I was broken

Michael Snee

For years, I was known as our football team’s triple-threat man – I’d get threatened three times before getting my lights punched out.  No, seriously, I usually played center, the person who hiked the ball – and where my lack of speed was not a great liability to the success of the team.

One day at football practice, I was filling in at the position of defensive tackle. The offense ran a play in my direction, which featured me as the main defensive person that must be removed from the ball carriers path. There was a collision – between me, and about four of them. I immediately went down, driven backward into the ground, as was accustomed, but this time uncomfortably bridging a backward arch over a teammates helmet. Ouch … ouch, ouch, ouch!  I felt something in my back give way.

As my teammates lifted themselves off the contorted heap, walking away and regrouping, I just lay there, looking up at blurry figures stepping over and around me through my helmet’s facemask. This was weird. What had happened? The scene was kind of spinning and I heard the coach yell, “Snee, you can get up now. The worst is over.” Still, I just lay there, not in defiance of the coach, but because something inside told me to not move. A group of coaches surrounded me, looking down. After some discussion and getting me to answer some questions, they conceded I could be hurt. One left to phone the paramedics. Finally an ambulance drove onto the practice field. The paramedics, with some help from my teammates, scooped me onto a stretcher, uniform and all, and loaded me into the back end, strapping me in and asking me questions, like, “Where does it hurt?”

Now you may think that an ambulance service having well-trained paramedics who are delivering a spinal trauma patient to the emergency room, would give that patient a gentle and smooth ride. Not so. I never knew that any ambulance ride (my first) could be so rough and bumpy. Everyone inside was hanging onto those chrome stability bars to keep them from rolling around and flying out the back end. It was intense. I could feel every frantic swerve, sudden braking, pothole, drainage grate, asphalt repair, and curb being struck for those 6 miles to the hospital.

After some x-rays and some accompanying treatment in the hospital emergency room, the conclusion was that my spine was okay. “You had a muscle spasm,” I was told. Being age 16, I still didn’t know if that meant whether or not I’d be able to walk again. I was also told my dad had finally been reached and was on his way. I remained nervous and silent, still frightened. But now I was struggling more with the memory of that ambulance ride than from my injury.

Dad arrived, which calmed me, as the staff continued rigging a back brace onto me while attempting to reassure us both that there was nothing to worry about – my back would be sore for a few days. Other than that, fine. Shortly after they released me.

With me sitting upright in the passenger seat, Dad drove us back home overlapping most of the same route as the ambulance had taken, but being very cautious not to jostle me. I appreciated that, eying those ridges of asphalt and valleys of manhole covers. Dad seemed preoccupied. “They said I’d be okay,” I reminded him. “That’s right,” he agreed, keeping his gaze forward on the road ahead. “But something else happened.” He fell silent. “Well, what happened?” I asked, feeling the car crossing some ripples of pavement and getting ready for some pain, which never came.

On the way home, Dad started to tell me what happened to him before getting the hospital’s call. “I was working in the building out back,” (we lived on a small farm), “and Laddy came up to me and whined.” Laddy was a collie, the dog I’d grown up with from the time I was eight. Through the years Laddy was very protective, but he was a playful and loving family dog. Dad went on, “Laddy whined some, then some more, then he started barking at me, trotting out of the barn, then turning around and coming back, still whining and barking.”  I asked, “Like when Lassie wants Timmy to follow?” Dad nodded, “Yeah, kind of like that. So I started to follow him. He was leading me toward the house and I thought something must be wrong inside. I got to the door and Laddy followed me in. The phone was ringing, and it was the hospital calling. They told me that you’d gotten hurt and that I should come right away.” Dad didn’t say anything for a moment. “When I hung up the phone, Laddy just laid right down. He seemed calm again, like nothing had happened.” Dad was silent.

I’m not sure what my first comments were to Dad’s story. Dad never talked about weird things. His world was made up of the five senses we’re always taught about, and his judgments were either black or white. Shades of gray never found a home in his thinking. At least, that’s what he always said, telling us that ‘gray’ was for idiots who couldn’t decide anything.

This particular moment with Dad was a novelty, a bridge in my thinking and perhaps his, too. I never knew that Dad would experience something so ‘gray’ – something completely defying his authoritative black and white outlook – an outlook that I often found myself trying to imitate. I never knew that I could have a sort of cosmic personal experience with my dog, Laddy. And I never knew there was something unseen, some kind of force at work, surrounding us through the love we share.

From that moment on, I wanted to know more.

Humpty is well known

Michael Snee

I never thought so many so many coworkers could recite the verse, or come so close to getting the verse right. I never thought so many would volunteer that they had felt like Humpty at times. And I never thought so many would say, there was no help. It seemed even as adults, Humpty stuck in our minds. Not that we thought about it everyday, but still, this little quiz of my coworkers made me wonder about Humpty more and more. I had no idea Humpty was so well known. After all, it’s just a little verse in a kid’s book.

