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.

Joshua Prager writes for publications including Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of The Echoing Green and Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck.

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