Woman of Water

For Frank

If you were my muse

I’d be in trouble

I just want to tease you

Stroke your cheek, scratch your stubble

Make fun of your haircut

‘Til your chin wants to double.


It’s your dimples I’m seeking,

I must make you smile

I want to fall in them

And swim for a mile.


The breast stroke, the back stroke

The butterfly, and free

As a mermaid I’ll kiss you

I’m lost in your sea.


It happened so fast

I worry it’s lust

Is the fire of desire

A medium I wonder

This woman of water

Can trust?

Chapter Five: The First

The first year was the hardest because I lived beyond my own death, the death of the person who I’d been, who I had fought to become, and whom I really loved. Yet, I had no self to replace me with except this huge gaping, wounded darkness. My life had been a light; what was left was a shadow.

Continued from Chapter Four: No Accidents

Dear Charlene:

You wanted to know:  What has my life been like?

For a long time I didn’t tell my story, my sense of grief and loss so profound that to put them in words and sentences would be to lessen them. So, now as I try to tell my story, I can’t decide whether to start with the best or the worst. Maybe the first.

The first year was the hardest because I lived beyond my own death, the death of the person who I’d been, who I had fought to become, and whom I really loved. (You would have to know my childhood to see why I had to fight to love myself.)Yet, I had no self to replace me with except this huge gaping, wounded darkness. My life had been a light; what was left was a shadow.

The first year was so bad because each calendar day I would look back at where I was a year before and weep for the loss. However, as soon as I passed the first anniversary I could say with relief: I am now much better than I was last year on this day. The first year all I felt was loss, even losses from before the accident which I had never felt as deeply conscious about. My losses are still hard to sort out coming out of my forties.

Many were subterranean; they felt mainly potential, barely articulated. That I would never cross my legs again, straddle a bike or a tree again, I’d never have a lap, I’d never sit with comfort, never run, never do a ballet fouete again or jette, never lose my virginity properly, all those things remained potential losses. For those first three months all I could think about was how I would never be “me” again.

For nine years after the first, I would honor the anniversary of my accident as not a second birthday, but a day of salvation and redemption. I’d lost life; indeed, I heard I was dead on arrival at Cooley Dickinson­ – and had a second chance. Once over the shock, it took about three years to feel like a whole person again, to integrate my old self into the new. I knew what life was worth, and I was always mindful of Mark.

He was his mother’s pride and joy, her eldest boy, her handsome high school hero.  Left with a daughter Wendy, whom Mark adored, and three other sons, Clyde, Dennis and Glen, his mother Dottie divorced her alcoholic husband and I think felt she was forging a new life.  

After Mark’s death I visited Dottie Robinson on May 24, from 1973. She took me to the gravesite in Danvers, Massachusetts, near the Liberty Tree mall.  A small tree by the grave was decorated with presents that his friends brought to him, and other ornaments were planted or hidden nearby, which inspired me to return many years later to place a kachina, an Indian spirit doll to honor his Native American heritage.  One year Dottie pulled out a box of items collected from his dorm room.  We each pulled forth items from it and remembered things in his life.  It included a motorcycle helmet and many pieces of leather which he used to make mocassins and belts.

After 1980, when Dottie moved to Florida with her new husband, who was a childhood flame rekindled, I marked the day by writing a bit of my memories. After I’d moved to Colorado, I asked myself what friends had always asked me, “Why not write about what happened,” and in 1982 I honored the day by beginning my research.

I descended to the bowels of MGH’s medical records library and went through my 11 and 12-year old records and copied all the notes from the first month. With my mother’s memory and these notes I was able to reconstruct the first three weeks, the amount of time it took before it was sure I would live.

So, now I will tell you the first, although it’s really not the hands-down worst.

They battled three days for my life at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in North Hampton. For three days my body lay hanging in a pelvic sling, with newly donated blood pouring in and then out of me. When they could not contain the spread of gangrene from my leg to my hip, Dr. Hinckley, who was in charge of my care, knew a surgeon who had great talent in amputating to contain cancer cells that had spread to women’s hips and pelvises.

His name was Dr. Hedberg, and was a god to me because when Cooley-Dickinson doctors could do no more for me, my mother told me, “There is a doctor at Mass General who can help us. Dr. Hedberg.” After I knew about Mark’s death, it became real to me that I also could die. I then repeated the doctor’s name; he became a mantra in my desperate state of survival. “Doctor Hedberg” were the last words on my mother’s lips as they loaded me into the ambulance for the risky transfer.

I don’t know all the names for the physical states of shock and breakdown I was in, but I do know the 90-minute trip only took an hour speeding down the Mass Pike, while I was in a state of siege. 

In the ambulance my lungs, kidneys and liver collapsed, and by the time I reached the emergency room, I heard voices talking urgently, “You better get that thing in her right now or she’s going to go on us.” Although I felt like I soared off the stretcher, I’m sure I couldn’t have moved more than a twitch. But I declared, “I am not going to die! Where’s Dr. Hedberg?!” My hope in Hedberg was one of two elements of my survival.

Many times I heard what was said between doctors and nurses over my body. Rarely was I able also to see them, but the one image I remember was like a person would peer at me through a fish eye lens. The ambulance arrived at the emergency room with sirens blaring, and into my distorted field of perception peered these doctor/nurse faces of incompetence. “You’re all a bunch of spics! Where’s Dr. Hedberg?” I screamed. I felt like I must meet him right then or I couldn’t hold on. And I called out for my mother. She was the other element.

