I wanted to die. Words of sympathy poured from the mouths of my family and friends. "You will get better. You will walk again, if you believe in God. Do you believe in God?", they would ask. I was 16-years-old and not a very good Catholic. But I was "normal" before the spinal cord injury that left me a quadriplegic.
I was from a poor family but we had so much. Everyone was healthy and even in the midst of a family divorce I exercised daily. I rode my bicycle and swam on a regular basis. I had sex and had always wanted to have a family. I also wanted to join the Air Force and learn to fly planes. I never wanted to die. The thought never crossed my mind until I awoke from an accident-induced coma.
On April 13, 1983, I jogged to a local park and climbed a tree for fun. The branch I was perched on snapped and I fell hard on my neck. I severed my spinal cord at the C-5 level. Then my life changed forever. My mother and father were present when the neurosurgeon said, "you will never walk again." Tears streamed down my face and my parents tried to be strong, then started crying. That was the first time I saw my father cry.
Pain surrounded and suffocated us. I would never run on the beach, have children, fly a plane or find a woman to love me. I felt dead inside. My soul and ambition were trapped in a body incapable of satisfying my needs. There was nothing that first year anyone could say to make it any different. I pretended strength while visions of my demise were constantly torturing me. I contemplated riding my wheelchair off a bridge, or riding fast into traffic. Perhaps I could convince a friend to help me end my life. The first year after my accident was almost my last year.
Deciding to die is easy. It is often one's first response in a world that values physical strength and beauty. During rehabilitation the other patients and I would contemplate who among us would end our life first.
It has been 22 years since I was injured. Many who went through rehabilitation with me never committed suicide, but some of them were already dead. Some never accepted who they were and could only remember better times; times when they were great lovers or wonderful athletes. Death came in slow motion to them. A few others like myself opted to live. Living as a quadriplegic has never been easy but has always been rewarding.
Pity and Shame
I am familiar with the Latino culture's tendency to pity and have shame for people with disabilities. The looks I get sometimes seem to cut through me. People's stares are filled with pity for my crippled body or shame that I had to cross their path that day. I am glad that there is life in my body everyday. Since my accident I have fought like hell to make small changes around me and to make others lives better.
Lucky to Live
I was fortunate to find my wife Amy who has never looked at my inability to do certain things. I graduated College and Law School and eventually purchased a home. More importantly I wake up everyday to the sound of my two children Maya 7 and Jesus 16. In addition, my job as Deputy Director of a State Agency that assists over 21,000 people with disabilities a month has given me the blessing of assisting many without hope.
Death is not an option for me. Nor should it be an option for anyone who is disabled. Disability is not crime that deserves death. If given the opportunity people with disabilities can contribute in every aspect toward a better society. Death will come for me some day as it does for all of us but it will not be imposed by courts or forced on me by the views of a "perfect society." I am not an alarmist but rather a husband, father, worker, leader and sexual being. All the things I was told I could never be, I am. If you think death is your only option then you have not considered all your choices.