On the Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation second-floor wheelchair basketball team, I was tied for most valuable player. Or the least valuable, depending on your perspective. I was the hoop, the Red Team hoop. The Blue Team hoop was a more-or-less dignified lady—whose name I don’t recall—of perhaps not quite eighty, the second youngest player in the ward. On weekend mornings, we faced each other in the Recreational Therapy room, nine or ten wheelchair-lengths apart, arms held out before us in broad O-shapes. Between us were two facing rows of octogenarians, mostly women, in various degrees of infirmity: my Red Team dozing to my left, the spry enemy Blue Team to my right, plotting as always. This particular Sunday morning, I was ready to do anything I had to. Today, I told myself, that plastic gold medallion would be mine.
* * *
I was sixteen years old. Six weeks earlier, I had twisted my fourth-hand ’92 Lincoln Continental around an ancient hemlock tree. Or maybe it was a cedar or Virginia pine. I can’t remember, and the small stand of evergreens along the edge of East Broomtown Road is gone now, logged for timber not many years afterward. But it feels right to me to think of it as a hemlock, which shares the name of the unrelated poisonous plant that killed Socrates, though he chose to face that end. I choose to remember my tree as a hemlock.
At the time of the collision I had been alone, sober, alert, and on my way to high school marching band practice; the weather had been sunny, clear, and dry, with no other cars to be seen along the hardly-ever-trafficked backwoods road. It was the kind of catastrophe where, when asked later why it happened, I can only ever answer with a seemingly evasive “it just happened.” But it had. For a careless moment I had drifted too far to the right and let my tires dip down off the pavement and onto the grassy shoulder. I had jerked back on to the road too abruptly, an overcorrection that had me swerving back and forth for a handful of agonizing seconds before—my panicked and inexperienced foot pressing stupidly on the accelerator rather than the brake—the car left the road entirely and collided with the tree. Crash. And there I was, for no reason at all. I was trapped in the car for two hours, give or take, and after the first handful of seconds, I never lost consciousness, my head pinned between the driver-side window frame and the knotty roots of the hemlock. Had the car rolled a few more inches, I would have been decapitated. As it was, my head suffered only a deep scalp laceration. The real trouble was below.
Eventually the rescue team arrived, jaws-of-lifed me out of the wreck, and choppered me via Life Force to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. I was in pretty bad shape. My left femur had snapped and been driven through the top of my thigh; as a result, I’d lost a great deal of blood. The trauma surgeon nearly chose to amputate, he told me later, but opted in the end, though doubtful of success, to try to save the leg. Thank God, I often think to myself, thank God he didn’t go the other way. What’s more, my left arm was shattered. In my right knee, only one of the ligaments remained untorn. The nerve trauma left my right foot numb and paralyzed. My ribs were broken, my heart and lungs badly bruised. My arms, hands, and face were thoroughly pocked with granules of auto glass. In short, my body was profoundly broken. But I was alive.
* * *
The rules of wheelchair basketball at Siskin Rehab are simple. This is not the wheelchair basketball you see on TV, with Olympic-trained disabled athletes or injured former basketball pros racing down the court at impressive speeds, pulling out-of-nowhere hairpin turns and 180s, and faking out to shoot a surprise three-pointer. No, this is a different game altogether, the official sport of the extremely elderly and infirm, of hip-replacement patients everywhere, or, at very least, in the Tennessee Valley tri-state region. Or maybe just at Siskin Rehab, second floor. I honestly don’t know how widespread the game is—having personal knowledge of only one physical rehabilitation center, this one in Chattanooga, the second floor of it in particular—but I do know how the game is played.
