In eighth grade, something in me broke that would affect me for years. Two somethings actually: my tibia and my spirit.
A weekend before Thanksgiving, I was running an obstacle course on the primary-colored playground of the local elementary school with my dad and my brother. We’d wandered there together with the intention of spending an hour on the swings but at some point, the idea of running an obstacle course was pitched and my brother and I were game to try to best one another. I never would have beaten him, he was better than me at most things, but I would try nonetheless.
In the course we devised, we had to climb up a slide, swing across some red bars, jump over some blue playground equipment and around the halfway point, run down a set of bars that created a sort of bridge to the ground. From there, we’d run to the other playground, up a twisty slide and back down a fireman’s pole to complete the course.
Naturally, my brother had no problem with any of it. He flew through each challenge like it was nothing. When my time started, I did well for the first half but when I got to the bars which formed the bridge to the ground, I thought I’d planted my foot firmly on the bars as I ran down them but I hadn’t. My foot slipped and as my right leg fell through the bars, my center of gravity spiraled out and I fell over, snapping the bone in my leg between the bars as the rest of my body hung limp on the pebbled playground floor.
I didn’t black out but what immediately followed is a bit foggy. I distinctively remember my leg being overwhelmed by a warm sensation and how I, for some reason, was unable to untangle it from the bars. I couldn’t see my leg but I knew I was in pain—screaming at the top of my lungs caliber pain—as I lay on the ground, my leg mangled in the metal playground equipment, my father untangled me and said it was all going to be okay.
Through my powder keg tears and delusional from the pain, I asked him if it was broken. He said it more than likely was. Understand, my father is a registered nurse and spent decades running hospital floors and departments. He knew it was a shattered mess but was trying to keep me calm as if there was any chance of that happening.
“What about the play at church?!” I screamed.
A couple months prior, I’d been cast in the Christmas production at church in a sizable role, something I’d wanted for a long time. I was only a few weeks away from the production at that point and as I lay on the pebble-covered ground of a public elementary school like a broken ragdoll, the realization began to set in I wouldn’t stand on that stage after all. My father told me not to worry about it but I’d probably be sitting out the production this go-round. I burst into even more tears as my spirit broke along with my leg.
At my father’s directive, my brother raced home on his bike to call the ambulance. This was the pre-cell phone era so in order to get help, he had to ride home, call the ambulance and ride back. When the ambulance arrived, he rode home again to wait for my mom and sister so he could tell them to meet my dad and I at the hospital.
After that, it gets substantially more foggy.
I’ve been told I had x-rays, something I vaguely remember in that they had to roll my leg around to get the image and I was not having it. I’ve been told my parents explained to me I had to have emergency surgery to put Humpty back together again and I’ve been told we cried and prayed together. The only thing I do know is I woke up in a hospital room with a cast up to my crotch and no clue how I got there. The pain or the drugs or a heady mixture of the two had wiped most of my immediate memories clean and I was now left to hear it retold to me as brand new information. I spent a few days in the hospital wherein my family and pastors came to hang out in my room and bring me CDs (*NSYNC’s first album had just come out and it became a musical escape from my broken reality) and food in an effort to cheer me up. I’d intended to go on the youth group ski trip a few months later but now that dream was cancelled just like my involvement in the Christmas production.
Needless to say, my role was recast since I was now in a different type of cast. I spent a week at home living a couch-bound existence, during which my English teacher Mrs. Howard brought me McDonald’s and a cookie bouquet along with a giant card she’d had my entire class sign. I was far more interested in the cookies and fries than a card signed by people who openly made fun of me, but it was kind of her to make such an effort.
When I had to go back to school, something I vehemently protested, I had to do so in a wheelchair. It was necessary in that I had zero leg strength, a heavy cast up to my crotch, and the school was too big to manage on crutches at that point. So a wheelchair was rented and my stint seated on a throne of irrational self-consciousness began.
Upon reentry, not only was I the new kid in school having transferred in three months prior but I was now also the new kid in a wheelchair with a giant cast that had to unavoidably jut out in front of me since it couldn’t bend. It was the ugly, mute trumpet with toes heralding my arrival before I even got there. I had to leave class early and arrive late because I was now moving at half speed and the hallways were overly crowded. I had to wheel up alongside a desk in order to have a writing space and park next to the altos on the right side of the choir loft. During our Christmas choral concert, not even the joyful and triumphant harmonies of the best music in the world could override my self-consciousness of being in a wheelchair while singing; my gold lamé cummerbund wrinkled and doubly awkward as I wheeled myself into place on the side. But as much as I hated it, I certainly learned a thing or two about compassion for people who didn’t have a choice but to be in a wheelchair. I knew I’d eventually be out of mine but for some kids, this was their norm. There was a sort of unspoken solidarity between us in the halls; a kindred smile that passed as encouragement and a restorative sense of agency. It silently said, We’ve got this. I was and still am sensitive to that.
