.

That wasn’t (or still isn’t) my instinct.

 

I don’t know who I am.

That’s an ongoing problem.

Missy Higgins sings: I don’t know who I am without you. All I know is that I should.

I get that.

The old me died on 21 January 1995.

That’s how I think if it.

A new me took his place.

For a time I battled the grief that no one else would recognise that. My mental injuries were invisible and as such, were easy to miss. By the time I was up and walking again, everyone was congratulatory: “Wow, what a great recovery you’ve made.”

While inside, I was starting all over again.

 

Strange things would make me cry. I couldn’t hold a thought. I had anger like I’d never known. Frustration claimed me and regularly reduced me to tears. Tears of fog and war. Tears of loss and confusion. Tears of grief and fear. Under any sort of time pressure I would crumble.

But then, out in public again, I would be patted on the back.

It was scary and pretty awful.

I didn’t understand. And I couldn’t communicate it.

The romantic relationship I continued with the driver of the car broke up spectacularly after  about 18 months of rehab. The confusion and the accident repercussions I think were too much.

 

 

“It’s like Fish is stuck somewhere. Not the way all the living are stuck in time and space; he’s in another stuckness altogether. Like he’s half in and half out. You can only imagine and still fail to grasp at how it must be. Even the dead fail to know and that’s what hurts the most. You have to make it up and have faith for that imagining.”

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton, p69

 

 

Through it all were my family.

Guiding, navigating. A prod here, a fiery eruption of temper there. But always there. As I tried to step into shoes I had left. Shoes that were his; not mine.

But I completed a double degree. And carried on to PhD studies. Work I could control. I knew the hurdles. The tests were obvious and explicit and I could time my leap to clear them.

 

Life in the outside world was not so fabricated. No relationship comes with instructions. And so I moved through a couple of share houses and a couple of romantic relationships and I understood better each time that I was truly best by myself. People, I came to think, would always let me down.

 

At the cricket club I was a solitary figure after training. I would sit by myself at a table, rather than partake in idle gossip I thought sexist or racist or somehow-or-other wrong. Besides that, I couldn’t keep up. I had a strange sense of watching proceedings from above; watching myself falter in conversation. Failing. I could find no common thought or reason for being. Along with my physical injuries, my mental injuries saw me adrift. Together, alone.

 

And so I lived in a 1-bedroom flat and I kept to myself.

The great wonder remains how I came to know another life and another way. It came about, and I know this through later thought, only when I had come to terms with the new me.

It took me probably six years or so, and another failed relationship, to realize that I was alright. This new me was alright. He didn’t have to match up an old version, or a faded unrealistic vision of perfection. He would be enough. I was enough.

 

Competitiveness was not a part of me any more. Emotion certainly was. I would now talk about life and death, motivations, dig deep; often uncomfortably. My pace of conversation, already slow, slowed down more. Interactions with others became tricky. I sought not to rely upon others. Instead, I would be contained. I would create things. Draw. Read. Write. Teach myself guitar. Bushwalk.

 

Soon you’ll be a man, Fish, though only for a moment, long enough to see, smell, touch, hear, taste the muted glory of wholeness and finish what was begun only a moment ago down there where the fire crackles by the bank and those skinny girls are singing, where the light is outswinging on the water and your brother laughing. The earth slips away, Fish, and soon, soon you’ll be yourself, and we’ll be us; you and me. Soon!

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton, p420

 

 

 

And so I’m here now. Amazing that it’s true. With Nothafagus cunninghammii for over 10 years. Two young buds to care for. Building an us. Part of an us.

A part time work life. A part time home life. A member of a neighbourhood, a regular at school drop-offs and pick-up and other things. A (rather too involved) contributor to this Footy Almanac.

 

It’s the parenting that shocks me. Mostly I’m proud of how I’m going and the things I’m teaching. The buds are well. Other times my behaviour is not grand. The weight of that is a heavy one to carry.

 

Still, though, about once a fortnight or so, I’m floating back to the outback. The land and the heat and the dust. Yesterday I flew back there. We had been at a barbeque. Others were talking; life stuff; work dramas, school camp… And my mind took its leave. It couldn’t stay there inside my shell of a body; or with my mind in danger of being revealed as the shell of a mind. And so I sought the old me again; flying over the Barkly Tableland, looking for a spark, a recognition, that part of me was still there.

 

To others I probably look a little vague at these times. And I’ll have a cry about it later. That’s alright with me.

 

It’s alright.

It’s not bad.

It just is.

