Once upon a time lived a Bulletproof Me.
I was born into a motorcycle racing family. My well-meaning father, in an attempt to educate me properly for my future, imposed the Ten Crash Rule. This simply meant that on any day I rode a motorcycle I was to crash a minimum of ten times. This was helpful in two ways, the first that it accelerates one’s ability to ride faster, and the second, that it teaches one to crash with the least possible harm to oneself.
After more than 500 riding days, more than 5,000 crashes, and having sustained nothing worse than lost skin and a mild brain injury, I believed that I was, in fact, Bulletproof.
As for being Me, well, “I ride, therefore I am”, would have been about the size and the depth of it.
There is a wonderful poem, “To A Black Greyhound”, by Julian Grenfell, first published in The Muse In Arms in 1917, a collection of war poems mostly written by men who were serving in the Great War at the time. Though how a war could be Great, or useful in any way, was beyond my teenage understanding..
Shining black in the shining light,
Inky black in the golden sun,
Graceful as the swallow’s flight,
Light as swallow, winged one,
Swift as driven hurricane,
Double-sinewed stretch and spring,
Muffled thud of flying feet,
See the black dog galloping,
Hear his wild foot-beat.
See him when the day is dead,
Black curves circled on the boarded floor.
Sleepy eyes, my sleepy head –
Eyes that were aflame before.
Gentle now, they burn no more
With the fire that made them bright,
Hidden, as after storm
Softly falls the night.
God of speed who makes the fire,
God of peace who lulls the same,
God who gives the fierce desire,
Lust for blood as fierce as flame,
God who stands in pity’s name,
Many may ye be or less,
Ye who rule the earth and sun,
Gods of strength and gentleness,
Ye are ever one.
Though I did not know it, my own war was about to begin, and this is how it all started.
I am eighteen years and three weeks old. This proves I have been an adult for three weeks. Haven’t I ?
Isn’t this how we know things in our society ? By rules, measures, technical specifications ? These are our proof.
Pedro is not the smartest of dogs, but he is fast, black, honest. He will go on to win seventeen races, but today is only a trial day. Don’t worry. No ten crash rule for dogs.
I place Pedro in the starting boxes, watch the lure approach, click my stopwatch as the boxes open. I watch Pedro run the length of the back straight, watch the line he takes into the first bend, then make my way to the catching pen gate as instructed.
I watch Pedro run down the home straight, click the watch as he crosses the finish line, look at the watch. Frozen time ? I read it. 25.2 seconds. Then my world turns upside down. Literally.
So odd. The clouds are pretty. My feet look wrong against the sky. I land on my feet, stumble, fall, try to get up before understanding.
Pain fills my world, almost all there is. At the centre of the pain I see my left knee and foot are perfectly still, but what’s between them wobbles like a too soft jelly. There are jagged pieces of bone protruding in two places. Long pieces. White. Huge broken teeth. A lion’s ?
I learn it is not possible to turn back time or take back an action, no matter how recent. Not even the five lousy seconds I need ? Not even that.
A dog is barking.
A kind man speaks to me. He speaks of how fast the dog ran, of how an ambulance has been called. He helps me onto my side, because my foot is facing backwards. He is big strong and gentle. He explains my leg is broken, and that the lure driver fainted when he saw what was happening. How nothing could have been done, as the lure has no brakes. How it was an electric motor did the damage, that this is a new type of lure, all electric, modern technology. And that I was lucky, it could have killed me, could have torn the leg clean off doing that speed. What speed ?
A dog is barking.
Siren. Ambulance. Uniform. Grimace.
You’re kidding. I can’t move this guy. I’ll radio for the paramedics.
He’s back to ‘help’ me. Straighten my leg. He ‘succeeds’ in getting my foot back to only a 90 degree angle away from correct alignment. Albeit with some sickening noises from shattered pieces of bone grinding against each other. Hey, if you wanna make an omelette….
But I’m not a freaking omelette. Am I ? Well am I ?
The kind man gives me his big calloused hand to hold. Obviously the only anaesthetic available. I apologise for hurting his hand. Don’t worry about it young fella.
A dog is barking.
Another ambulance. Intensive Care. Two more uniforms.
Me on a stretcher, being carried.
I see Pedro, black dog barking. Fast honest dog, not smart.
Slow trip, past Bulli hospital, all the way to Wollongong.
Each bump a horror, grinding teeth and bone.
20 kays an hour, no stops, siren only for red lights.
My leg about to fall off the stretcher, closer, closer, I panic, scream in gibberish. Yes mate. You’ll be right.
Whoa, his leg’s coming off the stretcher.
He fixes it, straps me in, apologises. Safer.
Hospital. Young blonde cheery doctor approaches, writes on clipboard while listening to paramedic. Says hello. Looks at leg. Goes interesting colour.
Just a minute.
True to his word, in less than a minute he returns, invites me to join the Amputee Club and signs me up on his clipboard.
X-rays. Then a quiet room. For three hours people come to visit my leg. A group of med students once. One prods and pokes. I scream. They leave.
I breathe. Again. Some more.
A doctor arrives from Sydney. Doctors are not always true to their word. We may not have to amputate. New technology. Maybe we can save it. Anaesthetic. Finally, pain to background. I’m gone.
I know I’m alive, for this is what pain does – it lets us know we’re alive. I must be Very Alive. Time slips, wobbles, whooshes, as empty and full as a punctured lung. I lie still, nobody comes.
I move my upper body, slowly, painfully, to my right, to see into the hallway. There, a clock. 1.07.
AM or PM ?
I do not know, but at least I know something. 1.07.
I lie still a very long time, alive. Nobody comes. I wonder how many hours have passed, move again to my right, see the clock. 1.08.
World of pain, not time.
I am being wheeled from my room of solitary confinement to a room of quiet community. As we progress along the hallway, noise shatters silence, fills the senses. The weights holding my leg in traction have fallen to the floor, allowing my leg’s muscles to contract and slam shattered fragments of bone together. Long after the metallic noise of the weights hitting the floor stop echoing, I still hear a deeper sound. I realise it’s coming out of me. Sometime after that, it stops.
Pain that screams, dream after waking dream.
Very alive indeed.
More operations. Visits from friends. No visits from the Fairweathers. After a week time goes back to something I almost understand. Eventually, home.
The car trip terrifies. Whole world moving. All danger.
In the hospital there was order, safety, calm. Even your bowels knew when to move. Here, outside, all is conspiring to destroy.
I am not Bulletproof.
I am broken.
I go to physio, work hard. I’m getting nowhere, not fast. Each day the same, treatment not helping. Guys with amputated legs work hard too, improve. They resent me at first. I am the lucky one. After a while, they are somewhere, me nowhere. One nods at my leg, speaks to me. Looks painful mate.
Yeah, but yours must be worse.
No pain at all mate. How long since you busted that ?
Six months. How long since you lost yours ?
Six weeks. He walks away.
I pick up my crutches and leave.
Every month, the specialist. Always the same conversation.
How’s it going ?
Cut it off.
We don’t amputate perfectly good legs.
Not the right one, the left one.
Ha ha. One day you’ll do something with that you couldn’t have done with an artificial leg.
After a year I’m at physio and they take away my crutches and give me a walking stick, despite the fact I’m unable to walk with it. For my own good. On the way back to my car I collapse on a hospital floor, crying from pain and exhaustion.
Each month x-rays show the honeycomb of bone becoming fuller, denser. I learn to walk again. Physically, I am healing.
Mentally, emotionally, different story. I am nineteen, I walk with a pronounced limp. One leg is three centimetres shorter than the other and has a bony protrusion on the front of it the size of an extra knee. My toes are clawed from nerve damage sustained during one of the operations. I know that no woman will ever be able to accept this. Loathsome creature, repulsive even to my own eyes, I am profoundly alone.
The black dog in my life now is not Pedro, not honest, not fast. Insidious and insistent, this dog barks and bites where the damage is greatest, on the inside.
I now know, in a deep and complete way, that I cannot survive, that I must certainly die, and I begin to consider ways of carrying out this final act.
I hear on the radio that John Lennon has been shot dead. I am greatly affected. Unable to deal with my emotions I begin to write.
Poems of loss. Questions of why.
The next day I write again. A new way of surviving begins.
Now I am obsessed with three things, and I link the three together each day. Self loathing, suicide, writing.
Time passes, there is still pain, all types. But I walk better, my limp no longer obvious. I attend discos, girls show interest. I kiss a few, sleep with none. They don’t know I’m a freak.
I consider driving myself through the glass entrance doors of the hospital emergency room and asking to see a psychiatrist. I park in the parking area and walk through the doors instead. The psychiatrist refers me to a psychologist. I see her for many months.
I still don’t kill me, not because of anything the psychologist says, but because every idea I have for killing me must be written about, and this keeps me quite busy. So I write and write, but never die.
At some point I realise the writing lacks cheerfulness, so I attempt to write some comedy.
A Comedian’s Finest Day
In my mind there’s a man on a window ledge,
he don’t really want to jump,
but he’s suffered enough for one lifetime,
so he says “well hey, why not”, and he does.
Not too spectacular, your average freefall
and rather ungraceful landing,
but he’s done it all wrong and he didn’t die,
now he’ll be paralysed for the rest of his life
but it won’t make no difference anyway
cos he was kinda born that way.
Kid from Sydney, eating and sleeping
and thinking of suicide,
thinking of people, some here and some gone
and how every one of them lived their lie.
And God didn’t hand out no guarantee
with every soul he sold
that life would be free, now Consumer Affairs
say we all have to do whatever we’re told.
And if I had a gun
I’d go to a real crowded place
and take it out and shout to everyone
“let’s all try to beat the rat in his own race”,
and I’d put it to my head and
BANG, I’d straight away be dead,
but people would say “What a crazy kid”
and not give a thought to what the dead man said
So it’s got me wondering is it a sin
to love some dogs, some relations and one or two friends,
will death come faster to those still in love
or to those whose hearts are on the mend
Will I live to see such a beautiful sight
as, I don’t know, son or daughter just yet,
and will I ever do anything right ?
if I was a betting man I wouldn’t bet.
And when I do my suicide
I’ll do it some funny way,
so that someone gets quite a laugh out of it,
it’ll be a comedian’s finest day.
Ok, perhaps not the most cheerful words ever written. But in time, these words and others, written from my heart to Me, help somehow, raise my hopes, show me possibilities.
I learn there is love in Me, and I will spend every bit of it before I leave this life. And maybe, possibly, someday, there is an unborn child to consider.
And the questions, life’s delicious questions, demanding answers; there is life to be lived and words to be written, and though there is sadness and pain and a snarling dog that rises unbidden from the depths of me at times, these experiences too, are filled with a beauty worthy of another day, another investigation, another poem or story.
Some things I have learned:
That though a bullet ended John Lennon’s life, his message of Peace lived on, and the essential truth of him with it, and that is what it really means to be Bulletproof.
That in living with my own demons, finding beauty in a black snarling dog and it’s lust for blood, and rising above the difficulties of my life I too, in my own small way, can now lay a genuine claim on being Bulletproof.
And that a war can in fact be a wonderful thing, a personal war at least, because in my own struggle with pain, depression, loss of mobility and opportunity, I gained something very precious indeed. From a broken thing, I grew, nurtured, and ultimately found, Me.
Yours sincerely, faithfully, but never regrettably,