Every road out of Washington is coated in a pre-dawn blanket of clean snow. I’m in the backseat of a Subaru Outback, bundled in a mess of hat, scarf, gloves, disquiet, and dread. The snow doesn’t deter us from arriving at the hospital before 8 A.M. though, and in a moment of doubt, I imagine what would happen if we were late. Three weeks before, during a game of gym class volleyball, an aluminum pin in my left wrist dislodged just enough to leave me in what felt like a perpetual electrical bath. During the surgical consultation, my stubborn optimism demanded that I have the final say, convinced I could push to remove the plate and pins. The red headed surgeon worked to persuade me that metal is cold in the winter, as if that was the true cause of my discomfort. She said what I already knew—metal implants are uncomfortable. Her tone suggested she preferred not to operate, but it was something more than a loose part; I needed to carve the pieces out of me.
January was, and is my least favorite month because of how the cold eats away at my bones, passing through me as if I were naked on the shores of a deep lake. Over time, that feeling has heightened; a consequence of the disorganized healing my bones underwent. Or maybe the cold flows through me because there is little left to stand against it, as if I’m just a curtain in the wind. I’ve thought a lot about how accidents change us, how we lose pieces of ourselves to physical trauma. It’s not enough to list the things I broke—hip, pelvis, radius, ulna—that’s just a list, like the one for groceries that hangs on my fridge. It’s often something I can ignore. But in January, I can’t forget it. The pain makes me unsteady on my feet, reminds me that there was a time when no one knew if I would come back alive, as if I could just slip under, freefalling into the darkness.
The reality is that the pain was more than physical—but no one tells you that accidents linger. The doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, all focus on the physical trauma. Can you walk? Wiggle your toes. Breathe deep. Blink twice for yes. The hospital sent grief counselors or priests to my parents to prepare them for a physical death, and failed to acknowledge the stillness, the grinding halt that took place on the hard table of trauma room four before the masked doctor decided I wouldn’t die again. What then took place behind my eyes, up against the intimately soft spots in my mind, in the deepest recess of my chest, was a siphoning of the spirit. It was the slow comprehension that I would walk with pain, if I walked at all. The clock ticked reluctantly and then stopped. But what did I know then? Any actual danger was met with stubborn aggression, a refusal to be defeated, a will to return to my junior year of high school, to take up the mantle of drumline captain and forge ahead as if I was invincible. That feeling loitered passively alongside the apprehension, urging me back to life.
Ten years later, several hours after a morning jog, while I am physically whole again the second death still lingers along the edges of my sneakers, in the way I hold myself. It cannot be rescinded or documented on a medical form, not really. It sticks to the cartilage on my ribs, the way sunrises are unsatisfying, to the loneliness between each breath I take, and the harsh contact of my shoe against pavement.
Janine Horber is a western NJ poet who writes of a deep appreciation for the natural beauty of the areas surrounding the Delaware Water Gap. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her work has been featured in Z Publishing’s “New Jerseys Best Emerging Poets” and several NJ literary magazines. She spends her free time traveling, hiking, driving, and laughing.
Janine suggests learning more about Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Visit vva.org.
A note from Janine: My reasoning for this choice is that the psychiatrist I worked with while recovering from my car accident in 2014, which also brought out a lot of things from the 2009/2010 incidents in this essay, was a Vietnam veteran who founded his business to help other veterans, as well as civilians, who had experienced severe trauma. His practice (him and another psychiatrist) brought me back to life, and allowed me to be present. Without them I would have committed suicide in 2015. So I'd like to give back to a community that adopted me for a moment, and paved a way back to life for me.