I am lucky to have our taped interview from 1981, with her colorful descriptions and dialogues. Still, she was not good with the details and dates, so I went to my MGH notes for those. In the tape, my mother free-associates unless I jump in and ask her questions. First, I ask her about when I arrived at MGH in the ambulance.

“You had a very high temperature, you were in shock, and they weren’t taking you at the emergency ward right away. They had me wait in emergency. Then Doctor Hedberg came. [I told him] I wanted to see the surgery.

“I went up to the anteroom, and there were all doctors there. These two men with their egos were arguing about one taking the other’s work and publishing it,” my mother scoffs.

“I don’t think they cut above the knee for weeks. You were yelling you wouldn’t let them do anything to you unless I came in. So Dr. Hedberg let me. I came in after the above-the-knee amputation (A-K) and held the stump while he hit it with an instrument, and he said, ‘There’s healthy tissue.’ And I was so happy, I said ‘Hallelujah!'”

When did I have a below the knee amputation? I wanted to know. My mother wasn’t sure. Looking for some progression of the amputations, I turned to the notes I had copied from Mass General. Though it was 10 years after the amputation, the notes had an immediacy, a vitality as I read them that I would not have expected. The very syntax of the doctor’s notes conveyed to me the emotion, or sometimes a seeming lack of it, these menders of people felt toward their subject.

I read that when I arrived at Mass General I was taken to surgery shortly after my ER admission. My ER notes read: “Severe pelvic fracture and severe laceration of the perineum.” The hospital nurse’s notes read that on May 25 at Cooley Dickinson they performed a left A-K amputation. [This must be wrong if I was at CDH for only three days, and if MGH received me on May 25 as the note implies.] There is no mention of a below-the-knee amputation in the Mass General notes.

The comment is made on the same date that, “her labia are cold, swollen, and blue.” That’s a sign they were dead. I am absolutely chilled reading this, not wanting to think about any of the further death to my most private parts, yet knowing I will experience much more if I am to follow this paper trail through the next month of the trauma at MGH. That this reading is re-traumatizing I do not consider, so intent am I on uncovering the truth about my unconscious past.

On 5/27/72, the notes reveal they removed the pelvic packs. On 5/29, ”She is a little agitated, keeps asking whether she is to be operated on tonight.” This is the evening of the day they informed me they were going to have to amputate further. “A little agitated.” I question how my mother could have kept track of what was going on at the time let alone recollect the details of the events now.

In my mother’s words:  “Everything happened so fast. They thought they had caught the gangrene. But then they had to do another amputation, this time of your hip and the [floater] rib.” That means they watched it for three days to see if they had caught the gangrene. I don’t wonder why they didn’t catch “not catching” it sooner. But I quickly check any of this kind of “what if” speculation. I recognize it is not healthy.

According to the next notes, on 5/30 Dr. Hedberg performed a hip disarticulation; the description of the operation is fascinating, but grim enough for me to turn the page and not look at it again.

On June 2 and 3, the nurses notes report, they performed debridement, but the gangrene they had tried to prevent from spreading to nearby flesh had outfoxed their antibiotics.

Doctor Hedberg’s sketchy notes report on the next few days briefly, but I find that in their sequence, even these are enough to raise concern in me, as though this report were today. It occurs to me I never saw him when he had a look of concern. My visual memories of Hedberg only begin after the first month.

Hedberg:  “June 1 – dressing changed. There has been considerable further necrosis of the skin. We will have to remove some more.

June 2 – Further extensive loss of tissue was debrided under anesthesia. We may have to do a hemipelvectomy to get ahead of this thing. disease – a real problem with sepsis and advancing gangrene. Please follow and advise.” He was evidently addressing Dr. Mollering.

The next notes were from Dr. Mollering, the internist and infectious disease doctor, who would not normally see me in the operating room. “6/4 Shaking chill with temp to 101+ this a.m. Unfortunately abundant pseudomonas of two types, not surprising, but a most disturbing development.” Pseudomonas is the fast spreading gas gangrene.

My mother recalls the next day was an ordeal for everyone concerned. “After the operation, we were very apprehensive. Before you went in to the next one Hedberg took me into his office and talked with me for a whole hour. He told me, ‘I don’t know how much we’re going to have to take.’ I said, ‘What do you mean how much?’ and he told me, ‘I may have to take the torso.’

“I told him very hesitantly, ‘That would be a terrible thing for her to handle. . .’ You had heard them say something about what they might do, and you let me know you didn’t want that. I didn’t even know what a torso was,” my mother admits, and I can’t help but laugh, but I sober quickly as she continues.

“He said, ‘We might have to take an awful lot of her body, her buttock and hip.’ I knew you’d feel terrible, they’d take a lot, and he’d feel terrible. After the operation he spoke with me an hour.”

On the tape she is silent for about 10 seconds. I ask her what they talked about, and I regret I didn’t press her further on this.

She sighs heavily. “Oh, he’d taken a terrible lot out of you, and he was pleased with the surgery.” I know she meant he was satisfied that he had gone far enough. But why hadn’t she asked him if I could still have sex? Had she admitted the whole thing to herself yet. Or was it not something she felt comfortable talking about.

