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 2)

I wondered why I was not leaving this bus, this bloody red canvas seat where I leaned rightward in the back row. I looked at my limbs and concentrated. But I remained still.

I was unaware of how to move, get up, lift an arm. My body had just done these things. And then I knew: I was paralyzed.

It was this second blow—not my paralysis but my recognition of it—that transformed me from robust teen to quadriplegic, that divided my life in two.

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My neck hurt. My legs were still and numb. I could flop my arms less and less. It was hard to breathe, to suck air into my lungs.

My mind drifted to a soldier shot in tall grass. He lay in the arms of his buddies. Then, airlifted, he died.

I remembered him. He had been shot on Hamburger Hill, in Vietnam. The film hadn’t come to mind in the 30 months since I’d seen it, and it resurfaced now as a reproof: I had been certain in the dark of the theater, I now remembered, that that soldier would have lived had he really wanted to, had he been tough like me. But I had been wrong. I knew now that the desire to live is not enough. I would die if help did not come soon.

And so a lifelong sense of self was undone. I was vulnerable and would be always.

My mind left the bus again. I saw my father, mother, two sisters, and brother standing on ground that was grassy and undulating. They were at a cemetery. They were at my funeral. They were grief-stricken, and I had the thought that if I died, my brother would fall apart.

I struggled to breathe, and an image of a gray cloud covered my brain. I forced the cloud away and came to to find my neck braced and a paramedic asking me in a loud voice my name and where I was from, the same questions asked of the soldier in Vietnam. I answered in a small voice. Yoni, the paramedic, swaddled me as if in a papoose, with vinyl and Velcro and cloth wrappings I did not feel.

Minutes of paralysis had reduced my nine months of exercise to an inconvenience—I was a heavier slab to move—and two men helped Yoni slide me onto a board. They lifted me out the empty back window. White sunlight hit my eyes, and I closed them. I opened my mouth to shoo a photographer clicking my picture, but my yell emerged a whisper.

We sped away in an ambulance, Yoni giving me oxygen and saline and asking me in Hebrew those same two questions. I asked him two questions back: “Am I paralyzed? Am I going to die?”

Joshua Prager.
Joshua Prager

Photo by Michael Train

Yoni bent over me, said I was fine, to just keep breathing. But he was short of breath and his sweat dripped onto my face, and I remembered that my father had told me that a doctor will bend the truth to shield a patient. And so, quiet and still, I didn’t believe him.

On this fall day, a half-life later, we whisk past the metal railing that hems the asphalt shoulder at Motza. And here, where my minibus came to a horrible stop, is a sign welcoming home a soldier.

This ancient city is a palimpsest, its narratives written and rewritten on white stone. And as we crest the hill into Jerusalem, I take comfort that here, where 3,300 years ago Israelites gathered willows, and 22 years ago a carefree driver took from me my carefreeness, the identity of a country, its compact with its people, is affirmed.

This is an excerpt from Half-Life by Joshua Prager. You can purchase it in its entirety for $3.99 at the Kindle Store at Amazon, as a Quick Read at Apple’s iBookstore, a Nook Snap at BarnesAndNoble.com, and a Short Read at Kobo.

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