Pick Up The Pieces

[Editor's note: MMX, aka Michael Marckx, is perhaps best known as the chairman of the board of the Surfrider Foundation or as the president of SPY Optics. What's perhaps less known is that he's a poet, a drummer and a Cat. 1 cyclocross racer. And to his friends, he's an endless source of mirth and pain.]

We can all use a little reminding, sometimes.

I got the chance to have a lot of reminding all at once one Saturday.

And you know what? It’s funny, the things you are reminded of when you get knocked out for a while…

I’m certain I was dreaming while I was out and, despite the content of the dream, I was in a peaceful, comfortable place. I dreamt I was shot in the right shoulder, because it, and my right quad, bore the brunt of the initial impact from the front of the car before my head and face hit the windshield and I was catapulted up, out and across the road. The vector force of the car coming out and at me—without warning—along with the fact that I was out of the saddle attempting to pick up speed (and only had the chance to swerve, not brake), launched me diagonally across to the other side of the road.

Back to the dream. You know how dreams jump around out of context sometimes? Well this one was no different. I felt as though I was floating upward like the 30 year olds at Carousel in that classic ‘70s flick, Logan’s Run, and then I had old teachers talking to me, and finally I felt like I was lying on the north shore at Pipeline with the warm water rolling up onto my whole body and back down the beach again: Violence just outside my consciousness and peaceful warmth enveloping the periphery of my subconscious.

Now, I am definitely a product of the ‘70s, I was reminded, as even my dream was colored by the television inculcation I received during that glorious decade. When I came to and started to get a sense of things (I still didn’t know where I was or who I was), I wondered when Randolph Mantooth, aka John Gage, of EMERGENCY! was going to be there. The first thing I remember is seeing some of my cycling friends looking down on me with that ‘look of concern’ that, had I been more aware, would have made me really scared. Looking up at them, however, I felt a sense of happiness as though they were long lost friends from Ridgecrest Junior High in 1977—like I hadn’t seen them in ages—but these were the same guys I had been riding with just minutes earlier. I started to do the math and I realized that I had been many minutes ahead of the group, so I wondered where all the time went, like “can somebody show me the YouTube clip from the moment of impact, so I can see how well my helmet performed, how my flip in the air was and if my landing style as any good?” Then, I’d like to know what the heck people were doing while I lay blocking traffic on this busy canyon road. Did the world come to a stand still or did people start getting busy? Who called Station 51 and Rampart Hospital?

But there I was, post Logan’s Run Carousel and I couldn’t understand how I was all the way over on the other side of the road. That’s when I immediately thought of my family: we’re they okay? I got a picture of them in my head playing together in the backyard, and I realized, cool, it’s just me who is hurt. They are miles away at home, wherever that is. We weren’t in a plane wreck together. Looking around it felt like it was an amazing day out, like it was hot, and this damn accident had put a dent in a few people’s Saturday leisure time. The next part is fuzzy, but I could swear ‘Panchorello’ from the TV show, CHIPS, was talking to me. I think I even noticed Willie Aames, who played Tommy on ‘Eight is Enough’, taking shots from over by the rock railing. And why couldn’t Wonder Woman have showed up instead of this crazy looking dude out of ‘Chico and the Man’ who is looking over everyone’s shoulders? Hell, one of Charlie’s Angels would have been cool with me. No Fantasy Island for me. No Tattoo with champagne. No Ricardo Montalban with the keys to the Lair. Station 51 was on its way, I assumed.

Assessing the damage, I couldn’t tell what was broken or hurt. I knew my neck wasn’t right, but I had no sense of anything, other than—just beyond the fuzz of imperception that surrounded me—I knew there was a beautiful day going on, I could feel the humidness, that the sun was just coming out, that it was busy around me, that the pavement I was on was coarse and hot and there was a world beyond the traffic jam around me that wanted to get on with life.

Somewhere in the time between the paramedics arriving and my coming to, I was reminded that I was indeed alive. For a split second, as I swerved to avoid hitting the door of the angry black car, I thought, “Oh shit, this is it.” So, the reminder that I was alive was quite nice—and things didn’t hurt the way they normally do when you go down hard. I didn’t have the wind knocked out of me, or maybe I did a long time ago. No one specific thing screamed at me with burning intensity (other than the fact that even though I didn’t know what day it was or who I was, my inner voice said “you have to quit your job”, but that is another story). I was numb. All the things that had been stressing me for months were suddenly placed into context. The strain of work, the stress of starting to train hard again (this is my escape for stress), the anxiety of the approaching ‘cross season and the all the desires of state titles, the work dysfunction, the mortgage payments, the dwindling retirement fund, the broken sprinkler system, the IT issues at work, the fast approaching 2012 End Time date, the swine flu—they all seemed like nonsense. I was reminded what did matter, what was still relevant and there and real. I was reminded that in EMERGENCY! each episode always imparted a lesson to its viewers. Only with this episode there were a number of lessons to impart. This is the reminding I began this piece with:

  1. Always be vigilant for what the other person might do. In this case, the other person might be wielding a rather large weapon in a cavalier manner. Always be looking for what could possibly happen. There is danger hidden around every corner, behind parked tow trucks and hidden behind trees, buildings and even hedges, or the guy in front of you. Expect the unexpected!
  2. Always wear your helmet. Get the biggest, ugliest, most well-constructed and best rated protection for your head that you can find.
  3. Whatever stresses you have in your life, you should know two things about them: 1. They probably don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and if they really do matter… 2. Go tend to them.
  4. Bad things happen in a flash, without rhyme or reason.
  5. Your friends, the real ones, will be there for you in ways you cannot even imagine. They will help remind you what matters. They will help draw the road map to recovery in their unique ways.

Back to the crime scene: Someone, maybe it was Panchorello, was throwing a pop quiz at me: 1. Do you know where you are? A: I don’t know, Santa Monica, somewhere. WRONG: we were in Topanga Canyon. 2. What year were you born? A: Can I get back to you on that one? WRONG. 3. What day is it? A: Sunday? WRONG. 4.What month is it? A: let me see, I know it’s ‘cross next month (I’m thinking) so working backwards, I guessed it was August. CORRECT? It took me a while to get there but I was right, I think. What’s the capital of Sudan? A: oh, that’s easy, Khartoum.  Who played JJ on Good Times? A: Jimmie Walker! I was on a roll. Last question, Paper or Plastic? A: Paper, of course, rise above plastics! Booya, I am back at this game of grasping reality and beginning to pick up the pieces or so I thought….

That day I had been riding, maybe 90 miles, and had all the climbing behind me and only a leisurely 30 miles of downhill and a coastal cruise to go. I had just clicked through my 380th mile for the week, and today was the end of the second week of a new training program, and for as bad as I felt three weeks ago, I had been feeling wonderful up to the moment of impact.

But now, as reality swirled around me, with only bits and pieces of it accessible to my swelling cranium, I could hear the ambulance, I could hear words of encouragement, I could feel each breath I took and could tell my heart rate was still hovering around 100.

At this moment, one of my friends was calling my wife. I’m not sure how he got her number. Maybe I told him? Wouldn’t that be nice if I had the mind power to be able to summon my wife’s number to my tongue and then speak it out loud? Or, did they get it off my YIKES! ID tag adhered to my helmet for just such an emergency? Either way, I thought it comforting that my wife would be on her way to meet me at the trauma center. What I didn’t know was that another friend was first upon the incident, went busy gathering facts, finding witnesses, taking photos and generally taking control of the situation, once he knew I was being tended to, of course.

People were now talking to me from all angles it seemed. Questions I couldn’t answer were flowing at me and people started handing me things like my broken sunglasses, and now I was being urged to move myself to the side of the road. This was before anyone from EMERGENCY! showed up, so somehow I sat up and scooted my body about 10 inches on my butt toward the curb. I knew now that my butt also hurt, but I was grateful my arms allowed me to make those small moves. It meant that my aching shoulder (remember the one that got shot in the dream) was not broken. While I couldn’t use my right arm to feel anything, my left hand began a series of physical assessments of my neck, ribs, hips and arm to see if it could find the sources of pain. It couldn’t find anything but universal pain which was somewhat comforting, in a weird way, because there was no obvious ‘one thing’ to freak out about. It all hurt, but I was numb. I kept thinking I should hurt more, which made keep coming back to my neck.

Next thing I know they are talking about a helicopter ride, but then a very reassuring paramedic started talking to me, telling me he’s seen a lot of these things. He says, I’m not a doctor, but “I think you are gonna be okay. You are doing well, buddy. You we’re really lucky.” What I now know is that my luck came in the form of the other variables…That I didn’t hit the car door and break my neck, but rather the front part I had tried to steer my bike toward in the blink of an eye. That another car wasn’t coming in the opposite direction, as I would have either landed on it or been run over by it. That my helmet was German built. That my body, from years of exercise and stretching and yoga, was strong and pliable and could take a licking. That there were eye witnesses there to recant the whole incident for the police… That I was talking with this paramedic and able to move my legs.