At another time, my mother told me she and he had talked about “this generation,” with whom he expressed feeling great alienation. He told her about a young woman he had seen in Harvard Square, tall, blonde, handsome, “obviously from a good family,” unkempt and drugged out, who was carrying a ragged blanket she was obviously using to sleep “in the streets” on. I felt slightly irritated they didn’t talk about me the whole time.

My mother earnestly tried to make him see that the “tune-in, turn-on drop-out” mentality he saw was a healthy response to the world we were all living in. My mother had recently become an activist against the Vietnam War, and on the authority of her strong voice and her Motherhood got up and spoke at a huge rally in the Boston Common against the killing of America’s sons.

My mother goes on to describe Dr. Hedberg’s state of mind, which she considered inseparable with my survival. “The anesthesia man came up to see you afterwards, but Hedberg felt so bad, he couldn’t see you. You had a healthy, beautiful body, and it meant a lot to you. He knew because you had told him. When you did see him, you said, ‘I told you not to take my torso, now throw the rest of me away,’ and that’s when he told you it was his job to save you, and if you wanted to take your own life, you needed to do that for yourself. That seemed to satisfy you.”

Did I know during the last surgery what was happening? I ask. I realize writing this now that that was a foolish question. How can anyone know “what was happening” under anesthesia.

“You were quoting Camus and the existentialists, and he told you, ‘I like Sartre,’ and then you said Sartre was too cynical for you,” and my mother went on with uncharacteristic candor regarding my “vulgar” tongue to recreate the conversations I had in the operating room under a full general anesthetic.

“You said, ‘Who’s going to want me without my body?’ and several of the doctors – and that young, handsome, Dr. Ryan was there – said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t throw you out of bed!’”

I do recall, as her testimony reminds me, asking them how I was  going to be called a nice piece of ass any more. Of course, I didn’t have the mental acuity to get the joke the way it really was funny, which was, “Now they really can call me a nice piece of ass.” I don’t think I realized that this expression meant having had a girl, sexually. I thought when they boys said that to you it was a compliment based on how you looked in blue jeans. Hedberg was shocked a year later to hear that I had been a virgin, and I told him then, “You’re the one who took away my virginity.”

After my infamous line about piece of ass, my mother told me the doctors then said, “You still have beautiful breasts.” At that point, I’m sure it was a consolation only a man could appreciate, and one which my mother heard with mixed feelings, considering she disapproved of men talking about women’s bodies as objects even if as objects d’art. I remember her anger and shame when my father showed me a painting he’d done of her with her breasts bared.

Later, after the intern’s comments about my breasts, my mother said, “Don’t worry, dear, there are other kinds of love,” and then, in her words, “And then that young, handsome Dr. Ryan spoke up for you. ‘Don’t you ever say that to her. She can have intercourse.'” True. I still had 2 1/2 inches of vaginal canal left, and there was always the good old accommodating vagina at the cervix to make more room for a man. I got a kick out of one of my boyfriends who used to say, “Bob Geary, at your cervix.”

My mother’s testimony on the tape almost makes the operating room out to be a place of lighthearted banter, but my body’s memory is different. To this day I dream nightmares of physical annihilation, my body pulverized to ash. During the late 1980’s I didn’t sleep for four years after reconstructive surgery. My body’s memory had been triggered by the new pelvic surgery, and every time I was about to lose consciousness – even in a lying-down daydream – I would awake before I could fall into sleep, in terror that someone might do something to me in my sleep. 

Especially difficult was the debridement. They were afraid to give me too much Ketamine – there are today far better anesthesia – so they only gave me a local and debrided in my hospital room, and they were – plain and simple – digging the dead flesh out of the wound. The sensations would trigger any nerve in the pelvis, including my genitals, and I would remember the feeling of riding a boy’s bike and landing by mistake on the bar between my legs.

The Ketamine I’m told was responsible for the hallucinations. I felt monkeys crawling all over me, like snakes swirling around me, smothering me, and I would scream to get them off me.

According to the nurses’ notes, on June 5, two weeks after the accident, they performed the hemipelvectomy and on June 9-16, debridement of the wound. The notes reveal it would be another week, however, before they were sure the surgery was successful in saving my life.


Romance shorts

You have to think about what you want in a partner–so you recognize him when he comes along.

Romance Blues

            I joined Community Boating on Boston’s Charles River for two reasons:   to hone my sailing skills and to meet some men.  I was advised on the technique of landing a guy:  As a woman you are the lure. You have to think about what you want–so you recognize him when he comes along to catch you. 

            I first thought in broad categories:  intelligent, sensitive, funny, attractive, free- spirited, evolved.  The only particular I wanted was a sailor to share my passion.  I found, though, I could be very particular about what I didn’t want.  No boozers, no smokers and no one who owned cats since, because of my allergies, we’d never be able to get close without my sneezing and wheezing all night.

            By the end of that summer I hadn’t found anyone who seemed available, so I took a look over some of the guys I’d overlooked. 

            It was fall; we were in the Barnegut at sunset, about four of us, one of whom I’d seen often at the club.  He was short and balding, but up close I could see how attractive he really was–blue eyes, nice smile.  When I learned he was a researcher at Mass General Hospital I knew he was intelligent.  Now, here’s a prospect, I observed.

            I was lost in this reverie watching him handle the jib, when as we reached to shore, he mused his own daydream and was hit with the need to express his thoughts. Pulling out a package of cigarettes, then lighting one, he inhaled and before exhaling he remarked to no one in particular, “God, my cats would love this.”