Only four elements are essential: a coach (a role filled by the recreational therapist) who doubles as a referee and may or may not choose to use a whistle; a special balloon, tougher and slightly larger than the average birthday balloon but light enough to cause no injury to the players, who tend to bruise easily; the players themselves, some willing, some not in the least (it was, after all, mandatory therapy); and enough wheelchairs for all, though anyone not already confined to a wheelchair would have no occasion to play in the first place. It’s a close-quarters but (one hopes) non-contact sport, yet I have witnessed questionable collisions on more than one occasion. The Red Team is wheeled into a line, side-by-side, parking brakes locking them in place. The Blue Team is wheeled into a facing formation, almost literally toe-to-toe with their opponents, the two columns of slippered feet just inches apart. And at each end of this double line formation, there is a hoop: one Red, one Blue.
The hoop’s job is to be, well, the hoop; in this case, a kind of anthropomorphized hoop. Fingers laced together, arms held out to form a circle, the hoop is both a goal and a proactive player. Think of the hoop as the opposite of the goalkeeper on a soccer or hockey team: he or she does everything within his or her power to make sure the ball goes through the hoop. An unenthusiastic hoop—the player content to make a stationary circle with his or her arms and let the other players worry about the rest—can be, at best, a non-asset to the team and, at worst, their doom. A dedicated hoop, however, is a team’s most powerful weapon. God help the team whose hoop cares less than that of their opponents.
* * *
I am not an athletic person, nor have I ever been. Despite having always been overweight and essentially bookish, I loved and still love wandering around the woods and pastures of the family farm—hiking the deer trails, devising methods of circumventing the ubiquitous barbed wire, scrambling across the floors of leaf-carpeted forest ravines, scouting thickets for hidden nooks and creeks for signs of tadpoles or crawdads—and that has always been my primary outlet for physical engagement with the outdoors. When it comes to team sports, however, I have always been, for whatever reason, unenthusiastic. I have, I think, a basic understanding of the appeal of sports on an intellectual level, but despite a handful of attempts to become a sports fan, the capacity for that particular enthusiasm eludes me, this despite having actually played team sports as a child, back before the accident. I had, in a way, been tricked into playing by my mother, though it had not, I am certain, been her intention to do so.
I must have been about five years old at the time. I recall sitting in the LaFayette Recreational Center bleachers with my mother, watching my older brother’s team play basketball against another team on the city league. She turned to me and out of what seemed like nowhere asked if I wanted to play tee ball. I said yes, mostly, I think, out of boredom. I did not know what tee ball was, but the way she asked me there on the bleachers, the question just seeming to occur to her on the spot, I assumed it would be something I would do right then, right there at the Rec Center, something to let me escape the boring children’s basketball game I didn’t want to watch anyway. I thought if I said yes she would take me immediately to some different room where I could play the mysterious game of tee ball.
From the name, I envisioned there would be a huge box full of foam pieces shaped into the capital letter T. Somewhere in the box there would be ball, maybe a ping-pong ball, and I would have to face down three other kids—one of us on each side of the box—as we all dug through the box together, searching for the elusive ball among all those Ts. It seemed like kind of a weird game, but I was willing to play it if that’s what it took to get me away from the noisy and uninteresting basketball court. I remember feeling confused and a little miffed when Mom didn’t take me anywhere at all after I agreed to go play the strange game of tee ball, but I wasn’t yet the type to question the authority of adults, so I let it go.
I could not possibly have imagined right then that a few weeks later I would be shoved into a pair of tight gray baseball pants (complete with a blue and white jersey and hat), coaxed into Mom’s Chevy Astro, and deposited on a Rec Center baseball diamond where a strange man who smelled like my Paw Paw—like chewing tobacco, I now know—deemed me an ideal catcher, which is in tee ball perhaps the second least important position, right after right field, which is where he moved me after my inevitable failure behind home plate. Tee ball, it turned out, was just baseball for little kids. The ball was not pitched but hit from a tee—not a foam letter at all, but a stationary pedestal designed for exactly this purpose—and on the pitcher’s mound stood the batter’s coach, who doled out advice and encouragement. Otherwise, tee ball was baseball.
