It was the 4th of July, 1979. Day Pond State Park, right here in Connecticut. I was 17 and he was 15. Most of the family was there, including the then Brady-like blended family. That day… that moment… has always stayed with me. Vividly. Even with my memory deficits.
Some of us were at the picnic site getting the food ready and the others were down at the pond enjoying themselves. For our normally abnormal (or abnormally normal) family, it was all going really well.
My step-brother John came running to the picnic area to let mom know there was an accident.
I remember mom being impatiently sharp (or sharply impatient), in a scolding way. I don’t think she had a clue, at that moment, how serious the situation was. But for some reason… for some divine reason… I knew.
John pleaded for us to come and we all ran.
The time that followed seemed like an eternity. Seconds. Minutes. Hours?
Steven, who was a really good swimmer, because Elm Ridge Pool was our babysitter for many years, had taken a shallow dive into the pond. A running start from the beach. You’ve probably seen people do it a hundred times, if not more.
He was injured instantly. The degree of his original injury will never be known, because in 1979 nobody really knew the correct way to respond.
One thing is certain. When his spine was first damaged, he was floating paralyzed with his face in the water. Floating there, face down, motionless and unable to signal for help.
The “first responder” was our step-brother Mike, who flipped him over, essentially saving him from drowning. Whether or not flipping him contributed to the degree of damage will never be known and it’s a moot point. What matters is, he didn’t drown.
Sadly, the lifeguards did not have the appropriate equipment, so he was kept floating there, unstabilized, in shallow water until an ambulance arrived. There was no back board (or spine board) on site, so the lifeguards could not remove him from the water. But there was an angel… because there are always angels. A woman who was enjoying the holiday with her family helped out. She was a nurse.
He survived the accident and a spinal fusion.
He did his rehab at Newington Children’s Hospital.
He had his driver’s license at 17, and was able to use mom’s car with the use of hand controls that could be easily removed for her.
Our little town of Rocky Hill rallied and had a walk-a-thon, which raised $8,000 to help out my mom with Steven’s bills. It was quite something… students, teachers, members of the community, local politicians, and radio personality Brad Davis. It was a really special day.
And that event was the beginning of Steven’s independence. My mom chose to buy him a car with the money. A Ford Fairmont. Some saw that as frivolous, but it was Steven’s first realization that he could be independent again; not trapped in the house relying on others. Having his own car returned him to some semblance of normalcy.
He graduated from high school in 1982–no delays.
He had his first apartment at 18.
He was the first of five kids to earn a Bachelor’s Degree.
And he works.
When we were kids, I bullied Steven. As I was bullied. But I was relentless. I called him cruel names… we were all horribly horrible to each other. In our home, a blended family with a lot of kids and both parents working full time, it was survival of the fittest.
But when he injured himself, an angel came to me. Right at the moment John told us there had been an accident and it was Steven, I knew he was never going to walk again.
I just knew.
And from that moment on, we have had an unspoken special bond. Yes, we have our moments… as most siblings do. And I have been tough on him through the years, when others have felt sorry for him. But I know he knows that I love him unconditionally and that I am so proud of him. I know he knows I would do anything for him.
In 35 years, I have never heard him complain.
I have never heard him complain about the fact that normal bodily functions are laborious tasks.
I have never heard him complain that he has to get up at 4:00 a.m. to get himself up and ready for work at a job with “normal” hours.
I have never heard him complain about taking care of an apartment, cooking, shopping.
I have never heard him complain about what a pain in the ass it is to transfer his body into a car and then get that chair in with him.
I have never heard him complain about the many times he has wound up in the hospital with illnesses related to his paralysis.
I have never heard him complain about his severe sensitivity to heat, because with his spinal cord injury he also lost the ability to sweat.
I have never heard him complain about money, even in times when he needed a little help, because he lives on a limited income.
I have never heard him complain.
For the past 35 years the 4th of July has had a different meaning for me. It is still Independence Day, but it is about the independence that my brother Steven has achieved and maintained since that sad day back in 1979. It is a bittersweet day, so when people wish me a Happy 4th, I still get butterflies in my stomach and wish them a safe holiday, without explanation.
The chapters from then until now… only me and Steven could write them. Mom could have written a prize winner of a book… I wish she had.
I love you little brother and I am so proud of you. Happy 4th of July… and happy 35th anniversary. Happy Independence Day!