Sometimes it really is true that your life can change in a second.
Dear friend Dan Middleton learned that firsthand 30 years ago today.
A junior at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, he had stayed up all night putting an issue of the school’s newspaper to bed.
He was taking his second ski run on the day when he fell.
At first the fall didn’t seem too bad, he thought.
But then he realized he couldn’t move.
So he lay there on an early Monday morning, the chill spreading inside him matching the cold of the mountain as he understood that everything from then on would be different.
A fellow skier came over to Dan and asked him how he was doing.
This is common courtesy on the slopes, and it might have saved his life.
This was not just any skier, but rather a doctor.
When he heard what had happened, he told Dan instantly to lay still.
Thrashing about or trying to stand up – totally normal reactions under the circumstances – could have resulted in even more damage, or perhaps, his death.
Dan was taken down the mountain and to the hospital, where his medical ordeal began: months of traction, unable to do anything but stare at the ceiling and grit it out through another day.
Coming to accept the immense changes in his body that left him unable ever to walk again and his hands barely able to open a door.
Somehow making it back to St. Paul’s, where he directed a play his senior year and was largely helped by classmates.
We met during our freshman year at Stanford.
I had heard about the kid in the wheelchair, but did not actually meet him for a few days.
We got to know each other, and Dan eventually became one of my closest friends.
We spent hours each night talking, watching the news, ordering pizza, and listening to music.
Hailing from a storied blue-blood lineage, Dan was pure Hudson Valley with a deep mellifluous voice, remarkable mimicry skills, and an incisive sense of humor with uncanny ability to find the richest nugget.
He’s also known suffering from even before his accident, and thus has always listened to other people’s travails with compassion and understanding and without judgment.
Dan helped me edit my columns and senior thesis about Dr. King, cleaning up sentences that read, “King was very popular with the other students. A fellow student pulled a gun on King.”
We graduated 25 years ago this June. After the ceremony, he joined Mom, Jon, Mike and me as we had a celebratory frozen yogurt.
We’ve not seen each other much during these years – the last we were together in person was 1997 – but Skype has been a real boon to our relationship and sense of connection.
At various points, Dan’s focused his considerable intellect and obsessive attention to detail on different literary masters, and the past four years he’s poured himself into politics.
Talking with him is like attending a seminar in real time, as he unleashes a torrent of information, policy and media analysis.
As we talk, the conversation flows seamlessly between our freshman year antics, the latest sporting developments, family and other questions of the day.
Each time we speak Dan lifts my spirits by reminding me of our connection and my great fortune to have him in my life.
It very easily might not have been so, had he moved just that little bit before the doctor approached him after the fall on the ski slope that altered everything.