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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 20

The headline on page two in the April 8th edition of the Press Citizen read “Two Die in Single Car Crash.” Dad and his current girlfriend got what they deserved after missing a turn coming back from Solon at two in the morning. More than likely drunk. The car flipped over as it rolled down the embankment and into the creek, discovered the next morning by a farmer on his tractor. The pair drowned upside down in three feet of water. I called Ashley that evening, her reaction to the news the same as mine.

I didn’t know anything about the wake and wouldn’t have gone if I did. He was no longer my father. I was only sad that his death hadn’t come before mom’s. That she might have enjoyed some cosmic satisfaction before she died. Yet his passing made our status as orphans irrevocable. Three teenagers with no parents. No mother to babysit grandchildren. No father to walk his daughters down the aisle. No one to organize graduation parties or watch me run at the State Meet.

For years we had dodged a bullet, finally free of his clutches after so much destruction, living with a guardian who nurtured us like we deserved. If only mom had been so lucky. Tears still welled in my eyes when I thought of her, memories of the fun times we shared harder to capture as time passed. It was only in Mr. Wilkinson’s tales of their high school years that I could find comfort, hoping the stories would be enough to keep her alive in my heart, back when life was good and the world her oyster.

My senior year in track. Three-and-a-half years had passed since I began running, the span of time now a blur. I had grown so much in that period, but also suffered greatly because of my father - every step forward compromised by some family struggle that pulled me down. I was wiser for the experience but nearly broken by the cost.

The third place at the conference meet my freshman year at East High was a crossroad, failure inspiring me to make an investment that turned my life around. When I examined the sport, joining the cross country team was the most profound decision I had ever made. It transformed a kid from a broken family with an abusive, alcoholic father, into a runner who earned a college scholarship, someone respected by athletes and coaches around the state. There was nothing else I might have chosen which could have held a candle to this choice, one that opened doors to a poor kid like me.

The first three weeks of April were a merely a preamble to the 1977 Drake Relays at the end of the month. This event was everything that Mr. Reid claimed – and more. It was astounding to stand at the starting line in front of four thousand fans at nine o’clock Saturday morning and be introduced by Relay’s announcer Jim Duncan. I stared at the blue surface as he spoke, remembering the NCAA title Steve Prefontaine won on this very track in 1970.

“In position four, racing in the black and gold that’s East High’s Matt Wilson, the Little Hawk senior running at Drake for his first time. A two-time State Champion in cross country and 1975 runner-up in the two-mile as a sophomore, he has the top time in the State at this distance with a 9:06.2.”

I glanced up and waved to the crowd, suddenly nervous for all the attention.

Steve Skogstad and I shot to the front of the field after the gun and ran a series of 68 second laps as consistent as a metronome, whittling the lead pack from eighteen, to six, and then four; finally just me and my teammate as the bell rang for the final go-around. Standing trackside near the finish line the voice of Jim Duncan filled the stadium as we circled the penultimate corner.

“C’mon east side, the two Little Hawks need your help. Let’s give ‘em a hand.”

Applause traveled down the backstretch, my teammate and I riding it like the curl of a wave. As I charged into the final three-hundred, Steve drifted behind, his breathing gone as I neared the final furlong. Motivated by the promise to break nine minutes for mom, I threw all my being into the final real estate – every beating, every broken bone, every put-down from my father, the rage driving me around the last corner and down the homestretch towards the finish string.

I stared at the clock on the south wall as I pumped my arms. “8:54…8:55…8:56.”

As I approached the line I threw my hands skyward in a V, satisfaction washing over my body like a heartfelt sigh, tears filling my eyes as I thought of mom. Why did she have to die before I learned to appreciate all she had done for us? Slowing to a stop I spun in a circle with arms spread wide, taking in the thunderous applause, drinking in the thrill of my victory.

Steve crossed the line a few seconds later, his 9:05 a PR by five seconds. I caught him in a hug and squeezed him tight, putting an arm around his shoulders as he bent over to catch his breath. We turned and waved to the crowd with smiles that filled the space between our ears.

“Folks, you saw history today. Matt Wilson is the first Iowa prep to break nine minutes in the two mile! His official time…8:58.8. Let’s give him a big hand.”

As I waved to the crowd Ashley raced down to the railing and shouted my name. I looked up and smiled, rushing over to give her a hug over the crossbar, kissing her on the check before we separated. Steve and I jogged around the track in lane eight, slapping hands with fans as we circled the stadium, waving to our teammates high up in the stands.

In that moment I knew the answer to the question which had bugged me for the last month. I knew what I was going to run at State.

We celebrated after the state meet like we were Olympic champions, the gift I’d given Steve more enjoyable than my own victories. I knew I made the right decision, certain that mom would be proud of me. Even though I gave up a shot at the historic double, I would cherish this moment for the rest of my life. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish my prep career. To share the joy with Steve.

“The Dynamic Duo.”

That was the tagline under the pictures of Steve and I in the Sunday Des Moines Register, both 1977 State Champions – my teammate in the two-mile, me in the mile. There was a picture of Steve as he crossed the finish line with an index finger raised, a pumpkin smile spread across his face, mine with arms spread wide just like Jim Ryun at the ’72 Olympic Trials in Eugene.

It was almost dark when I headed out the door for my second run of the day, telling Alice I’d be back in thirty-five minutes. Thoughts of the college competition I would be facing in three months stressed me out, drove me to work harder. That’s why I was putting in more miles – despite the ten this morning.

I had been following results of the Iowa track athletes through the spring, so I could learn how I stacked up against my future teammates, times in the distance races at the recent Big Ten meet in Bloomington IN astounding. Michigan State’s Herb Lindsey ran 3:45 to win the 1500 meters, equivalent to a 4:02 mile. Iowa’s top runner, and my future teammate, was only three seconds behind. Craig Virgin of Illinois won the 5K with a 13:55 and the Wolverine’s Greg Meyer the 10K at just under thirty minutes. Wow. Their performances rattled my cage.

My 4:12.1 at state suddenly seemed pedestrian. Like I was a plough horse trying to race a thoroughbred. Even the 10K pace was shocking, the Michigan runner splitting 4:45 each of the six miles. I might be able to run three at that pace, but 6.2 miles – no way. I needed to train harder. Work my summer mileage up to seventy-five or eighty a week. Maybe even attempt one hundred miles once or twice. There was no time to waste.

“See ya later Wally.” I smiled at Alice and gave her a thumbs up. That was the last thing I remembered.

I drifted in and out of consciousness, the dewy grass damp against my skin, Liz’s voice and Alice’s sobs fading to nothing as I floated in the air past rows of fluorescent lights, struggling to escape the hand someone was putting over my mouth. Things faded to black.

There was a hand on my forehead, a bright light flashing back and forth as my eyelids were lifted, a muffled voice speaking to someone by my feet. The light faded, my eyes closing like a vintage doll laid flat, my mouth so dry I would have killed for a sip of water. Time ceased to exist, brief moments of clarity broken by vague shapes, as though a camera lens was moved in and out of focus just to annoy me.

Waking to unrecognizable voices in my bedroom, I wondered why my eyes didn’t want to open, and why I couldn’t seem to move. I whispered for water, someone rubbing a wet washcloth back and forth over my lips, the sensation so comforting tears rolled from my eyes. I thought of mom and the days she tended to my broken ribs. I fell asleep again.

There was a kiss on my forehead, a scent I remembered but couldn’t quite place. Alice whispered in my ear and I tried to smile, the swollen eyes hurting with every attempt to open them. Someone laced fingers between mine and I squeezed weakly, the soft sensation of lips on the back of my hand. Before I drifted off I remembered the scent was Wind Song.

