It was around 8pm on the 18th of September 2016. It was dark, the air was damp and I was walking the streets of Tenby, South Wales, resisting the urge to cry my heart out in the middle of a street full of strangers I would probably never see again. Although admittedly ridiculous, I sometimes wonder if the hardest fight most of the tough men of my generation and before will ever experience, is the fight to never cry in front of another living soul. What made it harder not to burst into tears was that my mind was spinning — it had just cast me back around two years, to about the time of the accident.
My eldest son, James, had blossomed into quite an athlete and cycling was his life — winning numerous races and already being scouted by the Olympic talent squad, it seemed there was no stopping him. Then one evening a near fatal racing accident involving him suffering a massive head trauma brought that story to a very abrupt full stop. James was kept in a coma for a long time whilst the swelling and bleeding on his brain was monitored and as a family all we could do was wait for him to come around. When he did open his eyes, physically and mentally he wasn’t the same lad that had got on his bike to race that day, as the brain injury had caused a huge amount of damage. He had lost all use of the right side of his body and left side usage was limited. Cognitively he had restricted awareness and could only communicate to us through confused vocal grunts and eye movements. We didn’t know how much he would improve.
Above: A hospital visit from Champion cyclist, Chris Boardman
As I walked past the arches in the centre of Tenby town my mind cast back to how he was at that time, we were unsure how much James was aware of, as regards the severity of his injuries or if he could even remember the accident. There was one thing I knew though, that he knew that he wasn’t right. He recognised me but looked away when I made eye contact with him, as though he was embarrassed of the way he was in front of me. I got that totally — he was a young man, fit and strong several weeks ago and now he was almost paralysed, not only unable to do the simplest things for himself but with the added frustration of not being able to ask for anything either. The day he couldn’t hold my gaze I felt my heart break for him and to make it worse, there was nothing I could say or do to help him. It was one of the saddest moments of my life.
One day I got my chance to do something for him. In a way that I thought at the time was hauntingly like a scene from the film about Christy Brown’s life, ‘My Left Foot’, James was kicking his left foot into the air to draw attention to the fact that he required help whilst also doing his best to tell me something. He was calling out and pointing his eyes to the corner of the room. I had become quite acquainted with James’ dialect of gruntinese, but was initially struggling to understand what he was saying. It soon became clear that he was gesturing towards the toilet in the corner of the room and needed to go. I said I’d call a nurse but the left foot almost hit the ceiling and a grunt resembling “Fuck that!” became decipherable. James had a plan — he was walking for a shit on his own two feet. He wasn’t going to be hoisted or craned or wheeled there by nurses anymore — he was shitting on his own terms but he just needed a little help from somebody who was reckless enough to help him break the hospital rules to make that plan happen. I looked at him and said “We are going to get in so much trouble if we do this, are you sure?” Now, to do it I would have to disconnect his inflatable leg thingies that stopped him getting blood clots while bed bound, his NG tube that fed him, and his monitoring equipment.
He looked at me and grunted “Ye” and I saw hope in his eyes for the first time in a long time, I knew he needed a small victory or his spirit may break. There’s an old saying which claims that in every moment of our lives we all have one foot in a fairytale and the other in an abyss. I’ve experienced this to be true and I believe that the only thing that can give us a light for navigating that abyss is hope, and James was looking for some hope. Going against all things sensible, practical and medical I disconnected the tubes etc, lifted him to his feet, propped him on my shoulder and James started to shuffle. He began a 4 metre marathon. Using me as a prop for his weight, he stepped a few inches at a time with his left foot and then dragged his right foot behind him all the way to the toilet and then back again. When he got back to the bed he was exhausted but smiling like I hadn’t seen him smile in a very, very long time. He’d taken a very small part of his everyday life back, but not just that, a little bit of his independence, pride and hope had been restored. I obviously took a major ear bashing over that one but I’d make the same choice again — the heart does not understand logic and often pisses in the face of health and safety when need be. Where was I going with this? I digress forgive me….
That’s it, I was walking through Tenby too tough to cry and remembering stuff from a couple of years ago that made it even harder not to cry. Since his accident a couple of years ago James had conquered more than getting to the toilet. He’d psychologically and physically rehabbed, found his way back to the gym, back to the swimming pool, back on this bike, back to full time study, got a part time job after school, ran a half marathon, a full marathon and a triathlon. He’d also somewhere along the way managed to earn me the title of Grandad (my recovery is still ongoing from that one and may take longer than his) but he’s become an amazing Dad to little Anna. His recovery was so inspiring that Lance Armstrong actually flew him over to Texas to give a talk on overcoming adversity on behalf of the charity he officiates in the United States. Now Anna and the rest of his family were all in Tenby and everyone wanted to cry.
It had been a very long emotional day for us all but especially James. On this day James had taken on the Tenby Iron Man Challenge. The Iron Man Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile (3.9-kilometer) open water sea swim, a 112-mile (180-kilometer) bike ride and a 26.2-mile (42.1-kilometer) run. It was dreamt up by some pretty sadistic Navy Seals as a fitness challenge for the US military’s physical elite and then later adapted to a triathlon, with the first being held in Hawaii in the late 70’s. It’s a major achievement to even finish it within its 17 hour cut off time and is viewed by many athletes as the ultimate physical challenge. They say it’s more of a feat of survival than a race and the lad who had struggled to shuffle four meters to go for a shit on his own two feet was at anytime now about to cross its finish line and start eating this pizza I’d been guarding for him. It seemed our James had shuffled from the abyss to the fairytale and had become a hope and inspiration to all of us during the course of it.
The strength of the human spirit is a remarkable thing. Victor Frankl stated that “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” James has never read any of Doctor Frankl’s work but proved his point via action. James completed the Tenby Iron Man in 13 hours 45 minutes, the same way that he shuffled for a shit, on his own two feet. He didn’t need my help anymore and I doubt now that he will have any trouble looking any man in the eye for the rest of his life.
His dad is certainly very proud of him and didn’t cry (and he certainly wouldn’t tell you if he had).
Images by Ged Thompson