The price of freedom
October 21, 2016 § 41 Comments
I first met Dan Chapman about a year and a half ago. He had been riding since 1996 and was a well-known cyclist on the West Side of LA, most especially as a climber who knew every bend, turn, crack, pebble, and fence post in the Santa Monica Mountains. Somehow, we never crossed paths, which is shorthand for “He was a lot faster than me.”
By the time we met, Dan no longer rode. He had been hit by a truck and the resulting injuries to his neck and spine prevented him from ever riding again. Dan never volunteered any details about his collision and I never asked. He occasionally made oblique references to it, but still, I never asked.
Then, about a year ago, I suggested that he write something and I’d publish it. Here it is, breathtaking, powerful, gripping, horrific, and humbling, a year in the writing but a lifetime in the making.
Before and After
By Dan Chapman
When you ride, you don’t think about after. You just ride, have fun and don’t think a lot about dying. I had been riding on PCH since the early 80’s and it gradually became a place where I felt at ease, even though the cars were buzzing by just beyond my elbow. I usually left early to avoid traffic and went as fast as possible in certain areas to avoid the cars and also to trash my friends. I’ve done a lot of solo rides up and down PCH with both road and TT bike. My wheels touched every climb from Santa Monica to Oxnard many times. PCH and that endless ocean felt like home.
Here began the after as well. I awoke in the hospital two and a half weeks after being run over by a pickup truck I think near the base of Pepperdine Hill. The driver was speeding and lost control. Where the hell am I? I tried to lift my left arm but it wouldn’t move and I thought something was wrong with it. I looked over to see what was wrong and saw multiple tubes plugged into the back of my hand and realized somehow that I was in a hospital. I wasn’t capable of thinking much about anything and looked up in the cool dim dawn and saw a row of doctors looking at me. It seemed absurd but I could not muster even a tiny joke. I can clearly remember leaving my house and then waking up that morning, but in between is blank. It’s very strange to loose time. It took a month and a half to understand what had happened to me and my body.
A year after the incident, I talked my wife and son into driving to the fire station in Malibu. They helped me after the incident and transported me to the hospital. I usually visit them once a year on the anniversary to give thanks. I knocked on the door of the station and a fireman opened the door and invited us in. I told him my story so he checked on who was on duty that day so I could thank them personally. He found that he was the one who had responded. I gave him a hug and we gave them some cookies. On the drive back home, I cried.
I found participating in cycling exhilarating. At a certain point, it seemed to become less painful and more fun where I could ride and train for pleasure. I had spent a lot of time in the hills and had developed a crazy climb heavy program that enabled me to semi-comfortably enjoy the long weekend rides, (or so I imagined). I particularly enjoyed the Nichols ride, with its long casual cruise up and eventual explosion on the hill then holding with the front pack on Mulholland. It’s nice to be strong and comfortable. It’s even harder to leave it behind.
To be able to ride at a high level isn’t just being able to place well, but as we all know, it’s more about the people and landscape. Cycling is a way to visit a road, a place, the sky, the fog, and the environment. It’s difficult to lose this because these places, like Fernwood and Tuna, were like friends. I’ve driven up and down some of my old haunts a few times but it’s not the same. It never will be.
Almost four years later, I’m finally starting to visit where I rode. It was hard initially as the injuries were severe and I had trouble walking for almost a year. I also had trouble with my stamina as I was forced to do nothing, on doctors’ orders for seven months. All of the fine tuned muscles vanished. The place where I noticed the most was in my lungs. My whole style was about breathing in rhythm to the cadence and it, like my mountain bike, wheelsets, trainer and rollers soon vanished as I sold or gave them away. It was also very emotional and this was hard to overcome, particularly when I realized that I would have to retract from almost everything to heal. Not only did I have to heal, but I had to heal from healing.
But really, it was too emotional. I thought I would break down again if I went to one of my former rides. I couldn’t handle it because what really bothered me was the sound. I had cried so many times, not from pain, but the anguish of losing so many things that I could no longer do – basically anything athletic. My family heard me cry, the nurses, and probably the mailman. I’m making myself cry now just thinking about my crying.
Actually, riding is to be in a cocoon of noise, spinning sprockets, gears, wheels and the occasional unbelievable squeak. “I’m sorry, but did you ever think of oiling that black mess in the back of your bike”? The sound says so many things and I can identify what and who is where. Then there is the yelling at dunderheads, who like Pavlov’s Dog, continue to do the same stupid thing every week. I have no bike sound anymore. There is no one to yell at now. It’s too quiet. Then there is the silent noise, a look in the eyes and nod of the head, a pat on the shoulder as you pass an old friend, or a fist bump after a nice sprint. No one is there anymore to fist bump at thirty miles per hour.