Remembering Fenno’s and Dom DeIeso

We celebrated Dom DeIeso’s 60th birthday in May 2011; I’ve known him for at least 45 of those years, and I salute his daughter Channelle for getting his old friends and putting us together in a function room at the Continental.

To remember Domenic as a kid is to remember Fenno’s Corner; I never met Dom in elementary or middle school. I know he graduated Revere High School with me, so perhaps he went to Immaculate Conception until he entered high school. I didn’t move to Broadway until I had done five grades in the Mary T. Ronin school in Beachmont.

I didn’t meet Dom until one day after school when my best friend, Gale Richardi, introduced me to “the boys in my [new] neighborhood.” Maybe because Dom and Bobby Powers didn’t seem as old as their older brothers: Peter, Jimmy and the other older guys at Fenno’s, I soon felt like Dom and Bobby were our brothers, and I can feel that love even to this day, actually love for all the guys from Fenno’s who were our brothers.

Dom and Bobby Powers were so cute, Bobby with his long eyelashes and Domenic with his perfect Beatles haircut and adorable smile, dimples even, but soon you learned they were really like perfect old men, trading complaints like the old guys in Bill’s Spa who
smoked cigars and loved to “smoke out” the girls, especially Dom with his farts and his very obscene vocabulary; he stood back on his heels with his pelvis thrust forward and he pontificated; the boys were so full of testosterone you wouldn’t dare try to give them a hug, just as you wouldn’t hug your brother. We must have been as strange to them, but they mostly watched out for us. I joke with my friends that I was a little hoodsie, and it’s true!

Jackie Gennaco was reminded and told me of a day when one of the guys asked “Where’s Gale and Carolyn?” and someone told spoke up and told him that we two weren’t talking to each other.

“I just saw them this morning and everything was hunky-dory!” Peter exclaimed.

I mostly remember in the evening when I was supposed to be skating at the MDC Skating Rink across from Gale’s house on the Revere Beach Parkway. Gale and I went to the Shurtleff School in fifth and sixth grade until Grade 7 when I went to Liberty and Gale to McKinley middle school, but we still hung out after school and soon we were ditching our skates to meet “the boys” in her neighborhood, Dom and his brother Peter, and Bobby and his bro Jimmy and younger brother Joe, Jacky Punch, Eddie White, Jacky Gennaco, Paul DiNapoli, Richie Tringali, J.M.,, Andy and Billy Barry, Lowell Willis from down the street, and many more over the years who spent major time in their teens at Fenno’s, which referred to the corner of Broadway and Beach Street where Fenno’s restaurant claimed the corner, while Hegarty’s grocery next door tried to hold off the shoplifters, and Perrotti’s Auto commanded a showroom along Broadway before you got to Chelsea. .

Gale hatched a plan to throw our skates in her hall closet and instead of going to the rink, we went to Fenno’s corner. Sometimes we just stood in front of Hegarty’s grocery, just waiting for someone to show up and begin developing a plan of what to do for fun. In the later years, Dave Champoli rescued us girls from boredom as Paula Hansen, Susan Schlamowitz and Amy Levine who all worked at skill rite down the beach and met us on the corner. Once Gale got a car, things changed, so my clearest memories are of the early days in ’65 and ’66 when we were 13-15 years old

I remember one time when we all passed around a little Book of Secrets where we were all allowed to write something about any one of the other kids who hung out on the corner. Does anyone remember that? I do, because I found out someone thought I was stuck up, and it was my first recognition I wasn’t as perceived as nice and friendly as I thought I acted–according to the book of secrets. Do you remember that Dom? We were in the ninth grade; it was 1966 and it was the worse year for me in my home, but somehow by then I had graduated from being expected to babysit my multitudinous siblings in the evenings and I walked up Beach Street to meet Gale at Fenno’s.

In the early days in decent weather, we hung around the back of Perrotti’s Auto Sales mostly, sitting on the stoop in the back of Perrotti’s show room where Dom, Bobby and the boys would all dispense with their philosophies on life. This was before the girl’s from Chelsea began to pair off with certain guys. For Gale and me, it was an education into the subject of “boys.” Some of the guys were way ahead of us in school. We were told about the chemistry teacher Mr. Marget, who repeated the word “then” in every other space between his lecture words and about the other bizarre aspects of the high school, which, remember, didn’t have ninth graders during those days. Those who went to Immaculate Conception parochial school talked about the nuns, their brutality and their arbitrary seeming dislike of kids.

I had already rejected the IC Sunday school there and joined in with my stories about confirmation, but I didn’t really have to deal day to day with nuns. The following year I spent the tenth grade in Saranac Lake returned in time for my junior year only then experienced Mr. Marget, Miss Maferra, Mr. Weinstein, and the rest from 1968 to 1970. Vietnam was coming up for many of the guys and I remember Bobby saying your life story was written before you even got your draft card. If you died in Vietnam, well, you just did; it was in the cards. His fatalism shocked me because I could never imagine him dead and didn’t want that to happen, so I didn’t want him to go to Vietnam. My brother had burnt his draft card with my mother’s full support. The other day I found a notebook more than 45 years old where I began a letter to Bobby when he was in the military. I don’t remember where he was stationed, but I still have the beginnings of the letter, trying to get the right tone for a kid whose life had changed from another who had a good idea it was a different for him, but how?

