Humans are born with only two fears. One of them is the fear of falling. Even though I’m a runner, I never really gave much thought to this. Then on June 2, 2011, I fell on my face. I will never forget that day. It changed my life in an instant.
I remember it was a beautiful day full of blue sky and sunshine. A perfect day for running. After work, I prepared for my usual route. I called my husband to see if he wanted to join me. He didn’t answer. I assumed he was working late. I debated on whether to wait for him, but I was anxious to get outside. I had to make a decision. Off I went.
I felt the wind at my back and the sun on my face as I pumped my arms and moved along down the road. The familiar rhythm comforted me. I was reaching my stride. Still something nagged me. A little voice saying maybe I shouldn’t be running today. I shrugged it off with a smile. All runners experience this feeling at one time or another, usually at the beginning of the run. I continued.
When I was nearly halfway done and had just about reached my turning point, I saw some orange caution blocks. Construction. This came as no surprise. In fact, I was glad to see the sidewalks being repaired. I thought about turning around early, but I don’t like to cheat myself. I carefully passed the barriers, safely crossed to the other side of the road, and prepared to turn around. I even relaxed a little at the top of the hill, knowing it was all downhill from here.
I’m unclear as to exactly what happened next. One minute I was running down the hill, the next moment I felt myself falling and my face hitting the pavement. It happened that fast.
I tasted blood in my mouth. My right front tooth was pushed back at an odd angle. Have you ever had that dream where your front teeth become loose? In this case, my nightmare was a reality.
I was in shock. For a moment, I actually thought I could walk or even run home. Then I remembered I was at the furthest point, several miles away. I felt a sharp pain in my left knee. I looked down to see a bruise already forming.
I glanced around for help. The bright light of the setting sun nearly blinded me. Luckily, a lawn service truck had stopped. I didn’t know what else to do, so I quickly crossed the road. Do you know the first thing I asked for? A mirror. I felt like I had broken my face, but I wanted to know for sure. I looked in a side mirror and turned away quickly. That was all the confirmation I needed.
I was about to cry when the man driving the truck asked if he could take me home. I hesitated. I didn’t feel comfortable with this stranger or his male passenger. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I could barely even speak because of the way my tooth was bent back. He understood and then kindly offered me his cell phone, but even this turned out to be a problem.
The phone had a touch screen and kept locking so that I couldn’t see which numbers to dial. I also realized I couldn’t remember anyone’s telephone number, not even my husband’s. This was partly due to shock but also because I rarely bothered to memorize phone numbers anymore. I just plugged them into my phone’s address book.
I almost gave up. Then I remembered my mother’s telephone number. She lives hours away, but I figured it was worth a try. Unfortunately, I reached her voicemail. Since I was having trouble speaking, I was afraid to leave a message that might scare her. I hung up and started crying.
Defeated, I finally agreed to let the stranger take me home. His partner actually climbed out and remained standing by the side of the road so that I could get in. The first thing the driver asked me to do was buckle my safety belt, so I decided I could trust him.
I struggled to even give directions as we headed to my house. I couldn’t think clearly or speak properly and I was sobbing almost uncontrollably. The kind man handed me some tissues for my tears and my mouth, which was still bleeding. At this point, I didn’t even ask myself why this was happening to me. I had a bigger question on my mind. What now?
I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face when he answered the door. In the moment, I thought it was because of how I looked, but obviously he was just very concerned. I was still having trouble talking, but I managed to mutter one word over and over, the last name of our dentist.
She was just about to turn off her cell phone when he called. I am forever grateful that she answered the phone and then actually agreed to open up the office after hours to examine my teeth. The ride there takes about 45 minutes, but let me tell you, I have never seen my husband drive so fast. Our Accord was like a Woodward Dream Cruise racecar weaving in and out of traffic. Even so, that trip still felt like the longest ride of my life.
When we arrived, just 30 minutes later, I immediately had to have photos taken to record the accident. I found it ironic that I should be taking a photo to preserve an occasion that I would rather forget.
Then I sat in the dentist chair with a bright orange light overhead while my dentist attempted to pull the tooth back into position. Since there were no assistants on duty at such an hour, eventually my husband was asked to help. He pulled and pulled, but the tooth never quite returned to its normal position. That was one stubborn tooth.
That wasn’t the worst news. My dentist then informed me that I would surely need a root canal. “What does that mean?” I was finally able to ask after my tooth had been successfully splinted. The answer was devastating. My tooth was dead and, unlike a broken bone, there was no way to repair it. The root would have to be removed.
After the trip to the dentist came a trip to the ER to check out my knee, which by then was really throbbing. The first question they asked was whether I had been physically beaten, that is how bad my swollen face looked. The truth soon became evident as they realized by my running gear and key tied to my shoelace what really happened.
Luckily, the x-rays turned out fine and I was finally able to go home. At about 11pm I drank my dinner through a straw with tattered lips and no appetite. Then I closed my eyes and wished the day away. I also thought about all the things I could no longer do: eat an apple, kiss my husband, wear lipstick, smile.
When explaining the accident, people asked me why I didn’t put my hands out when I fell. I did. My hands hit first. I had the scrapes to prove it. But since I was running downhill, my face surpassed my hands. I had a different question on my mind than they did. Given that the universe protects us in so many instances, why didn’t it catch me this time?
I can only speculate about what caused me to fall. Was it the shoes? Did I trip on uneven pavement? Was I fatigued? Without a video camera, I will never really know the truth for certain. Because of this, it took me a long time to trust myself with something as simple as walking on pavement. It took me even longer to start running outside again. In fact, it took one whole year, even though I had been a regular runner since high school.
The cuts and scrapes on my face and body healed. The bruises faded and so did my memories of the accident. But for many months after, every time I touched my tongue to my injured tooth, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was one step closer to death. It became a constant reminder of how short life is.
For two weeks in autumn I went on a personal artist retreat. I did a lot of thinking, writing, and drawing. I watched the sun rise and set every day on a beautiful lake and tried to reconnect with nature. I thought about what had been missing in my life. I found out later that it is very common for people who have had a near death experience to think about what they have not yet accomplished. In my case, I had always wanted to become a published children’s author and illustrator.
I secretly hoped to receive some sort of sign about how to proceed with my career. One night, while watching a TV movie, Anne of Avonlea, I became inspired. Anne announced that she planned to forgo her teaching position to pursue writing full time. She said, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself. I discovered it’s not what the world holds for you, it’s what you bring to it.” After hearing that, I knew I was finally ready to heal. But how could I do that? I decided to make something positive out of a difficult experience.
In December of that year, I took a leap of faith and quit my job as a children’s librarian to pursue my childhood dream. My husband was working full time and in grad school, so that made the decision even harder. I also knew the reality of being an author. It is not always glamorous. But in the past, I had always let my dream come in second place, perhaps out of fear. Whether it was fear of failure or success, I do not know. But I decided to put fear aside. For once, I was going to put my dream first. I would make the fall count for something.
Yes, life is short and everything can change in an instant. Even now, my tooth doesn’t feel normal. It looks darker than the others and makes me feel self-conscious at times. But these days, whenever I touch my tongue to my injured tooth, it reminds me to always follow my dream. And I know that with each step I take, I am getting closer.
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