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The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. While that may be true up to a point, as an inveterate traveler and travel writer my own experience is that a journey of any mileage begins with a thousand small steps. There are the conscious undertakings: guidebooks, magazines, web sites and travel brochures to be read; plane and train tickets to be bought; car and hotel reservations to be made; clothes and equipment to be purchased; traveling companions to be communicated with; and family, friends and coworkers to be notified of one’s absence and plans. Then there are the subconscious influences that have led to a voyage: the postcard sent by grandparents years ago from Africa that fueled a yearning for far-off lands, the childhood family ski trip to New England that fostered a love of athletic adventure, the unhappy breakup of a young love affair that sent us off in search of a happier time and place.
The journey described in “Passage to Nirvana” began with a number of steps, both large and small, conscious and subconscious; it arose from the ashes of a series of sweeping personal tragedies, as well as a thousand more mundane influences. It began with despair, like the breakup of a young love affair, but it also began, like all journeys, with hope, aspirations, ambition and excited expectations for something better — otherwise why embark on the voyage?
On the morning of May 15, 2002, I was standing in a car wash in Riverhead, New York, on the Eastern End of Long Island. I was on my way to meet a potential new client, an elegant female real estate developer who was interested in cashing in on the booming New York City real estate market. I was forty-four, a professional writer, and had been doing copywriting for prominent New York developers, writing big, expensive, glossy marketing brochures, and my friend David, who was a construction contractor, thought I could give this developer a tour of the up-and-coming areas of Brooklyn, where old warehouses and factories were rapidly being turned into luxury condominiums, popping up like mushrooms after a long rain.
It was a messy time in my life: my wife’s business was failing, and even though I had pumped huge amounts of time, money and energy into helping her make it succeed, she still blamed me for its failure. After fourteen-hour days of sweeping floors, shipping orders, fighting with creditors and trying to convince investors to put more money into the company, I would come home not to a place of refuge, but to a spouse who would scream at me, telling me how awful I was as a person, a husband, a father and businessman. Maybe she had a point, maybe not, but the undeniable reality was that the stress of a failing business had soured a once-loving relationship.
There had been a time when Belinda would paint cards for me with a simple abstract watercolor on the outside and a message inside, something like “Thank you so much for everything, if it falls apart we’ll move to the Caribbean and live happily every after! Love, B.” But that was all in the past. Now, in spite of two years of couples therapy, we were headed for an acrimonious divorce, which would separate me not only from my wife, but from our two young boys, ages eight and five, who were everything to me. The business failure had left us financially destitute, on the verge of bankruptcy and in danger of losing our house. As if that were not enough trauma, my mother had recently suffered a serious accident, leaving her an incapacitated invalid, a shadow of her former vibrant self at the young age of sixty-seven. As a result I had spent a great deal of time traveling back and forth to Buffalo, New York, where I had grown up, helping my father and sisters with my mother’s care.
Things were looking up in my business life, however. I had a number of good new writing clients, both commercial and editorial; I had just returned from working for NBC Sports at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. One of my favorite new clients was the Environmental Defense Fund, where I felt I was doing work that also had some redeeming social value. I had recently begun doing marketing copywriting for Lavazza Coffee, and there was talk of my traveling to Italy to visit the company headquarters and get a real sense of how important the Italian idea of la dolce vita, the sweet life, was to the company’s philosophy and products. Hope and rejuvenation were in the springtime air as I drove along the country roads from my house toward Manhattan, marveling at the beauty of apple orchards in full bloom and farmers’ fields filled with bright green shoots and flowering crops.
I was scheduled to pick up David and the developer in Manhattan on that May morning, and since I had two small boys, as well as an energetic golden retriever, the car was full of dog hair and lollipop wrappers and other assorted detritus; it was not clean enough for chauffeuring an important prospective client around town, especially a sophisticated businesswoman. So I stopped at a car wash that would clean and detail the inside of my dark blue Nissan Pathfinder. Apparently I had just gotten out of my car when a car wash attendant backed a large Ford SUV out of the detailing shop and, speeding in reverse without looking behind him, ran me down. I had my back to the speeding car, and never heard it coming over the din of the car wash. As one of the eyewitnesses later told the police, I “never had a chance.”
I say “apparently I had just gotten out of my car” because I have no memory of that day, or the days afterward, or, strangely enough, of the weeks leading up to the accident. I hit my head violently on the pavement, fracturing my skull and losing consciousness. Cerebrospinal fluid oozed from a crack in my skull behind my left ear. I was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where they did an MRI and realized my injuries were too severe for them to treat. Depending on who was reading the films, the diagnosis was either a subdural hematoma or a subarachnoid hemorrhage, or both, on the left side of my brain. I was rushed to Stony Brook University Medical Center, which had a world-famous neurological trauma unit. Regardless of what the MRI diagnosis was, there was no doubt I was in a light coma and had bleeding and swelling in my brain. The Stony Brook doctors diagnosed what the medical profession calls a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. In the pre-political correctness days, it would have been called simply brain damage, or being kicked in the head by a horse.
From Passage to Nirvana: A Survivor's Zen Voyage by Lee Carlson, Henry Chapin & Sons, LLC. © Lee Carlson, 2010. Used with permission. www.passagetonirvana.com.