Forward Momentum

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Health and Fitness  |  House: Booksie Classic
A seasoned track sprinter recovers from a debilitating injury.

Submitted: August 19, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 19, 2016



Forward Momentum

Jonathan Berk

He lifts his muscular arm and quiets an alarm clock with his limp hand. He looks out the window and assumes it’s a quarter passed dawn. He continues to lie down, staring at his white ceiling, drawing patterns in the acoustic drywall. The morning sunlight pierces the venetian blinds of his bedroom and casts down on him, combining light and shadow in a way that resembles prison bars on his muscular yet damaged body. With his palms pressing against the bed, he lifts himself up and places himself in a chair. He moves closer to a desk, reaching upward to take a stack of lined paper from a high shelf on his desk, accidentally knocking down a gilt trophy of a small running man in the process. He picks up a chewed wooden pencil and presses it against the paper, creating thick dark lettering.

‘Autobiographical Notes -- 6/13’

He puts his left palm on his temple, absorbed in thought. He begins to write.

It was April 23, 1963 when I ran my last race:

I’m in the runner’s start position. I wait for the starter’s gunshot. Bam! I boost off the starting blocks, placing the ball of my left foot down on the rubber track first. I follow it with the right. I get into the rhythm.  The cheering of the audience turns into white noise. My peripheral vision blurs. Muscle memory and adrenaline work together to get me to the finish line.

As I near the final turn of the race, turning my body diagonally, about to head into the final one hundred meter sprint, I feel a tingling in my left quadricep that’s immediately followed by numbing warmth. I stutter in my strides and fall to the track. The others pass me by. I wait for medics to rush out and carry me away on a stretcher.  

“I'm off to work” she said, placing a carefully arranged tray of food on his desk. “Call me if you need anything.”

“Okay,” he replied, “be safe.”

When I woke up the next day in the hospital, I didn’t feel any particular pain in my muscles, bones, or tendons. I only felt the stinging flesh wounds on my elbows and knees. The doctor, Dr. Harborne, said that he didn’t know why what happened to me happened, but he recommended that I stay for a few more days to follow the hospitals safety protocols. The doctor left the room, and my wife, Anna quickly took his place. I tried to get up, and could, but felt weak in both of my legs. I hugged her and sat back down. This was when I realized I was now fragile; I had been injured before—hamstring strains, minor ankle sprains, even a ruptured achilles that I all recovered from. In those cases, though, I knew what was wrong with me. I knew that I’d recover in certain frame of time.

I was training that season for a particular race. It was the World Track & Field Championships in Moscow, and I had finally clocked under 44 seconds in my event, the 400-meter race, a few months earlier at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. I had a time that many men aspired to achieve; I was a favorite, and people thought I’d likely beat the current world record of 43.86 seconds that was held by Lee Evans.  

He pauses to feel his stubby amputated limbs, looking down at where his gluteal muscles and hamstrings used to be. His bottom eyelids begin to fill with tears; some escape from his right eye and fall onto the paper below.

It took some time and further weakening of my legs for doctors to finally understand what I had: a rare syndrome that causes gradual, permanent paralysis in limbs.

He glances at the tray of food that his wife brought him: scrambled eggs with grilled onions, tomatoes, and ham; a tuna melt sandwich with melted cheese with brie bread; and a half empty cup of orange juice. He takes a sip of his juice, and takes a bite from his sandwich, seeming to take in the taste with all of his senses.

Some days are harder than others. Some mornings I have trouble getting out of bed and getting my day started, as I sometimes lack the motivation to continue without the maneuverability I once had.  It's especially disheartening, when I wake up from dreams of running—full of adrenaline, thinking that I have legs, jump out of my bed, and fall flat.

A lot of people claim that you can’t really miss what you’ve never had; I suppose that’s why losing my legs was as difficult as it was for me. Think about it: a blind man born blind cannot miss what he’s never seen; a deaf man born deaf cannot miss what he’s never heard. Try to explain blue to man who has never seen; try to explain a symphony to a man who has never heard. When you lose something you once had and cannot gain it back, you have concrete memories that can be agonizing to think about.

In my more depressed days, more specifically, within a few years after the accident, I had a particular obsession with all things regarding death. I became unamused with the thought of God, or any form of an afterlife. I started researching theories of what happens to the mind after death—and came to the conclusion that when I die, my mind will join my body in ceasing to exist. I became deeply cynical, and uninterested in the pursuits that were characteristic of normal life.

