3: Reflections in an Empty Pool

3: Reflections in an Empty Pool

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times for Teens

Reflections in an Empty Pool

If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.

~Frank A. Clark

For the first time in my life I felt as though I wanted to jump out of my body. It was useless and I was helpless. The roar of the crowd had somehow faded into a dissonant hum swirling over my head. I was lost in my own mind, a very lonely and unforgiving place.

Less than a year ago, everything had changed. I was in a terrible car accident. Although barely breathing, I was told I was lucky to be alive after the crash.

Alive? Maybe. Living? I’m not so sure.

After the accident, I was forced to become a spectator of the thing I loved most: swimming. Less than a year before, I had made the varsity squad for the third consecutive season and I had set my sights for the big State meet. However, someone else had other plans for me.

I knew I had come a long way from that bloody pavement and that I had survived for a reason, but it was torture. As my teammates swam, I looked longingly at my legs as though they were a pair of friends who had betrayed me.

The accident had left me paralyzed, with no use of my legs, my hips, or most of my trunk. I felt more lifeless and flaccid each day. As I watched I tried not to pay attention to who was swimming or what her time was. I knew that I could have beaten many of them and that left me sinking deeper and deeper into my shiny new wheelchair.

As the meet ended, I gave high-fives and hugs to my almost-forgotten teammates. They were exhausted, hungry, and complaining. Oh, how I longed to be them. Any of them — even Beth with the zits and Lauren with the bad grades. Those things you could fix. What could you do with a paralyzed sixteen-year-old wannabe swimmer in a wheelchair?

Call it naïveté, call it adolescence, or call it just plain stupidity. Whatever the case, there was no question in my mind as the swim season was being posted in the school halls that I was going to swim too, just as I had every year before. I hadn’t really been back in the water much since my accident, but I wasn’t really willing to look at what my life might look like without it. So, I signed up and made an open-ended, conscious decision to ignore the fact that I wasn’t totally sure how my new body would fare as a swimmer, not to mention a regular high school student.

Surprisingly, I found out right away that my body could float. Much like my spirit, I wasn’t going to be brought down easily or without a fight.

I had spent dozens of weeks lying in a hospital bed, counting dents in the ceiling and peeling away scabs on my knuckles. Those weeks, although important to my overall healing, led to a complete deterioration of my muscles. I couldn’t even lift my own head off the starched and bleached synthetic pillow to request more morphine. By the time I was well enough to sit up in a wheelchair, I could barely flex my leftover muscles enough to push myself in a wheelchair.

However, in a matter of only a few months, I was stronger simply from activities like showering and getting into a car, and with that, I decided I was strong enough to swim.

That first day of practice was wretched. Being named a member of the lowest level swim group for the first time in my life was the least of my worries. I peered from my chair at the water and realized I didn’t even know how to get in.

With a lot of help and a lot of pride-swallowing, I was lifted into the pool by my coaches and teammates. The icy chill of the chlorinated pool felt like magic. My legs looked alive and dancing as I gazed down into the lap lane. I was in the water, and nothing in the entire universe was going to stop me from swimming — not the cold, nor my own body.

From that day forward, I pushed myself farther and farther each day. Going from fifteen-minute practice sessions, to almost the entire allotted hour, I wasn’t going to let my newly challenged exterior get in my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but the moment I had my teammates lower me into that pool was a catalyst for my journey, and the instant when I found myself. I recognized the battle I faced and decided I needed to fight for my life, and to make it something great.

Without the accident, without the struggle, without the fear of having it all snatched away from me, I would have truly never found myself and found what everything means to me today. Through this experience, and others like it, I have found the world, and it is mine to keep.

~Ryan Rae McLean

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