Then one of my coworkers, Jake, reminded me that Humpty Dumpty is often referred to by politicians and other speakers when they want to illustrate insurmountable odds, impossibility and, or, hopelessness. Maybe that’s why we can still recite it as adults. We’re frequently reminded of Humpty and in many ways compared to him.

Life is full of risks for everyone. Like Humpty, we all climb up and up, toward our goals, sit on walls to rest, enjoying the view – and suddenly, without warning, we fall. How do we fall? Perhaps losing a job, grieving the death of a spouse or child, having our heart broken in romance, getting picked last for a side, or actually slipping off the monkey bars and cracking our head. There’s so many ways of falling … you know I can’t list them all. There are ways you have fallen that you could tell me about.

But what does Humpty teach us? Does the story “program” us to think in a certain way? Maybe. Would that programming be “good” or “bad,” positive or negative? Can a little rhyme or phrase really affect us?

Take a little quiz and fill in the blanks: salt and ________, bacon and _______, peanut butter and __________, for God and ____________, in God we _________. I don’t need to tell you the answers. You already know them from years of programming. Do these affect us in ways that go beyond filling in the blanks?

In the wake of my little Humpty experiment, I started to think more deeply about my own life. At times I was depressed, embarrassed, insulted, left behind, chosen last, picked on, misunderstood, and sometimes physically hurt by dropping something on my foot or having a wrench slip from a stubborn nut I was trying to get lose. When I played high school football, I tore ligaments in my left hand, and had injured my back. It’s the back injury that opened the door to something else I never knew about – and that I would never forget.

Humpty Survived?

Michael Snee

At the tender age of seven when I had my tonsils taken out, I woke from the ether anaesthetic with a terrible headache. The recovery nurse had placed a wash cloth on my forehead, but it was HOT! I wanted relief and just knew that a cold, wet cloth would ease my throbbing head. I was burning up with pain and began begging the nurse, pleading, “Colder … colder!” Through my tearful eyes I watched this blurry nurse check me out, pat my cheek, turn and walk away. No cold, wet wash cloth for me. I was surrendering to the grogginess. Hurting, feeling helpless and abandoned, the room turned dark.

Next thing I remember, I was back in my regular hospital room. Mom was there. My head still hurt. Just as I was asking Mom for a cold, wet wash cloth, some guy brought in a cold metal bowl of orange sherbet and placed it on that little table that goes over the bed. I grabbed it, resting the side of the bowl against my hot aching forehead. Ahhhhhh! At last! The cold felt so good — and after I convinced Mom that a sherbet head compress was really the best use for this dessert, I settled in while she cranked up the back of the bed some more, adding to my comfort.

Soon she placed some kid’s books (no television sets in hospital rooms in those days) on that little table, beside the sherbet spoon which I was still ignoring. Among the small pile of books was a Humpty Dumpty magazine demanding my attention. I melted the sherbet, holding the bowl here and there against my head while reviewing the Humpty magazine cover to cover. Humpty … hmm. As my headache went away, this magazine with Humpty was making me think. I knew from the nursery rhyme that Humpty was bruised and broken, and now I really identified with him through my pain during this scary time. All the king’s horses and men (recast in my drama as that darned nurse) couldn’t put him together again. But a bowl of sherbet, who knew?

Years passed. I grew, got married, had kids. Soon I was reading Mother Goose to mykids, sharing a comfortable couch together, all nice and cozy. Reading to toddlers is good for them (according to parenting books) and I wanted to stimulate their minds so they’d grow up smart and literate, able to understand the world much better than I did.

One day, it happened. Reading Humpty Dumpty to them for the umpteenth time, I started wondering: if kids learn from having things read to them, what was this particular rhyme teaching my kids. The ending was not good. Pretty negative. In fact, it completely sucked.

“So, what do you guys think about Humpty,” I asked. “He got hurt,” quickly answered my youngest daughter. “He’s crying,” offered my slightly older daughter, “and I think he’s dead.”

With sudden impulse I pointed, leading their attention back to the page, and with my reading voice added, “So Humpty really didn’t need all those horses anyway … and somehow … he decided to reach up … and somehow … he got better … and back on the wall.”  Because they were still too young to read for themselves, I got away with it, turning the page before they knew what hit them. From that point on, every time I got to the Humpty page, I’d make up a quick sweetening verse, trying to make lemonade from lemons. And with playgrounds and monkey bars being fairly new to my daughters, I wanted them to think of falling in a more positive light.

I became curious, wondering if Humpty had some sort of after effect on adults and began asking a multitude of office co-workers, “Ever hear of Humpty Dumpty?” Everyone had. Really, everyone. “Can you recite the rhyme?” Most could, some of them poking me with glances of suspicion, wondering what I was up to. After all, when one goes to a coffee machine for a well-deserved break, the last thing they expect is for someone to ask them to recite a nursery rhyme.

The number of people in my little experiment was growing, revealing some things I had not thought about before.

(more to come on next post)

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