Dom was not a fatalist. He came from the “you got to make it good” school, and Dom remember when he proudly drove to the corner in a corvette when we were a little older. I remember that I learned almost every swear word known to man hanging out with the boys at Fenno’s. Dom’s favorite words were “chiggoddias” as in “I’m freezing my chiggoddia’s off.” He’d pull his pea coat tightly around him and with that big broad million dollar smile of his, he’d say even worse words. You could kind of figure out which were the worse words. Once we ordered clams at Fenno’s and Domenic called the clam’s “leg” the clam’s “lugats. That made everyone laugh, but Gale and I had to draw conclusions considering we didn’t know Italian. Paul DiNapoli told me that where they actually learned the profane language was from Bobby’s lewd uncle who lived with the family.

Dom, do you remember nights when it was too cold to hang around outside Fenno’s, so we went up to the American Legion building on Broadway? I can remember ten or so of us, sitting cross-legged on the floor inside the foyer there and playing absurd games we made up right there, and Dom would pass one of his “SBD’s”, silent but deadly farts of which he was shamelessly proud. If somebody else mentioned the fart, you turned to that person, pointed a finger, and said “whoever smelt it, dealt it.” And we would laugh our stupid heads off.

One thing no one could beat us at was laughing. We laughed all the time, and we also tried to scare each other. I remember once when with Domenic and the rest, we tried to scare each other, holding lighters under cupped palms while we were in the American Legion building on Broadway, and more than once we talked ourselves into believing there was a ghost in our midst and we all ran out of there back to Fenno’s and then laughed at each other about what we looked like when we were running out of there. .Gale and I once went to the North End at night because Gale had cousins there. We were chased by a gang of boys and we were terrified, and when we got off the bus at Fenno’s Corner we stopped and kissed the ground we were deposited on.

I remember Lowell who would imitate Mr. Ed, with a voice like a horse neighing and say “Doesn’t anybody love me?” We’d say “We love you, Lowell.” Or he’do a perfect imitation saying, “Wilbur, gimmee your funny books.” We imitated different TV programs like Gilligan’s Island, and some people were genuinely talented comics. We girls got an inside look into the male psyche as the boys pointed out shower room information on a guy named Louis and testified he had a “sack” that hung down to his knees. It was terrible,” making fun of someone like that we would say, but secretly we laughed too, and isn’t it funny, all the other wonderful things we did together, but those are the things I remember. Mostly before they even built the Donut Shop: Farts and swear words!

.I remember Dom had a wicked crush on a girl in high school whose long tresses were like sirens, just calling to him from the back of her head, taking his mind off his school work. I remember in high school when Dom had a corvette, driving with Eddie in the front and Gale and I in the back, and Dom saying to Gale and me that we were lucky we were still good girls because no guy wants to marry a girl who isn’t a virgin. The double standard that he had no problem making some girl NOT eligible for someone else drove me insane and I thought that attitude alone would just make a girl want to get rid of her virginity; it’s like we were commodities, I remember thinking. .More than once I called Dom a male chauvinist pig. And he said times, “Carolyn, why can’t you be nice—like Gale?” He said this on WAY more than three occasions.

I remember Gale and me with our white fur jackets we bought to match at Lerner’s, and the boys with their Barracuda CPO jackets that everyone knew how to tell from the fake CPO jacket. We all wore genuine pea coats in the winter. I also remember times when we all walked in the snow together on Christmas Eve going to the midnight Mass, the snow was real slow and we linked arms across the street there was so little traffic on Beach Street that time of night, and we who had been sacrilegious on the corner, sat in silence praying, and then some went back to the corner before going home again. Bernadette, another crazy girl from Chelsea, reminded me that she wore the same coat, but I don’t remember if Bernie went to Our Lady of Lourdes midnight mass with us, though I do remember Bernie and the boys from Revere Street in the snow, when we ventured away from our revered corner of the Beach Street and Broadway area.

I wish I had a movie camera of those times because the feelings we shared were so special. Can’t you feel them? And look Dom, we are all still here tonight. Happy 60th Birthday Baby. If anyone wants to contribute memories to the Fenno’s Corner Project I’m organizing, I’d love to hear your memories and comments.

Cale Kenney, May 15
Read to Dom that night. In a perfect thank you he told us “My whole life is in this room.”


airport travel

Air travel can be a drag when you’re on crutches. A plane is one of the few places they can’t be laid conveniently by your side. The flight attendant will notify you that in case of possible airline disaster, or even just turbulence, they have to be stored with carry-on luggage in overhead compartments. I don’t like it much, but it’s part of the trade-off for traveling with a disability.

In the case of my first time traveling with my friend Paul, who was always protective of my freedom and mobility, taking away my crutches was a transgression on the part of the stewardess he never forgave. I watched a little black cloud form above his head when she asked for my crutches and locked them above.

“Please fasten your seat belts,” I heard the captain say while I stretched my back by inching my arms and then my head forward to the floor. I always get more tense confined to small places, so I stretch for relief.

When the stewardess came by, now checking seat belts row to row, she stopped and said to Paul, “What’s that?” she pointed to my back.

“What do you mean?” he said testily.

She repeated herself. “Who does that belong to?” she pointed to me.

“That is my girlfriend,” he said defensively.

“It’s your girlfriend’s?” she asked.

“No. It IS my girlfriend.”

“Oh!” I heard her say. “Is she o.k.?”

“No, she’s in pain,” he said, irritably.

“Now, why did he have to say that?” I thought. The fact is I have chronic back and phantom pain; it’s a hidden handicap I’d rather keep hidden. I heard their exchange while I was stretching, and I thought at that point, “God, he’s not going to give her a break.”