The thing I went for a ride on that fateful day was a new pair of shoes. My wife gave me a bag after I returned from the hospital with my bloody cut up kit and at the bottom, my new shoes, perfectly unblemished. They still looked brand new and lasted exactly one half of a ride. They looked so good. I put them on and wiggled my toes. I laughed at the irony of it. I finally get a new pair of shoes and am almost killed trying them out. I had imagined myself showing up at a ride and handing out some punishment like it was easy. I would ride off the front and hear wheezing and choking sounds plus loud curses. “Do you ever fucking slow down”. However, I had no choice but to sell them. A club member responded and he came over. I showed him the shoes and then he talked me down in price. When the buyer left, it seemed many old dreams walked out with him.
It was the first week of January when I finally met the surgeon, Dr. Anthony Virella. Two things he said will stick with me forever. The first was that I was extraordinarily lucky to be alive. My face went white and I wanted desperately to go out to the hallway and stare out the window. The only problem is I could barely walk and I wasn’t sure if I could make it to the door. The second was that I could never ride a bike again. Ever.
Goodbye Golf Course (there are several), Marina, Mandeville, Three Bitches, Nichols, Amalfi, Donut, Simi, Latigo, Circle X, San Vincente, Piuma, Stunt, Mulholland, Cold Canyon, Fernwood, Tuna, Vista del Mar, NPR, Mandeville, Working Man’s Ride, Chainbreak, The Wall (again several), Topanga, Old Topanga, New Topanga, TOPS, Mulholland, Twisties, Switchbacks, Rock Store, Lake Malibou and that blazing hot day when I felt like a million dollars on Stunt, popped over the top then in to the glorious bosom of Tuna, sweating through every pore in my body. God that ocean breeze felt good. I can still feel it.
The deep well I was trapped in to recover from was also accompanied by a vicious concussion. I can’t really describe what I am inside but I was unprepared for the headaches and sleepiness that accompanied it. Three naps a day where I fell into a deep sleep and awoke to resume work became a habit. I was given medication that caused me to be confused, which cured the headaches but left me dependent on Liz to remember my tasks. It was frightening and disorienting. I was weaned off the medication and, yet again, struggled to recover myself again. My psyche is a giant wad of tissue paper that I slowly strip off to reveal yet another layer. There is no reward in the middle, just more paper. The headaches are still there on occasion and just as confounding.
We went to see the surgeon again in February 2013. He said I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the hardware in your lower back is fine. The bad news is that the hardware in your neck has failed. We need to get you into the hospital as soon as possible to fix this. Come to the hospital tonight and we will prepare you for surgery. He said that there was nothing holding up my neck and that if I fell, I could become permanently paralyzed. Liz and I looked at each other, scared to death.
That night we returned to the hospital and after 24 sleepless hours, I was in the operating room again. I toured the room and asked a few questions about the procedure them laid down on the operating table and counted, one, two, three…
I awoke and found a bigger, tighter neck brace on. Instead of four screws, there were now twelve and two pieces of hardware, one in front and one in back of the cervical spinal column. They had to move the entire throat out of the way to get to the spine then delicately place it back. How did they do that? On the back of my head was a giant scar and the entire area was now numb. Now, when I get a haircut, I can’t feel the blades moving over this area.
This time, to make sure the fragile smashed bones would heal, I would not be able to do any exercise or lift more than ten pounds for four months. This was after going through the prior three months with the same precautions. Liz licked her chops at being able to yell at me some more. Oh boy, more atrophy. This time it was serious. Time and memory became fuzzy again as I clearly struggled to maintain my equilibrium. I had a much bigger neck brace on this time that caused people to stare at me, raking their eyes up an down on me like laser beams. My biggest accomplishment was making it to Trader Joes to go shopping. Liz led me around tenderly, making sure I didn’t fall or trip. Like the route of the Marina ride, I knew every pothole in the aisles, the angle to make the turn-around at the milk station and how to smoothly brake when you get in line.
I only had one dark moment, but it scared me. I can still feel it and I carry it with me everyday. I thought I wouldn’t be able to be there for Tab, that I would have to ask friends to help me raise him, to help him become an Eagle Scout and to finish high school. I could not do it, I thought, I was incapable of doing anything. I could not even care for myself. I was so frozen by fear in my hospital bed that I thought about if I had died. It’s not like Ghost, where there is a big white staircase and a bunch of cool people who really want to help you. No, it’s just dark, cold and colorless. I could feel my soul, aching. I can see it with my eyes wide open, in the early dawn, when my mind is still saying to me, better get up and get ready for the ride. And that’s what saved me.
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