By the yellow light in the room I could tell it was morning, soft breathing coming somewhere beside me. I recognized her breaths. It was Alice. My right leg was floating in the air, both eyes still puffy, as though someone taped cotton balls over them. My ribs were sore.

“Alice.” It was so soft she didn’t hear it at first. I took a deeper breath and winced. “Alice.” I heard a gasp and then someone sliding around the bed.

“Good morning Wally.” A tear landed on my cheek after her kiss. “You scared me. You scared us all.” She turned and shouted. “Ashley, Liz. He’s awake.” They rushed into the room, both suddenly by my side. Ashley? She should be in Des Moines.

“Ashley, what are you doing here?” My voice was mostly a whisper.

“Well isn’t that nice?” She kissed me on the forehead. “I’ve been waiting for three days just to see you.” I tried to lift an eyebrow, the space barely a slit. “Same old Wally, I come to visit and you fall asleep on me.”

I could smell the Windsong perfume, forcing the eye open again. Liz appeared.

“Oh honey, I was so worried. I’m so glad to see you awake.” She kissed me on the lips and then started sobbing.

“Am I really that bad looking?” I whispered. They all laughed.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Alice spent the next ten minutes telling me what happened while Liz fed me ice chips – the frantic call to Steve at 10pm when I didn’t return, Alice’s recollection that I planned to be gone thirty-five minutes helping my teammate narrow the routes I might be on as they searched around Iowa City.

They found me in a ditch off Prairie du Chien Road, a single blue Nike with a white swoosh near the curb recognizable in the station wagon headlights, everyone afraid I was dead as they approached me in the gully. It was only my groan which gave them hope, Steve jumping in the car to get assistance while the girls comforted me, an ambulance arriving ten minutes later, Liz and Alice cradling me in the depression along the road. I remembered nothing of that night.

Ashley must have called Mr. Johnson, his voice somber as he neared the bed.

“Matt, you had us so worried. I’ve barely slept the last two nights. I was so afraid you would never wake up.” He held my hand. “You look so good.”

A doctor came in the room, a brief glance showing three interns in his wake. It was Dr. Botti. He asked everyone to leave, examining the chart on the end of my bed.

“It’s good to see you up and at ‘em. How are you feeling?”

“My leg is a little sore and it feels like I’ve been in a fight, but I’ll survive.”

“Well, I’m not surprised. You had a concussion, four broken ribs, and a compound fracture of your femur. So, a fight would be a good description. We did a scan and your head is good,” He paused and smiled. “It must be as hard as a rock. But nothing broken around your eyes, and now you have a matching set of ribs on the opposite side.”

I winced when he said that. He knew what had occurred in the past.

“The bad news is you had a nasty fracture of your right thigh, probably where the front of the car hit you,” His words made the accident so real. Who hit me? “I had to put in a bunch of hardware to hold it in place. Right now, I can’t make any promises. There’s a small chance you won’t be able to run again. Only time will tell.” He took a deep breath. “But let’s worry about that later. We’ll get you up and around first. You’ll be wearing an immobilizer for at least two months, maybe two and a half. After that we start rehab. So, you’ll be in here maybe 7-10 more days and then you head home.” He paused. “Any questions?”

“What’s for breakfast?”

Just after Memorial Day I was back home with Alice and Mr. Johnson, the swelling around my eyes mostly gone – although the halfmoon under each one was still a hideous shade of yellow. Soreness was a daily companion, my sleep coming as easily as a newborn’s. It felt good to wake up each morning so refreshed. I slept on a bed placed in the living room, navigating the stairs with crutches nearly impossible.

Using the toilet was much better than a bedpan, but certainly just as awkward, the sponge baths while seated on the closed toilet lid a little weird. Alice sewed Velcro on the side of boxers and an old pair of sweatpants so I didn’t have to struggle to dress each morning – although my clothing looked so shabby a casual observer would have said I should be riding on a boxcar.

