I fell off a cliff when I was 15 years old. Well, technically, I was trying to climb a cliff when a piece of rock broke off in my hand and down I went. It happened in probably no more than a second or two. One moment I’m rock-climbing sans rope because, well, I’m teenager-stupid and clearly haven’t thought this through, and the next thing, I’m bouncing and falling through the air and bouncing hard and then lying on rocks at the foot of the cliff, right near the Airey’s Inlet lighthouse – for any Round The Twist fans out there.
But here’s the thing, and I’ve experienced it once or twice since: that second or so when gravity took over and my poor teenage body karoomed down that jagged cliff face: it felt like it took about a minute, and I can vividly remember it even now, almost exactly 36 years later.
I had so much time to think. In a fraction of second: multiple thoughts. From thinking, ‘Oh shit, that’s not good,’ as I looked at the rock broken off in my hand, nothing else to support me, to watching an empty detergent bottle at the base of the cliff rising up to meet me.
(I survived, in case you’re worried. Pretty bashed up but alive.)
At a lesser extent, I had that time-slows moment a few weeks ago during hockey training and it will not shock any even occasional readers of nickdoeshockey to know that my hockey mortality flashed before my eyes.
We were in Wednesday class warm-up and completing the seemingly innocuous skating drill of ‘superman with barrel roll’.
It would seem reasonable to think that the opening part of a superman – falling to the ice on your stomach – would be the simplest segment of that drill, but somehow this genius managed to screw that up. I still don’t really know how. All I know is that the very back of the blade of my left skate somehow bit into the ice and stuck so I instinctively stopped falling forward and tried to correct, which made my bodyweight go backwards and sideways, while my left leg didn’t give as it normally would.
I’ve covered enough AFL and other sport to see a lot of ‘Big Knees’ (which is what that industry calls a bad ACL tear that requires a complete knee reconstruction and a year of recovery). I know that usually it’s marked, even in an innocuous training incident, by a knee being bent in the direction it’s not supposed to go and having no give to escape the pressure.
I also know that they happen most often early in the AFL season, when the grueling pre-season training has left joints ‘exhausted’. And I’d been for a rare hard run the day before this happened, ticking another ‘impending disaster’ tick box.
And so we’re into that fraction of a second of endless think time as I feel the inside of my left knee screech with pain and I’m aware that my skate isn’t letting go of the ice, and if something doesn’t give, it’s inevitably going to be my knee that gives completely.
All while everybody else is doing superman with barrel rolls with the easy simplicity that you’d expect. It was like drowning five metres away from kids frolicking in gentle surf.
In the end, my hamstring took some of the strain, and the rest of my leg and so I got out of it with a medial ligament strain, which is nasty and hurts but means I still have a hockey season. It also means I’ve had to tape the knee for hockey, so that I have one bald knee among my otherwise hairy legs, which has been a great look in shorts-weather. But no, I’m not shaving both my legs. What am I? A middle-aged cyclist?
I’m about to embark on a major journalistic freelance project, which will involve following victims of major trauma, possibly for three or more years, as they attempt to recover. The strangest and most disquieting part of it is now, before we start, where the patients I’ll be following through the staff-only doors into hospital emergency and surgery, and finally into wards and then into rehab, currently have no idea that they’re going to be enduring this experience within a month or so, that this road is ahead of them.
Somewhere in Melbourne, people are going about their lives; picking up kids, playing cricket, doing the shopping, who knows … living daily life. And yet all that is going to change. As it will this weekend for some people, who don’t know an accident is looming in their immediate future, as it will for people being told today that they have a major illness. As it just did for a former AFL star –now-aging TV footy show panelist who made some unpleasant discoveries about the breakdown of his marriage last year.
OK, deep breath. I remain aware that such depths of life are a long, long way from an old man suffering a slightly strained knee in an ice hockey training session. Amen that they are.
But it’s worth thinking about, hey? If that ice rut hadn’t finally released my skate blade, taking the strain off my knee and leg, and allowing me to fall, this blog post would be a retirement one, crutches leaning on my desk.
Instead, it released, just in time, and so I was able to step onto the ice on Sunday to play MC TC and the Demons 3, and found – relief! – my knee carried my weight. Skated with joy, even if I was rusty and lacking game smarts after more than a week off the ice.
There’s a Buddhist teaching: when you wake each day, you should take a short moment to think: ‘I am alive!’ It sounds strange, given we are mostly blasé about our actual existence, and fair enough, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: take a moment to feel the air going in and out of your lungs. Stand up and stretch and feel the power in your arms and your legs; the wholeness of your body. Savour fitness. Savour being alive. Savour the passing stroke of your partner’s hand on your back, or the brush of loving lips on yours.
Savour two strong knees, if you have them, because it’s surprising how quickly and how easily it can all be taken away.
And having written this surprisingly intense blog, I’m limping back down stairs to buy another coffee.
- For anybody who got the reference of the headline, this is for you: