Geoff Holt on a life led forwards.
I ran down the beach, a particular beach in the Caribbean on an island called Tortola. I was eighteen years old. I ran down the water. I got to my knees where you can’t physically run through the water any more, arms above your head, dived forward and hit my head on a sand bar…
I felt it break.
I felt the bone snap.
Immediately from that moment on…BANG…there was like this high pitched electrical buzzing in my ear.
And this immediate numbness. I couldn’t move a thing. I just remember floating on the surface.
Rising and falling with the waves.
My eyes were wide open, looking at the sand, rising and falling as the water lifted me up and down.
My friend realised something was wrong. My voice was knocked out so he pulled me out the water. I spent over an hour on the beach. You are going back thirty years. I am not going to blame anyone but the ambulance man put one arm under my neck and one under my legs. We drove to hospital, very fast. Eventually they flew me to Puerto Rico. I spent three weeks there so that was my first real understanding something serious had happened.
They injected a radioactive dye into my spine to see if the dye had gone from the top to the bottom. They screwed traction into my skull. Literally screwed nails either side of my skull to hang weights off the end of the bed to keep my neck straight. Quite medieval practices I just endured. All I could do was hope.
LINES IN THE SAND
Hope gives people strength in tough times. If you turned to an eighteen year old and said, like my doctor did, ‘you are never going to walk again’, you don’t believe them. You have these little nuggets of hope, lines in the sand. A rumour goes round if you don’t get the feeling back after six weeks you will never get your feeling back. Six weeks comes and someone else says they misheard and it was three months. Suddenly you look back and think a year’s gone, two, five, you know, let’s just get on with life.
A LIFE ON HOLD
I could name people, who have had an accident, from day one have decided they are going to get better. They are still waiting thirty five years on. They have put their lives on hold which means they may not have been able to be that person they could have been. I accepted I was going to get on with my life so I am able to enjoy all those lovely things people do; going on holiday, getting married, starting a family.
I believe what gets us through these difficult times is genetic. As human beings we need any coping mechanism we can use to get us through tough times. It will be all too easy to say it was a higher being’s plan. I just believe I did something stupid and have to get on with my life because I am only going to get one and when I leave this mortal coil my wife and son want to have nice memories of me.
A CHANGING MAN
In terms of my accident, I was never angry. There was a lot of things I couldn’t do then I still can’t. In earlier days that would cause me frustration. I might drop something and I would try everything I could to pick it up. Now, if I drop something, I don’t even give it a second glance. I square that circle by thinking there are things my non-disabled family can’t do. I’ve just got a slightly longer list of things I can’t do.
You can’t be spontaneous with disability. You can’t just be sat down with your wife and put your hand in her hand. You can’t see your son sleeping and just lean over and give him a kiss goodnight. You have to plan. And that takes away…something very personal.
When we are walking in the park it is still as special as any other family but then you watch your son kicking through the leaves and think I can’t do that and you see other dads putting their kids on their shoulders. It’s almost like a continual torment. If I were a weaker person those torments could build into something resentful. Everything is laid bare and that is part of being human that most of us have that is sacrosanct. I went shopping to buy my wife some Christmas presents. They are in my van. I will get my son to pop out later to hide them. He’s not old enough to wrap them. Well, he might give them a go. It’s taken away any possibility of me making that a private thing.
I get through it and put a smiley face on but my wife perhaps sees the true side of me. You put on the face people need to see. I was out and three people stopped me. They don’t want to see me grizzling. They will go away and take that back and that creates this persona but I am still human. Sometimes I express frustrations and my wife will just laugh at me and I realise I am complaining about something stupid. I have learned my wife’s not with me out of sympathy. She’s with me because she cares for me. And that’s quite reassuring really; I am loved for who I am.
I get to express my personality through the perception of me. Being a father for the last eleven years has made a huge change. One of the projects I run is called Wet Wheels. When you take kids out on this boat who have life limiting illnesses, they may not see Christmas, as a father and as one of them, I have a double empathy. It is very moving. I have found myself getting more emotional as I get older because I see these beautiful kids with shortened lives. I have had to endure being in a wheelchair thirty years and these kids are not going to live that long.
I resisted starting a family. I felt I wouldn’t be a good father. When we had my son my first thought was, ‘How selfish was I?’ I wish I had done this ten years ago. It changed my life in the most amazing way. It’s almost like life made sense. From the moment he came out and I held this little bundle…of skin and bones, I just thought this is what it is all about.
When I was seven, one of my best friends…I went to call on him to play and I remember his mum saying Jimmy wasn’t coming out because his daddy had died. The moment my son was born, I had this horrendous dream I didn’t want anyone coming to call on my son and Elaine saying ‘I am sorry his daddy died’. If anything I do I have to be here for my son; to show him all the things I think are right in the world.
DAD WAS JUST DAD
Looking back I wish there had been a father figure. I was at dinner with someone and he told me his father was quadriplegic. I said ‘you’re the first adult I have spoken to who has experienced what my son is going to. What was it like knowing your dad was in a wheelchair?’ He said, ‘dad was just dad’. It put my mind at rest that hopefully when I am gone, that Tim, when someone says to him what was it like having a dad in a wheelchair he will say ‘dad was just dad’.
We are a very close unit. But with that comes this knife edge. All it takes is for Elaine to hurt herself. I have this responsibility; worries sit on my shoulders. I sometimes go to bed and think if Elaine is not well I can’t look after Tim. But I am worrying about something that hasn’t happened. This is possibly how some people in their lives struggle because they allow worries to overtake their rational thoughts.
I would like…those people I have helped access the water will remember Geoff helped make it possible. The greatest gift any human can give to another is saying, ‘you’ve inspired me to do something positive’. I would love people, after I’ve gone to be able to still go boating. I think Wet Wheels probably will be my legacy.
There is something about being on the water. At its most raw, it puts a smile on your face. There’s something about being at one, at nature. It’s a level playing field.
On the water we all get the same sense of the wind in our face.
I shut my eyes now and I can sense it.
I can feel the spray.