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“Was you hurt in a car wreck or was you born that way?” By John W Lawson

My back was turned, but her voice pierced through me quicker than the
gawking stares did when I walked into the room. As I turned around to face
the inquisition, every eye was glaring at me over their two-year-old magazines
that previously held their attention.

“No,” I said using my best I do-not-want-to-talk about this tone. “I was not in a
car accident. I was hurt in an electrical accident.” Almost before the last word
left my mouth, her whiny voice with the slow Southern drawl was firing her
next arrow of inconsideration.

“My husband works for the power company and he says that people that don’t
know whats they a doing shouldn’t be a messing with that ‘lectricity stuff. Was
you messing with it around here?” she said as the last one syllable word
stretched over four seconds and at least two octaves.

“I was not working for a power company when I had my accident. I was . . .”

By this time, she had left her seat and the few feet that had separated me from
my verbal gauntlet, was now mere inches as she seized one of my prosthesis
to hold up in front of her glasses that sat at the end of her nose. She could not
control her enthusiasm for her powers of deduction and interrupted me before
I could finish my sentence.

“Then what did you do to deserve this? I knew a man once that was my
cousin’s neighbor and he only had one of these things on his arms but it . . .”

Her voice faded as my mind rushed to find an exit that could be my
deliverance from this terror in a gingham dress. Why do I entertain these rude
people and let them make me re-live that day to satisfy their own morbid
curiosity.
“Excuse me,” I quickly interjected the next time her lips stopped and I darted
into the men’s bathroom in hopes that she would not follow. So here I am,
forced into the greasy bathroom of a car repair shop with nothing to do but
hide. As I looked down at the stainless steel hooks on the end of my arms, I
realized I could not even wash my hands in the dirty sink.

It is curious how I can diminish the most atrocious day of my life, the day that
not only disfigured my body, but also causes my life to be mottled with rude
insensitive people to only two words. That day. As I leaned against the wall,
afraid to touch anything else, my mind was forced to flash back through the
events of that day.

I had recently auditioned and landed the lead role with a major opera company
for their spring production, but I was more excited about the out come of an
audition I did that gave me a contract for a singing role in a group at Disney
World in Florida. I did not mind my role in this “real job,” as my father called it,
temporarily working with a company that painted above ground water storage
tanks. That day, I was to deliver a large air compressor to a new job site
about 200 miles away and have it their by 8 A.M.

I got to the office around 4 A.M. and a thick frost covered the truck and
equipment that I was about to drive four hours north. On the long solitary trip,
my mind raced away as I practiced my role for the opera beginning in a couple
of months and thought about the move south in June. Luck was finally starting
to come my way. When I got back it was lunch time and I already had eight
hours for the day, but my boss suggested I help a crew that was short a
couple of people at one of the old cotton mills in town.

As I got out of my car, there were only three people working on the job. This
tower built in the 1930s, loomed over the old buildings like a guard tower at a
prison but kept a watery vigil as storage for the fire suppression system. I
never fathomed that my fate would be woven with this 50-year-old hunk of
steel. Pat, the supervisor, was on a hanging scaffolding about thirty feet in the
air that was suspended off the side of the tank legs by two steel cables.
Everyone called it a “pickboard.” As I was strapping on my safety harness and
walking up to the tank, Pat motioned for me to climb up on the pickboard with
him. I climbed up the leg of the tower to the pickboard and looking over the
backside of the handrail, I could barely see the high voltage power lines that
were strung close and at the same height as the pickboard. I remembered
noticing the lines close to the water tower when I drove up, but had no idea the
amount of voltage they carried to the industrial machines in the cotton mill.

As I looked at the bracing bars that made a large “X” between the legs and the
spider bars that reached out to support the down pipe from the tank above, I
noticed a “holiday.” I do not know why everyone called it a “holiday,” but
maybe it was because it described a spot that was missed. As I looked back
over at Pat, I noticed an aluminum extension pole extend to about twenty feet
hanging horizontally from the handrail in a couple of make shift hooks. A small
roller pan was almost full with topcoat paint on the floor of the pickboard. I
walked a couple of steps toward the center of the pickboard, lifted the
extension pole from the hooks and rolled the roller in the paint.