Once they had me on the stretcher in a neck brace, the rest of my POV was relegated to only looking straight up, for the next 5 hours. I could only see what was directly above me. The brightness of the day outside, the roof of the ambulance, the reassuring paramedic. Next, the swirl of the helicopter blades, the business like demeanor of the helicopter’s paramedic, the roof of the helicopter.

Once we got the hospital it was just like in EMERGENCY! again. I saw the doors swing open; all kinds of concerned medical professionals began to swarm around me, introduce themselves and ask me questions. Once we were in the trauma room, there had to have been a dozen people in there tending to me. Checking in with my sense of reality. Asking me for information on what hurt. Probing my body for broken things, collectively turning me on my side to check my back, then my neck, then my pelvis and so on. Again, turned on my back, I could only see that which was directly above me. Reassuring female doctors who would put their faces directly in front of me—so I could actually see their eyes, and they see mine–would explain things to me.

I met a host of different doctors and nurses, each with their specific task to perform as it related to me. Next stop was the CAT scan machine. In order to put me through it, they had to take my wedding ring off. It hadn’t been taken off for 9 years and I protested. Then we all noticed my finger was broken. Normally, a broken finger would get your attention, and so would road rash, a swollen elbow, a badly bruised back and bum, but the concern was my neck and head. So into the machine I went, sans the wedding ring.

They told me it would take 45 minutes for the results to come back. I was really scared. 45 minutes came and went, then 55 minutes, then more time before my wife would arrive. In the meantime they stuck a TV monitor in front of me. I could reach it with my good arm and changed the channel to a ‘70s show. As I lay there, watching a show from my past, I began to do the math. But I was constantly interrupted at the beginning with various personnel asking me questions. But the attention would fade. Eventually, what had been a feast of attention from every one in the hospital, turned into a famine of silence except for the monitor directly above my head, which I really couldn’t focus on because my right side of my head had been so badly traumatized. I awaited movement into the room that seemed to never come. I wanted those test results. I wanted my wife to show up. I wanted a cheeseburger. I wanted a TV dinner. I wanted Land of the Lost to come on. I wanted some reassurance.

So, I sat and listened to the TV monitor and fortunately for me, the ‘70s TV show that flickered by had a good sound track and in the first moment of true clarity I had had since getting hit hours earlier, I was taken a hold of by the ending of a song. It was the song Pick Up The Pieces that reached out at me from the tube. It’s one of the most classic instrumentals of all time—nominated for a Grammy Award as Best R&B Instrumental of the Year in 1975 (it lost, to MFSB’s “T.S.O.P.”). Pick Up The Pieces was a funky soul brother tune performed by The Average White Band, a bunch of white dudes from Scotland. (The six cats who came to form the Average White Band grew up listening to and playing the music of African Americans: R&B, jazz and the Motown hits of the sixties). This is my kind of music and I had played this song 100 times before. At the end, the band can be heard chanting the title to the song, only this time they were talking to me. “PICK UP THE PIECES, Uhuh, PICK UP THE PIECES.” They were commanding me to get it all back together. Reminding me to move forward, put everything back in order, make use of what I had and what the experience imparted, perhaps with a little better arrangement of priorities. PICK UP THE PIECES.

So, for the next few hours I waited in traction, humming that tune. Eventually my wife came and we waited together for the results on my neck and head. By now it was late; I hadn’t eaten anything, even though I had ridden nearly 100 miles. They weren’t allowed to give me food or drugs apparently until after the results came back. Occasionally, someone would come in and say, “Oh, they haven’t given you your results yet. That’s not right. Let me go see what is up.” They would never come back, but someone else would, and repeat the process. All the while, I was testing my mental faculties, checking for brain damage only I could detect. Trying to remember things, wondering why the guy would have cut out into traffic like that without looking at anything but his cell phone, why he was in such a hurry, why I hadn’t waited for my friends earlier. What that actor’s name was, checking to see if I could remember each and every nurse’s name, and so on.

Finally, the doctor came in. Her name was Keron. A lovely lady. She said my neck wasn’t broken, that I was severely hurt, but no broken bones in my neck—we were relieved. I liked her a lot at that moment. I had never let on to my wife how scared I was. She didn’t know I had been knocked out, nor did she know how bad the accident was and never asked. I felt like picking up the pieces and leaving, but oh no. They wanted to keep me a while more for observation. I protested. They took off my neck harness. I had asked for food earlier, which never came, but now they brought me Graham Crackers. I got my first bit(e) of sustenance for the day. These and 5 ounces of OJ. At my urging, they decided to road test me to see if I could leave. I walked fifteen feet and declared I was fine. They sat me back down on the bed and left to get some paper work, by the time they came back, I was pure white, had flashes of heat rolling through my body and they had to lie me back down for more observation. This time they took my request for food seriously and brought me 32 ounces of OJ and more hydrogenated oil thingies and cold water and saltines—all the delicacies the hospital had to offer. My blood pressure was crazy low—118/58, but they seemed to think that was good. I begged them to let me go, then. They eventually did, but I am still humming the Pick Up The Pieces track in my head, reminded just how great it is to be able to kiss my kids and wife again, hug my parents and siblings and still think and dream of what is to come.

