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Posted August 13, 2014 | comments Leave a comment

Roger Barbee: A day that changed my life

By Roger Barbee

We all have days or dates that are permanent parts of our psyches, such as Dec. 7, 1942.

If you are a younger reader, you many recall vividly where you were on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963 and what you were doing. I was sitting in the Ms. Grey's English class when the horrible news from Dallas was announced.

Events such as births, weddings, deaths, certain birthdays, and others of importance have a way of imprinting themselves on our souls. However, not all events are equal, nor good nor sad, just events that for whatever reason an individual will recall with vivid recollection in years to come. For instance, certain events of my life, long ago or recentl, I carry with me for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.

I remember: the fall afternoon that I entered a jewelry store to make a small purchase and came out 45 minutes later with the phone number of the woman who sold me the $35 chain and our wedding that summer; the last time I saw David Hooper and rubbed his feet as hospice tended to his pain; the sweet summer days on Lake George with Jim Carrig and other friends; my walks along the Ridgeway each July; and some poor decisions that I would rather not remember, but do, for their influence on my life.

One event that I choose to keep alive happened 13 years ago today, and it is as important as any in my life. Aug. 13, 2001, at 3:30 p.m., was the day I lost my legs, changing my life.

In a letter to a friend in 1817, the Romantic poet John Keats writes: "The first thing that strikes me on hearing a Misfortune having befallen another is this. 'Well it cannot be helped - he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit.'"

All these years later, Keats, who intimately knew misfortune, offers us all good advice. Given the opportunity and time, our spirit, that wonderful human spirit, will help overcome whatever event of infamy has occurred. And, as Keats observes, some events of human life cannot be helped, such as the tuberculosis that killed Thomas, his younger brother, and Keats himself. Keats' spirit was such that in 1820, dying in Rome where he had gone for the drier weather in hopes of curing his infection, he writes Charles Brown his last letter, "I can scarcely bid you goodbye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow." Even with the misfortune of tuberculosis and facing death far from his home, Keats' spirit is evident in his words.

Toward the end of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's tale of the Russian gulag, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," the reader meets prisoner Y-81, who has been serving year after year of hard labor. He has no hair or teeth, but when he sits at the mess hall table to eat his gruel with a worn, old wooden spoon, he does not bend over but "brought the spoon up to his mouth." He sits ramrod straight, and "didn't put his eight ounces [of gruel] in all the filth on the table like everybody else but laid it on a clean little piece of rag that's been washed over and over again." This unnamed prisoner, who serves one 10-year sentence at hard labor only to find another 10 years slapped on, finds a way for his human spirit to shine through the grime of his surroundings.

Each Aug. 13, at 3:30 p.m., I pause for a moment and think of how that accident has changed my life - not for the bad but for the good. Sure, I have not raced any marathons since then or hiked on the Appalachian Trail. However, that building collapsing on me has given me a new way of living and has made me slow down and be more reflective. It was not an event that I had planned or anticipated, but as Keats observed, it gave me an opportunity to try resources of my spirit. Family and friends also have helped my spirit.

The summer after the accident, I returned to Oxford for work. As usual, one day I went to a favorite haberdasher where I always purchased a tie or two. The same salesman who had always helped me did again, and after my purchase he inquired as to what had happened. After I recounted the accident, he looked out through the shop window onto Turl Street, seeing something only he could see and, as he looked back to me, said, "Well, get on with it."

Coming from a survivor of WWII, I find that good advice.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.

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