Most days Liz stopped by after supper, updating me on her news, sitting hip to hip as we watched episodes of Three’s Company, Happy Days, and Fantasy Island; my evening existence revolving around make-believe people – Chrissy and Janet, and an ersatz gay roommate; a 1950’s version of life with Richie Cunningham and the Fonz in Milwaukee; and Mr. Roarke and a manservant named Tattoo, “De plane, de plane” who rang a church bell to announce the arrival of guests. The shows weren’t that good but we didn't watch that much and it was nice to cuddle.

In between programs we talked.

“I’ll bet you are back running in September.” I looked at Liz doubtfully.

“That would be nice but…”

I was afraid to express how I really felt. What I thought was realistic. I’d be lucky if I was walking without a limp on September 1st. The immobilizer wouldn’t be coming off until late July or maybe even early August, my honest opinion that I might be running in October and in decent shape around Thanksgiving – maybe Christmas if things didn’t go as well as I planned.

“I measured my thigh yesterday…it’s two inches less.” I stared at the immobilizer and sighed. “than the left leg.”

“Yeah, but you’ll see. I bet you will be back.” She snapped her fingers. “like that.”

My youthful optimism helped me through the initial days, being at home enough to keep spirits up – an afternoon on the back patio in the sun, random rides around town in the backseat of Tom’s Oldsmobile, an evening visit to Dairy Queen, my highlights. But I knew there would come a time when it wasn’t enough.

I dreamed about running every night.

Liz’s visits after dinner were highlights, but I grew moodier as weeks passed, my lack of exercise affecting me like a junkies’ withdrawal. Sleep was not as deep, interrupted each night by an urge to roll on my side, the immobilizer making my back the only option.

I needed a substitute to burn off excess energy but could find no solution. The doctor wouldn’t let me swim and there was no way to bike, so I tried a pushup and sit-up routine, the habit disappearing after five days because of the difficulty in doing either activity. Whenever I attempted to restart the calisthenics it fizzled out quickly. I couldn’t convince myself to stay with the routine, no coach around to give me the kick in the ass I needed.

So they tried to keep me busy other ways. Tom brought books from the library to keep my mind active, Alice magazines from the drug store with her babysitting money, but many days I watched Monty Hall on The Price is Right and Bob Barker on Let’s Make a Deal when the mood hit me. But by the end of June I was restless, wondering if I would ever see the day when I could get out of the immobilizer and walk unfettered.

I was tired of sponge baths and sleeping in one position, my armpits sore from feeble attempts to crutch more than three or four blocks, my brain turning to mush from the lack of stimulation. I needed to get out more often.

My weight was nearly back to 140 pounds because my eating habits never changed, but the right leg was still withered like that of a starving African child, an ugly red scar running eight inches down the inside of the thigh – a reminder of life’s struggles.

On July 24th I was out of the immobilizer after eight torturous weeks.

I held hope that when I got out of the encumbrance I could walk on my own, but even taking one step was more than the leg could handle. It was still much too weak. Biking was impossible, the fear of crashing and reinjuring the leg a thought I couldn’t banish from my mind. I hated relying on crutches to get around, but I hated being idle even more, every attempt exhausting. In my head I was still in possession of an eighteen-year old body, but my leg spoke an old man’s language.

Though I realized it was foolish, we decided to move my bed back upstairs, so I could gain some privacy. Being in the living room sucked - as though I was on display in a cage. I struggled navigating up and down the stairs, often forced to crawl both directions on my butt like an awkward Alaskan crab. The effort frustrated me like a five-year-old trying to hit a baseball off a tee. Eventually it got easier to complete the trek upright, but even then I had to drag my broken leg behind like a cripple, unable to lead with the injured limb.

University classes would be starting soon but it was clear fall semester classes were a pipe dream – getting the mile to campus, navigating two and three flights of stairs to classrooms, and trying to fit a leg which barely bent into the tight quarters of lecture hall seats – all impossible. It just wasn’t going to happen. There would be months of rehab before I could consider such a notion.

