The game change

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On the 20th anniversary of his accident, Eric posted a picture of himself diving from an impossibly high rock ledge into a pool of cold, clear mountain water. We all remember him this way, lean and tan, a confident smile on his face, a serial risk-taker. It’s one of those photos that makes the cliché “he had his whole life ahead of him” pass through your mind. Quickly followed by the phrase, “it was only a matter of time.” The photo startles me, as he no doubt intended. I’m sure I’m not the only one who notices.

In high school, Eric was a lightning rod, attracting any and all nearby energy. He was a rebel in our circle and the kind of neglected boy-child adults wanted to save. He was the first of us to have a car, and I still remember the stick shift cover he crafted in welding class in his junior year—etched into it was a #11, the number from his basketball jersey. He seemed invincible and unscarred by the adults missing in his life, even though I know he wasn’t. We had that in common.

After graduation, we ended up at the same college, though I rarely saw him. He ran in a much faster circle, and while I was still learning to live in my skin, he was busy finding ways to get out of his. I remember running into him at a party in his apartment complex once, a drunken, drama fest that was out of control almost before it started. I was hiding in a bedroom, waiting for an opportune moment to escape, when Eric stumbled in and lay down beside me on his roommate’s bed. He was high, and I doubt much was said. But I’d bet money he was glad to find me there, if only to take a break for a few minutes, to let the whirlwind lose momentum. We didn’t pose any risk to each other. Rather, Eric and I were like allies that unexpectedly meet up on a battlefield. A reminder that there had been calm before the war, and reassurance that there would be calm again after.

That moment would be the last one I would have with him for over 20 years.

When Eric was 22, he jumped from the rock ledge into the mountain pool and hit his head on the bottom. He suffered a serious spinal injury, paralyzing most of his body, and he wasn’t expected to live. When he regained consciousness, as Drew tells it, he didn’t want to live. But Drew and Drew’s family rallied around him, closing a circle and working their magic, and he pulled through. He was trapped in a wheelchair and dependent on care for even the most basic of needs.

The accident affected Drew deeply. Up until that time, he had been in the game to prove himself. He had always been determined to be the smartest kid in class and, though there was a show of competition, the only reason there was ever a horse race was because he allowed it. He was witty in a sharp, often caustic way, overcompensating for perceived shortcomings by making the rest of us laugh, sometimes at our own expense. I have little doubt he took this drive to college, where he would have been out from under Eric’s shadow and had more success with the girls. But Drew always had a huge capacity for compassion. He was the guy you wanted near you in an emergency, the one you could count on to not let the building burn down with anyone in it. Even at his meanest, in his most defensive mode, sarcasm never reached his eyes. He could sneer like a movie villain, and he could cut even the biggest ego down to size, but he could never really sustain it. He was generous to a fault.

When Eric was released from the hospital, Drew quit school and moved in to help manage his care. If he was afraid to do the dirty, heavy jobs, he didn’t let it show. Instead, he worked side by side with Eric’s girlfriend to convince his friend that life still meant something. He was determined not to let him down, even it meant being drawn back into a world he had been on the verge of leaving.

He did eventually finish school. He was best man at Eric’s wedding, and he was there for the birth of both of Eric’s daughters. There could have been a happy ending, and that would have been the end of it. But it wasn’t.

Photo credit: www.tomeggebrecht.com

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