by Vickie Baker
The images on the television screen sprang to life, jerking me back to another place and time. Fourteen years fell away as I saw myself standing on a pedestal twenty-five feet above the ground, reaching for a bar when it swung toward me. The sudden, all-too-familiar fear made me punch the stop button.
Drawing in a sharp breath, I determined to follow through with the plan. At my request, my home health aide had stuck the videotape in the machine before she left for the night. “It’s time to finally leave the past where it belongs: in the past,” I stated resolutely to my cat.
To create training tools for our circus acts, my husband and I taped all our practice sessions and pored over them every night. Planning to perform the high-flying trapeze act following season, we were consumed with our ultimate goal during every waking hour.
Now I grasped a mouthstick firmly between my teeth, turned toward the remote control, and hit “play.”
Pain from the past
My pulse quickened as the scene unfolded: a nice high swing, followed by a missed connection to the catcher and a spine-splitting sprawl into the net. Moments later the wail of sirens announced the arrival of paramedics. While my husband and a friend slowly lowered the massive net and my crumpled body to the ground, the tape ran out.
A jumble of emotions swirled through my mind, but one thought overpowered all the others. I had spent the last four years writing about how God had helped me out of the pit of despair into which I’d sunk after this accident, and how He had become the focal point of my life. Indeed, He had become my very reason for living. But even back then, before I knew or cared about Him, God loved me.
Turning off the videotape, I pondered the direction my life had taken since the accident. Despite permanent quadriplegia, a divorce, and a career change (there are few openings for quadriplegic trapeze artists), my present life bears a striking resemblance to the past.
When we trooped with the circus, my husband and I built most of the rigging and props for our three acts. On the road we needed to improvise if a part broke or became damaged. After our second year out, we built a new low-flying trapeze — a casting rig, in circus jargon — for our comedy act. Making some modifications, we needed to design and fabricate a small pin for the spreader bars, which stabilized the rig.
Barely completing the project in time for our first engagement, we loaded up in the dark and accidentally left a cable behind. This unwelcome discovery came just two hours before the opening show! Unwilling to renege on our contract, we did some hasty brainstorming and managed to improvise a workable solution.
Following the accident, creative problem-solving played an even bigger role in my life, yet it took four years and ten minutes for me to begin. Four years of telling myself I couldn’t do a certain task anymore — like opening and closing my dining room curtains — and ten minutes for me to think of a different way to accomplish the goal. In this case, I asked someone to remove the fastener that attached the cord to the wall. This allowed me to put my wrist through the loop, lift it up to my mouth, and operate the cord with my teeth.
Since then, I’ve come up with dozens of simple solutions and scores of inventions. Most have proven quite economical, involving materials like rubberbands, safety pins, baskets, and loops. After moving into a townhouse, I called an electrician to come out and move the digital thermostat thirteen inches lower on the wall. This way, whenever I got cold, I could bump up the temperature control with my elbow. Before, I could only thaw out by sitting in my bathroom under the heat lamp. Why it took me six years to make this simple phone call, still baffles me!
Going for the gold
Two years ago, a pressure sore laid me up for several months. “Lord,” I wailed, “You called me to be a writer, but how can I write when I’m doing time in bed?”
Once I stopped grumbling and starting thinking, I stumbled on a creative solution: casters! If I couldn’t sit up and wheel over to my computer, my aide merely needed to roll the table across the bedroom to me.
While I tapped away on the second draft of chapter twelve, an ongoing complaint emerged. “Lord, why is it taking me such a long time to write this book?”
Glancing up at the clock, I quickly punched a button with my mouthstick, and the men’s 200-meter run came to life on my TV screen. With the keyboard to my right, lunch to my left, and Michael Johnson straight ahead, I stopped whining and watched.
During a commercial I turned back to my manuscript. A thought struck, causing me to laugh out loud. I had turned on the Olympics every day since the opening ceremony to see athletes who had dedicated anywhere from four to twenty years training for this moment. In comparison, my spending a mere two years on my first book seemed almost trivial.
Then my thoughts tumbled back to my trooping days. The acts my husband and I performed in the circus had taken years to perfect and daily practice to maintain. While running, writing, and performing may seem worlds apart, Michael Johnson and I share a common bond. Striving to do the best we can, we spend long hours practicing our craft. We’re both going for the gold. What makes me think I should reach my goal any sooner than he did? Or any sooner than I had in the past? God knows all about my limitations, and when the prose is polished, the book will emerge.
I’ve heard it said that if you don’t want to hit bottom, stop digging the hole. For some of us, this lesson doesn’t come easy. It took me three-and-a-half years to hit bottom. When I finally stopped digging long enough to look up and ask God for help, my life changed dramatically.
This heavenly makeover began with reshaping my values. No longer could I place independence, physical ability, and making money at the top of my list. God taught me how to live life on a different level — a deeper one. He pointed me toward people who had worse problems than I and showed me ways I could help them. This led me back to the halls of academia to study social work and took my focus off of “poor me” in a big hurry! It also reminded me that I don’t have the corner on suffering.
Today I correspond with dozens of people around the country offering encouragement to brighten a day and humor to bring a smile. I’ve also started including cartoons with bills I send out. After all, a real person who might be in need of some humor sits on the receiving end. Few people lament, at the end of their lives, that they spent too much time laughing.
Next God went to work on my attitude, and I learned another secret — one that Viktor Frankl had discovered over five decades earlier in a Nazi concentration camp. No matter what my circumstances, one thing cannot be taken away from me: my attitude. I will always have the ability to choose how to respond.
If an aide is late one morning and I have to stay in bed longer, I can choose to accept the delay and move on, or I can get angry and let it ruin my whole day. This doesn’t mean that I don’t ever get angry over delays and day-to-day hassles; it simply means that my actions and reactions are up to me. We all have this choice. It just takes some of us a little longer to catch on.
A few days after I returned to the scene of the accident via videotape, I penned the following poem:
You loved me
when I knew You not
I placed my faith
in other gods
My world collapsed
I met my Lord
The end of all
I held so dear