I turned back towards the tower and rested the extension pole on the back handrail of the
pickboard and the large “X” leg-bracing bar of the tower legs. I re-gripped the
extension pole so that approximately one foot was extended behind my
underarm with my left forearm and hand wrapped under the pole to act as a
fulcrum. My right hand was gripping the pole about eighteen inches in front of
my left. Holding the long extension pole in this fashion, I had good control and
easily painted the holidays on the support bars. While looking for more
holidays on the metal support bars and frame, I rested the long extension pole
between the handrail and the large “X” brace of the tower legs. I stooped
down until the aluminum paint pole that was resting on the handrail behind me
and the tower brace in front of me was touching my underarm. I again
wrapped my left arm around the pole to get a good grip and grabbed the pole
with my right hand in front of my left hand. As I started to stand and lift the
pole, it happened.

Instantaneously, in my hands, arms and body, I felt heat and vibration. My
ears were filled with a deafening buzzing sound. My vision was blurred and
everything I saw appeared to have a yellow-orange lightening glow around it,
like a cartoon version of an electrical charge. Every muscle in my body flexed
to its fullest extension and was solid as stone. Finally, the drone stopped in
my ears and my vision cleared. My muscles that were instantly stiff were now
limp and I had no control of them. Every joint in my body ached, but there was
no pain. I knew something had happened, but I could feel no pain. My mouth
was dry and felt as if I had swallowed sand. Although it seemed like minutes,
it all was over in just a few seconds. I could see flames and my shirt was on
fire, but I could not move my arms. Pat quickly used his gloved hand to snuff
out the blaze. As I lay still on the pickboard, unable to move, my mind raced
away, wondering about my role in the opera and my move to Florida.

I spent the next five months of my life at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn
Center in Chapel Hill North Carolina. Needless to say, I did not sing the opera
role or move to Florida. My left hand and most of my arm below my elbow
was amputated that day. My right hand was amputated above the wrist
approximately one month later.

As the drugs wore off, the debreedment and surgeries stopped, I assumed a new role I never wanted to audition for as an
upper extremity double amputee – a man with no hands and arms. While at
the Burn Center, I received the best-specialized medical care from some of the
worlds leading doctors and nurses. They are the ones that became my
inspiration. It was there that I decided to do my best to recover all aspects of
my life. The dedication to their profession, my survival, has always been a big
part of my inspiration and motivation. It was explained that losing limbs is
similar to losing a loved one and you should experience the same emotions.
While at the hospital, I never felt that I went through all the steps normally
associated with a life changing experience such as my accident. If I did, I did
them in my sleep, because from early on I realized I had to unconditionally
accept my new role. I did find out, that since I never displayed the emotions
expected, the psychiatrists and physiologists that visited my room over the
months noted in my chart that I was a “classic case of denial, and would suffer
a catastrophic mental breakdown with in five years.”

February 4, 2015 marked the twenty-eighth year anniversary of “that day.” It is a
day I have to mentally re-live every time I am approached by a new person
that feels compelled to ask how I lost my arms. Those that have no questions,
are always quick to offer help because they feel that since I have hooks
instead of hands, I cannot do things on my own. If I am not polite or I am short
with my answer, then I must be a “bitter man that has never fully dealt with his
loss.” Whether it is tying my shoes or getting food off the shelf at a grocery
store, someone is always ready to push me out of the way of my attempt to do
it on my own, to try to do it for me. If they saw past the hooks and cared to
know about the person, they would probably find out I have accomplished
more with no hands than they have using their own.