My mother had completely unwittingly duped me into joining a city baseball team. And so I played. It wasn’t torture exactly, and it seemed to make my mother happy to see me out there on the field in my uniform playing, if poorly, and becoming thoroughly socialized among my tiny uniformed peers. The next year the tee went away and the game became baseball in earnest and still I played. It became for me just one of the things that I was supposed to do, like make good grades and memorize Bible verses and always answer adults with a “ma’am” or “sir.” On and off throughout my childhood I would play, always in the right-field position of some unlucky team. The years when the coaches were smart, or maybe just more competitive, my most frequent position was bench, which turned out to be the position I was most suited to. Baseball, it seemed, just wasn’t my calling. But baseball was not octogenarian wheelchair basketball.
* * *
No, wheelchair basketball was a different story, and for the Red Team of Siskin Rehab, second floor, that was a lucky thing indeed. I was their hoop, and in octogenarian wheelchair basketball, a good hoop can make the difference between a crushing defeat and one to six days of glory—consisting, in this case, of a plastic gold medallion and, more importantly for me, affectionate approval from Rose, the gorgeous twenty-something recreational therapist who was, to my sixteen year old mind, the sexiest and most angelic creature to ever toss a set of Yahtzee dice.
This Sunday morning, as Rose entered the room through the double doors ahead—bright green balloon in the curve of her arm, plastic whistle dangling from the cord around her neck—I had my game face on, back straight, fingers laced, testing the flex of my biceps. “Are we ready to play?” Rose said, cheerful, forgoing the traditional parking-brake check. Some players murmured; some waved a shaky hand. I made no obvious response. My eyes, I knew, told her everything she’d need to know. Whistle between her lips, she pushed the balloon into the air. It arced over the Blue Team’s heads and into the midst of the formation. Her whistle screeched, and a drowsy, uncoordinated hell broke loose.
* * *
The summer before the crash—not long before it, in fact—some friends and I had invented a new sport we proudly dubbed Ultimate Tennis. I know what you’re thinking—really, another digression?—but bear with me. It is important because it would be the last game of its sort that I would ever play. Like its precursor and namesake Ultimate Frisbee, Ultimate Tennis took the implements of an existing game—in this case the tennis ball, racquet, and court—and increased the scope and intensity of play. The simple throw-catch-throw-catch of backyard Frisbee, pushed to its Ultimate form, became the fast-paced, competitive team sport well known to—and variously revered or dreaded by—church youth group members and college undergraduates throughout America. It had taken a simple pastime and given it structure. Ultimate Tennis did precisely the opposite.
This particular aspect of the game—its almost complete lack of structure—I claim as my own contribution. Let me explain. On the hot midsummer day when Ultimate Tennis was invented, I had accompanied a group of friends to the LaFayette High School tennis courts. Ryan was on the school team, and was the kind of guy who was so obviously honest, careful, and trustworthy that the coach had given him his own key to the courts so he could practice whenever he liked. The other guys had a passing familiarity with tennis thanks, I think, to having played with their parents now and again throughout childhood. I, on the other hand, had never in my life played nor ever intended to play tennis. That just wasn’t something a McRae did; there were no tennis courts on the farm. Needless to say, I didn’t know any of the rules, and my coordination with the racquet was nothing short of pathetic. After a maybe half an hour of attempted play—clean serves on their part, immediate failure on mine—it became obvious that a normal game of tennis would not be a practical goal in the schedule of the day’s merrymaking.
I could neither serve nor successfully return even the most pitying of serves, but what I could do is run around like a feral child, hammering savagely at the ball with the racquet and hollering out absurdities with the kind of bravado only a teenage boy aware of and fully alive in his own incompetence can manage, so that’s what I did. And thus Ultimate Tennis was born. All pretense of attempting civilized tennis was dropped as we threw ourselves into the frenzy of our new creation.
There was to be only one true rule in the sport of Ultimate Tennis: THE BALL DOES NOT STOP. Ideally one would use only his racquet to ensure the unceasing movement of the ball—dribbling it like a tiny basketball when necessary, balancing it on the netting like a bright yellow egg in a frying pan, catapulting it with the racquet as in lacrosse—but if that became impossible, anything was permissible in service of the One Rule of Ultimate Tennis. Grab the ball and throw it, kick it, put it in your pocket and run until someone tackles you, anything to keep it moving. All three courts within the fence were in bounds, and even outside the fence was in bounds if the ball went there. It was chaos, pure and simple, and it was glorious.