These days I don’t expect ever to catch up with the old me.

Most people now in my life didn’t know that me, anyway.

And so I try to be myself.

Though which version of myself, 20 years later, can still trip me up.

Soon I’ll be myself. Soon!

 

==

Another side of this story – the broken neck

About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. He is married and has two daughters and the four of them all live together with their dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.

Comments

  1. Deep and profound. Thanks David. I often think of life and identity as a matter of shedding skins until we find one we are comfortable in. Life not so much as growth and development. More a matter of discovery by trial and error and exclusion.
    “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”.

  2. Pretty deep stuff DW. Brave and deep. It should be easy for us to be ourselves, so why is it so hard? And who is that person?

    I’ve been lucky twice in car accidents; a t-boning and a head-on. Survived them both after being momentarily knocked out in both. Did it affect me? Physically yes, mentally I don’t know. I can’t recall if I’m different from the pre-crash person. But its a hell of a question.

    Keep searching. And good luck.

  3. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Thanks OBP profound and a lot of courage to write this . Tim Weatherald as a Bali survivor has said to me ask any question you like it helps him talking about it . I hope likewise that your recovery and coping mechanism is helped thru sharing all the best mate ! TA OBP

  4. Yvette Wroby says

    Thankyou for sharing this David . Beautifully written, open, searching, warm and giving. Glad you have family and almanac community to share journey with. Keep writing. You have a great strength there x yvette

  5. Neil Anderson says

    It was deep, profound and brave to tell us your inner thoughts, You mention in passing about maybe a little too much time spent with the Almanac. I think it is a great place to talk about personal issues and how we end up in our present circumstances. It would be interesting to see how many Almanac postings don’t even mention sport.
    I was puzzled why you sent me a personal email after I commented on the Richard Flanagan article, but after reading your story today, I think I understand why.
    Hope to see you at the Almanac launch and talk to you about your PHD studies.
    Neil.

  6. Brave and brilliant David, good luck on your continuing journey. I think the buds are in good hands; an honest, deep, aware bloke who knows his limitations.

    Sean

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’ve come across a few pieces of writing in my time that attempt to ascribe some deeper meaning or learning, or even retrofit some dubious aphorism (see, I learnt a new word recently), onto a series of poorly strung together anecdotes.

    This ain’t one of ’em.

    And now I might become guilty of the same thing, but here goes…

    The notion of community, the need to belong; once you are ready to embrace these things, there is no guarantee that only good things will happen, but it’s worth the risk.

    Families (like clubs) in themselves can be good or bad things to belong to. But you can try to create, instil, nurture the one that you’ve got. The one that you have created.

    I’d be interested to hear more about how you went from “one bedroom flat … kept to myself” to meeting N.c, perhaps not here, but somewhere.

    thanks David

  8. Wow David!!!!
    When my tears stopped a long time after reading this eloquent piece, I just want you to say how proud I am of you in all that you do. Just be yourself…..old, new, rich, poor,happy,sad, whatever…..just be yourself. You can’t change history.
    Love Mum

  9. ER

    Don’t know which bit of the Kingswood got you in April 1995 but it knocked two gifts into you: the gift of being and the gift of writing.

    Respect.

  10. Dave Brown says

    Where words don’t fail you, they fail me. Thankyou for sharing this! How much is too involved is a good question.

  11. Cheryl Critchley says

    Brilliant piece David and so heartfelt. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think it is fantastic when guys share their innermost feelings as it encourages other blokes who may be bottling them up to realise that they are not alone and that there is hope. It is wonderful to see more men sharing their emotions so openly and long may it continue.

  12. Magnificent…
    The ABC recently did the Mental As week – a celebration if you like about mental health.
    We can all use a little perspective every day.
    Today, after reading this, I found mine…
    Cheers

  13. e.reg. You quote Tim Winton, but I’m reading this and all I can hear is Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:

    “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know that you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through, no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do ”

    Sometimes you do indeed Dave. You’ve got balls of steel and a heart bigger than Phar Lap’s. Well played champion.

  14. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Just brilliant Dave. Hang in there big fella. Your courage and wisdom is inspirational.

  15. Your writing led you to a community in the Almanac. It’s more than a website, as you well know. These Knackers, they love stories and they love people.

  16. Luke Reynolds says

    Dave, very moving and inspiring piece. Your whole journey is inspiring. Nothing wrong with seeing everything as temporary. Class is permanent though. Well played.

  17. Skip of Skipton says

    Shamans come from those broken down, either mentally, physically or both.

    What were you doing out there in the first place, if one may ask?

