Here is an old post from May 26, 2013. I’m reposting it because today, February 9th, is a very important date. I do a kind “reckoning” whenever this day approaches, especially if it falls on a Monday. I had planned to wallow in my darkest thoughts, until I chanced upon this poem by Belinda from busymindthinking.com. Read her poem, then come back here.
These lines in particular moved me to reassess February 9th:
I would have endured
Much more and far worse
I would have declined
Any opportunity to re-write
I won’t be having a dark day. I won’t curl up with dark thoughts. But I will share my story again because it does reflect the long, long journey I’ve been on. It is part of who of I am and I’m finally accepting the “valuable gift wrapped” within.
“We all have our baggage, and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive it.” -Jeanette Walls as quoted in “Mommy Nearest,” The New York Times Magazine, May 26, 2013, pp. 18-21.
How odd, I thought, that I should come across this quote while considering another blog post on my many regrets. As I’ve said in earlier posts, those events and deeds I feel obliged to regret are the ones I could have avoided, those decisions in which the “free will” I exercised should have / could have been different. (You can find my earlier posts here and here.) These range from the mundane (gaining weight) to, for this post, a fateful decision to go into work when I should have stayed home. That last decision still haunts me even though it’s been 32 years, 3 months, 17 days, and 22.5 hours after the fact.
Even though that one fateful decision eventually led to getting a job in an office where I met my future husband, I take no comfort in it. I tell my husband that we were fated to meet. I find it hard to see the “valuable gift wrapped” in this particular baggage and so, I argue, it’s a decision that I regret. I wonder, would you feel the same way if it had happened to you?
Here’s my story:
It was 1981. I was 23 and living in a California town, nearly 3000 miles from my family home. I was barely employed, at the time working a few hours a week as a janitor at a candle-making factory. I had only an AA degree, no skills other than typing, and I had never worked in an office in my short life. All I wanted to do was go back to college. I was on the bus on my way to work, after having a disappointing interview with a financial officer at a local private women’s college. She told me that I had made too much money the year before and they wouldn’t give me financial aid. I didn’t want to go to work. I felt depressed and wanted to be alone. But now I needed money even more so I swallowed my tears and got off within a block of the factory.
I clocked in at 1:00 pm. By 1:30 pm, I was hanging upside down in the shaft of a freight elevator. Just a few minutes before, I had rolled a large trash bin onto the freight elevator and was going up to the third floor. The factory has three floors and my routine was to go to the top floor and work my way down. The freight elevator had gates on the floors but not on the elevator itself. It’s like an open, wood and metal, free-standing platform that went up and down. I had been facing the wall as the elevator went up, distracted by the accumulation of wax and dirt and grease on the wall. I turned around and saw, as a floor came into view, a man coming out of the stairwell and onto the floor. It was Ted. Ted, who worked on the third floor. Ted, who I only ever saw on the third floor. I must be at the third floor, I thought. But the elevator didn’t stop. It kept moving up. To my horror, it kept moving up. I screamed Ted’s name. I screamed “It won’t stop.” I reached out and grabbed onto the gates that were affixed to the floor. I pulled my body through the slowly narrowing gap. I was nearly free when I felt something catch my right foot and then a burning sensation as my leg was pulled upwards.
I had to flip myself around as the elevator pulled me up and grab onto pipes that lined the bottom of the elevator platform. I felt hands on me and then someone’s back pressed against mine. I learned later that one of my favorite people at the factory–Martha Coyote–stood on a box and extended her torso out into space to keep me supported. I tried to grab her, but panicked cries sent me back to the pipes. Martha was being held in place and if I had grabbed her, I might have sent her falling down the shaft.
I was told to hang on, they were going to lower the elevator and pull me through. I had to tell them when to stop, which happened to be the moment when the edge of the metal plate that hung from the platform hit my groin. They carried me out and laid me down on the floor. Over and over I said that I just wanted to go to sleep and that my leg burned and felt like it would burst. They asked me where my purse was, and I said downstairs on the 2nd floor. And Martha held my hands and I heard someone say that it was just superficial. Firemen showed up and then the ambulance came and they put me on a stretcher. When they said they had to take me on the elevator, I cried and begged them not to.
I would be in hospital for the next six weeks, undergoing three “debridement and irrigation” procedures (where they cleaned my right leg and removed more dead skin and muscle) and one 7-hour skin graft surgery. After I had been there two weeks, my doctors informed me that they had come very close to amputating my leg. The first complication was apparent lack of circulation. By the time I arrived in surgery, my foot was alabaster white and ice cold. By the end of that surgery, some color had crept into my toes so they decided to wait. The next complication would have been infection. My leg had been covered with a thick layer of hair, wax, dirt and grease. It was a mess and everyone expected it to become infected. But no one was in a hurry to amputate as long as I seemed OK.
I was young and I was willful: two key characteristics for a swift recovery. My leg didn’t get infected and eventually I was able to move my foot. I had the luxury of a private room and a long line of friends who frequently visited. My mom and brother and aunt flew out to see me. Eventually I got strong enough to move about and make my own bed by resting my leg on a chair or the bed and pivoting around the small room. My nurses loved me. For six weeks it was home.
Because I was working at the time, Worker’s Compensation insurance paid for EveryThing: hospital bills, outpatient physical therapy, and mental health counseling. They even sent me to a training school to learn word processing and a job-search workshop. They gave me a clothing allowance so I could be presentable at my interviews. That private women’s college relented and offered me financial support if I enrolled as a part-time student. And one year and one month later, I was gainfully employed as a word processing operator in an office where my future husband also worked.
But here’s the thing, the rub, the darkness that covers it all. As I write this, my heart races, my blood gets hotter, my throat constricts. When I remember that day, I relive the fear, the terror. But worse than that is the memory, the knowledge of what really happened, the real decision that set it all into motion. My second day in ICU, the owner of the factory came to visit. She was, understandably, worried not just about me but also about how my accident might affect her business. In an accident like this, who is at fault? The factory owner, the freight elevator company, or me? She felt compelled to tell me that it was me. She presented as thinking that I already knew this, that I already knew that I had actually been at the 2nd floor when I saw Ted and panicked. I hadn’t been at the 3rd floor. The elevator had not been malfunctioning. I had been malfunctioning. I had said I left my purse downstairs, on the 2nd floor. At the moment I said that, I was lying down on the 2nd floor, my purse only a few yards away.
From that moment, I lost trust in myself. I could have died. I could have had a worse injury. Someone (Martha) could have died trying to save me. And it was all my fault.
Isn’t the reason why I regret what happened because I still believe that it was my fault? That in exercising my free will, I made a very bad decision and now have to pay for it the rest of my life. Is there a “valuable gift wrapped” in this experience that I’ve yet to learn to receive?
If you’ve made it this far in my story, then thank you for staying with me and I will receive that valuable gift.