Q&A TEDTalks

Life after the accident: An excerpt from Joshua Prager’s powerful memoir, Half-Life

Joshua Prager uses his journalistic eye to tell his own story at TED2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Joshua Prager uses his journalistic eye to tell his own story at TED2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Almost twenty-three years ago, Joshua Prager experienced a moment that could only be described as “a great hinge in my life,” one that divided it “like the spine of an open book.” Just 19 years old then, Prager was in Israel for a year after high school. He was sitting in the backseat of a minibus bound for Jerusalem when a truck behind him lost control and slammed into the corner where he sat. His neck broke and, in a second, he went from an athletic teen to a hemiplegic. It would be weeks before he could breathe on his own, four months before he would leave the hospital. For the next four years, he navigated the world in a wheelchair, then a cane and braces – and embarked on a career as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Prager: In search of the man who broke my neck Joshua Prager: In search of the man who broke my neck In today’s talk, given at TED2013, Prager tells the story of going back to Jerusalem to try to find the man who had been driving that truck: Abed.

“[He was] a man I never met, but who had changed my life,” says Prager in this wrenching talk. “So on an overcast morning in January, I headed north in a silver Chevy to find a man – and some peace.”

Prager had returned to live in Jerusalem once before, after college. While there, he’d read Abed’s testimony from the morning after the accident and felt an intense wave of emotion.

“It was the first time I’d felt anger toward this man and it came from magical thinking. On this Xeroxed sheet of paper the crash had not yet happened,” says Prager. “Abed could still turn his wheel left so I would see him whoosh by out my window … and I would remain whole.”

He contacted Abed on that trip, but the two didn’t meet. It was only last year — as Prager wrote a book about his experience — that he realized he needed to meet Abed face-to face. “Finally I understood why,” says Prager. “To hear this man say two words: I’m sorry.”

To hear how Prager found Abed, watch this talk. In it, he shares the unexpected trajectories this meeting took — and the lessons this unpredictable encounter taught him about human nature and the core of our identities.

Of course, Prager was only able to tell a sliver of his story in an18-minute talk. He shares much, much more in his book Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck. Below, two excerpts from this recently released book – one from the prologue and one short selection from later.

Through the faded blue metal frame of my open window, I watch the morning light approach. It crests the skinny cypress trees atop the hill just over the valley, rolls down the bone rooftops of Jabal Mukabbir, rises to ripen the red-yellow nectarines on my sill three stories above Naomi Street. My floor, tiles of salmon and olive, brightens, and my glass tabletop reflects the worn copy of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly upon it.

The light reminds me that I have just come back to Jerusalem and I smile at a thought: “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” I appropriated the sentence long ago from the Psalmist and I slide my left foot into my plastic brace, calf-high and erect in an empty brown shoe. I take hold of my wooden cane and walk to the staircase. There is no handrail on my right so I descend the three flights slowly, right forearm pressed against the powdery concrete wall, left hand unable to grasp the banister available to it, left leg — hard to bend–preceding the right down each of 55 steps.

I turn right on Naomi Street, right again on Hebron. My left foot is closer to the street than my right. Sidewalks the world over slant down toward the gutter and I am careful to give the extra smidgeon of clearance the slope affords to the half of me that swings forward from the hip. I have now done so for half my life.

Before May 16, 1990, I had not noticed the slant underfoot. Nor, as I ran over rise and fall, had I contemplated much what made me me, or that unfairness has theological implications, or that life might end each and every day.

But right now, because my neck broke, I am carrying a question to a windmill aware not only of the topography of the stone molars below but also, as every day, of these higher burdens.

And yet, I am lucky. Twenty-two years ago, at the base of the hill that rises to Jerusalem, a careless truck driver almost killed me as I sat in the back of a minibus. He would have but for the machines and people and tubes that saw to it that my body breathed and fed and pissed. A medical jet flew me home to New York where at age 19, I quietly observed the goings-on; I could not speak or move or feel anything below my neck save one well placed prick of a needle.

Improbably, the swelling in my neck receded. I would walk in the land of the living! But imbalanced. My right side moved freely. My left, restrained by spasticity, a neurological tightness of sorts, did not; it furled and shook. A doctor explained that I was further divided: I had Brown-Séquard syndrome which roughly meant that one half of me could move better, the other half feel.

I told myself to work now and think later. And so I pushed myself, learned to eat and dress and steady a suppository in spastic fingers, to sit and stand and walk. Walking, however gratifying, was at any real length an impractical exhaustion, and I used a wheelchair for four years until, back in Israel after college, I put in another year of exercise and rose from the chair for good. I returned to New York and became a journalist, walking through six continents with an ankle brace and cane, typing articles and a book with one finger.

I tried to write of the crash but failed. Instead, for a decade, I wrote of secrets. There was the reclusive boy who inherited the royalties to the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon. There was the hidden scheme that led to baseball’s most famous moment, The Shot Heard Round the World. There was the only-ever anonymous recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a photographer in Iran. There were the unknown suicides of the parents of the most famous missing person in World War II.

It took a friend to point out to me the obvious: all of these stories mirrored my own, each centering on a life that changed in an instant — owing if not to a crash than to an inheritance, a swing of a bat, a click of a shutter, an arrest. Each of us had a before and an after. I had been working through my lot after all.