  18. Peter Fuller says

    Dave,
    Thank you for this profound, thought-provoking, but most of all brave revealing account of what brought you to your present state of grace.
    You bring something wonderful to the Almanac community and we’re fortunate, even privileged, to enjoy the gift of your literary imagination. I’d expect that your life-changing experience does much to explain your talents and the highly effective way in which you apply them.
    Travel well, friend.

  19. Matthew McCabe says

    Beautiful read Dave. As a solitary soul myself, I also marvel at where life has taken me, with my own loving partner and two wonderful boys. An arbitrary accident in its own, albeit non-newtonian, way. Searched for myself for many years as well, without great success. While I might never have felt as dislocated as you describe, true self-knowledge remains as elusive as ever it seems. Life occasionally feels as though I’m walking in someone else’s shoes – but I now tend to think I’ve an ever-expanding wardrobe, rather than borrowing an alien pair. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  20. Beautifully written piece Dave, so promising and full of hope. And really interesting to hear how one feels and in what you have achieved, so many years after such trauma. I’ve seen many situations like yours during my nursing years but at the time you can never envisage where they will be in the future after the physical side has healed. Amazing.

  21. Desi, to my mind you were already thinking about the deeper questions pre 1995. I’m just glad you are still doing it.

  22. Don Meadows says

    Eucalyptus Regnans.
    Amazing grace.
    Thank you.

  23. Patrick Skene says

    David,
    Bravery comes in many forms and accepting ‘that it just is’ is one of the bravest.
    Thanks for sharing your ongoing journey of hope.

  24. Ahh, thanks all.
    I need to reassure anyone who took that piece as a symptom of a problem.
    I feel no problem.
    All is grand.
    Rather, I was attempting to answer a question from January, and also attempting to put into words a nebulous feeling. I recognise that I”m in a rare position; having suffered a head injury yet also being still able to communicate pretty clearly. It’s not a unique viewpoint, but it’s probably rare.

    So I hope this might help someone or other. It was excellent to yesterday be in touch with a nurse manager at Royal Talbot, who said she aims to share this with families of ABI patients there (Hi Jennifer).
    Happy to chat about this or anything else.
    Thanks very much for your interest and your concern and your shared comments.
    All the best.

  25. Warwick Nolan says

    Thank you David.
    I’ll never forget this piece as long as I live.
    I have never been in a serious car accident nor do I have an ABI.
    But you have made a difference to me.
    Thank you.

  26. Thanks David. The vulnerability in your piece gives it strength. Most sobering and inspirational. Coincidently I watched The Descendants again yesterday and found many similarities to your story. Both made me think, reflect and be grateful.

  27. E.Reg,
    Great great stuff.
    I have been unfortunate enough to have been involved in 4 serious car accidents over the years, but fortunate enough to have walked away unscathed physically.
    Some people don’t even live one life, you have lived two.

  28. Bob Speechley says

    In my bedroom when I was growing up there was a framed copy of an Adam Lindsay Gordon quotation :

    Life is mostly froth and by bubble,
    Two things stand like stone,
    Kindness in another’s trouble,
    Courage in your own.

    You’ve shown exemplary courage in this worthy contribution to the Almanac.

  29. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    HI David. Just ‘checking in’ tonight to the Almanac with a bit of a searching feeling in mind. And I found this. Your constellation of life moments, some kind of non linguistic internal space that you have managed to describe into pure and beautiful familiarity. It is deeply comforting and vital. Thanking you.

  30. David,

    An insightful, emotional and wonderfully written piece. Thank you for sharing.

  31. Anna Foundling says

    Such a timely and moving piece for me, almost 10 yrs after my CHI.
    Thank you for sharing. :)

  32. Thanks Anna, I remember a night many years ago at the Retreat.
    All of this is a part of you (& me) now.
    Go well A Foundling.
    Best wishes.

  33. Wow just wow. I’m crying. Thanks for sharing. That is brave and remarkable, what achievements. Inspiring, moving & profound.

  34. Good on you JIm. All the best.

  35. Stuart Hunter says

    Hi David

    I have spent the last few days going over old almanac articles that I hadn’t got around to reading and I just want to thank you so much for sharing. All of the comments above encapsulate my feelings so well. My own recent health dramas have shown me how quickly life can change. Thanks so much for sharing something so beautiful and brave.

  36. G’day Stuart.
    That must have been an interesting few days.
    Thanks very much for your words.
    i guess none of us know what’s around the corner.
    May your health dramas resolve.

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