There was one particular period during my depression that I wanted to experiment with a drug called Dimethyltryptamine—which is more commonly referred to as DMT; it’s the most intense psychedelic in the world. I had learned that scientists theorized that when one dies, his or her brain overloads with the chemical, allowing a peaceful, and pleasant transition out of consciousness; it was what scientists assumed was responsible for near death experiences. If I was going to die the same way as I was now determined to live, I wanted to, at the very least, familiarize myself with the experience of the transition. I didn’t end up trying it, but soon enough, my depression became debilitating, and I decided that I had to do something about it; I wanted to feel engaged in the game of life again.

I tried prescription anti-depressants and discovered that they made me feel like a zombie. I tried meditating, and diets that were supposed to promote wellbeing, but I still felt that these attempts to fix myself only temporarily distracted me from the idea that death was inevitable. I lost all hope until I found myself on a seminar on the Unified Field Theory of Consciousness, which I had been invited to by a neurologist friend who pitied my bodily state and thought it’d be best if I did something out of my ordinary routine. The lecturer spoke passionately about the subject; the theory he taught stated that at the very core of every being is one source—one essence. The man’s words made me realize that I’m the same as anyone or anything; I’m one with someone who lived thousands of years ago; I’m the same as the flora and fauna that reined the earth millions of years ago. I came to the conclusion that brooding about my condition was pointless.

He notices that he’s running low on paper; he grabs another stack and picks up the trophy he tipped over. He subtitles his paper:


My father once told me that the only thing constant in life is change. I manipulated that statement to phrase my own belief about life: life is all about forward momentum, progression in whatever way possible. If life is only a pattern of constant change, then the present is where one is meant to be.

I decided I had to get back in shape—to feel like I was moving and improving in some way each day. I had a strong frame as a track runner, but all the sedentary time I spent recovering and in depression made me lose a lot of muscle mass. I had to gain it back—so I started out slow. I began doing pushups first; twenty a day, and increasing by ten each week to reach a total of one-hundred per set. This built my triceps, but left the rest of my body uneven. To fix this, I placed a stool under my groin, and did elevated push-ups—to work on my chest. Eventually I purchased a pull-up bar, installed it, and did chin ups and pull ups in widened and shortened grips to focus on certain muscles.

He stops writing and plays around with his pencil, doodling things here and there. He notices the pool of water that his teardrop created on his paper and glides the tip of his pencil across the wet surface, intersecting it with a soft line.

Since I was amputated just below my pelvis, I couldn’t participate in anything track-related. I couldn’t fit into the prosthetic legs that were fit for track running. Therefore, I took up swimming as a new hobby and pastime. I skipped most of the styles to master the butterfly stroke. I had arms that could lift around 250 pounds, and a body that was no greater than 120. I would drag my torso through the water, pulling myself across the pool—and it was, believe it or not, efficient. I applied to Paralympic swimming competitions and even those that were designed for able-bodied athletes, frequently wiping out my competition in the 50-meter butterfly event. Although I didn’t have the kick that able-bodied guys did, I had less bodyweight and unmatched power and speed in my arms.  I want to show that, by swimming, amputees can still live to fulfill their potential, achieve things that they want to achieve, and derive satisfaction from letting go of their past. It's really all about moving forward—whether it’s with your legs, or any other body part, in any field of life. I reapplied what I learned training for track to build what was left of my body and cope with life in general. I learned to compare life to the different phases of a typical strategized 400-hundred meter race: start out fast, but not at your fastest, build speed until you get to the last 100 meters, and sprint to the end.

He lifts his fist up an inch or so, and places it back on the paper, opening his index and thumb grip—dropping the pencil. He stretches his right arms and pulls the almond-shaped end of his blinds’ stringed handle, allowing sunlight to cover his body. He stares at his swimming pool, admiring the fountain of water that falls into his pool and the waves that it creates. He rolls his chair towards his door frame, lifts himself off of his chair, mounts the doorframe with his arms, and grabs the pull-up bar with his right hand first. He begins to count; the bar squeaks as he ascends and descends it.

“One, two, three—

© Copyright 2018 Jonathan Berk. All rights reserved.

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