64: Carving Out a Future

64: Carving Out a Future

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Carving Out a Future

A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.

~Colin Powell

I don’t actually remember the accident. I had some pretty massive injuries, like a broken back and shattered pelvis, and a big shard of steel went right through my leg. I was told that I probably went through the windshield on the car’s second rollover and bled out. I died and had to be resuscitated three times in the ambulance. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. I had a fractured skull, which caused a traumatic brain injury. But all of that news came later. All I knew when I woke up was that I didn’t remember anything that had happened to me since I was thirteen years old. I had lost half my life’s memories. Despite all the missing memories, there is one thing I remember from the night of my accident. I remember lying in the road, all broken and bloody, trying to drag myself out of the wreckage. I remember feeling like I was floating up and out of my body, looking at the whole scene below me. And then, all of a sudden, I was in a much different place.

When I was a kid, my family used to go to Rifle Falls, a really beautiful, peaceful spot in Little Box Canyon. During my out-of-body experience, I went there and found my mother waiting for me in the sunlight, sitting at a table covered with all the food we used to take on those picnics. She said to me, “You know, it’s alright if you want to stay. But you have more to do.” I didn’t know what she meant, so I asked her what it was I had to do. She said, “I can’t tell you that, but it will find you. And you will find it.” Her message was a mystery.

I was born in Pueblo, Colorado, and at the age of three, my family moved to Glenwood Springs, where I grew up with two older brothers and a sister. Everyone in the family is really creative and talented. I loved drawing and painting and music, and I was constantly building things, too. I had a happy, normal childhood until I was thirteen and my mom died of esophageal cancer. I don’t remember what happened after that, because it was all wiped out in the accident, but my family and friends told me that I really changed. I stopped trying at school. I was playing guitar and joined a band, which I guess gave me some direction, but I also got overwhelmed and depressed at times. I was going nowhere and doing nothing. They tell me I even tried to end my own life.

The memories I lost seemed to be all the ones after my mom died. After her death, the next memory I have is of the aftermath of the accident.

When the doctors took out the pins holding my leg together, MRSA, a staph infection, developed in my femur. Heavy-duty antibiotics were started which affected my hearing. I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to choose between saving my hearing or my leg. I decided to choose my hearing but then the decision was made for me, anyway. The infection blew up, entered my bloodstream and was about to take my life, so they performed an emergency surgery to remove my right leg.

What I didn’t know was that I would experience something called Reflexive Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, from separating my spine from my pelvis. The nerves in my lower body, due to the damage, continue to send pain signals even though everything is as healed up as it is going to be. This causes me to burn from the waist down. I do experience “phantom pain” as well and I had another surgery to control both of these, a laminectomy. A device was implanted in my back that has wires that go up into my spinal cord to override my motor neurons. It’s remote controlled, so when I turn it on, I can interrupt the signal between my lower body and my brain to help me sleep at night. I have to turn it off during the day and just deal with the pain, because it affects my ability to walk.

Some months after the accident, I was fortunate enough to meet a wonderful woman named Kelly, who would become my soul mate. We were married only four months after meeting and have been together going on eighteen years now. She has the heart and patience of an angel and without her by my side I would have never been able to chase these dreams. She made the years of recovery seem to go by quickly and was not afraid to stick it out through hard times. She is the love of my life.

After years in physical therapy and rehabilitation, I was desperately searching for meaning to my life. As fate had it, an old friend from high school, Nick, not that I remembered him from those years, came to me with some alabaster stones from a local quarry and reminded me that I was an artist. He left me with the stones and a file.

When Nick came back a few weeks later, I had carved one of the stones into a bear, reigniting the artist within. The owner of the quarry was so impressed he invited me to carve in a small corner of an old coal chute. When I started to carve that first little hunk of rock it felt natural, like it was what I should be doing. I wasn’t truly convinced until I was halfway through “An Eagle’s Dream,” my first commission. I realized that I had potential, as did the owner of the quarry. He invited me to tour the quarry and showed me a wall of alabaster 176 feet long and 12 feet tall. He asked me what I could do with it.

That’s when I understood my mom’s message. I had found the eagle and it had found me, 100 feet inside a mountain.

I decided to dedicate the eagle to America’s soldiers — all of the men and women who fight and sacrifice and die to protect our freedom. I can’t really explain it; I was just so proud of my friends and everyone who has served our country as soldiers. I guess I felt left behind or somehow cheated out of the opportunity to serve in a similar fashion. It was very important for me to find a way to serve, even if I couldn’t serve as a soldier. I knew I could serve my country by thanking and honoring our soldiers, and I could raise awareness of the cost of our freedom. I call the monument “Freedom’s Eagle.” Some people eventually hit a wall in their life; I guess when I hit mine I decided to carve it.

The amazing thing about carving this monument is that there’s something about the work itself that takes me totally out of my body. I don’t know if it’s the deep concentration or because I’m so passionate about it, but when I’m there and I only have twelve inches of visibility from all the dust, those twelve inches are my universe. While I’m carving, that’s what matters, not my pain or my past. Everything is focused right there.

I had a lot of support the first couple of years I was carving. I founded the Cost of Freedom Eagle Foundation and was able to help out some local high school students with college arts scholarships. I also used the eagle as a platform to raise funds for prosthetics research and development for veterans. One naval officer was so touched after seeing the project that he offered me his service coin; I’ve been extremely humbled and honored by the overwhelming support of all branches of the military that have become aware of this project. And then, a tragedy: After receiving approvals to work on my project, government bureaucrats caused the mine to shut down and the Freedom’s Eagle project was grounded. The quarry shut down, and I lost the freedom to continue working and all of my hopes and dreams were gone in a moment. I continued to sculpt smaller pieces, but my heart and soul were trapped inside a 13,000-foot Colorado mountain. My life reached a low point and at times I had given up all hope. Unexpectedly, after a decade of persistence, the doors for the quarry and my project were opened.

I have a personal belief that guides me: “Adversity is the spice of life.” Even though I lost so much in that accident, in an ironic way I gained something better. I awoke with a new appreciation for life. I wanted to work hard and do everything I could to really live. I’ve recovered enough to hold a full-time job, too, almost two decades after my life nearly ended. I can’t be a soldier, so I do what I can to honor and show how proud I am of the American Armed Forces.

I have learned a lot of lessons in my life. One is that people with disabilities can accomplish whatever they set their minds to. Another is to never give up on your dreams. But the greatest lesson the Cost of Freedom Eagle project taught me is this: Get out of yourself and do something good for someone else. Make a difference. That’s what has saved me after all these years. That’s what it’s all about.

~Jeremy Russell

For more about Jeremy and the Cost of Freedom Eagle, go to: www.thevalleyinsider.com/location/carving-freedoms-eagle/ or www.thevalleyinsider.com/videos/jeremy-russell-sculptor/ or www.thefreedomeagle.com.

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