When I graduated, I swore we’d stay in touch. I swore I’d never lose track of my Kimmy. But lose track of her, I did. That’s just how I was back then—cavalier with my friendships.
In the years that followed, I regretted losing site of the people I cared about. But Kim most of all. Kim especially.
I’m late, so I call GB in a frenzy. “I’m here!!!” I say. “Have they seated you?”
“Yep. Go to your left. You can’t miss us.”
I’m nervous! It’s been 15 years since I’ve seen Kim in person. We reconnected through facebook about two years ago, and I’ve been hoping for this day ever since. Kim, Mason and their adorable son Ryan have taken a detour on their way home to Nashville. We’re going to have lunch and then cheesecake. Knowing Kim, we’re bound to laugh a lot between bites.
I scan the endless faces as I search for our table. GB waves. I see Mason. Ryan. And then finally, I spot my very dear friend.
She looks the same! I remember those dark eyes, that beaming smile! Her hair is lighter. A bit shorter, too. But she’s still like a snapshot, pulled from a dusty, well-loved memory.
Only now, she’s in a wheelchair.
One Monday in July, 2006, Kim left work early. She thought she’d injured her right hip and leg somehow, so she nursed it at home on the couch. When the pain got worse on Wednesday, and her leg began to swell, she asked to see her primary physician.
Right away, he knew what he was dealing with. In a frenzied panic, he escorted Kim to the ER himself. Initial tests confirmed his suspicions; the blood clot ran from her right calf to her abdomen. The next evening, a surgeon removed it.
“In the middle of the night, while I was in recovery,” Kim said, “I woke with a pain that felt like fire. My entire abdomen was burning. That’s when I had the spinal stroke. We still don’t know if part of that blood clot travelled to my spine, or if another small clot developed simultaneously. I remember waking up screaming, and realizing instantly that I couldn’t move.”
At noon on Friday, Kim flew by helicopter to Vanderbilt Hospital, where a neurosurgeon opened her spine. He removed a small clot, but said he couldn’t imagine it could ever have done so much damage.
That was just the beginning.
Kim spent a week in Vandy’s ICU, then passed the next two months at Stallworth, Vandy’s rehabilitation hospital. That’s where Kim learned the basics of living life from a chair. It was like starting over completely. Beginning anew. Working from scratch.
It was scary, and it was humbling.
“Ryan was almost 8 months old, Mason and I had been married less than two years. While I was in Stallworth, Ryan learned to crawl, Mason had his 24th birthday, and I turned 30.” She said.
When I heard this, I sat back and stared at the ceiling. I thought about my first three years of motherhood, and how I spent every day prostrate with fear that one day—any day—something would go horribly, irreversibly wrong. But while I had panic attacks over that constant and writhing dread, my friend Kim was living it. Fighting it. Moving through it every moment of every day. She learned to use a front-load dryer, drive with hand controls, maneuver a chair while holding a baby. She set aside certain recipes that required something she couldn’t reach. She gave up flying her dad’s Piper Cub. She. Couldn’t. Walk. And it was permanent.
At this point in the story, it’s hard to think of Kim without thinking of Mason, too. I’m sure all eyes were on him while others waited to see what he would do. For a 24-year-old man with a young marriage and a newborn son, that’s a lot of pressure. He could have walked away. But he didn’t. Instead, he was Kim’s mainstay. Her solid, unflagging lifeline. He devoted himself to his wife and newly walking son. And he committed himself to his own future. This year, he completed his Ph.D. If that doesn’t spell character, I don’t know what does.
Two years ago, when Kim first told me about her stroke, I felt the undertow of my own sympathy. “How awful!” I thought. “It’s just so tragic.” But honestly, I’m ashamed of myself now. Kim’s story is awful. It is tragic. But she can walk in leg braces when she wants to—in part, she says, because so many people told her she couldn’t. She can swim and drive her wheelchair accessible minivan and go anywhere she needs to in her power wheelchair. She takes care of her family. She takes care of herself. She even designed her new home. (If all goes well, they’ll break ground in late August.) The life she is living? It’s independent. It’s full. She’s surrounded by people who love her. They stick around because she loves them back.
I like to tell Kim she’s inspiring, even though I suspect it irritates her. The last time I said it, she contradicted me.
“I think before this happened, I wasn’t anything great,” she said. “I was a smart girl who never studied. I was a pretty girl who flirted too much. I put minimal effort into my job because it came easy to me and I could do it well without trying. I sinned and didn’t care about the consequences. I blew off people who didn’t have anything to offer me. I NEVER showed vulnerability, even though I so often felt inadequate. So… It’s still hard for me to hear people say that I’m “special” or inspiring. I guess it took losing everything I knew to find all the things I needed.”
I don’t know, Kimmy. I hear what you’re saying. But, chair or not, I still think you’re remarkable. I always have.
I have this friend from college. She is tall and strong and beautiful—the kind of woman you’d want to invite for a chat and some lemonade on the back porch. She’s funny and gregarious and smart. I can tell that girl anything. She’s a fabulous mom. A doting wife. An independent crusader. And she’s happy. She. Is. Happy. In spite of things. And because of things.
Kim on her feet was something special. But Kimmy in a chair? 1,000 times better.
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