by Vickie Baker
“What do I think about a cure?” I repeated into the receiver.
I powered my wheelchair closer. “Cure of what?”
My speaker phone rattled a reply. “Spinal cord injury?” I responded. “Well, to be honest, it doesn’t rate very high on my priority list.”
After I hung up, the question transported me to another time, when the idea of the circus swept me off my feet.
Years earlier, I had shown a love for daring when I took up skydiving. Searching for something missing and fascinated with heights, I made a skydive at age seventeen. That first terrifying, static-line jump convinced me that what I lacked in life came in the form of an adrenaline rush.
While practicing for an airshow one weekend, a fellow teammate casually mentioned something about flying on a trapeze.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Like the flying acts in the circus?”
“Yes. It’s a blast!” she replied. “Why don’t you come down and try it for yourself?”
The Greatest of Ease
When I set foot in the Y’s gymnasium, a shiver of excitement made my breath catch in my throat. Spellbound, I watched as each flier climbed up, up, up to the small wooden pedestal, grabbed the flybar, and sailed out over the net.
Weighing in at a trim 103 pounds, I easily scampered up the makeshift ladder. But once I stood on the pedestal, my confidence wavered. Fortunately, an experienced flier stood behind me to help me off.
“I’ve got you,” Manny said, putting one hand around my waist. “Reach out with both hands and grab the flybar when it swings towards you.”
My mouth felt like someone had stuffed giant wads of cotton in it. The bar swung up. I released my death-grip on the side cable and curled my fingers around the white tape. Manny calmly lifted me up and let go. I found myself swinging away from him, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping.
When I let go and landed in the net, I couldn’t wait to try it again.
I met my future husband, Gary Baker, in that gymnasium, and weeks later we met Bob, who offered to train us to do a casting act (low-flying trapeze). He got work for us that season with a small show. We traveled as far east as Pennsylvania and as far west as Denver. The following year, we learned a hand-balancing act and later added a perch act. Every morning I would mumble to myself, “People aren’t supposed to be this happy when they grow up, are they?”
Lost in Mid-Air
Five years later, we built our own high-flying trapeze rig and starting working on a flying act. But one crisp spring morning, I lost control and careened head first into the trapeze net.
During that brief moment after I let go of the flybar, somewhere between my two-and-a-half somersaults in the air and my striking the net, I lost all sense of direction.
I caught a glimpse of the net rushing up to embrace my body as I plunged down. I hit awkwardly, head first. The net forced my head into my chest and flung my disheveled body up like a yo-yo.
From somewhere deep inside, it felt like a coiled spring had snapped. My whole body tingled. A heavy weight prevented me from moving — like someone had tied me down with ropes. But I saw no ropes. I saw nothing but crumpled up arms and legs.
Staring at my limp left hand, my brain sent out urgent messages: Move, fingers!
My horror mounted. I stared at my legs. Still nothing. My body remained as lifeless as a corpse, as numb as my mouth after a shot of Novocain.
My mind flitted around. Disconnected thoughts invaded and receded. I recalled a young man with Ringling who broke his neck doing a three-and-a-half. But he recovered; he was flying again! I’d recover; I’d fly again. If he could get better, so could I.
When I left the hospital, I spent nearly every waking moment reading about cell regeneration. I looked to the “almighty cure” as my only hope. Why not? After all, I couldn’t perform anymore and I had no desire to do anything else. Life had backed me into a corner.
Three years later, dreams long shattered, wheelchair a permanent part of my anatomy, I gave up on the modern-day miracle that would set my feet on high places, the just-around-the-corner cure that would allow me to wrap my fully functioning fingers around a flybar and sail through the air with the greatest of ease.
I fell into the grasp of self-pity. I did not blame God for my accident; I had never asked Him to be part of my life at all.
Without the hope of walking again, I saw no point in sticking around. My husband’s sad gaze spoke volumes. Would he stand behind me on my decision to end it all? Yes, he would. What would he do after I was gone? He didn’t know. Would he help me with the “research?” Yes, he would do that, too.
A few nights later, after he’d put away three or four beers, Gary decided to join me in my suicide attempt. We took off in our little car, heading toward the mountains. After we found a secluded spot to park, Gary taped a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe and threaded the hose through a back window.
But the attempt failed: We lived. The skimpy hose melted in two.
My second attempt was a “fast unto death.” I figured three, maybe four weeks tops, and I’d be history.
Wrong. Eight weeks later, pain forced a change of heart.
I heard myself begging for help. Whining. Whimpering. “Let’s use the other vacuum cleaner hose Gary — the metal one. Let’s use it now!”
One More Time
Gary’s strong arms picked me up, blanket and all, and carried me out to the van. Lying on the fold-out couch, I gazed vacantly at van’s paneled ceiling, sure of success. After a short drive back to the same remote spot where we had failed a couple months earlier, the two of us would drift into oblivion quietly, painlessly, unnoticed, unmissed. It is finished.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the waaaaaa waaaaaa waaaaaa of a siren knifed through the silence. Against his will, Gary slowly swung the big vehicle over to the curb.
That last foolish attempt at suicide won me a free ride to a local hospital and my husband a free ten-day trip to jail. I couldn’t even kill myself right.
A New Ringmaster
Late one night in my tiny room on the psych floor, with no place left to run and nothing left to lose, I finally cried out, “God, I need help! I can’t handle everything by myself anymore.”
That night, for the first time since my arrival, I fell into a deep, restful sleep.
The next day, the what-am-I-gonna-do feeling in my throat was gone. A new Ringmaster had quietly slipped into my heart and was now running the show. Six weeks later, I left the hospital with plans to return to school. Social work appealed.
In these days when people are popping out of closets, why shouldn’t I? I freely confess that I now follow Jesus Christ. Yep, I’m a Christian — from the top of my head to the soles of my gimpy feet. I begin each day with reading the Bible and attend a church filled with genuine, caring people. I was even baptized — requiring the assistance of nearly half my church!
So now I have an altered definition of the “almighty cure.” I no longer pin my happiness on the hope that I will rise out of my chair and walk, that I will regain the use of my hands, that I will troop with the circus once more. I find that the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah spoke the truth when he said, “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV).
Joy, to me, is a deep-seated confidence that God is in charge of every area of my life. I don’t have to go it alone anymore.
Faith might not change your circumstances, but it changes you. I still use a wheelchair, suffer hypotension, get respiratory problems, and require attendant care. And though my husband and I separated when I returned to school and eventually divorced, I have peace of mind.
These days, a hand brace, a computer, and a new-found passion for writing allow me to work on a book about hope, based on personal experience. I reach out to others with words of encouragement — something every bit as exciting as when I reached out to an audience with the trapeze act. The pay might not be so hot, but the benefits are out of this world!
If the “almighty cure” came along tomorrow, would I sign up for it? I honestly don’t know. Without my disability, I would be different; I have no desire to be different. And, in most ways, I’ve already been cured.
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