Excerpts from Hanging by a Thread

by Ronald W. Hull

Once I visited my brother Tim while he was in college. He generously gave me his bed for the night. His idea of decoration was to hang the grille of his junked '69 Austin America from the ceiling by fishing line. The grille hung directly overhead, its sharp corner pointing at me like a Sword of Damocles. No matter how I changed my position, I couldn't seem to get safe from the thought of that line breaking and the grille spearing me in the face. I didn't sleep much that night. 1978

Now it is me hanging from the thread. And I don't sleep much thinking of it breaking and my body falling into that numb nothingness that comes with a lack of communication between the brain and the body, that point where I will still think, but be unable to act on the thoughts.

This is not a heroic story of overcoming great odds. Rather it is the story of one man's efforts to try to lead a normal life when an accident changed its course. 1993

As I pushed off the bottom and started to straighten up, I entered a strange world where my mind was clear and thinking but my body was floating without feeling. My head was above water and I was slithering like a snake to the side of the pool, up over the edge, to a bench about ten feet from the pool. Still amazed how I got there without moving a muscle, feeling came back to my limbs in the form of shooting pain running up and down from the tips of my fingers and toes, through every muscle to my shoulders. 1958

But both front and rear left wheels dug into the soft dirt beyond the gravel shoulder. The car lurched downward to the left, we stopped momentarily, then it was airborne, and rolling rapidly. It seemed like a long time before we touched ground again, but when we did, we rolled and rolled, and the hood and trunk lids flew up and both doors flew out. I was hitting the roof in one instant, then the seat the next. I remember reaching up and out of the open door and grabbing the roof to keep from flying up and down. Suddenly I sensed that my arm could be cut off if the door closed, and I pulled it in. At that point I was forced out the door, my left knee caught up under the dash against the door as my face was pushed into grass and dirt and the car rolled one last time about three feet above me. It landed on its wheels and rolled backward to a stop at the bottom of the ditch. My left knee hurt, but I got up and yelled if anyone was hurt. My friends in the back seat yelled that they were OK, and I quickly found Doris lying on her back on the slope, head down. There was blood on her forehead and she said that she couldn't move her hands or feet. 1963

Early that week, I had the tests. The only one I remember was the mylogram on Monday morning. Dr. Salibi and a neurologist were present. They placed me face down on a cold x-ray table. Then, after deadening an area in the small of my back with Novocain, they explained that they were injecting a heavy radioactive dye into my spinal fluid. They tilted the table downward, allowing the fluid to flow along my spine toward my head, observing its progress through a fluoroscope.

The doctors were saying, "That's a good one!", and stopping to take x-rays, so I knew they had found something. I didn't know that they didn't know what it was they were looking at until later that week. 1963

I do remember waking up in the operating room, and looking up at Dr. Salibi, his face surrounded by bright light. He was saying, "Are you all right?"

At the same time I said, "Hi, Doc. Yes, I'm O.K."

But I was not O.K., I just felt that way. When I woke up in the room I felt pretty good. I was acutely aware of everything around me and reacting with a clear head my sinus condition hadn't allowed before. I felt no pain from the surgery, only a "tightness" in my neck where a stiff bandage was taped. I couldn't feel anything from my neck down, so I didn't try to move anything, not even my hands. Everyone was so worried, but I wasn't. I knew the operation wasn't a success, but in my own naive way, I felt that I would walk out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. I was very talkative and buoyant and wanted to play chess or do calculus, but only in my head. If I could have put pen to paper, I think those brilliant thoughts would have evaporated, leaving only the garbled ramblings of an accelerated stream of consciousness. It was only morphine talking. Still, I am grateful that the powerful drug spared me from the pain my body must have been undergoing. 1963

For the first time I had no one to identify with but myself. All this contradictory information caused me to examine my own place in this milieu called California. I became atheist. I had taken a long time to come to this conclusion. I was tired of young people who spouted borrowed ideologies, as if they had no minds of their own, picking up a new one like a fad every time it suited them. Religion was no exception. Fundamentalists carried their dogma around like a shield, deflecting all ideas that didn't fit. Most people dragged out their religious shield when they were afraid, or when it was convenient. "Let us pray" was required if you were human and essential if you were afraid. People used it to justify all kinds of behavior. Belonging was important. If you didn't conform to the ideology, no matter how ridiculous, you didn't belong. I knew I would be ostracized for not conforming to the norm. But as a person with an obvious deformity to my hands and physical ability, I was ostracized anyway. 1966

So I was free. I perfected my eight ball game at the pool table in our game room. I took excursions to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Stockton, and Monterey, and enjoyed the pool. I didn't worry too much about my grades, which were bad. I worked on breath control, and soon I was able to swim from the shallow end to the deep, and back, a distance about a hundred yards, under water. All the other guys who tried it came up gasping. It was one area of physical prowess that I excelled in. I credited it to never smoking and my early physical training. I also dived a lot, perfecting a forward one and a half flip, a back flip, and various other dives. I wanted to do a splashless swan dive, but my hand and left fist, once extended in front of me, would collapse when I hit the water, striking me in the face. I opted for keeping my arms tight to my sides, entering the water head first, head down. It worked well, and I entered the water cleanly. I never worried about hitting the bottom with my head because I kept my eyes open and could always change direction once I was under the water. 1966

We headed out across Ohio in the night. We arrived at my cousin's house near Toledo about 11 pm. Kaye was there, but he wasn't. She welcomed us in and gave us some chili. Keith had been out trying to locate a bobcat that had been spotted in the area. He got back about 1 am to find two dirty "Hippies" in his kitchen. He kept staring at us in disbelief, but finally mellowed out. We left again into the night. I had to wrap my wool army blanket around my neck to keep the cold night wind off. 1967

By nightfall, I was driving and Nick was sleeping. I-80 was still being built, so there were stretches of four-lane highway, followed by segments of the old, two-lane road. I remember driving along, maybe 70 mph, when I woke up to see barricades rushing toward me in my headlights. I instinctually jerked the wheel to the right just in time to catch the transition road to the old highway. The violent motion of the car jostled Nick awake. He said, "Wha.., what, you want me to drive?"

I said, "No, I'm awake now." I drove on for a couple more hours before I got drowsy again. 1967

We skied the intermediate slope, running along the ridge of the mountain in a long arc, eventually ending at the base of the last lift. The top of the run was windy and icy, and I would accelerate straight down the middle to a point where all I could do was hold my skis as parallel as possible and lean forward into the wind like a downhill racer. I could only steer in gradual turns and came close to hitting other skiers at 30 mph as they crossed my path traversing. 1968

"You're limping." My mother said. I tried not to pay attention, but inherently I knew that I wasn't walking well, dragging my left foot a bit. I told everyone that my left foot would just get "stiff" after sitting for a long time. I was experiencing a loss in the fingers of my right hand that I used to help with zippers. Four years and California had intervened since I last saw my doctor, so I made an appointment. 1970

Dr. Salibi was alarmed. He said that my condition had deteriorated greatly and that he would have to operate again. If he didn't operate immediately, he said that I'd be "bedridden" in ten years. He blamed me for leaving his care and going to California. .... He couldn't tolerate his own mistake and failure. It was easier to blame my problem on a "congenital" condition than accept the result of his mistake. 1971

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