I then heard her whine back, “I’m sorry. I thought she was a duffel bag!” I have encountered many attitudinal barriers as a person with a disability, but I’d never been mistaken for a piece of luggage before.

I raised up to catch her eyes and to say “I’m ok,” and also to help her laugh a little at herself, since everyone had heard her. I smiled broadly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, batting her eyelashes and stretching her voice further, “I thought you were a duffel bag!”

Unfortunately, she was a humorless person, but many heard her and one man was sniggering, so I just chalked that one up to traveling with Paul. When Paul and I had another encounter at our destination, I realized attitudinal barriers come in all shapes and sizes.

At the Denver airport, you aren’t given wheelchairs, but utility carts, to take you to the baggage area. We were informed by the porter once I was seated, however, that Paul wasn’t allowed to go with me; it was just for the handicapped. (So much for mainstreaming the handicapped.) Paul, who was so loaded down with take-on luggage, his guitar and my artificial leg–which was stored in a garment bag)–that he looked handicapped, suggested we at least let all our “stuff” ride with me. Keeping his guitar, Paul passed all the bags over to the porter.

Loading the wardrobe bag, the man said to me, “What’s this? This your bone?” He had a foreign accent.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “What did you say?”

“This your bone?” he repeated.

I thought this was the most ridiculous word to describe the leg. Perhaps because he wasn’t a native speaker the closest he could get to orthopaedic appliance was “bone?” I laughed to myself while we rode to baggage. I was looking forward to telling Paul. I think he’d enjoy the thing with the duffel bag once it was over. My traveling buddy was by now way behind us walking to the luggage area, the little black cloud reappearing.

When we got to the escalators, the man expected Paul to be behind us, but Paul had gone below to the baggage area. The porter then went to the elevators, leaving me upstairs. I was speechless. What am I? A piece of luggage?

When Paul spotted the man at the baggage area without me he asked where I was.

“She can’t come down.” the man said.

“She can come down,” Paul informed him, as though the man thought I was an invalid.

But the man furrowed his brow and said, “She couldn’t leave her bone.”

“What!” Paul said, exasperated.

With a musician’s reverence the man exclaimed, “She couldn’t leave her trombone alone up there!”

Chapter 4: No Accidents

Continued from Chapter Three: The Voice.

That I have a memory of this might be remarkable, but when it was time to tell the story, I was able to sketch in the details of the accident scene from the memory of someone who had been there. It was someone for whom I could scarcely have known to look, never mind know she existed. For all I knew Charlene Norton could have been an angel or a figment of my imagination.

In 1992, through my sister-in-law, and through a twist in fate, I met the woman who had saved my life 20 years before. My brother Bill’s wife Liz was studying under a teacher and nursing mentor – Charlene Norton – in a hospital practicum about chronic pain when they both discovered the connection.  Liz told her teacher. “My sister-in-law has chronic pain.” It wasn’t until sometime later Charlene inquired into the nature of the pain.

“It was phantom limb pain; she lost her leg,” Liz explained. Charlene told me later that at that instant she had the strange feeling that something profound was going to be revealed. Her heart sank, and all became still around her – an epiphany.

“How did she lose it?” was Charlene’s next question.

“In a motorcycle accident,” Liz told her.

After her teacher’s inquiry about where it happened, Liz almost hated to answer for fear of what they both might discover. The line of conversation had one of those eerie paths of twilight-zone revelation, but Liz haltingly told Charlene it had been in Amherst, west of Boston, at UMass.  When Charlene casually, yet carefully, holding a breath, asked if Liz’s sister-in-law was blonde, they both knew this was a synchronous event, discovering that they both knew someone in common – me – and that Charlene would finally meet the person she had expected to one day meet, though she didn’t know how. 

Liz didn’t know Charlene existed in the context of my accident; there were no accounts of her in the family folklore about that disastrous day. But I did have a story. The story of the Voice. I told Liz my memory, and asked Liz to tell me more.

Charlene had once been an emergency room nurse, but in May of 1971 she was working at the University Infirmary while her husband attended school in Amherst.

Liz told me, “She was coming home from work and saw a commotion at the side of the road. She got out of her car, and she saw right away that Mark was dead. His neck was twisted, and his body was torn by the handlebars, but he still had his helmet on.”

“I was the one whose helmet stayed on,” but Liz told me that my helmet had flown off.

“People were standing by – helpless – while you moaned and cried, ‘Someone help me. I can’t get up,'” Liz told me, “and you would ask where Mark was–was he OK? She assured you things were under control, and then she just started giving orders.

‘OK – you – get some ice from that gas station.’ There was a station a half mile away. She ordered another person to call the ambulance, and she told somebody else to go to the nearest house and get towels and sheets to wrap you and stop the bleeding.”  Liz paused, “She saved your life, Cale.”

I knew then that this was The Voice. Liz gave me a piece of paper, and I hung onto the phone number of this person whom I would never have expected to look for, never mind meet.  I wondered what Charlene and I would talk about when we met. I have been a reporter, and I have a habit of asking questions, detached, and/or out of some people’s comfort range. Would it seem inappropriate if I asked her the gory details? Did I want to know the gory details?  Oddly, the first thing to ask her was whether she saw the young man who had hit us. Someone had told me once that he was dazed, and he just walked in a circle around the crowd. She told me she saw nothing but me, and the memory would be imprinted on her mind forever.

