Friday, December 28, 2012
Brailey Samara Owens
It is my privilege to send you the first letter of your young life. You have already brought more joy to those around you than you can imagine. You are loved profoundly, and you have filled your new home with smiles and happiness. Congratulations. That’s a lot to do in your first week.
Know that your Mom and Dad have been dreaming and talking about you for many, many months. They read all the right books, shopped relentlessly to make sure they had everything you need, and even had a friend build a special changing table for your Dad. Now you have to do a few things.
First, grow up strong, smart, and with a loving heart. When you get there, understand that your parents have forgotten just how hard it is to be two, and you will have to remind them. Cry often, stomp your feet, and create a fuss now and then for no reason that anybody can discern. After all, it’s your job, and you need to take it seriously. In time, you will go to school and get good grades. Great grades so you will ultimately get into the best and most expensive college available. This will cost your parents big bucks, but they will beam with pride. It’s part of the deal, and since both your parents are educators, they will admire your many accomplishments.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Your parents will learn in the years ahead that there’s no task more important, no job more engaging, and no undertaking filled with more emotional ups and downs than raising a child. You won’t fully understand this until you have your own child nestled in your arms, but you will feel their love and concern every minute of every day, even when they give you a time out. Of course, you should express feelings of injustice at each time out just to get back at them a little bit for the punishment. Those moments will pain your parents even more than you, but they just won’t be as vocal about it.
I have designated myself as your honorary uncle because every family needs an uncle that’s a little off-center. I’m pretty sure your Uncles Cedrick and Voncarie are well qualified in that respect, but you can never have too many. After all, your parents will need somebody to point to so they can say: “Brailey, see what he just did? Don’t you ever do that.”
You have a big extended family, and many people will revel in watching you grow. They will nurture and love you; they will tease and joke with you; they teach you important lessons; and mostly, they will be your haven of safety. We are all thrilled that you’re here and look forward to watching the journey of your life. With profound affection, I am
Your loving, honorary
Saturday, December 22, 2012
One of my recent blogs talked about getting used to life in a wheelchair. We spent a lot of time in rehab learning how to maneuver, how to do wheelies so we could roll over small curbs, and in my case especially, how not to put holes in drywall. That last one took some serious learning, and I’m still far from perfect. But what they didn’t teach us about is hills. That’s something everybody in a wheelchair learns the hard way.
Not long after Tamika and I got married, we went to a restaurant we had meant to visit for a long time. Well, the restaurant sits at the top of a hill, and we had to park our car at the bottom in the parking lot. It was a tough roll up, but as usual, I insisted on doing it myself. Tamika offered to push me, but I did the manly and often stupid thing of insisting that I could do it on my own. I was winded by the time we reached the top, but I got the job done.
We had a fine meal and enjoyed each other’s company. Love is grand, and I was in love. I still am, but that’s not the point of this story. AS we left the restaurant, Tamika commented that the hill was really steep. “Dwight, why don’t you let me hold the handles and guide you down the hill,” she offered. “Baby, you know better than that. I can do it myself. No problem,” I answered with just a hint of annoyance in my voice.
Well, “I can do it” turned out to be not quite accurate. As I started rolling down the hill, the wheelchair started to gain speed at an alarming pace. I tried to grab the wheels to slow it down, but the rubber only burned my hand. I was now rolling at a fast and unstoppable speed, and all I could do was look back and give out a loud whoop. I smiled at Tamika, shrugged my should and let loose a big laugh. I didn’t see anything else I could do but laugh and hope for the best as Tamika was running after me as fast as her legs cold carry her. I knew it couldn’t end well. A short time later I crashed into the front wheel of a parked car with an ego that was more bruised than my body. I got extremely lucky and suffered no serious wounds. I also enjoyed the irony of the situation. I was in the wheelchair through no fault of my own in the first place, but this time the fault was all mine, and I got off almost without a scratch.
Tamika finally reached the bottom of the hill and gave me a bit hug, which I didn’t deserve. She, however, was not all grace and elegance. She laughed, called me a big dope, and added an “I told you so” for good measure. She then insisted on explaining that it’s not smart to take such needless risks. She was right, of course, but I still thought she could have looked the other way at least this one time. And I learned my lesson once and for all. I now eye hills with great suspicion and give them all the respect they deserve.
Friday, December 7, 2012
One of the first people I met when I went to rehab in Jackson was a young man who had just been in a dreadful car accident and severed his spine. He was in a wheelchair and according to doctors, will remain there for the rest of his life. And you might think that would be the focus of his every thought, but you wouldn’t know to hear him talk.
“Hey, Coach. I’m really glad to meet you,” said Ryan. “I brought you some candy. Doesn’t mean we can hold hands or anything, but I’m a football player too. At least I was before the accident. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here so we can talk sports. Well, I’m not glad you had your accident, but I’m glad to have another sports guy here. Did you play? I imagine you were a linebacker to look at you.” And he went on and on seemingly without taking a breath. And I just listened and smiled and reveled in his energy and his company.
Ryan and I became close friends during rehab, and that friendship has only grown stronger over the years. Ryan wasn’t lying when he said he was an athlete. He took his wheelchair and did wheelies that seemed dangerous to me, raced down passageways in the rehab center, and tried to engage me in competition of all sorts. We would lift heavier weights than the staff allowed, and when we got caught, he’d say: “It was Coach’s fault. I told him we should obey the rules,” and then he’d laugh because we’d been busted. In fact, Ryan is more than an excellent athlete, he’s a superstar. He was a great high school running back soon getting ready to play in college before the accident, and after his accident, he turned his energy to a new pursuit. Fencing.
In less than three years time, Ryan has become the national champion for wheelchair fencers. His fencing coach said he has never seen anybody develop so quickly in the sport, and he’s an incredible natural talent. Ryan represented the United States in the Para-Olympics earlier this year where some eighty thousand people cheered him on. He didn’t medal this time, but he represented the USA with poise, dignity, and a remarkable work ethic. He will defend his lofty status as national champion later this year and is practicing for the world championship tournament to be held in Rio next year. Ryan often says things like: “What a life. I get all this praise and recognition for stabbing people. It’s pretty cool.” Well, I think it’s pretty cool too.
Friday, November 23, 2012
Before Tamika and I got married, we both agreed that we wanted children. For us, it was a no brainer, and all we had to do was make it happen. Easy enough, but it didn’t happen. At least not right away. Despite our best efforts, we’d look on with disappointment as the tests always came back negative.
We weren’t about to let the situation stand, so we swallowed hard and made the necessary doctors’ appointments. After much questioning, prodding, blood tests, and other diagnostic exams, the doctor announced his verdict: “No problem. We should be able to make this happen.” Now, I wasn’t sure about the “we” part because I thought this was kinda personal between Tamika and me, but I appreciated the diagnosis. Well, a few months later, Tamika was pregnant and we reveled in the joy of planning for our first child. We’ve done all the necessary tests and been to all the doctors’ appointments along the way, seen ultrasound photos of our child, and gotten all the pre-natal care that’s appropriate. Tamika has been a champ throughout the process, although she does sometimes have some unpredictable and odd mood swings. I just smile knowing it will all be worth it for both of us in just a short while.
We’re just a few weeks away, and each day feels like a month. Sometimes I catch myself sitting alone smiling, and I realize just how happy I am. This year, 2012, is one to remember for me. I was thrilled to get my new truck early in the year. Then we finished and published “Still Standing” which has been a great joy to me. And now Brailey is due to arrive. I know there are lots of ups and downs in life, so Tamika and I are enjoying every minute of this wonderful year. And as my friend and partner in “Still Standing,” Jon Praet, says: “Dwight, being a Dad is more than marveling at the arrival of your child. It’s also a “doody.” It’s hard to know things for sure in life, but this I know in the fullness of my heart. I just can’t wait to be a dad.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
Living with a disability brings an odd assortment of challenges. One of the oddest and hardest for me was being stared at. I live in a wheelchair. It is my home at home and away from home. It is with me almost every waking minute of every day, and to me it’s become an extension of my body. It’s there like an old trusted friend, and I think nothing of it. But that wasn’t always the case.
Being stared at is an odd sensation. You can feel it in your bones, and even though you can’t see the people behind you, you know they’re looking. It’s very disquieting, and in the beginning, it made me extremely uncomfortable. I hated it. I wanted people to see me for the person I am, not the wheelchair I sit in. I wanted to blend in like everybody else, and I was terribly self conscious. So much so that I often refused to go out because I just didn’t want to deal with it. It was a problem for me, and I knew that if I wanted to be self reliant and make my own way in the world, I would have to find a way to cope.
My solution was a simple one. People would stare and not even know they were doing it. I would look back, and they would turn their heads or avert their eyes. They were busted, and they knew it, but they just couldn’t help themselves. They weren’t cruel. There was no malice, in their hearts, and they didn’t mean to make me feel uncomfortable. It was just hard not to stare. But I found the perfect response. I simply smiled back.
What I didn’t realize at first is that most people didn’t know how to approach me. They didn’t know I had all the same thoughts and feelings they do, and they were at a loss. A smile is such a simple thing. It doesn’t cost a penny, but it’s worth a fortune. I learned that a smile puts people at ease and makes it easier for them to approach me. I can’t tell you how many fun conversations I have engaged in just by curling my mouth upward into a smile. And I learned something else. Part of my job as a person with a disability is to teach others how to approach people like me. A smile makes it easier for everybody. It invites engagement and draws people closer. It says: “Hey, it’s okay to talk to me. My mind is as sharp as yours, and I have things to say.” Along the way, I believe this simple technique has done more to educate people than anything else I have done.
Friday, October 26, 2012
One of the most important things about living with a disability is to squeeze every ounce last of independence out of life that you can. For me, that meant facing my fears and learning to drive again.
As a paraplegic, I cannot use my legs. It’s already a big deal to transfer from my wheelchair to a truck. The thought of driving that same truck once I was inside was more than a little frightening. I knew, however, that I didn’t want people to be driving me around for the rest of my life, so I had to face my fears. And like so many other things in life, it was really much easier than I had imagined.
Friday, October 19, 2012
Many people have asked me: “Jon, why did you write this story?” The answer is simple. It’s not what Dwight went through. Bad things happen to good people all the time. It’s not that Dwight overcame extreme adversity and continues to do so every day. That’s a great story, but it’s not enough. What made Dwight’s story compelling was his decision to make it all count for something. It wasn’t easy for Dwight to put himself out there, to be the center of attention, and offer himself as an example of what people with disabilities can do. It took him a couple of years to internalize that decision, to turn his tragic accident into an opportunity, and to become a public figure. Once he did, there was no looking back.
For the first year after his accident, Dwight’s life was centered on survival – both physical and emotional. His constant regiment of surgery and rehab followed by more surgeries, more rehab, more pain, and more setbacks would have crushed a lesser person. And while I know Dwight had a despondent moment or two along the way, his spirit was indomitable. He wouldn’t quite, and his family, his church, and his community wouldn’t either. They locked arms and hearts to make sure Dwight pulled through,, and when he did, Dwight knew something special had happened. Yes, his life changed on a dime. Yes, he lived in pain every day. And, yes, he would be paralyzed forever. But mostly he knew that all that wasn’t enough to keep a good man down.
Slowly but surely, Dwight forged a plan. He started to accept speaking engagements at Middle Schools and High Schools throughout the south. He began his “Before You Drink, Think Dwight” tour, and it was a hit. It was a hit because Dwight wasn’t preachy. Bad things happened to innocent people when you drink and drive, but he wasn’t in the business of scaring people. He was in the business of teaching responsibility to youngsters and showing them what they could accomplish no matter the odds. He filled his talks with humor, funny anecdotes, and serious tales of people with disabilities. Each talk was sprinkled with laughter and tear. Dwight explained that he forgave the driver that put him in his wheelchair, and he spoke forgiveness as a better path than hatred or vengeance.
Later on, Dwight started his own support group for men with disabilities and extended his speaking to college campuses, major hospitals, MADD groups, and more. In fact, he was so tireless that LIFE, an organization associated with AmeriCorps, nominated him for the National Service Award. He was one of many thousands nominated, and he was one of only three selected for the honor.
Dwight’s story is just beginning. He got married after the accident to the love of his life, Tamika, and they are expecting their first child this December. He drives himself to every speaking engagement, and his rams are like tree stumps from all the weight lifting and manual rolling he does in his chair. Dwight has found the courage to build a full and rewarding life and to bring his story of humble triumph to the world. To this write, that’s a story worth telling.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Last week I wrote a description about my introduction to my wheelchair. Wheelchairs are amazing things, and I have learned over the past few years that they hold a fascination for youngsters. Here’s what I mean.
A few years back, I was doing some Christmas shopping for the family. Minding my own business, I hardly had a care in the world. I was meandering slowly through the store and rolling gently around a corner when I was suddenly face to face with a beautiful young girl, perhaps six years old. Her eyes grew wide when she saw me and she blurted: “Mama, I want one of those for Christmas.”
The girl’s enthusiasm and honesty were infection, and her mom was horrified. The young girl, of course, thought my wheelchair was a toy, and she wanted one. It looked like fun to her. I noticed the pained look on her mom’s face, chuckled, and said: “Darling, I love your attitude, but I don’t really think this is for you.” I then smiled at both of them and moved on. As I say In “Still Standing,” I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the little girl’s mom explained what the wheelchair was really all about.
In a second instance, I was rolling down the aisle of a grocery store one day with my gripper extended trying to reach some cereal. All of a sudden, I was flying down the aisle faster than the speed limit on a superhighway unable to slow down. As I glanced behind me, a young adventurer had decided it would be great fun to push this thing with the big wheels. To him, it looked like his Big Wheel back home. He was laughing and shouting and having a ball, and I just had to laugh along with him. We finally came to a stop, and a crowd began to gather, not sure what to do exactly. I told the youngster: “No harm, no foul,” and then suggested he not do that a second time.
What I have learned over the years is that wheelchairs can be an irresistible attraction for youngsters. I love their spirit of adventure, but I am also always on the lookout for that brave young soul who thinks running at full speed pushing a wheelchair would be the best fun ever. To my fellow wheelchair travelers, I say this: “Beware. The under ten crowd can cause some excitement you might not really want.”
Thursday, October 4, 2012
“Dang, Dwight. We’re gonna have to hire a drywall crew just to keep up with the holes you keep knocking in the walls,” my physical therapist would joke. “But don’t worry. You’re getting the hang of it.” And I was. A week later, they were teaching me how to do wheelies, which is important because sometime I have to roll over obstacles or move from a slightly lower place to a higher place. And the fear of tipping over was always there.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
As the author of “Still Standing,” I feel only modestly qualified to talk about writing a book. While I am a writer by profession, I don’t deal in fiction or memoirs. At least not until now. The idea of writing something more substantive than persuasive pieces for businesses such as websites, direct sales letters, and the like gnawed at me for a long time. When I met Dwight and learned his personal history, the deal was sealed. His story had to be told, and I was the one to do it.
I am a 59 year-old man from New Jersey. Dwight is a 29 year-old man from Mississippi. Our experiences were different, our perspectives were polar opposites, and we both had trouble with each other’s the accent. But we had this. We had a desire to get Dwight’s story out as a triumph of hope over tragedy, as a tale of self-reliance over self-pity. Dwight’s is a story of grit and determination, an uplifting message of finding joy and good humor even during life’s most dire circumstances. The partnership made perfect sense to us.
“So, Dwight, are you ready to go to work and do this thing?” I asked.
“I was just waitn’ on you,” Dwight replied confidently. “I knew you’d come around.”
And that, my friends, is how the book came to be. For the next six months, I interviewed Dwight three times a week for an hour or two at a time. It wasn’t always easy because Dwight kept getting ahead of himself.
“Slow down, Dwight. You’re going too fast,” I chided. “We’ll get there, but we have to stay on track along the way.”
I’d give Dwight homework assignments and ask him to think back, for example, to life in middle school. I needed the details to help form the broader narrative. And after months of talks and several hundred pages of notes, we finally got started. We wrote the prologues together and then the first chapter. Paragraph by paragraph, page by page, we knew the book had to true to in Dwight’s voice. After all, it’s his story. We chatted, grumbled at each other, and came to agreements on what to keep out and what to put in. It was a collaborative effort every step of the way. Every two or three weeks, I’d get another chapter done, and I enlisted editorial help from two educators, (my sisters, and Dwight, and we’d beat up the draft. Then we’d do it again until we finally had it just where we wanted it.
