By Amy O'Loughlin

"Just have fun tonight, whatever you do," Dennis said. "I'm not going to go to the drive-in."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

Dennis and I stood in the walkway of my front yard discussing plans for Friday evening. It was July 22, 1983. I was 15 and Dennis was 17, and we were girlfriend and boyfriend. I wanted him to come with me to the drive-in; he wanted to go fishing. Our little tiff was spoiling the day.

We'd spent that hot, sticky day together at my house. My parents and older sister, Kelley, were working; my younger sister was vacationing with our grandparents in Nova Scotia. Dennis and I were alone. We kissed. We fumbled with each other's clothing. We wrestled. We held each other. On the floor I sat between Dennis's legs, my back against his chest. He rested his cheek on my head, breathed warm breaths on my hair, and hugged me around my belly.

"I'll see you Monday," Dennis said as he got on his bike, ready to leave. "Have fun tonight." He smiled at me as he coasted down the driveway. I saw his forearms flex, his thigh muscles twitch. That made me smile, and everything was okay.

* * *

"What's with you two?" our friend Paul asked as he got into the front seat of our family car with Kelley, and I climbed in back with Paul's friend, Ron.

Both dressed in pastel--the summer fashion statement of the early '80s. Kelley wore pants the color of green sherbet and a rainbow striped blouse, and I wore lilac pants and a white lace blouse. We looked overdressed for the drive-in.

"We just felt like getting dressed up," I said, feeling suddenly foolish for persuading Kelley to make the effort. She wanted to wear shorts, a T-shirt, and her sandals. I insisted we wear nicer clothes and our good shoes.

The night still carried the day's heat and the air was humid-thick. Bored by the thought of sitting through movies we didn't really want to see, we rode around the surrounding rural towns--Lancaster, Bolton, Berlin--music loud, windows down, oven-warm air fanning in, speeding, spinning out in doughnuts. Suddenly our car started to smoke and the engine sputtered. We'd been trying to be too much like daredevil Evil Knievel. I was petrified the car would break down. How could we explain to our parents why we weren't at the drive-in, what happened to the car, and why there was beer in the front seat?

We were near the off-limits grounds of the Massachusetts Correctional Institute. We rolled into a wooded pathway to let the engine cool, and a weather-worn sign warned "No Trespassing." We piled out of the car; our devil-may-care attitudes traded in for somber worry. An echo of our slammed car doors traveled out into the woods. Light came from the gray, full moon. It was round, halfway up in the sky. Its gleam shimmered on the lake's slow-lapping water. Mosquitoes buzzed around me. I lit a cigarette to keep them away.

"Hey, look at this!" Paul yelled from across the lake. "I always heard this rope was here. I'm goin' in!" And with rope in hand, he backed up a few steps, sprinted, and jumped into the water, yelling Tarzan-style "Ahhh-a-ha-ah-a-ahhh-a-ah."

"Hey, you want to go in?" I said to Kelley. "You know, swimming. Skinny-dipping. Want to try it?"
"No!" she said.
"Why not? C'mon, just this once. Want to?"

She stared, then nodded. And we undressed. I stepped to the pond's edge and I dove in. Kelley jumped in behind me.

Splash and thud! My head hit a shallow embankment obscured under the surface of the water. Everything froze. I felt warm water around me. It felt soft and welcoming. But I couldn't move. I tried to turn myself over. I needed a breath. My arms bobbed in the wavy water. I floated. I yelled a gurgled shout. It sounded as if I'd shouted into a thick pillow, and Kelley didn't hear me. I tried to swim. I wanted to breathe. I needed to breathe.

Face down, doing the dead man's float, I waited. I opened my eyes and saw nothing. There was only black space before me, and its vastness frightened me. I squeezed my eyes closed, then opened them again. Still, I saw nothing. I felt no pain, only a stiff cinching in the back of my neck as if a giant's hand dangled me in the air by a pinch of my skin. Breathe, I thought, I have to breathe.

Kelley swam over and nudged me. "Kelley! Help me, I can't move!" I said, the sound muffled under water. She nudged me again. "Amy, stop fooling around!" she yelled to me. I heard Kelley's order, yet the water subdued the curt anger in her voice. I wanted to reach up and grab her wrist. I was afraid she'd swim away in exasperation, a way not to indulge my joke.

"I'm not, I can't move!" but she didn't hear that either. I needed to take a deep breath. I began to feel quivery, indistinct. I wanted to yield to the darkness. I was being summoned. I could find comfort there, and I'd no longer be afraid.

Kelley then rolled me over and I felt the air's coldness tingle on my head. I breathed. My wet hair slid in my face. I wanted to push it out of my eyes. I was cold, but I could breathe. I could breathe.

"Something's wrong," I said.

* * *

I broke my neck and severed my spinal cord when I dove into the lake that night. I was paralyzed, categorized as a quadriplegic. I couldn't breathe on my own--the whooshing, sighing ventilator did that for me. After two weeks in an intensive care unit I was transferred to the New England Regional Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Unit in Boston. During my four months there I gained enough strength to breathe on my own again. I learned to sit in a wheelchair and found out how to manage my new life--understanding the care I needed and knowing how to instruct others on how to do it. I learned how to live.

I made a pact with myself when I was lying on the ground beside the lake, waiting for the ambulance: Whatever it is that has happened to you, you will not let it interfere with the progress of your life. You will go on, you will live your life--whatever life that is.

The instant I hit my head, the second I couldn't move, I knew that all things in my life were no longer the same. I knew because an immediate recognition of loss and change washed over me. At that moment my physical helplessness--my inability to simply roll off the gnarled tree root biting into my shoulder blade--allowed my mind to take control. If moving my body was impossible, devoting my mind to the discovery of a quality life-future was not.

I let go of what I knew to be mine and familiar. I forgot about the new haircut that I wanted to try; I stopped wondering about the day that I'd have my driver's license; I let go of Dennis. I allowed acceptance in. I used this self-made agreement to see me through. And it is how I go on.

* * *

At first, putting aside my expectations and affection made me feel that too many precious things were being unfairly taken away from me, like walking, dancing, holding a mug of coffee in my hand, touching a loved one's skin. But then I saw that it was necessary for me to peel away the old reminders of what was and wouldn't be again. I needed to create a brand-new reality for my life that began from the moment I dove into the lake and Thud! went my world. And that could only be accomplished by being unencumbered.

I had to relinquish the physical things that I thought made me what I was: a teenager who scuffed my feet as I walked; a girl who kept my lips perpetually shiny with my lemonade-flavored lip balm; who loved to bury myself under a blanket and read in bed; who loved to practice my penmanship, designing a distinctive way to sign my name.

Those physical identifiers were of a time past. It would do me no good to cling to them or to pretend they weren't gone. If I was to build a future, I had to find original traits of a mental or cerebral sort, ones that bowed to the reality of this life using a wheelchair. I wouldn't give away the essentials of my being, the simple things like my all-encompassing love for my family, my obsessive liking for house plants and wine and chocolate, my love of reading and writing. Instead I found other things that satisfied my identity and delivered fulfillment. I became an accomplished student, an independent and passionate woman, another man's girlfriend, a writer.

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