An Eight Pound Cannonball to the Skull

A quarter of a century, that’s how long it’s been. Twenty-five years. The number staggers me. On March 7, 1989, at roughly 3:30 PM, an eight pound cannonball struck my forehead, lifting me from my feet and flinging me a few yards backwards. The blow itself felt little more than a slight thud, and at first, there was no pain, only extreme disorientation and faces crowding around asking if I were okay. I only lost consciousness for a few seconds, though had I been a boxer, I would’ve been TKOed. For some insane reason, no one called an ambulance. Instead, they called my mother and told her there had been an accident. While we waited in the locker room, I joked with the coaches about wanting out of spring football practice. Mom and my grandfather came to the school and rushed me to the ER, where I was immediately taken to an examination room.

I will never forget the pain of the anesthetic needle piercing my scalp. Nothing before or since has hurt like that, and to this day, the memory causes me to tense. As the doctor sewed up the wound, we joked about how he had shot putted in an abandoned quarry and occasionally had to dodge falling rocks. I’ll spare you the details of the procedure.

Later, in my room, as the anesthesia wore off, the headache that would accompany me for a solid year emerged. Overall, I was in good spirits until I went to use the bathroom and saw my reflection in the mirror. I didn’t recognize myself. My skin had turned ash gray; my eyes were sunken and hollow; blood stained what parts of my hair were visible around the bandage; and the image in the mirror looked more like a skeleton than a sixteen year old athlete. I freaked out and began groping at the bandage. That part gets a little foggy, so I can’t remember who all rushed into the bathroom and got me back to bed, but I do remember sobbing uncontrollably and resisting them. That’s also about the time my brain started swelling.

Imagine a balloon expanding inside your skull. It’s an unpleasant sensation. I don’t know how long it lasted, but my body went into shock. My blood pressure reached 200 over 140, and my pupils stopped dilating. It’s difficult to describe this part because the deeper into shock I went, the calmer I became. One moment, I could hear the helicopter landing outside to rush me to Knoxville and my parents freaking out and a nurse frantically begging my pupils to respond, and the next, all became quiet and still. My best description is that it felt like slipping into a perfectly warm bath. The headache vanished, and the most exquisite tranquility overcame me. There simply aren’t adequate words to describe the presence I felt, but after that experience, I can never fully call myself an atheist because I felt something.

I have no idea how long I was like that. Maybe seconds, maybe hours. I do remember the nurse exclaiming, “Oh, thank God” when my pupils finally reacted to her light, and suddenly all the sounds were back. And that headache. Oh man, that headache. No matter what migraine you’ve experienced, I’m sorry, but you haven’t really had a headache. Though not as sharp and blinding as the needle, it throbbed and pulsated and bashed the inside of my skull. To this day, it takes quite a pounder for me even to mention my head hurting.

The next couple of hours are fuzzy. There was a wheelchair ride to a CT scan, and chilly nighttime air as we crossed an outdoor area. I remember seeing fear in my father’s eyes for the first and only time. The rest is a haze.

I wanted to sleep so badly, but back then, they still believed that sleep after head trauma produced coma, so every few minutes a nurse made sure I remained awake. Other than Tylenol, I got nothing for the pain, and that was like throwing a cup of water on a house fire. All night, in the dark room, I stared at the ceiling, listening to the single beep of a monitor. Mom slept fitfully in the corner. Dad had gone home since I had stabilized and he had to work the next day. I can’t remember what I thought about through the night, but I remember the pain. I remember being simultaneously thrilled to see but annoyed by the brightness of the sunrise.

When I was released from the hospital, I had lost twenty pounds in three days, and the next few weeks are pretty blurry. I missed at least 20 days of school and failed trigonometry. Even now, I get upset that the school board didn’t grant me a medical withdrawal from that class. For five or six years, I moped about all the accident cost me, until one day I realized just how lucky I was to be alive. I still deal with several permanent effects of Post-Concussion Syndrome, but I recovered without serious cognitive impairment. Today, I appreciate each day for the blessing it is, and even on my worst ones, I remind myself that at least I’m still above ground.

So here I am a quarter of a century later. I’ve taught a couple thousand students, written four novels (five if you count that awful first one, which I don’t), and fathered two amazing sons. I have the greatest friends a person could ask for and parents who have supported and encouraged me at every turn. I also have a sister who loves me and four amazing nieces who make me smile, with a great nephew on the way. I have a woman in my life who thinks I’m pretty cool and accepts me with all my flaws and scars. In short, I’m more blessed than I deserve, so on this day, I’m grateful for every blessing that mercy granted me twenty-five years ago.

14 thoughts on “An Eight Pound Cannonball to the Skull”

  1. I’m glad you’re still here. TBI is a big deal and your recovery is truly a miracle. Don’t know if you know this, but my fiance, Jim, fell 15 feet from a balcony 8 years ago when he was working in Canada. He was put into a coma (skull opened up) to deal with the brain swelling for about three weeks. He’s a survivor, too! So again, I’m glad you’re here and I’m glad that you came through it so well! 🙂

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