Sawchuk becomes Hansen Ambassador, dance contestant in second 'Shine' instalment
This is the second of a three-part serialization of Blyth accessibility advocate Julie Sawchuk’s chapter written for Shine: Inspirational Stories of Choosing Success over Adversity. To read the first instalment, see last week’s issue of The Citizen. The Citizen is proud to present Julie’s words and thoughts unedited from their original form. With that being said, there is brief usage of strong language. Reader discretion is advised. - SL
BY JULIE SAWCHUK
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” Although I can’t say how often, I think about what I said to Theo. I also know that I have apologized to him many times since that day. In the back of my mind, all of this is my fault. All the ‘what ifs’ that play through my mind – if I had gone to the pool instead, if I had been riding with a group, if I had had a flashing light or a bright orange vest, taken a different route, or not been training at all, but instead at home with my family. All of those things were my decisions to make.
I apologized to Theo because getting hit by a car did not just change my life, it changed his, and that of our kids and our families. Changed forever. I have been working on forgiving myself, stopping the ‘what ifs’ and getting on with recovery and life. Forgiving myself is one thing, but being able to forgive the person whose carelessness just about killed me… that was hard. People have wanted to know what happened to the driver, and if I had ever heard from him. All I know is that he was charged with “failing to give enough room on the left while passing”. A charge that he pled guilty to and no, I have never heard from him. It has taken time, and an unexpected conversation with the officer who attended the scene of the collision.
That conversation gave me a different perspective on that day, and I realized that I needed to forgive him in order to move on. I wrote about it afterwards, for the first time blogging from a different perspective.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE - Sunday, July 7, 2017
Twenty-three months ago, a man, driving a car, caused a collision. It was just after 9am; he was returning home from dropping off a couple of videos in town and had stopped to get coffee and a sandwich. As he drove along the straight stretch of road that he had driven a thousand times before he felt and heard, more than he saw, something hit his car.
He thought, at first, that a deer had come out of the ditch and run into the side of his car. As he looked into his rearview mirror, instead of a deer what he saw was the blur of colours, a person, flying into the ditch. He pulled over as quickly as he could and went back to see if this person was okay. As he got to her, he saw she had a helmet on, still attached to her head. He looked and saw a bike, white, about 20 feet ahead. She was conscious and trying to get up, she was asking for his help. He said, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you”. She kept trying to get up, pushing with her arms. Blood on her face. He did his best to soothe her and told her to just lie still.
Another man arrived and said he had called 911. An ambulance was on the way. Someone else stopped and offered first aid. Thank God. In what seemed like an eternity, an OPP officer arrived. The ambulance came and put the lady on a stretcher, loaded her into the back of the truck and drove away with lights and siren. Now, all the attention was on him. He felt like he was going to be sick. What had happened? What had he done? What did he remember? No, he did not have his phone. Yes, he was alone. They looked at his car. There was a white streak and scratch on the front right panel and the passenger side mirror was smashed. There was a hot coffee in the cup holder and a half-eaten sandwich on the passenger seat. No, he had not been drinking the coffee – it was too hot. Yes, he had been eating the sandwich.
He sat in the back of the cruiser while the officer spoke to him. What had just happened? How could this be? How could he have not seen this person, a woman, on a bike? He had not seen her. After that it was all a blur. He doesn’t remember how he got home, or what he told his wife and kids. Everything would be different now. He could not look people in the eye. Could not even look at himself in the mirror. He had caused irreparable harm; damage that could not be undone. He would remember this for the rest of his life. Every day he wished he had the courage to look her in the eyes and say he was sorry, longing to be forgiven. He had not seen her. You are forgiven.
Forgiveness has been a way for me to heal, to move on and to be in charge. It takes a lot more energy to carry a grudge and to blame someone else for what happens in your life than it does to forgive. This has meant taking new pathways, saying yes and being brave. I have been “Miss April” in a pin-up calendar, appeared on CTV news (many times) and written a monthly column for The Citizen (the local paper). I won Be Bold for Change from the 2016 Huron County Inspiring Women Awards, I met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I became a Rick Hansen Ambassador speaking to groups across southwestern Ontario, and I qualified as the second person in the province to be certified as a Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification Assessor. Together, Theo and I have designed and overseen the construction of a home that will be a model of accessibility and universal design. I have chosen to move on with my life.
ONCE A TEACHER, ALWAYS A TEACHER
As a rural accessibility advocate and professional, I have travelled, lectured and written -- not just about accessibility -- but about being a patient, the importance of self-advocacy, sharing the road and that a little perseverance and some kind words will take you a long way. I have become so much more aware of the fact that everyone has something to contribute if you just allow them the opportunity to do so.