And now when my wife starts in on me and how she is never going to let me ride again, all I can say is “What you talkin’ about, Willis?”

For now, I’ve got a long road of recovery and mending to do. My brain is still hurting, my neck is aching and I’ve got countless minutes of radiation exposure in front of me to determine all the damage that has been done by this collision. Then there will be the months of PT and treatments, albeit with a new perspective and vigilance. I’m just Picking Up The Pieces—reminded that it shouldn’t take a near death experience to remind of us of what is important, but it often times does. And when it does, when we put it all back together, we have the chance to start over again….

Image: Padraig

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8 comments

  1. michael

    more please! brilliant writing, though sorry that your inspiration is rooted in an unfortunate incident. get well!

    signed – a former concussed and thoroughly doored rider, circa 1989. The `89 vintage had a some tar on the nose but a smooth, iron draw on the palate.

  2. James Mosley, Jr.

    Wow. I’m glad you are okay Michael. Experiences like that put life into perspective huh. In hope you have a full recovery. By the way, I am sponsored by SPY. I love my Diablos!

  3. Michael

    Great writing. You just made everyone who has been through a similar experience relive it, I mean every last star that swirled in my head when I first picked myself up of the road. Heal up, heal well.

  4. David

    Michael,
    Wow! I am so glad you are recovering from your trauma, and I am so glad that you took the time to write about your experience here on RKP. You words and your tale are a warning and an inspiration. I wish you all the best for a full recovery and a happy life.
    I feel the need to call my wife, right now. And when my helmetless son comes home from his day of work at the bike shop, I wil have him read your story.
    Thank you.

    David

  5. lqdedison

    I wish Michael the best and hope for a speedy recovery.

    Reading that piece really got me to feel what it would have been like if I was the one in the story who went through what Michael did. I have to say, that was a bit scary to read. You don’t realize how serious an accident like that is until you read about it from a first person point of view.

    Very nice piece of writing about a very unfortunate incident. Again I wish Michael all the best.

  6. Nelson

    The best advice I’ve been given came from a fellow rider and a man whom I look up to. This was said to a group of about 90 of us at the 298 mile mark of the WAM. (Wish-A-Mile)

    “When everyone goes home, give your loved ones hugs and kisses and tell them that you love them. Because when you think about it, they are all that matters”

    I think that is appropriate for anyone that has just read this unfortunate but wonderful story.

  7. Jeff Rocco

    My story is not my own…it is my father’s (rest in peace).He was the tail gunner on a Marine dive bomber in the Pacific Theater in WW11. One day; whilst on a routine patrol, they spotted a Japanese tin can (destroyer). They immediately rolled in for a bomb run. My dad turned around; facing the tail, and pulled out his twin 50 caliber machine guns from the fuselage. Flack from the destroyer started to explode around them…they had been spotted. With all of the noise and concussion, dad never noticed the Japanese Zero fighter that had dived in after them. With bullets from the fighter’s nose gun speeding past them, dad tried to return fire, but his guns jammed. as he felt the bullets hitting his tail, dad thought it was all over. Just then the Jap fighter exploded…a victim of the Jap destroyer’s flack…they never did sink that tin can, but were able to limp home to their tiny island. It seems as though fate dealt a strange hand that day, but because he made it home (his pilot wasn’t so lucky), that I was later born and had a wonderful 40 years with him before he passed. Thank you dad; and all our veterans for their heroic service to us…those that are lucky enough to skate, surf, or otherwise shred this beautiful free country.

  8. S

    Thanks for the piece Michael. By the time I’ve written this I hope you are completely recovered and riding more freely (i.e. not riding like Cato will jump out at you from behind every car, hedge or blind corner, and pummel you with shinai sticks). I experienced a similar incident albeit sans the car and loss of conciseness but with lots of broken bones. Your story brought back all those vivid memories and even though it was over 11 years ago I still think about it EVERY TIME I ride. It was a life changing event. The memories don’t slow me down but help keep me grounded in what is truly important in my life, keep me vigilant on the road and make me grateful for each and every day that I get to sling my leg over that top tube and clip in….ps Average White Band rocks!

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