Jeff Stiles

Writer Remembers The Day The Music Almost Died

jeff stiles

"I think it was a sunny day . . .
Yes, I remember the sun.
And God remembered mine!"
— Judy Stiles, mother of Jeff Stiles

The story on the front page of a Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper on November 17, 1983, sounded like what's reported in papers all across our country every week:

"A 17-year-old student — critically injured yesterday at a highway intersection that claimed the life of another student two years before — was listed in serious condition today at Wake Medical Center."

Every year 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents in the United States, and this young man was close to becoming another statistic.

I was that young man, and the lines of poetry within this column are the remembrances my mother has of that day.

The afternoon before, a 10-ton dump truck loaded with 14 tons of gravel had run a red light and slammed into the driver's side of my 1975 Datsun B-210, pushing my car 200 yards into an embankment — where I remained trapped for nearly two hours while rescue personnel worked to free me from the wreckage.

"Lord, I am watching you work!
You are in this place with us.
The earth in darkening,
But those bright clouds and gleaming plane above
Remind me that nothing is hidden from You!"

The high school football team I played for had won the state championship two weeks before, and I was planning to travel to Tennessee the very next day to compete with them for the national championship.

But the Creator had other plans.

Paramedics determined that I had a severely fractured skull, and in a bad place. My parents, who were standing nearby, were warned that I likely wouldn't make it to the hospital, and if I did that I would never finish high school or even walk again. Consoling each other and praying, the crowd of observers wondered if I'd survive.

The Jaws of Life finally freed me from my mangled car.

"Suddenly, the listless body is freed
And the stretcher or bier (we know not which)
Is rushed in our direction.
Of a sudden it will pass . . .
I wrench from my comforters,
Stretch out to touch the familiar face . . . WARM!!
Earth! Dark earth! Your eerie chill has not yet conquered!"

For the next 13 days, my family and friends remained unsure if I'd ever return from my state of unconsciousness. My mother and father kept a constant vigil at my bedside, praying that their son would someday awaken.

My mother wrote a song for me while I slept.

Eventually I did wake up from my coma, and the first thing I remembered after two weeks of silence was the sensation of a feeding tube being removed from my nose. When my mom began singing that song she had written as I helplessly laid there, I instantly remembered hearing it before.

But I was like a tiny child — paralyzed on my left side, unable to speak clearly, unable to write my name, unable to bathe myself. I gobbled down hospital food as if I hadn't eaten in two weeks. Oh yeah . . .

The road to recovery was gradual at first, but as the bruise on my forehead healed I slowly regained use of my left side.

One day, proud of the fact that I'd been credited with three tackles during our school's homecoming football game the month before, I attempted to travel 10 feet to the bathroom alone. I fell, and a bruised hip set back my rehabilitation over a week.

My occupational therapy may have only lasted as long as my month-long stay at the hospital, but the outpatient physical therapy continued for months as I regained strength in my left side and learned to walk normal again. I walked with crutches until returning to school in mid-January, and continued to walk with a limp until the following summer.

But amazingly, the brain-injured high school senior who ambulance attendants predicted wouldn't make it through the night, who doctors said would never walk again, who many anticipated would never finish high school, was able to wobble across the stage at his high school graduation the next spring to receive his diploma.

I no longer walk with much of a limp, although I do feel a slight weakness on my left side whenever I'm out biking or jogging. And recently my neurologist told me the cognitive difficulties I'm starting to experience — memory loss, concentration issues, mood swings, increased stress doing everyday duties — are likely related to my brain injury and could lead to something more serious in the future.

Ironically, I spend much of my spare time these days volunteering with the local Alzheimer's Association, counseling people caring for family members who are undergoing different forms of dementia.

And I wonder if someday I'll require a caregiver of my own.

I cringe whenever a dump truck races by my Central Avenue home and sometimes runs a late yellow traveling through the 32nd Street intersection.

I still don't have any memory of those 13 long days in 1983, but every Thanksgiving I'm grateful to remember that I made it through that nearly fateful afternoon at 3:30 p.m. 33 years ago, November 16, 1983.

"Each November nudges our remembering afresh,
Raises leaves of fragrant praise to the Father.
For brief interludes I shudder with re-reality,
Recalling mysteries of invisible worlds
Spilling over into the visible.
I think it was a sunny day?
Yes, I remember the sun.
And God remembered mine."