My friend Chris puts it so clearly: “my satellite dish has grown”. I have made friends with people that I would never have even met. I am continuously working to help educate people about why accessibility matters. How everyone, at some time in their lives, will need a bigger washroom for maneouvering, a ramp instead of stairs, colour contrast along the sidewalk, a grab bar to steady themselves and better acoustics in a restaurant.
Accessibility is about safety, independence and the preservation of personal dignity. Everyone deserves it. I have run workshops for builders, homeowners, businesses and students, spoken to youth and written about how much energy is consumed by someone with a disability just to live, let alone have a job, eat out or travel. People who disregard accessibility most often do so out of ignorance, plain and simple.
They just don’t know. Ignorance also comes into play when talking about a spinal cord injury. It’s not just a matter of not being able to use my legs. All the other body parts below the injury line don’t work either, like the bladder and bowels. There is also a complete (or incomplete) lack of sensation -- including sex. Try pulling up your pants while sitting on them! Wheeling up an angled slope in a gravel parking lot in the rain takes a great deal of balance and energy.
Explaining what nerve pain feels like is very difficult, and understanding how a urinary tract infection can make you so sick -- with no real symptoms -- potentially leading to kidney failure. In these times, depression can take you to some dark places.
DARK DAYS, DARKER NIGHTS - Jan. 7, 2017
I have started this post many, many times, but mostly in my head. I have not actually been writing because, frankly, I have nothing to say. Nothing good, that is. I did not want to write about how crappy I felt, how absolutely miserable, full of pain in my body and darkness in my mind I have been for the past months. Feeling like there is no way I can continue to live like this. It was just not possible.
So, I didn't write. Because this is what it has been like. Barely able to make it to bed before falling apart, usually in tears. UTI after UTI. I scarcely remembering what it felt like to not have an infection, to not hurt. To have my feet feel like they are immersed in a bucket filled with icy water. Or the nights the nerve pain made my feet felt like they were squeezed into size 6 shoes for a full day (I wear an 8). My T4 line pain like a burning hot belt pulled tightly around my chest -- to the point where I could feel every breath, every heartbeat all the way around. Cancelling appointments. Doing nothing that I didn't absolutely have to do. Nothing but watching Netflix and sleeping until 11 am - so not me.
Pain sucks the life out of the living. All the while I am trying to understand, to figure out, why do I feel so awful? I had many months of feeling “good”. Why, now, is the pain so bad? What is different? What did I do/not do that I should/shouldn't have done? What did I eat that I shouldn't have? Is it the weather? Is it an infection? What am I not doing that I should be? And worst of all, is it all in my head? It is known that thinking of pain makes the pain even more pronounced. Am I bringing this all on myself? And then my head goes down the road to the future...how will I ever do the things I have planned: travel, work, contribute to society? How? Dark days and even darker nights. I last, without tears, until about 8 pm. After that all bets are off and you would not want to keep me company.
Christmas didn't even cheer me up for long. So, what’s the deal? I have no idea. I have taken no fewer than three urine samples for analysis. All were negative. What? Yeah, right. Try again. I got to the point of saying, “when you dip it, it will be negative. You have to do a CNS (plate it) and it will grow something.” Here I am, telling the professionals how to do their jobs. I was beginning to feel like a real pain in the ass. Twice to emerg. A total hypochondriac. I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. But because my body is so fucked up, it could not tell me what was going on. What was wrong. Guess what? I still don’t know. My doctor called yesterday, and we had a good chat. No infection. I no longer feel like a hypochondriac, nor a pain in the ass.
But I still have no answers. I think I am coming out of this darkness. I think this only because I have felt okay for three days now. Not three in a row, mind you, but three out of at least 30. I keep a calendar where I track pain and meds and any crazy shit that my body does. I was, back in November, tracking the days that I had particularly bad nerve pain.
Well, I stopped tracking the bad days and instead tracked the good days, which was easier to do. Because there were none. Back at that time the pain was the effect of infection after infection. Three in fact, back to back. So naturally in the end of December, I assumed that’s what it was. Now, I think that it was a virus. Or maybe an allergic reaction to the antibiotics (as would explain the hives that have come every night for the past two weeks) and goodness knows my poor gut is feeling the effects of those.
So now I am trying to make my head think that I am coming out of this darkness. I have to be. It was one (maybe two?) months out of 18. I’m no mathie, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not a large ratio. It is so hard to find perspective. The gains are small now compared to what they were at the beginning, and Lord knows my expectations are still high, but good things, improvements, are still happening. It’s just hard to see them. Hard to remember them.