A second friend helped me to see that I was, in effect, forcing my subjects — one solved secret at a time — to live with their altering moment just as I did: openly. Whereas a depressed person can choose to conceal her disability, to meet me is to see that I use a cane.

But as I continue now on my walk and turn left onto King David, I am less sure of what I, not others, see in me and my broken neck.

I have returned to Jerusalem to find this out, to become again whole where I was once divided.

I cross to the right side of the street so that my left leg is to the curb and I see the windmill ahead amidst cypress and carob and olive trees. It is beautiful, a narrowing white stone cylinder with an iron cap and sail. A wealthy Brit named Moses Montefiore had it built in 1857 to encourage Jews to leave the safe but confined walled city just over the valley and support themselves milling flour. Though a community rooted about the mill, the mill was not used for long.

I turn into the park, step onto its stone path and walk between puffs of rosemary toward the windmill. I have walked a mile and my back is tight–all that swinging of a leg–and I put my right hand on my hip and lean back quickly at the waist. I hear the familiar crack deep in my back, my left leg stiffens and kicks forward, my left arm bends and shakes in spastic confusion. I balance flamingo-like a few seconds on my right leg, then sit.

I reach the windmill and look up. And then I, who once ran about it, asks my question: with no wind and no mill, are you still a windmill?

***

I am standing on a rooftop in the old walled city of Jerusalem when at 4:04 on a Friday afternoon a siren sounds as it does here every week. It stops and the Sabbath, silent, begins. And I remember another silence that followed another great sound not far away. For the crash blew out my eardrum and for a time, I heard nothing.

And then the world was full of noise — beeps and alarms and intercoms and voices — and I was silent. And the absence of my voice was audible. So I listened and heard what I had not before — the wee squeak of a first sneeze, the echo of smacked lips, the soft click of my thumb pressing a blue square button embossed with the white silhouette of a nurse.

In the quiet of my first night at Sinai, I heard a scream. It was a sustained, bloodcurdling scream, a woman in a horror film. My body jerked. The scream stopped, then returned, words articulated but incomprehensible. Then more screams descending into a frantic cough.

Then I saw her — a girl, maybe 16, skinny and tall, with half her head shaved and long dark scraggly hair falling from the other. She looked like a demon and ran screaming from my door.

My heart pounded. I began to sweat. My call bell was clipped to the railing on the right of my bed and I put my thumb on it and pressed. No one came. The screaming continued. Sweat wet my face and I pressed the button repeatedly. Where was help?! I felt dizzy. It occurred to me that perhaps there had been a mistake: I had been sent to a mental institution! Minutes passed. I was dizzy, drenched and bewildered when the nurse entered my room and told me that the girl had been in a car accident and could not speak.

I calmed. I listened. I thought of the girl. Wrote William Carlos Williams: “The poem springs from the half-spoken words of such patients….”

Time passed and I readied for bed one night when a man I could not see began to moan. Minutes passed and still he moaned and then an hour passed and I was exhausted and began to count the moans and time the moans, their metronomic parabolic rise and fall. The nurses did not make the moans stop and the moans continued for nights until the man was gone and I did not care to where.

There was more noise too. Margaret was loud. Tufts of black and white hair did not conceal a scar on her scalp and she blurted out unpleasant words and glowered at all. And one Saturday night as my father recited a prayer to mark the end of the Sabbath and I held a forbidden candle, middle-aged Margaret pushed open my door with her foot and wheeled in.

My father stopped. We closed the door. Margaret looked at the flame and we looked at Margaret. Her expression contorted. “You can’t have fire,” she said.

“Hi Margaret,” I said.

“Hi sunshine.”

I explained that this was a special candle and the fire was a secret. Margaret listened as my father resumed the prayer. She left and never told.

Years passed and I thought of Margaret and the moaning man and the screaming girl and their half-spoken words and my own words that were whole. And I appreciated the words I spoke more for having once not been able to speak them. Wrote Melville: “Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.”

Contrast. It is the short sentence that stands out in contradistinction to the long, the sound to the silence. You are mindful of what you do not have and so are truly mindful of what you do have. And if the gods are kind, you truly enjoy what you have. That is the one singular gift you may receive when you live in a hospital or break your neck or are sick or lose someone you love or suffer in any existential way. You know death and so may wake each morning pulsing with ruddy life. Some part of you is cold and so another part may truly enjoy what it is to be warm. And even to be cold. When one winter morning years after the crash, I stepped onto a tile floor and the underside of my left foot felt a flash of cold stone, nerves at last awake, it was exhilarating, a gust of snow.

The excerpt above comes from the new Byliner Original by Joshua Prager, Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck. It’s available for $3.99 at Amazon’s Kindle Store and Apple’s iBookstore. It is also a Nook Snap at BarnesAndNoble.com, and a Short Read at Kobo.

So how did Prager come to TED? He spoke at the New York stop of our worldwide talent search. There he gave a shorter talk, about reaching his “half-life” – the exact moment when he had lived as long after the crash as he had before. Below, hear what he spent this moment, which calls “a looming uber-anniversary.”

And here, read the TED Blog’s Q&A with Prager after his talent search talk »