Before I fell asleep each night the state of affairs hit me like a sucker punch, tears falling from my eyes before I could drift off. I understood all the struggles mom faced.

The Saturday before Labor Day I found the gumption to get out the door after a late breakfast, the waistband of my sweats gamely holding onto hips as I slowly walked sidewalks towards campus with one crutch. The leg once renowned for its endurance could barely handle the weight of my slender body, every ounce of my being wanting to slam the crutch to the ground as I struggled through the first block.

Pausing at the corner of Jefferson and Dubuque while waiting for the light to change, I stared at the row of corn already 8’ high on the strip of dirt at the gas station, smiling at the absurdity of the sight. The change of scenery was good, the last six blocks passing like a blank stare – a hypnotic reprieve from a painful reality. This trek was something I needed to do more often.

Enjoying the moment, my thoughts to drifted to happy times with mom, the short period when life was good. I missed celebrating her birthday at the cemetery in July, a rainy day and the immobilizer making it an unlikely event. I was still ashamed of myself, how little credit I gave her for all she did.

I was drenched in sweat by the time I got to campus, the effort it took daunting. Students shuffled back and forth on sidewalks with no particular place to go, laughter echoing between buildings as they enjoyed the last bit of freedom before classes began. I was jealous of their happiness, the normalcy of their lives, wishing I could share in the good fortune they took for granted. It should have been mine.

I crutched down the hill towards the river, gazing at the goldfish in the pond at the foot of the Memorial Union bridge, rivulets of sweat rolling in steady streams down my back as I hopped up the stairs with a tight grip on the railing, my breathing as loud as a smithy’s bellows. I had to pause at the top of the stairs and rest.

Continuing across the bridge I stopped halfway, laying the crutch down and leaning against the railing, my forearms balancing on top as my breathing gradually slowed. I had run across this bridge hundreds of times, but it wasn’t going to happen today. The thought was depressing.

My courage continued to drain as I watched the water passed underneath the bridge, wondering how much longer I could face this fucked up situation. It would have been so easy to lift my leg over the railing and drop into nothingness. To put all the sadness behind. Mom must have harbored the same thoughts yet she resisted the urge and the relief it would have brought. Freedom from burden and the constraints of a dead-end existence. Did I have the courage she possessed?

I never bothered to reflect on the cards she was dealt. Three young children. No job skills. An alcoholic husband. No place to turn to for shelter and without the money to do so. She took the beatings and sexual assaults to protect my sisters and me, her inability to save us from my father wearing her down like the features of an old coin.

Her only option was to survive until I was ready to step up, to be the new protector for a dysfunctional family - to carry a torch that she could no longer bear. It was clear after her last doctor appointment. Defeated by the mental and physical wounds from my father, she lost the courage to continue, accepting the doctor’s cancer diagnosis with little resistance, finding peace in death her only dream.

I could feel the vibrations before I heard the steps – I guessed it was a runner by the quick rhythm. I continued to stare downstream watching the water flow, following tree branches and plastic bottles as they floated underneath. The footsteps slowed to a stop.

“Hey Matt. What ya doing?” I turned my head. It was Jeff Jones. Alice’s former tormentor.

“Just thinking.” I sighed. Something about my expression made him avoid my eyes. “How far are you going?”

“Six. The Rocky Shore route.” I nodded.

“How many freshmen are coming out for cross country this year?” I continued to follow the flow of the water as I talked.

“Scott Skogstad and Brian Wilkinson for sure. We should be decent.” He paused. “You should come over and see us sometime. We have a meet next Thursday at City Park.” I turned and nodded. My empty look must have unnerved him.

“Well, I gotta go. I’ll tell Coach Raffensperger I ran into you. See ya.”

I watched as he ran towards the far end of the bridge and northward on the sidewalk towards City Park, following him until he was out of sight. I was jealous of his good fortune.

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