The title of a sixties hit whispered in my mind like the punch line of a sick joke. How odd that I could hear it despite the siren that wailed above my head. Even stranger, why should I imagine the title or sense that it somehow held reproach? I surely wasn’t to blame for this lousy mess—for my sitting here trapped in a wheelchair, unable to push it to safety. After three endless minutes, the siren cycled from a pulsating screech to a robotic voice:
“Flood warning…flood warning! Move to higher ground! Flood warning…flood warning! Move to higher ground!”
The message would repeat four more times before returning to the screech. A flash flood could be moments away, an hour away, or the delusion of a radar screen. The warning was loud but less so than the siren; now was my chance to move. Pulling my hands from my ears, I thrust the wheels of my wheelchair frantically, aiming for the corner of city hall now forty yards distant. Rounding it would put bricks between my eardrums and the screech-from-hell.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Some joke. I couldn’t run if I wanted to…or walk, dance, hike, or do anything that had defined who I was and what I loved before the change. That’s what they’d called it in rehab: a ‘change.’
“Your life isn’t over,” they said. “It’s just changed.”
I disagreed. In my opinion, my life was trashed like the mountains that surround this tourist town in the Colorado Rockies—mountains scorched bare by wildfires—and like this town would be if the pending flood was bad. Damn! If only my incompetent neurosurgeon had administered the drugs at the right time…or if a motorist who said that he’d thought he’d seen my car veer off the road had stopped to check. I wouldn’t be changed, and I wouldn’t be here. My spinal cord injury had taught me four important lessons:
‘Change’ can be a synonym for ‘sucks.’
Some changes can never be undone.
It’s easy to spout platitudes about change when the changes trash another’s life.
Most importantly, never put your future in the hands of others.
Great! I’d made it! Not bad for a fifty-seven year-old ex-Marine with a useless lower half! Glancing to the right, I wheeled around the corner and pushed to safety just as the siren erupted. A sonic earthquake still throbbed in my head, but at least I could roll further from its source. However, between one forward thrust and another, my hands did the unthinkable: they squeezed my wheel-rims to drag me to a stop. For several disgruntled seconds, I sat there frowning at nothing, paralyzed by a mental playback of the split-second glance.
Across from city hall, a small park bordered the lane, a park with picnic tables, a mountain stream that might soon turn ugly, and a tiny-tots play area that sat adjacent to the lane. A stone-toss from the siren and directly in earshot, a young mother had stood in the playground with two little kids, her hands protecting the ears of a girl who looked to be screaming. Also wailing, a small boy stood motionless between a swing set and monkey bars—too panic-stricken to heed his mom or too deafened by the noise. What blithering idiot had placed an ear-splitting alarm only yards from a playground?
Minutes before, I’d waved to the mother while I passed the park and a brief summer shower had cooled us off. I knew her, too, as one knows a stranger one sees occasionally over the course of a year or two. She lived somewhere across Main Street, close enough to bring her kids on foot. How could she or I have guessed that the clouds that had so recently rained a gentle sprinkle would drift over the burn scar and unleash a downpour? This was crazy! The siren continued to screech while the sky overhead grew increasingly blue. After just being trapped by the noise myself, I saw her dilemma clearly.
What else could she do but stand motionless in shock. She could hardly abandon her son nor take her hands from her daughter’s ears. When I said that the siren was loud, I meant really loud–as loud as air-raid sirens in the London Blitz, loud enough to awaken people in bedrooms a mile downstream, loud enough to cause significant hearing loss.
I did not want to turn around, return to the corner, and confirm the glimpse. She wasn’t my problem. Who had worried about me when I sat trapped by the siren in the path of a possible flood? Besides, surely someone else would give her a hand and get the kids to safety, someone who could use his legs to escape on foot. I leaned forward to get rolling again, but my grip on the rims refused to loosen. What was wrong with me? I needed to move! After a second, I did…back to the corner, driven by an obvious thought:
Yes. No one had lifted a finger to help me, so why should I assume that anyone would rescue her? At the least I should check her situation.
. The parking spaces that serviced the park were empty. Not long before, other parents had sat watching their kids while people with dogs and Frisbees had enjoyed the lawn. Now all were gone, leaving a stunned young woman to gaze in despair at passing motorists who were too intent on saving their cars to notice her plight or to offer assistance. No other cars or people appeared after two SUVs and a hybrid VW rounded a bend and vanished.
A growing panic squeezed my chest. Why should I have to be the one to stick his neck out? I wasn’t to blame! Stuff happens. Right? After all, I wasn’t to blame for my paralysis, but here I sat. I wasn’t to blame for decades of drought that had turned our forests into tinderbox stands of dying trees, that caused wildfires today to so frequently “run away,” leaving burn scars that repel water like parking lots that cover thirty, forty, or a hundred square miles, or for flash floods that explode from our canyons after rainfalls that in life ‘pre-change’ we’d called a “good summer storm.” Even so, this woman and her kids who weren’t my problem stood paralyzed in the path of an oncoming flood, and I knew exactly how they felt.
“Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”
This lousy situation wasn’t my fault, but I’d be definitely at fault if I ignored it, or deluded myself into believing that it wasn’t what it was, or did nothing to keep it from becoming worse. I rounded the corner and charged toward the mother, determined to do what I could and hide no more. Something inside me had changed.