Revisiting the Day My Neck Broke 22 Years Later

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 1 2013 10:40 AM

The Day My Neck Broke

On a life divided into two. An excerpt from Joshua Prager’s Byliner.com original.

(Continued from Page 1)

But as I continue now on my walk and turn left onto King David, I am less sure of what I, not others, see in me and my broken neck.

I have returned to Jerusalem to find this out, to become again whole where I was once divided.

I cross to the right side of the street so that my left leg is to the curb and I see the windmill ahead, amid cypress and carob and olive trees. It is beautiful, a narrowing white stone cylinder with an iron cap and wooden sail. A wealthy Brit named Moses Montefiore had it built in 1857 to encourage Jews to leave the safe but confined walled city just over the valley and support themselves milling flour. Though a community rooted about the mill, it was not used for long.

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I turn into the park, step onto its stone path, and walk between puffs of rosemary toward the windmill. I have walked a mile, and my back is tight—all that swinging of a leg—and I put my right hand on my hip and lean back quickly at the waist. I hear the familiar crack deep in my back, my left leg stiffens and kicks forward, my left arm bends and shakes in spastic confusion. I balance flamingo-like a few seconds on my right leg, then sit.

I reach the windmill and look up. And then I, who once ran about it, ask my question: With no wind and no mill, are you still a windmill?

***

I have never seen so many happy signs. Set along the route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, they welcome home Gilad Shalit, the soldier returned to Israel this October morning, five years after his capture near Gaza.

I have returned this same day to Israel to think and write of the crash that broke my neck on this very road. And as my cousins now drive me south, there are more signs that only I see, reminders of my last uncompromised minutes—the town where I boarded the minibus, the yellow signs to downshift that went unheeded by a trucker, the hilltop I looked upon at the moment of impact. We speak of the returned soldier, whose life turned at the same age mine did, and I fear for him a future defined by something bad and not of his doing. Will he be who he was?

I recall who I had been before this road divided my life like the spine of an open book. As a boy, I had wondered to my mother—she who had lost a father young and been sick since I was born—how I could be a good parent like her if I had not suffered sad things.

I was sad that my mother was sick, angry that my father was stern. I did little homework, went out with few girls. I wished I wasn’t short. I sold baseball cards and babysat and shoveled snow for money that I used to buy pine planks to build a hut in the back of our New Jersey backyard, careful to cut the door low so that my tall father could not pass through it. Off and on for a few years, I thought and slept in my rotting refuge.

I loved baseball, Cape Cod, and my cat, and the fact that an employee at a museum in Toronto said that of all my high school class, I alone had a perfect gait. I played my trumpet in the subway. I tried as a toddler to slip over a rowboat into a Chicago lake and jumped as a teen into wild Cape Cod Bay after a hurricane. I designed an orange peeler. I wrote my grandmother a rap, wrote Nixon a poem about his foreign policy, wrote the skater Ekaterina Gordeeva a love song.

At 18, I left home and went to Israel. I studied Talmud. I read a score of novels that had been assigned to me in high school. I decided to become a doctor—like my father. I played wide receiver on the Habira Insurance Redskins. I grew from 5 feet 8 inches in autumn to 6 feet in spring. I did tens of thousands of push-ups—on stairs, one-handed, clapping. My chest broadened. My clothes didn’t fit. I went home in April, got on better with my dad, and dismantled my backyard shanty. I returned to Israel for a last month of yeshiva. And one night, as I grabbed a rebound playing basketball, I hit the rim and felt wondrous and invincible.

We approach the bend in the highway at the bottom of the hill in the valley of Motza. It was here, some thousand feet shy of Jerusalem, that the driver died in his bus, of “cardio-respiratory arrest,” said the police report. Nineteen of his 20 passengers flew or fled or were lifted through the open shells of blown-out windows.