“I knew one day we would meet. Accidents don’t happen,” she told me.

I was awed by her serenity on the phone. We decided to make a time and meet the next day just before my plane left, in Revere, on the beach where I grew up.  When we met, I liked her immediately. She was in her late 40’s, I guessed.

Charlene is what anyone would call a beautiful person. Her dark eyes, set into the frame of a soft face, reflect intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and humor.  Yes, this was the kind of person who could save another’s life.  I asked her about her family and learned she had a son who had been handicapped at birth with cerebral palsy; I was impressed that she described him as a normal, competent young man, not emphasizing or minimizing the disability. 

She was a nursing teacher who encouraged journal writing, and I was a writer who taught journaling classes.  On the beach she told me some things about the accident site, and between then and a few years later, when I interviewed her more formally for her recollections, I was given the view from outside my body.

“I think there was initially somebody there directing traffic,” Charlene told me. “I stopped and asked, ‘Do you need any help?’ Somebody said, ‘Yes.’ I went to Mark because there were people crowded around you. I saw that he couldn’t be helped. You were on your left side. I sent someone to get towels to pack you, and we kept you on your left side. If you don’t know what somebody’s injuries are, you don’t want to move them. We didn’t have anything to transport you with; we didn’t have a collar. We continued to go back and forth and get towels and pack as we could to stop the bleeding.

“Was I screaming?” I asked her because I had heard that I was.  Three years after the crash a fellow UMass student on campus who told me cries had haunted him for years.

“No. You weren’t screaming. You couldn’t move your legs, I remember you said you couldn’t feel your legs. And we said, ‘That’s OK, we’re staying with you.’

“Probably as we were waiting [for the ambulance], we started to question, out of natural curiosity, how this could’ve happened? I don’t even know who this other person was, [who helped her do the work] I couldn’t even describe him, but I can describe Mark. I could draw a picture of where he lay and how he looked. I could draw a picture of you and how you lay.”

“Would you?”


I reached for my pen across the table. “Would you draw a diagram for me?” I asked, intending to slow things down so I could take it all in. Charlene did not disappoint me, as she replied readily.

“We said, ‘What caused this kind of damage?’ thinking to ourselves what would have happened. And the only thing we could think of was you must have been propelled through the air. “Then we thought what caused the injuries to Mark. The handle bars . . .uh. . . cutting into his abdomen. . .uh…

I asked her, “Is that what killed him?”

“As I recall. . . .” she said. “ It was one of those difficult things where you would look, but you didn’t want to see, but you know you needed to know whether you needed to help him, and we made a choice, there was nothing [I] could do.”

I asked really hard questions, because I had to. “Did it appear if his leg was there or ripped off?”

“I don’t remember. He was face first, head all twisted around. I knew it was a cervical injury that was severe and probably on impact he was dead. Helmet still on. If his head was bent and twisted, it was probably a cervical injury high up and would sever the spinal cord, and unless he had immediate treatment, he wouldn’t have survived spinal shock.

I asked her to explain how that works.

“Shock would have caused all kinds of physiological changes, the heart would’ve stopped. . .”

I interrupt her: “His brain wouldn’t have been able to get the messages down to the rest of his body?”

“Yes,” she nods, “and then we knew he had an abdominal wound that was severe. If he was conscious and alive we would’ve done what we did with you, pack him. We tried to . . . But there was no life.”

“How did you know that he had an abdominal wound? Was there a lot of blood?” I asked her.

“I can’t remember seeing the blood. I’m sure there was.”

Though at this point in the interview I had to leave—to get sick in the restroom—I was determined to follow through; I might never see her again. I returned, and setting down a napkin, I handed her a pen. “What I’d like you to do now is draw … “

“Sure. I’m not an artist … ” she said hesitantly.

“Just a graphic,” I said.

She began her map, with stick figures and straight lines for roads. “Mark was in the center of the pavement.”

“Were we both in the road?”

“No. You were on the side [of the road] facing Sunderland, going that way. He was here with his head in that direction. You were off … ” She drew me in on the right side.

““We were on same side of road as the gas station, so that’s why something happened, so that . . . something in the air – this telephone pole was on the right-hand side of the street, you got flung toward this side of the street, and you went toward the pole, and then you bounced back.”

I was awed by her straightforward delivery, her memory, and by her understated courage and accomplishment.

“Amazing you had the presence of mind to think of all these things. That you weren’t even in shock yourself. . . ” I said.

“Not until afterwards. Your adrenaline surges through the whole thing, but you try to keep a clear head, even though you know that at some point you’re going to crash later,” she said matter-of-factly.

I persisted in attempts to unlock the key to what seems like my luck to survive – her skill. “It seems you were unusual. I’ve heard that many nurses don’t even have knowledge of first aid. You obviously had field experience, or you were very savvy.”

She told me she was just 24, a few years out of nursing school. “I had worked at Beth Israel on a surgical floor, so I’d had lots of post-op patients and rehab patients, so they had nephrectomies and such, and lots of dressings. And then I’d been working at the University Health Services. The college students would come in with all kinds of crazy things. One fellow was in a fight and a guy had bit his nose. Lots of human bites, different unusual gashes. I worked the night shift (11-7 a. m.) in the emergency room.

