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.

May 16, 1990. Highway 1, just outside Jerusalem.
The author being pulled from the crash, May 16, 1990, on Highway 1, just outside Jerusalem.

Photo by Zoom 77

This is an excerpt from Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck by Joshua Prager, out now as a Byliner.com original.

Through the faded blue metal frame of my open window, I watch the morning light approach. It crests the skinny cypress trees atop the hill just over the valley, rolls down the bone rooftops of Jabal Mukabbir, rises to ripen the red-yellow nectarines on my sill, three stories above Naomi Street. My floor, tiles of salmon and olive, brightens, and my glass tabletop reflects the worn copy of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly upon it.

The light reminds me that I have just come back to Jerusalem, and I smile at a thought: “I will walk before the Lord in the lands of the living.” I appropriated the sentence long ago from the Psalmist, and I slide my left foot into my plastic brace, calf-high and erect in an empty brown shoe. I take hold of my wooden cane and walk to the staircase. There is no handrail on my right, so I descend the three flights slowly, right forearm pressed against the powdery concrete wall, left hand unable to grasp the banister available to it, left leg—hard to bend—preceding the right down each of 55 steps.

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I turn right on Naomi Street, right again on Hebron. My left foot is closer to the street than my right. Sidewalks the world over slant down toward the gutter, and I am careful to give the extra smidgen of clearance the slope affords to the half of me that swings forward from the hip. I have now done so for half my life.

Before May 16, 1990, I had not noticed the slant underfoot. Nor, as I ran over rise and fall, had I contemplated much what made me me, or that unfairness has theological implications, or that life might end each and every day.

But right now, because my neck broke, I am carrying a question to a windmill, aware not only of the topography of the stone molars below but also, as every day, of these higher burdens.

***

Twenty-two years ago, at the base of the hill that rises to Jerusalem, a careless truck driver almost killed me as I sat in the back of a minibus. He would have, but for the machines and people and tubes that saw to it that my body breathed and fed and pissed. A medical jet flew me home to New York, where, at age 19, I quietly observed the goings-on; I could not speak or move or feel anything below my neck, save one well-placed prick of a needle.

Improbably, the swelling in my neck receded. I would walk in the lands of the living! But imbalanced. My right side moved freely. My left, restrained by spasticity, a neurological tightness of sorts, did not; it furled and shook. A doctor explained that I was further divided: I had Brown-Séquard syndrome, which roughly meant that one half of me could move better, the other half feel better.

I told myself to work now and think later. And so I pushed myself, learned to eat and dress and steady a suppository in spastic fingers, to sit and stand and walk. Walking, however gratifying, was at any real length an impractical exhaustion, and I used a wheelchair for four years until, back in Israel after college, I put in another year of exercise and rose from the chair for good. I returned to New York and became a journalist, walking through six continents with an ankle brace and a cane, typing articles and a book with one finger.

I tried to write of the crash but failed. Instead, for a decade, I wrote of secrets. There was the reclusive boy who inherited the royalties to the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon. There was the hidden scheme that led to baseball’s most famous moment, the Shot Heard Round the World. There was the only-ever anonymous recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a photographer in Iran. There were the unknown suicides of the parents of the most famous missing person in World War II.

It took a friend to point out to me the obvious: all of these stories mirrored my own, each centering on a life that changed in an instant—owing, if not to a crash, then to an inheritance, a swing of a bat, a click of a shutter, an arrest. Each of us had a before and an after. I had been working through my lot after all.

A second friend helped me to see that I was, in effect, forcing my subjects—one solved secret at a time—to live with their altering moment just as I did: openly. Whereas a depressed person can choose to conceal her disability, to meet me is to see that I use a cane. And that openness works for me. (Best I can tell, openness has unburned those I have written of, too.) “I’ve always preferred directness,” I wrote long ago in my journal. “It’s liberating and dignified.”

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