When I left the hospital in Chapel Hill, I never intended to be anyone’s
inspiration. I have tried to experience life and do my best to reach my goals
the same as if I had had hands. I took the advice my mother always imparted
to me and not the physiologists’ prediction and have lived everyday to the
fullest. I made a conscience decision that to continue through life as a double
amputee, I needed to adapt myself to the world and not expect the world to
adapt to me. Along with new prosthetic arms came a new role that I had not
prepared to play and that was the role of philosopher. I have been a part of
many discussions with friends as to why God let this happen to me. Through
these conversations, I have noticed that people have a hard time with what
they perceive as an unfair division of suffering. The “why me” or “why God let
this happen to me” is one aspect I have never pondered in any aspect of my
life. Maybe I did for some transitory moment, but it has never dominated my
emotions in dealing with any particular situation. My accident poses more of a
problem for others trying to deal with what they think should be fair and just in
the world, than it has for me living the rest of my life with hooks for hands.
Granted, I have joked many times that I should change my name to Job, the
same as the Biblical character. As I reflect back with almost a half century of
life and the last twenty years spent as a double amputee, I have dealt with my
own losses and boils, much like Job. My first wife left within a few months
after I got out of the hospital for another man. She had a hard time adjusting
to my not having hands and taking a role she never signed up to play. To
somewhat paraphrase a once popular song, I guess she wanted a man with a
slow hand, not a lover with a stainless steel touch. Now, within a couple of
months of starting my new role as a double amputee, I was doing a solitary
act.

A few years after that, I met and married a wonderful supportive woman that
became the love of my life. Debbie was an excellent pianist and we
complimented each other in many ways. We started a family together and
blended our single children from previous marriages into our own nuclear
family. When our child together was two, Debbie was chosen by her employer
for a large promotion with equal financial compensation that included a move
to a new city. Things really seemed to be going our way. After three months
in her new position, in our new town and our new house, Debbie was
diagnosed with a stage four terminal breast cancer and given less than 18
months to live. Once again, I accepted a role for which I never auditioned, as
a caretaker for a terminally ill spouse. In the middle of her battle, our house
burned to the ground as the result of an electrical fire. Fortunately, that week
our oldest child was at band camp, our middle daughter was at Girl Scout
camp and the baby was with Debbie visiting her mother out of town. I was the
only one home and was awakened in the night by the smoke detector to a
house in full blaze. I jumped from a second story window to escape. Although
we lost nearly everything in the inferno, I was the only one that suffered minor
injuries from the jump and smoke inhalation. More importantly, we still had our
family together as we moved in a small rental while we rebuilt our house with
amenities of her terminal illness in mind. She fought a long and arduous battle for eight years combating every new advance of the disease. The cancer finally won the war and she passed away in 2001.

It was then I assumed my current and most challenging role as a single parent of a motherless daughter.
This is a role that I enjoy and I seem to have been preparing for my whole life.