Back and forth every few days with comments like: “Jon, you can’t say that.” Or from my sisters, “Jon, we need to know more about Tamika.” Or, “Jon, you already said that. We’re not stupid. You don’t have to say it again.” In any event, the whole process was exhilarating, joyful, and mostly humbling. It took about 16 months from the time of our first interview to the time of publication, and it was worth every minute of effort. And now, to our great satisfaction, “Still Standing” has been adopted for use in numerous school systems and at a variety of rehabilitation centers across America. We only hope it will keep growing from here.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
As I talk about in some detail in my book, “Still Standing,” I spend a lot of time making presentations to kids. At school gatherings, youth groups, boy and girl scout troops, church youth groups, and many more. The kids are always fascinated, but they’re not sure how to deal with me. Here’s this guy in a wheelchair telling kids to be responsible, to think before they drink and drive, and to understand that their actions have consequences. Consequences like putting another person in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But the presentations are never preachy, and I always try to make them fun. Even funny at time.
“How do you go to the bafroom?” (It’s not always easy, but I manage.)
“Is it fun in the wheelchair? Can I get one?” (No, it’s not fun as a rule, although I can do wheelies.)
“How can you drive if your legs don’t work?” (Great question. I need special hand controls for the truck.)
Thursday, September 13, 2012
“That guy is driving way too fast,” I said out loud to myself. The driver didn’t seem concerned about the pounding rain, and the big Chevy truck kept on coming. “He’ll probably just pass me,” I thought, and I turned my attention back to the road ahead.
Life can turn on a dime, and mine did just that in a matter of seconds. It would be days before my family and I learned the damage … six broken ribs, punctured lungs, my liver lodged in my chest cavity, my back fractured in several places, and a severed spinal cord. I coded twice shortly after the accident, and the doctors were ready to call my death. But I came back. Why?
We didn’t know for days whether I would survive or what kind of life I could have if I did. I didn’t learn for a week that I would be paralyzed forever from the waist down.
My name is Dwight Owens. This is my story.
Monday, August 20, 2012
Living independently and thriving with a disability is no task for the meek. Every day strains your body and your character. Every day brings new challenges, and every day is a test of endurance. But every day is also an opportunity for victory, and that’s what matters most. It is not the struggles people in the disabled community face, although that’s important. It is not the setbacks they encounter. What matters most is to go on, to make a difference, and to contribute in a positive way to the world around us. That’s what matters, and that’s what this blog is all about.
Dwight Owens is featured in the book “Still Standing.” He was an able-bodied, young man starting his career as a math teacher and football coach when tragedy struck. Tragedy came in the form of Herman Posey, a 71-year old drunk driver who rammed Dwight’s vehicle one rainy day in 2005 and changed Dwight’s life in a single instant. Dwight coded in the emergency room and was given up for dead. Against all odds, he survived. Punctured lungs, broken ribs, massive internal bleeding, dislocated organ, and a broken back were the least of Dwight’s concerns. His spine was severed at T-9, and he would be paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his life.
We’ve all heard the story before. What’s different here, however, is Dwight’s triumphant recovery and decision to make it count for something. Perhaps it’s not so different. After two years of surgery after surgery, life-threatening setback after life-threatening setback, and a grueling rehabilitation regimen, Dwight emerged with an unwavering resolution in his heart. He would make it all count for something. Dwight would share his story and bring hope to others with disabilities. And he would share his story and let the world know that a disability is not a death sentence. As Dwight says, “I can do anything any able-bodied person can do. Maybe a little more slowly, but I can do it all.” It’s that spirit and resolve that brought Dwight to the world on inspiration speaking. He shares his story with tens of thousands, offered the lessons he’s learned to the world at large, and let his infectious humor uplift the hopeless. Dwight is a prominent speaker throughout the South, and his work saves lives.
Come join us on this blog as we bring Dwight’s story of hope to an even broader audience.