I still remember with surprising vividness the ball rocketing over my head and me turning to chase it down, running with wild abandon, arms flailing, doomed to reach the fence two courts away long after the ball struck there and maybe wedged itself in the tilted checkerboard of the chain-link fencing. Running, running, running, and loving it. That is the last memory I have of running, of moving and feeling only the good kind of pain, before a Lincoln and an ancient hemlock took running from me, before shattered bones and crushed nerves and scar tissue stole from me the capacity to be awake and moving and yet not in pain. It is a very good memory.
* * *
The game was not going well for the Red Team. It seemed to be a particularly sleepy Saturday morning for the majority of my players, many of whom were nodding off more than usual, which is saying something, and allowing the Blue Team basket after mostly unhindered basket. Mercifully, the Red Team player just to my left—let’s call her Josephine—was alert and in reasonably good spirits, and so together we managed to secure enough baskets not to be embarrassingly behind our opponents, but things were still not looking good. Only one other player on our team seemed interested in helping us stay above water, but she—Betty, perhaps she was called—was a loose cannon. When the balloon came near her, she swatted at it frantically, even rising a few inches off the seat of her wheelchair, a practice frowned upon by the therapists (most of these players had somewhat recently had hip replacements, after all) but not strictly speaking against the rules. Yes, Betty had spirit, but when her swats did finally land there was no telling where the balloon might end up: shot out of bounds (usually), twirling toward the wrong hoop (at least once or twice), or maybe, just maybe right at me at just the right angle to slip through the circle of my arms and score our Red Team a basket, though directly into my face was also a possible and eventual destination.
With any other hoop at their end, the Red Team would not have stood a chance against the crafty and determined Blue Team, but they did not have just any other hoop. They had me. I was young and long-armed and determined to win, and despite having by far the most plates, bolts, rods, screws, and staples in me of anyone on the second floor of Siskin Rehab, I was a force to be reckoned with. I would arc my arms up over my head or bend down low toward the floor, would lean and twist my body in any direction necessary to make sure any gentle tap from Josephine or wild swat from Betty became, in the circle of my arms, a basket for the Red Team. Get the balloon even remotely close to me, and I would turn it into points.
Maybe it wasn’t as intense Cinderella-story of a game that I remember it as, and maybe I wasn’t the unstoppable force of nature I remember myself being—in fact, I am certain the objective reality of that particular Saturday morning at Siskin Rehabilitation Hospital, where broken people came to be healed at least as much as it was possible to heal them, was nothing like the event that I am able to conjure up in retrospect—but I do know that we won. I do know I wore that plastic gold medallion around my neck as I wheeled myself back to my room. I do know that Rose smiled at me as she placed it on me, her hand lingering on my shoulder so that I knew she was proud of me. And I know that two weeks later I was released. I didn’t walk out—that would come later—but I was healed enough to return to my home, the medallion dangling from the rail of my home hospital bed.
In the eight weeks between the morning of the crash and the morning I saw the farm again and wheeled myself back into my home, I had healed remarkably, from meat on the butcher’s block of trauma, of almost-death, to this: still broken, still far from what I had been and would never be again, but alive and home and happy, more or less. I would never run again, would never climb through barbed-wire fences with the same ease, would never stroll carefree down a deer trail without feeling the tiny knives twisting inside my leg, but I would walk again, and hear the crackle of autumn leaves beneath my feet, and remember at least sunshine and sweat, what it felt like to run and jump and holler with the joy of its ease, the wind of it against my face.
Nick McRae is the author of The Name Museum (C&R Press, 2014) and Mountain Redemption (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), as well as editor of Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets (Sundress Publications, 2013). His poems and essays have appeared in Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, previously in Waccamaw, and elsewhere. He is associate editor of 32 Poems and is currently Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.