I have had to accept many different roles in my short life. I believe that no
matter what role we are playing, asking questions about why this bad situation
has happened is another way of putting off acceptance. I have never tried to
assume a negotiating role for accepting my circumstances. In other words, if
someone could explain to me why it has to be this way, then I can understand
why me. The more we let these arguments rage in our heads, the more our
internal voices pull one way or the other. Those voices in our head are only
silenced when we cease to be interested in the argument and move on
through acceptance. Roman lyric poet, Horace, living during the time of
Augustus said, “Rule your mind or it will rule you.” I think my attitude, my
ruling of my mind, to get as close as I can to unconditional acceptance of
whatever my new role, has always been my goal and the secret so many
people seek. It is very easy with hindsight to say I should have done things
differently. Tomorrow is a new day, a new start and always a chance to do
things differently. I have faith that the acceptance of our situation and looking
for a new day, the playing the new roles that come our way, is not something
that we do for God or we give to the world. It is a precious gift that we give to
ourselves. That is the first step necessary on a journey to recovery.
In today’s litigious society, everyone is looking to blame someone whether it is
an incompetent doctor or a defective product manufacturer. I have never
looked to lay blame on anyone, God or myself. It is no one’s fault that I was
hurt on the side of that water tower. It is not my fault that I was hurt. I was
doing my job, acting my role of that time. I believe that self-blame is a very
destructive decision and causes more of one’s personal energy to be spent on
self-defense. No matter what the revulsion in the gingham dress may have
thought, I did nothing to deserve my amputations. It was an accident that has
made me live my life differently than I planned when I woke up the morning of
that day. I cannot blame myself or place blame on others for me being there
and hurt in the accident. Acceptance of our situation is not acceptance of
blame. What is past is past and there is no purpose assigning blame on one’s
self or others. I do not, nor have I ever blamed God. I do not feel that I made
some religious mistake and God is punishing me, nor do I believe that God
has a mission for me since I lived after the near deadly accident. I feel that
people, who have survived a life changing accident or “cheated death,” as
strangers so eloquently state my survival to me, fall into two distinct
categories. One group believes that their survival is part of some great plan
and they now have a mission that must be fulfilled. I am not in that group. I
believe that I am in a group of people that simply understands life goes on. I
am here doing exactly what I would be doing if I had hands. I have always
tried to have a positive attitude enjoying everyday of my life before my
accident and continued to do the same after my accident.
Positive thinking or having a positive attitude is nothing new. First century
philosopher Epictetus observed that “it is not the things themselves which
trouble us, but the opinions that we have about these things.” As a matter of
human nature, it is easy to overlook reality and favor the truths we create in
our minds. Many times, we do it unconsciously, but more often, it is a
conscious decision we allow thinking we do not have a choice. Many years
after Epictetus, Shakespeare knew the power of positive thinking when he
wrote in Hamlet, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it
so.” It is easy to be stuck in the same rut of thinking and only see ourselves
the same way we always see ourselves. This creates another problem in that
it slants our view of reality making us blind to the truth we could be learning. If
we continue to see our situation or ourselves in a negative way, we condemn
ourselves to relive that bad situation over and over again. Whether we choose
to see ourselves in a positive way or a negative way, our minds will agree that
what we are thinking is right. We will never change of lives until we change
what we are thinking. Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or
you think you can’t, you’re right. Life goes on and it is how we see our life
after an accident or traumatic event that determines the course of our life. I
did not survive the accident to have a special purpose in life. We all have a
special purpose in life; it is how we perceive our role in life that separates
some from others. Aristotle the ancient Greek philosopher, student of Plato
and teacher of Alexander the Great probably said it best, “The ideal man
bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of
circumstances.”

Even though I joke about changing my name to Job, I do not believe suffering
is a test or happens to teach something. I believe that the way I see, the way I
think is the way my life will be. A pessimistic attitude most times leads to
negative experiences. If we learn to take a positive approach to life, no matter
what it throws our way, we can reap the benefits that lead to positive
experiences. Recent studies suggest that being positive, having a positive
attitude about life not only makes us happier, but healthier and we live longer.
There maybe negative actions that affect my life, but it is my reaction to the
negative actions, that is my life. If I do not change my way of seeing my
problems, continue to relive my past or complain about my present, I will have
no future. Probably the most helpful wisdom I received after my amputations
was by an unknown author, but passed on by my mother, “No one ever finds
life worth living—you have to make it worth living.” I am not special in the
things I have done, with the conditions I have to deal with to do them. I could
not control the circumstances that burned my body and resulted in the
amputation of both my hands, but I can control what happens after the flesh
has healed. I can control my attitude.

Early in my acting career, someone gave me a coffee mug with a saying
printed on the outside, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” Those six words carry a
powerful meaning. We only get to do this once and no matter what or where
our stage, this is our one and only performance. I do not know what roles I will
have to play in the years ahead. I do know I will always chug along with the
same attitude as the little blue engine pulling the long heavy train in the book
read by my mother to me so many times as a child, “I think I can, I think I can,
I think I can.”