Sports can be a cause of discord in marriage, but for Heather Gray and her husband, sports preserved their union—and her husband’s life.
Sports has taken its knocks recently, but when you credit sports for saving the life of your husband, it’s hard to be critical.
Your intellectual mind recognizes the risk of concussions and injuries. You hear the warnings of long-term damage. But honestly, you just don’t care.
November 2, 2014. The New England Patriots vs. The Denver Broncos. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.
Two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks duking it out in the freezing cold wind. My first NFL game. I was there, cheering for my Patriots and yes, the epic catch by Gronkowski happened right in front of me. It was a best day ever kind of day. My eyes filled with happy tears more than once, and although I was shivering, I looked at my husband with elation.
I saw the hard hits, and the downsides of the game weren’t lost on me. Yet, in a surge of emotion, all I could think was that if it weren’t for sports, my husband would not be my husband and we would not be in the stadium together, realizing my dream of seeing a Patriots game in person.
In 2005, the man who was then my boyfriend was on his way to work. In the crosswalk, with the right of way, he was struck by a commuter bus whose driver failed to look before turning. He was trapped under the bus screaming in agony, and he instantly knew he would never walk again.
The next day, he underwent eight hours of surgery on his spine. There were two other people in the waiting room with me. His best friend from college and her husband. No family. No other friends. Only three people who were willing to show that they gave a shit.
When I called his grandmother and asked why no one was there, she said “Oh, we’ll just come tomorrow. It’s not like he’s going to know we’re there anyway.”
So only the three of us were with him when he learned his spinal cord was permanently severed. He was paralyzed from the waist down … and would never walk again.
Family and friends trickled in throughout the days and weeks he was in the ICU, and later, while he was in rehab. For the most part, though, his family remained incapable of getting it together. And his friends had been his athletic buddies. He’d been a hiker, a runner, a SCUBA diver. The awkward visits of these healthy, upright, walking men highlighted that without the commonality of sports or activities, no one really knew what to talk about or do.
Rehab was the easy part of it all. Patients have an intense schedule of physical, recreational, and occupational therapies that keep them focused and on task. It’s after they return home that the enormity of their loss sets in. When the rest of the world goes back to “normal,” the depression, anger, and hopelessness set in.
The first year was filled with emotionally and physically painful reminders that life would be forever different. His depression presented as anger. Plain and simple, he became an asshole. He was mean, angry, inconsolable. I stayed because I still cared about him. I wouldn’t leave someone who had no one. As soon as the coast was clear, though, I’d be out of there. This was not going to be my life.
A year later, I surprised him at Christmas with adaptive ski lessons. And leading up to those lessons, he was a beast! Fearful. Anxious. Pessimistic. Vulnerable. I nearly canceled several times as his mood became unbearable. My gut kept telling me though, “Bring him to the mountain. Just get him there.” This feeling was so powerful that I pushed through his ambivalence, sensing something transformative was going to happen.
And happen it did. Within moments of entering the adaptive ski school, his mood lightened. His fear dissipated. He seemed eager to get started. It helped that the instructors were happy to see him, and they didn’t treat him with kid gloves.
A group of guys loaded him into a monoski and pushed him across the snow to the bunny hill where, with some help from the rope pull, they hoisted him up the hill. Two men held tethers behind him as he slid down the slope. They did most of the work for him as he learned how to balance independently and hold himself in the sled.
I was there, at the bottom of the hill, camera in hand. Waiting. But I never took the picture. I was too stunned by his expressions, and my eyes were filled with tears.
There he was. Smiling. Grinning. Ear to ear.
Doctors and therapists helped him survive that damned bus accident, but skiing saved him. And us. In that moment I knew. I knew he would be OK. And I knew we would be OK, too.
The weeks after were filled with trips back to the mountain, and with each one he got better and better. Tethers were taken off as he learned to ski independently. He built camaraderie with his fellow students and instructors. He became a different man.
He was brought back to life and to the land of the living. He left his engineering job and went back to school to study medicine. In 2009, I became his wife and in 2012, he became a doctor. Since that life changing winter, he has tried adaptive water skiing and bought a handcycle. With the exception of one year where his medical training held him back, every year he’s been back to the mountain.
He’s gotten good at skiing. Really good. Black diamond trail good and yes, that makes me nervous. He’s already a paraplegic. If he got hurt again, we’d be screwed. Seriously screwed.
I want to urge him to use caution, because I do sometimes get scared when I hear of the risks he takes on the mountain, as the guys swap stories over a beer or two. Sometimes fear and common sense get the best of me, and I do urge caution. But he is going to do what he is going to do.
He may get a concussion some day because of this sport he loves. He might get hurt in some other way. But he is living. Skiing gave him his life back. Sports gave him his life back.
When you really sit on the front lines of sports and see what the games mean to athletes, you respect the risks but you don’t really contemplate making a change. After all, the alternative—a life without sports, or with a watered down version of sports, is no life at all.
Photo Credit: Author