Sitting through the Christmas production and watching a boy named Tanner play the part I should’ve been playing was soul-crushing. Then, at the end of the show when the director acknowledged me and the work I’d put in before my life and ability to walk came to an abrupt halt, I felt even more crushed. It was supposed to make me feel better but I was too trapped inside myself at that point for it to register in that way. My spirit felt as wheelchair-bound as my body.
After Christmas, when the wheelchair was in the rearview, I was able to get myself back to youth choir rehearsal since I could sit and prop up my leg if needed. That’s when our director announced our next song would be “Joyful, Joyful” from Sister Act 2, the version we, along with every other youth choir in America, were obsessed with. Not only that, but we’d been invited to perform the song during a Sunday morning service. This was big. Most of our youth choir songs were relegated to Sunday evenings so this felt like being asked to perform during prime time.
Someone then shouted out, “With the choreography?” and our director responded with a calm smile, “With the choreography.”
Remember the end of Sister Act 2 when (spoiler alert) the choir wins the competition and they spill out onto the stage, jumping and screaming? Well that was us in that choir rehearsal. We were going to do the song and the choreography from the most famous choir song of the moment! On a Sunday morning no less! We high-fived like we’d won a championship but as my friends bent down to cheer with me—my leg very much propped up on a chair—I realized sitting on my ass during “Joyful, Joyful” was not going to cut it. If I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t do the song with everyone else.
I’d spent so much time physically alone on the couch or feeling alone in my wheelchair at school that I desperately needed to be with everyone else. Even though my teachers were incredibly helpful and made sure I never felt out of the loop, all the attention sent my way wound up making me feel less and less a part of the class. I was the one who needed special attention. I was the one who needed extra time. Over and over I was reminded of my otherness by nature of requiring special attention. It wasn’t their fault and they were only trying to help, but I was utterly miserable.
“Joyful, Joyful” represented the end of that misery.
I knew the choreography from the movie backwards and forwards and since we were copying it directly, I was confident as long as I was cleared to perform, I’d be good to jump in. To be safe, I watched that part of the movie over and over so I could ensure I knew it. Why was this such a big deal? Because we attended an Assemblies of God church, that’s why. Dancing was a no g, not on stage at least, but we’d been given this singular window to step-touch and arm wave for Jesus and I had to be a part of it.
I began to do the math. My newfound victories in algebra provided me with a backbone when it came to numbers so I charted out, on paper, the amount of weeks and days between that moment and our performance. I then diagrammed what I’d been told by the doctors in terms of when the cast was coming off, when I was allowed to walk without crutches, and what the timeline looked like in terms of rehab. The verdict: It would come down to the wire.
My parents both cautioned me when I told them I’d just make it under the embargo on putting weight on my leg sans-crutches. My mother in particular wanted me to be extra careful and said she would prefer if I just sat there and sang. I told her you can’t just sit and sing “Joyful, Joyful.” She was firm in her resolve that I shouldn’t push it but I was equally firm in my resolve to sing the damn song. I continued attending rehearsals, learning my vocal part and doing the arm choreography from my seat.
On the Sunday morning of the performance, I arrived at the sanctuary on my crutches. I’d been mindful of when I stood on my leg and when I didn’t. I’d begun by slowly walking across my bedroom or to the bathroom without the crutches about a week and a half before. Then, I added walking around the rest of the house. I still used the crutches outside or at school solely in an attempt to stabilize myself in crowded or uneven environments, but though I wasn’t moving fast without them, I was moving.
My director saw me crutch in before the service, gave me the infuriating bless your heart look, and asked, “You sure you can do this?”
“Yep. I’m going to use the railing just in case and once I’m on the step, I’m good to go.” It was my put me in coach; my decree I was ready to be connected again.
As the soloist sang the Lauryn Hill intro to the song, I sat ready alongside the wall. I went over and over it in my head. Go slow. Grab the rail. Take your time. Don’t fall. I could hear my mother’s voice ringing in my head: Ryan, if you do something to hurt that leg again, you’ll have to start this entire process over again. I didn’t want that but I also knew not singing “Joyful, Joyful” with my friends wasn’t an option. Even though I’d been in rehearsals and services with them, I hadn’t been able to run around with them and be social. I felt unplugged from the place I tended to be the most plugged in. That ended today.
When the drum beat kicked in and my fellow choir members jumped out of their chairs to run onto the steps of the stage, I pulled myself up and out of my seat. I stabilized myself and hobbling my way along the wall, I grabbed the rail and took each step one at a time. It took far more effort than I imagined to get up the few steps—muscles that hadn’t seen active duty in months were suddenly hurt and offended I’d chosen this moment to put them back in the game—but I stepped over to my spot just in time for the choreography to begin.
I was back.