I can not think of a more terrible tragedy than the house fire in Stamford, Conn. early on Christmas Day 2011 that took the lives of three children and their grandparents. The mother, Madonna Badger along with her companion, survived. She lost all her children and at their combined funeral she stood and addressed the attendees saying she often wondered how anyone could go on if they lost their children, but she added, ‘Here I Am’.
The song ‘Band on the Run’ starts ‘Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever...’ This is not just the opening of the song by Paul McCartney and Wings; rather, it is what happened to me four years ago today. Four years ago began an odyssey that left me a prisoner in my own body, one that I would not accept and fought to break out of my own personal jail. Many of you know my story - My Dad died on Jan. 23 2008. My parents lived in Florida and I flew down to meet my Mom and my sister Gayle and make arrangements. On the flight back home I got a chill and became sick and went through an odyessy that few people may ever really believe. After 496 straight days in three hospitals, two rehabilitation facilities, 22 operations and approximately $15 million dollars later, I went home. I had lost both my legs below the knee, use of my hands, both thumbs, some fingers, my wrists and lower arms are severely compromised, 60% percent of my throat, yet ‘Here I Am’.
I went from intensive care in Clara Maass Hospital to Jersey Shore Medical. Both facilities saved my life in a variety of ways. Then it was on to Kessler in West Orange and St Cloud’s also in West Orange where I learned to walk once again. In between I had stints in St. Barnabas in Livingston.
During all of this there was one thing I kept thinking and one thing only - I need to get out I need to get out I need to get out and I need to get out NOW!
In early June 2008 I was transferred to Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation in West Orange. Eventually, in July I sat up and was taken to therapy in a stretcher. My family is very social and everyone took an interest in us and we made a lot of friends, one in particular.
I looked at him and he was laying there and a balloon used in therapy was floating by us. He was paralyzed from the neck down from a car accident and I had no legs, no use of my arms and we were both lying flat on the stretchers used to bring us in for therapy and here’s this balloon coming right at us and he’s saying ‘I got it’ and I’m saying ‘No I got it’ and we are going back and forth and laughing as it floats down between us as neither one of us can move and it was crazy and we both knew it and really was a moment best appreciated by those of us who literally could do nothing else but laugh – or cry - or give up.
It was also the moment that I knew I was going to do whatever it took to get up and walk again. At that time, I had a remote chance to move on and I was going for it. I also knew that given the chance, I would help anyone in this situation. Anyone.
Four years later I am President of an amputee volunteer support group and together, we have become advocates for one another. My group helps me more than most would realize.
Four years later and I can look to a recent Christmas Party we had with my volunteer group and think about a member, my friend Carol who walked in and it was the first time I saw her walk! It was her gift to me as we supported her and challenged her and if I do nothing else, I have had a successful life.
Four years later I can recall my father who had physical challenges all his life and how he addressed all aspects of life with a dignity and grace that touched so many lives. He also would have kicked my ‘you-know-what’ if he ever saw me feeling down about any of this.
Four years later and I am a member of an Amputee committee at Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation in West Orange. As a patient stakeholder I represent the rights and thoughts of amputees.
Four years later I am also very passionate about my role as a member in Cedar Grove UNICO which does so much good in the local community.
Four years later I can really watch the Giants play the Patriots in the Super Bowl as the last time in 2008 I was, let’s say, busy.
Four years later I am involved with my parish – our beloved St Catherine’s – as I help with the parish web site.
Four years later I can dance with both my Mom Margaret and mother-in-law Kay Frucci; my wife Lisa, my godmother Aunt Issie, my sister Gayle, Kathy Neibart, my daughters Brandi and Brittany, JoAnn Chiusolo and her Mom Josephine on Christmas Eve.
Four years later I can spend time with my friend Gerard who is a brother and who is always so supportive in so many ways, especially towards our daughters.
Four years later I spend most days with Tony, the guy who helps me. You cannot find two more different people yet we learn from each other in ways I never thought possible.
Four years later and people I had not seen in years were there for me. Friends from high school like Robert Hickey and friends from college, like my beloved Beth Bloink and my fraternity brothers who I had not seen in years but always had my back. Being a Chi Brother really is for life.
Four years later I created and built three web sites which are used daily. Not bad for a guy with no hands.
Four years later I can go back and see people named Carol Walden, Marianne Quirk, Steven Neibart, Audrey Wallace, Benboy, Janet, Julie Paone, Lonnell Peten, Lily, Juice, Tiffany Teich, Mary Suskevich Long, Ed, Andrew Elkwood, Ricky Neibart, Ron Davis and my beloved Kathy Armstrong and so many others. I can look them all in the eye and thank them with the integrity they deserve by telling them what I am now doing.
Four years later I can look no farther than to our own St Catherine’s for friends like Bob Sweeney and Camy Novellino who there during our darkest hour and who continue to help me in countless ways.
Four years later I can finally say I went to see a Mets play a baseball game! Thanks to my brother-in-law David Neibart, my sister Gayle, Michael Taylor who got me to Yankee Stadium and then it was off to CitiField, by limousine no less, care of my good friend Craig Forlader.
Four years later I can watch and be a part of my daughters' lives once again. My daughters Brandi and Brittany mean the world to me and inspired me to get better.
Four years later I can go on a Saturday night date with my wife Lisa, but now she has to pay. I am truly amazed how strong a person she is and how lucky I am to be with her.
Four years later, I am an advocate for people who have experienced limb loss, and are going through serious illness such as cancer, which I also had a few times. I am using my new-found legs and my ‘Winner Never Quits’ spirit to help others want to help themselves.
I better, after all that my wife Lisa, my sister Gayle Neibart and my brother-in-law David Neibart, my Uncle Jimmy (Jim Morrison no not THAT Jim Morrison) and Fr. Charlie (Msgr. Gusmer) did for me, they would kill me if I wasn’t doing something productive! Yes, that’s a joke!
Truth is, none of us was born in the world that we now live in - meaning it has changed so much – but this!! A running joke in our home is that one morning Lisa or I will wake up and say ‘....I had this really crazy dream last night…’
At Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, there is a sense that it is always Nov. 22, 1963. It is always April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., it may always be Sept. 11, 2001 by the World Trade Center and it was always Dec. 7, 1941 on the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
For me and my family, it will not be Jan. 26, 2008. Rather, it will be the spirit of June 7, 2009, the day I walked out of rehab to go home, the day that represented so much goodwill and advances in technology and above all, the good that exists in so many people from all walks of life. It is the spirit of June 7, 2009 that will be our charter. Here I Am.
Even after he died, my Dad was still teaching me things. My Dad never complained about his pain. It was my Dad who really taught me how to handle difficult things in a respective manner. It was my Dad who showed me how to deal with physical limitations with grace and dignity and to always look towards the content of the person.
It was my Dad who taught me how to walk like a man.