Of Tragedy and Old Friends

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I stopped by Kentucky Grilled Chicken (?!?!?) today for a three honey BBQ snacker snack at lunchtime. I was done with the tater wedges and halfway through my second snacker when an old friend showed up in the KFC (KGC . . . KGB . . . ???). Now when I say “old friend”, this chicka is quite possibly my second oldest friend in the world. She and I literally have known each other from right near the cradle. We went through twelve years of grade school and K5 together. I distinctly remember talking her out of playing with the toy kitchen set in Miss Coggins’ room so she would come play in the sandbox with me. Birthday parties, McDonald’s parties, swimming dates. We go way back.

For the purpose of this story, her name will be Nadia. First, I don’t want her real name plastered all over the Internet because she’s a private person and second, I didn’t go to school with anyone named Nadia at any time that I can remember, so people won’t be running to the old yearbooks (as if they cared) to see who I’m talking about.

Nadia was one of my first kindergarten crushes. I thought she was beautiful with china blue eyes and long snowy blond hair, but even more, she was cute and funny. She was a lot like me. Her parents were the first couple in my dinky little home town to get divorced after mine broke the ice. It wasn’t much of a loss for the family since her dad was, as Papa used to put it, “not worth the powder it would take to blow his brains out.” Still, not much ever seemed to get her down. She was the middle child of three, then the second oldest of four when her mother got a bit of a surprise when Nadia and I were beginning sixth grade. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only surprise Nadia’s family would get that year.

Nadia was the most graceful gymnast I knew in my short life. She was athletic all around — great runner, champion swimmer, etc. — but her true gift lay on the floor exercise platform. I still recall our sixth grade talent show when she did her floor routine and absolutely floored everyone else. Her dream was the Olympics. She had her sights set on Los Angeles and 1984 and none of us, young or old, doubted her ability or commitment. We joked in math class about how much tickets to LA would cost. Our closest airport wasn’t even equipped for that kind of trip then. Nadia had big dreams and we all dreamed with her. Somewhere boxed up I’ve got a wallet sized picture of her in her leotard with her rhythm hoop. She’s smiling that spotlight smile and looks for all the world like she was posing on the podium getting the gold medal.

If iPods had been around in 1982, I don’t doubt for a minute she’d have made LA. Nadia, her mother, her mother’s best friend, and Nadia’s three sisters, including the baby, were on their way home in a car driven by Nadia’s oldest sister, who had just gotten her permit. The cassette they were listening to reached the end and automatically ejected. It came out of the player and fell to the floor beneath the sister’s feet. When her sister glanced down to mark where it fell, the car was in the beginning of a curve and drifted into the path of a fully loaded gravel truck  from the local quarry.

The Highway Patrol statement said there were no skid marks visible from either vehicle. Neither driver had touched a brake pedal. The truck was stopped by climbing atop the car and sliding several hundred feet until both vehicles went into the ditch. The truck driver was physically unscathed and everyone, including Nadia, have always maintained there was nothing humanly possible he could have done to avoid the collision. In any event, I heard the accident drove him to the bottle. Whether that is true or not, I can’t say. You’ll hear anything in a small town.

What is a fact is Nadia’s Olympic dream ended in a tangle of sheet metal and diesel fuel. Her spine was severed right below her belly button. She would never walk again. Her mother, the friend, oldest sister, and the baby, who wasn’t in a car seat because she didn’t have to be in those days, all died at the scene. Nadia’s next sister, seated at impact between the friend and Nadia, walked away with a cut over her left eye that required five stitches.

I don’t know many well adjusted grown men and women who could have withstood a tragedy of that magnitude with all mental flags flying, but Nadia seemed to. I don’t pretend to know what nightmares have ridden roughshod through her dreams these last thirty years, but I know she took to her wheelchair like the proverbial duck to water. After some therapy, she was riding rings around her grandmother and grandfather’s home. She even came back to school and finished the year.

In those pre-Americans with Disabilities Act days, our beloved principal and several of the more “handy” fathers came to the school several days over the winter break and built ramps to every place they could imagine Nadia wanting to go. She was given a key to the faculty bathroom because it was the only restroom in the school large enough to accommodate her and her wheelchair. One of her trusted friends would always accompany her in case she fell making the transition from chair to commode and back. That’s how we did it back then. We took care of each other.

Nadia was the first handicapped person I knew up close and personal. She could have been the poster child for how to deal with the biggest poop sandwich I’ve ever seen handed to one person in one lifetime. She was, and still is, a survivor. She and I graduated the same night and I lost track of her for some time. Then I started running into her at local stores and such. She was still pretty as ever. In time’s due course, she married a very kind and decent man. He was with her today. They have four children and the oldest was graduating tonight, just as his mother and I did these twenty years gone.

So I told y’all Nadia’s story to tell you, and myself, this little tidbit — it could ALWAYS be worse. What’s more, when it GETS worse, it’s up to you how to handle it. If anyone in this world has ever had a right to end up hooked on drugs or completely depressed or suicidal, Nadia was that person. That wasn’t how she rolled, pun intended, though. One dream and most of her family had died, but the woman I saw today still had a head held high and her china blue eyes still sparkled. The snow blond hair had some grey streaks, but mine does as well and my life has been a cakewalk compared to Nadia’s. So don’t take anything for granted folks. Life moves at the speed of love and it moves by very fast. Nadia is moving right along with it. She’s been an inspiration to me for going on thirty years now. I hope her story inspires some of y’all as well.

So, love y’all bunches and now that summer’s here, when y’all come in from chasing fireflies, don’t forget to wash your feet! 🙂

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2 responses »

  1. Love your take on the old classic: “Life moves at the speed of love.” So, so true. It IS the people in our lives that are most important, and the woman you describe here is remarkable. Imagine, through the use of the Internet, she is inspiring even more people! Thanks for sharing, Shannon.

  2. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing this story. It certainly puts our busy whiny lives in to perspective and should provoke us all to regularly pause and give thanks for every blessing.

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