Through adversity, to the stars

Published Nov. 16, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

In March 1982, on my birthday, I ran my first and only sub-5-minute mile during a track meet in Miami in my junior year of high school. My time of 4:55 is not a championship time, but in that race I bettered my best mile by 10 seconds and took a respectable fourth place. It was one of the clear moments of my life, when I was running as hard as I could, when my body was as strong as it would ever be, when I approached something that felt like destiny. But this moment is not exactly what I wish to write about here.

Four months later, I was beginning the last mile of a four-mile night run _ just I and my buddy Chris, who was a good deal faster than I, running from my house in the Florida Keys at Mile Marker 89 to the Tavernier Creek Bridge and back. I was lithe then, wearing only a pair of navy blue running shorts and tan running shoes.

The air was humid that night and the sky clear and black. I waited for a van to cross from left to right in front of me. I looked far down to my right where a pair of headlights was coming in the opposite direction. As I sprinted into the road, I could hear Chris warning me to wait.

The lights were there, how far away?

Twenty feet?


I gave myself two choices in the half-second I had to choose: pivot on my leg and turn back or leap as I did in the long jump, get as much height as possible and hope to make it over the fender. If I chose to pivot, I imagined my leg mangled under the car's wheel. I leaped in what Chris later told me was a 3-foot vertical leap. Then, impact, and I was floating in the still, moist air, and I watched the stars as I did from the dock on nights when the mosquitoes weren't out. Then the stars went out.

I awoke on the side of the road, a sheriff car's lights whirling the darkness around and something digging into my right thigh. I asked Chris to stay with me, but he was worried about finding my shoe, which I hadn't noticed was missing. I wondered how the sheriff's car came so quickly, or if I had been unconscious that long. The deputy told me to lie still, that the ambulance was on its way.

Had I looked carefully, I would have seen the damage to the front of the car where my leg struck the front grille and hood. Had I been able, I would have seen my right leg bent under me, the tibia and fibula snapped in two, my hip bleeding and filled with gravel.

I spent two weeks in a Miami hospital. My leg inexpertly mended, leaving it three-quarters of an inch shorter than its mate. It mended in time for me to run track the following spring and turn in a 5:25 mile, wearing special shoes. I ran as the last member of my college cross-country squad. I used to feel a little cheated by this accident, but I knew I was not a champion runner.

It took a long time for me to really understood what it meant to my life. It could be that, at 17, I had looked at death and responded with grace.

"I thought I'd killed him," the deputy reportedly said.

It could be that I had met that moment when teenagers who are feeling the flush of immortality sometimes die in car wrecks or fights or drug overdoses, but I survived. Surviving that moment carries its own dose of maturity, for it teaches you clearly that you can die; you learn from that either to play everything very safe, or to choose your risks. Or it could be that the ordeal of coming from the hospital bed, to the full-leg cast and back to the track taught me something about tenacity that I could not have learned better elsewhere.

Now, as I help raise my 4-year-old daughter, I think that I must teach her how to take risks every day if she is to really live her life, but that she must measure her risks against the stars in the sky. Between each of them is an infinity of dark vacuum, of nothingness, but for all that nothingness, stars shine brightly in their own spaces and burn for their allotted times in their own colors.

I watch her in gymnastics class as she flips again and again on the rings, her back already lithe and muscular for her age. I see the fear in her eyes as her instructor urges her to jump from the balance beam onto the mat below. I remember walking the driveway with her when she was a baby, hobbling a little on my bad leg, how she became quiet and still and focused as I pointed out Sirius, burning blue and perfect in the dark.

Gregory Byrd teaches writing and literature at St. Petersburg College-Clearwater.