Saturday, April 25, 2015

V is for Vision

I played softball as a kid. Well... in high school - are you still technically a "kid" in high school? Guess that depends on your perspective. But, from where I sit now, I was a kid then, and this was my team.

Looking at this photo brings up all sorts of interesting emotions for me, because within a year or so of it being taken a few things happened.

Thing number 1: two of the girls in this picture, we'll call them K & R, were killed in a car accident. In truth, "accident" might be a bit of a stretch. It was winter, and they had gone for a drunken joy ride with their boyfriends.

I think the reports said they were going well over 90mph when they hit a patch of ice and ran off the road into a telephone pole. The guys (who both survived) were in the front, and when they hit the pole K & R were both sent flying out the back window. One was killed instantly, the other died a few hours later at the hospital.

I would like to be able to say that K & R were my friends, but the thing is... they really weren't. You see, they were the uber-popular cool kids, and I was head of the dork patrol.

Still, even though they treated me like shit on a biscuit, I looked up to them and admired how pretty, and cool, and "perfect" they were.

A few months after they were killed, softball season started again. Despite the obvious emotional struggle that we all were going through, we had a good season. Somehow things started to click for me that year, and I was hitting home runs almost every game. Plus, center field had sorta graduated from being the position where you stick the stupid kid who can't play, to an important factor in the game.

I hate to say it, but I was starting to feel like coolness might be within my reach after all.

Anyhow, the season culminated in a trip to the state tournament, and that's where thing number 2 happened.

The tournament was held in little town half way between Denver and the Kansas border that year. Since the town didn't have much to offer in the way of hotel accommodations, we all "slept" on the floor of the local high school gym.

Suffice it to say, rest was not exactly in abundance that night, so when we got up for our 8am game the next morning I was a tad bit drowsy.

So, as I stood out in center field I was being sorta lazy, resting my hands on my bent knees.

If Lou Gehrig can do it, so can I, right?
Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but all my life I've suffered from a condition called orthostatic hypotension. That's a fancy way of saying that if I stand up too quickly the blood rushes from my head and I suffer from symptoms like dizziness, ringing ears, and if it's extreme, I temporarily go sorta blind. And.... it gets worse when I'm tired.

Soooo... there I was in center field, when a girl hit a perfect line drive right to me. "No problem," I thought as I bounced up and lined myself up to catch the ball. Then the head rush hit me and suddenly, I couldn't see a thing.

Fortunately I had lined myself up perfectly to catch the ball before the blackout occurred. Unfortunately, I was holding my glove about 2 inches too low, so the ball sailed right over the top of my glove and hit me square in the face.

You know those old Looney Tunes cartoons where somebody was always getting bonked on the head and the next thing you know they'd have stars swirling around their head? Well, that really happens.

So as I was loosing consciousness the last thing I remember is laughing as I was falling to the ground, because the whole seeing stars thing just struck me as really funny.

Things were a tad bit, ahem, less comical when I woke up. There was blood everywhere and I couldn't see out of my left eye at all.

I ended up with a broken nose and internal bleeding in one eye. They had to let my nose heal crooked and re-break it later (something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy) because they were concerned that trying to set the nose might do further damage to my eye.

Long story short, I spent several weeks in the hospital with a patch on my eye, not sure if I'd ever see out of it again.

I wasn't allowed to do much other than watch TV and think... which I did a lot of.

I thought about how much worse it all could have been if the ball had hit me in the temple rather than the eye, and how lucky I was to be alive and relatively intact.

I thought about my obsession with trying to be perfect - the agonizing over my grades, the hopeless attempts to crack the "cool" code and finally fit in, and how meaningless it all seemed from my new perspective.

I thought about the little old ladies who populated the eye ward of the hospital with their cataract surgeries... were they happy with the way they'd lived their lives?

But mostly I thought about K & R who hadn't been so lucky, and who's popularity and "coolness" had landed them six feet under... dead... gone... no more chances... ever.

You know, there have been a lot of pivotal experiences in my life, I've written about many of them in my "How I Escaped from the Rat Race" series. But for some reason this one stands out as the "watershed moment" that really started it all.

It's like when that ball hit my face, it didn't just break my nose and damage my eye, it somehow put the first crack in my emotional armor, and allowed me to begin to veer from the path that my life might otherwise have taken.

I still had a LOOOOONG way to go in terms of living life on my own terms rather than those set for my by my parents, or teachers, or by society at large. But the sudden realization that I was, in fact, very mortal - and that mortality could rear its ugly head at any moment, really gave me the courage to take life by the horns in a way I'd never been willing to do before.

When the bandage finally came off, I was indeed able to see out of my left eye. It still doesn't quite work as well as the other one... the pupil is slow to contract, leaving me with a bit of a zombified look and making my vision go a bit wonky when I transition quickly from dark to light.

But you know what, when I look around me at the people whose lives turned out like mine was "supposed to" - with their high power jobs that they hate, their big houses full of stuff they'll be paying off until they die, their overbooked schedules leaving them no time to breathe, and their kids who they are busy pressuring to make up for all of their shortcomings - I have to say that I am more than happy to trade the small deficit in my eyesight for the deeper vision that the events of that year helped me to acquire.

They say that those who leave this life in an untimely manner give us a great gift... that they are teachers for the rest of us. Apparently that's true, even if they weren't people you could count as your "friends." So I am forever grateful to K & R for the gift they inadvertently gave to me.