“I think if I were doing it now, after having different experiences, I might react differently,” she said, to my surprise. And by way of explanation told me: “I was young and felt I could handle everything and anything myself. I had a sense of immortality. My philosophy was if I saw a situation in which I knew I could help, I’d stop.

“If there were two ambulances, . . . maybe not. If it was a situation like this one . . . It was closer to 5 o’clock, I remember people standing at the scene, looking, but not doing. They probably stopped to help, but they saw that [they couldn’t] and they didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t know who this other person was, but we worked together. I didn’t go get the towels, but when he did, or someone else ran over to get them, we just started packing and talking with you.”

I asked what she said to me, wanting to hear her say what I remembered.

“The kind of questions I would ask, ‘Are you breathing? How are you doing? Hang in there. The ambulance is coming. We’ll stay with you.’ Those were the words I remember.”

“Did I respond?” I wanted to know, and she tells me that I asked, “Where’s Mark? How’s Mark?”

She goes on. “Our concern was to stop the bleeding. The biggest risk was a hemorrhage to death. With multiple fractures of the pelvis you would sever the major arteries: the femoral arteries going down both legs, the iliac and renal arteries, the mesenteric arteries.” By way of explanation, she adds: “When someone is traumatized, you stop the bleeding, slow it up to the point the ambulance could come, get some i.v.’s in you. We knew that the fractures were bad, but we had no thought for what came next because we didn’t know if there was going to be a next.”

“Did you think I would make it?” To have this time, 20 years later, to reflect and ask questions is a gift, I was thinking to myself.

“Well, the benefit of thought was that you kept talking with us. You were in and out. Most of what I was concerned with was the bleeding and breathing. We tried to give you as much as we could to keep your head turned. In retrospect, your head was already turned, with your face down in the dirt.

I don’t say anything, and she picks up the story, remembering what was important to her, and soon ending this report which I had so much difficulty responding to now.

“This would have been a tough decision to make, and we wouldn’t have wanted to turn it; that could kill you immediately, so it was one of those things where we said, “Leave her alone, she can breathe, she can keep talking.” There were no restrictions, so you could keep breathing. After that I don’t have recall. I don’t remember the ambulance people, just a policeman asking my name and address and thanking me for helping; I have no image of you getting off the ground and into the ambulance.”

Charlene never saw James Embree, the driver of the car. She told me she remembers nothing but this: her holding me there, waiting for the ambulance while my soul fought a battle for my life. “The time it took for the ambulance to come were the longest moments in my life. Everyone in the crowd felt the same way: What was taking the ambulance so long? You were fighting so hard to stay alive. I could feel the struggle your soul was making, and it was extraordinary.”

I have that same memory. I believed for years afterwards that it was my will, this desire, that passion for life that shouted down death’s throat, “You will not have me. I am staying. I want to live,” which saved me. I believed it was my own desire to live and create my own existence that kept me going through rough times. That belief lasted more than 15 years.

At a later time, however, it seemed to me that my own will and desire had nothing to do with living – only surviving. Once I had seen enough death, God’s will to save anyone appeared random, and it was conceit to believe I was saved because I wanted to live so badly. By my late 30’s, I was a fatalist. Life is a crapshoot; riding a motorcycle, I was a high roller.

At our interview, I told Charlene my ‘will to survive theory’, and that I believed if I had died, I would have gone to hell. “Because that’s where I was at the time. And now, because I do believe in God, I have been redeemed. “I told her this at our interview in 1996.”

She reminds me, “But God is not the other. It is also the Self, the place in you which is God is telling you to stay, stay on this plane.”

I silently wonder about her place in this scheme, and she answers without my asking.

“I believe I was put into your life for a reason. I could’ve said, ‘no, I don’t want to do that. It was too horrific. I don’t want to look at it again.’” When she told me this I realize I never questioned that our connection was as difficult for her to look at as I. “But you have,” I countered.

“Yes, this is a time for me to come full circle with this myself and help somebody else in the process.”

How could I help her? I told Charlene that during my first visit with her I heard a message that I had chosen life. My soul knew what it was getting into as I lay dying – even this hard part. For the first time, I began telling people freely, new friends – not just old ones who already knew most of it – openly about what happened to me. And I began to write again, this time about my accident. I began with a letter to Charlene.

Chapter Five: The First (on it’s way!)

Cozens Ranch

From Alpenglow Magazine

Before the railroads made their way across the vast rise of the Continental Divide, snowshoes, horses and stagecoaches took the first travelers into a region of Colorado called Middle Park. The Cozens Ranch stagecoach stop was a favorite respite for those travelers who came up from the plains to do their business in the Fraser River Valley and beyond.

What was it like riding the stagecoach?”

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From Alpenglow Magazing

“If you didn’t have an athletic consciousness before you started skiing, chances are you’ll develop one.

Once most people have caught on to the joy and sophistication of rereational skiing, they learn that the can have even more fun if they improve their skills and strength. And this involves a concept called conditioning.”

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Pushing the Limits

From Powder Magazine

“At Winter Park they’ll teach anyone to ski. It is enough of a marvel that Director George Engel’s ski school manages to get fledgling Floridians sliding down the mountain on that funny white stuff theyve never even seen before, never mind mastered for maximum ambulation. But consider the wonder of teaching a cerebral palsied person who has never walked faster than a snail in molasses, whose boots take him a fumbled half- hour to buckle, who has never moved through space without intense concentration of energy, but who through the Handicap Program finds himself whizzing down the hill on that same stuff that every winter before has been his mortal enemy.”

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