Steve Fiffer

As you might have figured out by now, I find that humor is often the best way to deal with a situation, no matter how grave. Having tried to inject some laughs into my first four entries, I had hoped to leave you smiling in this final column. But this is a daily diary, and the events of the past 48 hours make it impossible for me to exit on anything but a somber note.

Twenty years ago I left the practice of law to write full time. I had been doing free-lance work for local magazines and newspapers since my first year of law school, but felt frustrated that my duties at the firm prevented me from tackling stories any larger than “The 18 Greatest Miniature Golf Holes in Chicagoland.” I wanted to write long, pithy pieces for The New Yorker, maybe even a book.

A writer friend knew just the project. “Write your autobiography,” he said. I was 28 at the time; it had been 10 years since I had defied the doctors’ predictions that I would never walk again after a paralyzing wrestling injury. I didn’t feel uncomfortable relating the facts of my recovery. Indeed, I had become particularly skilled at using it to woo the women I courted. But I did feel uncomfortable writing my story for publication. I was too young, too unaccomplished. What had I done in life except fall on my head the wrong way?

“Then write it as a novel,” my friend advised. He put me in touch with an agent and an editor. Each seconded his opinion.

With this encouragement, I spent the next year attempting to write a roman à clef. It was my first effort at fiction. The agent liked the finished product and was confident that he could sell it. He was wrong. I went back to writing non-fiction.

For years I thought that the novel failed because I simply wasn’t good at writing fiction. But when my memoir was published this March, I came to a different conclusion. It wasn’t the fact that it was fiction that doomed the first effort. It failed because I was lacking one very important perspective necessary to tell the story honestly and completely–the perspective of parent.

Only as a parent myself have I been able to imagine what it was like for my parents: When my father got the call from the high school that I’d been hurt; when my mother saw me, motionless, pulled from the ambulance; when the doctors told them that they were virtually certain I’d never move again; when they waved goodbye to me at college 10 months after the accident, three weeks after I’d got onto crutches full time.

Every time my daughter calls at an unexpected hour from college or the school health clerk calls to say one of the younger ones is in the office, my heart stops for a moment. A few weeks ago the health clerk phoned. “Rob had an accident on the playground,” she began. Dear God, I thought. “He may have broken his finger,” the clerk continued. I’d never been so happy to receive such seemingly bad news; I didn’t even mind paying the outrageous hospital bill for X-rays that proved negative.

And so it is as a parent that the news from Littleton touches me so deeply–moves me to tears, angers me, makes me question God on the one hand and thank Him for sending my kids home safe on the other. When I was injured, my father, a lawyer known for his ability to fix things, was suddenly rendered helpless. His intellect, his clout, and his affluence couldn’t put me together again. My first reaction to the Columbine shootings was similar. We’re helpless to prevent such acts, I thought. We should just be thankful that they don’t happen more often … and in our community.

But are we helpless? I’m being disingenuous when I say that all I did was fall the wrong way. In truth, I fought damn hard to get back up. And while my father was indeed unable to literally make me walk, he used all his resources to put me in a position to walk again should my spinal cord heal sufficiently.

My first diary entry this week summarized my philosophy in one sentence: “Call yourself disabled, act disabled.” If we throw up our arms and say there is nothing that we as individuals or as a society can do to prevent the next Littleton, then we are indeed disabled.

When I was writing my memoir, my mother confided, “Your accident changed us all forever.” So, too, Littleton. The question we must now ask ourselves is whether we are going to let this tragedy change us for better or for worse.