That’s where my people come into play. To give me love. Hugs. To remind me that things are happening, getting better. Stronger. Like how, just in the past five days, I have been able to stand in my standing frame without my head spinning (hardly at all). I still need my people. I can't do this alone and my poor family, well they need love and hugs too. What am I saying? Everyone does. It’s funny how writing helps. I manage to spin all these thoughts in my head into words.
Words that, in order to reflect accurately what is in my head, should be dark and scary. More so now than ever. But here I am, again, trying to find something good. Flipping it. Do I do that because I am writing and others are reading? Or do I do that because I know it will help me feel better? Maybe a bit of both. And, now I will remind myself that the sun will come again. It can’t stay dark forever. (I wish I could remember this when I need it most.)
I’m still grieving the life I thought I would have. I don’t know if I ever will stop. How is it possible for grief to be good? Grief is this crazy roller coaster that at times you may not even realize you are on. I’ve had people tell me that grief is a cycle of stages that you go through.
I am sure this may be true for some as they deal with a loss, but for me it has been all over the map. I think this is because I have a constant (24/7) reminder of my loss. My body travels with me wherever I go, all of it. That reminder is also there for those that are closest to me and knew me well before all this happened.
Of course, I am talking about my family. Three years later we are still reminded of what was, and what is now, and the difference between them. One of the things I have learned to do postinjury is dance. My instructor and dance partner Les had not danced with someone who uses a wheelchair, so we learned together. We have since competed in a “Dancing with the Stars” event for Victim Services Huron County and taken part in other community events to showcase wheelchair dance.
Over the past year as we have learned, practised and prepared, I had only shared short snippets with Theo, so he had little knowledge of what my wheelchair dance would be like. It turned out to be an emotional occasion for many and became the starting point of an important conversation between the two of us. I wrote about it a few weeks later and our daughter Ella produced this piece of art.
MUSIC + MOVEMENT = Dance - Oct. 30, 2018
I knew that there was a reason why I had not written about Saturday night yet -- I was waiting for closure (and to recover). Victim Services Huron County held their 10th Dancing with the Stars dinner and auction fundraiser -- and it was amazing. Words are actually hard for me to find, believe it or not, to describe the night. I guess that is partly because it was more than just a night; it was a whole year of learning, rehearsing and polishing something that was completely new for both Les and me.
When we first started talking about the idea of trying wheelchair dance and competing at DWTS Huron, it was as though we were challenging each other and our own selves. Les had never danced with someone who uses a chair and I had never danced in a chair. I think we knew we were going to have fun, but, speaking for myself, I didn’t know how much I would enjoy it. Fun seems like such a trite word to explain it -- but that was the word that I used most on Saturday night.
Dance was fun because it was new, but also because it was a workout, it involved music (which automatically picks you up) and it became a part of my regular weekly routine. We started dancing one hour per week, then twice, then by September we were spending two hours twice a week working on the final “look” of our dances (of course including some time for coffee). I have stronger core muscles now than I did a year ago. Go ahead -- try and push me over.
As my friend Melissa said to me today, “You were defying gravity!” Dance has also helped me improve my posture. I have a new, lower, backrest adjusted to be more forward, and I sit straighter than ever. Closure came fully to me this morning. First, I received this picture from Theo’s Dad. I had been hoping that someone would have captured us, dressed up and happy. T
hen today we talked about how Theo was feeling. He has been reluctant (avoiding situations that would lead to me asking) to dance with me on wheels. I had been learning and wanted him to try too, but I got nowhere. Now I know why -- he was grieving, but neither of us realized it. Two-step and waltz were our default dances. Ages ago, before we were married, we took dance lessons as to not make fools of ourselves in front of our guests at our wedding.
We had always had a good time on the dance floor, and I suspect that we both regret not getting out and doing it more often. Now we will not be able to do that two-step or waltz the way we did before. For Theo, I think this realization came on Saturday night. Grief comes when you least expect it, and in ways that make it hard to understand your feelings. Now that we have talked about it, hopefully we will be able to find a way forward, together.
If I wasn’t ‘Huron County’ famous before, I am now. I left my house once on Monday, for a short meeting in town, and ran right into people I had never met before. They had been to DWTS on Saturday night. When they saw me, they said, “Are you Julie, who dances?” I am indeed. If you heard what the judges said: “You do dance”.
See The Citizen next week for the final of three instalments in Sawchuk's 'Shine' chapter