What Happened to You?
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
As questions go it's up there with "why are you so ugly?" and "how did you get so fat?" as hugely inappropriate questions to ask someone you have never met before and I wasn't sure how to respond when I was first asked.
As with any historic event you always remember the first time you are asked this question. I know where I was when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty in Euro 96, I remember passing my driving test and I remember the exact moment I was first asked why I was sitting in a wheelchair.
It was 3 months after the accident and I was still an inpatient. I had escaped the confines of the hospital one Sunday morning to go to the local gym and get away from the smell of disinfectant and incessant beeping of machines that line the ward I shared with five other guys. Getting out even for just a few minutes was a chance to do something "normal" in the community, a feeling I had missed during long days in a hospital bed.
I was barely ten minutes into my first gym session when an old man wandered up to me with a 70's rocker come Jesus vibe. Long grey hair framed a gappy toothed smile as he touched my leg. I'm not against touching per se but touching strangers is generally frowned upon where I come from. This guy gave no fucks. With the subtlety of someone pissing in your pocket and telling you it's raining he proceeded to ask...
"What happened to you then son?"
It was so unexpected and delivered in such a nonchalant way I didn't know how to respond. We both waited in silence and stared at each other, waiting for a response. Me not knowing to how to react, him thinking "shit can this guy not walk or talk?" What an interesting story he must have, I cant wait to find out more.
Like the bad guy in James Bond movie who unnecessarily tells his evil plan way too early I folded and told him everything he wanted to know spending the rest of the day thinking of all the other things I wish I'd said.
When I've spoken to friends about this encounter they have shared similar experiences and offered something along the lines of fuck off you old twat as a response. That's never been my style but I can see the attraction. Others have given a more diplomatic response of "what's my name" . This has the benefit of making the person asking the question think. "that's a good point, I don't even know this persons name so maybe this is an inappropriate question to ask someone I don't know". No doubt this is a more robust response but it could lead to a whole conversation on etiquette which is also not a road I want to go down. Luckily I wouldn't have to wait to long to come up with something new when posed this question.
Later that year we took our first holiday post injury to Spain. The resort is what's known as a summer activity holiday. The best way to explain this is that it's like a holiday camp for the middle class. Over the sound of tennis balls bouncing around courts you hear things like:
"Felicity, Tarquin time for your hummus and smashed avocado sandwiches" and "Rupert will you stop biting my Rolex!"
The resort had an endless buffet of food served in the restaurant and cold beers at the bar so it had everything I wanted from a holiday. Our hotel room was my second experience of what an accessible room was like and this one seemed much more appropriate. The first I'd visited was a little liberal with what they considered accessible as it had a huge step in shower but this one did actually look like it was usable with a wheelchair. Outside of the bathroom the only other difference I've found with accessible rooms is a little bit more room around the bed and a red emergency cord that hangs from the ceiling in the bathroom making it almost impossible for children not to do a Tarzan impression every time they have a bath. I don't expect a puncture repair kit and spare wheelchair seat cushion when I book an accessible room but "bathroom without steps" would be a more suitable description then accessible in most places.
It was in that shower that, while singing along to Gala's 1997 smash hit 'Freed from Desire' with one hand securely grasping the handle behind me while I washed my back when I fell head first smashing my face on the floor. When my wife answered my timid calls for help she found puddles of blood mixed with the remaining drops of my self esteem on the floor. Having spent most of the year in hospital I chose more of a do it yourself approach to wound care that evening with a plaster and a medicinal glass of wine for the pain. The following day one of the first aid trained lifeguards added some steri-strips to close the wound on my forehead. As wounds go it was a good one and almost identical to the lightening bolt above Harry Potters eye.
The following evening I was collecting the random food that is only acceptable in a buffet environment. Squeezing a slice of pepperoni pizza on my plate between a dollop of chicken curry, mixed salad and a slice of New York cheesecake a guy wearing only a pair of swimming shorts and hairy chest giving a decidedly David Hasselhoff from Bay watch vibe, sidled up beside me. The Hoff reached across for a slice of pizza and tried to attract my attention. Pointing to his forehead he said
"what happened to you then?"
After being caught off guard with this line of questioning before I was ready for this.
"Shark Attack" I replied
We both laughed and got back to our buffet.
With room still on my plate I wandered over to the pasta section as there is always room for pasta. Out the corner of my eye I saw red as David's shorts came up to me again.
"no really, what happened to you"
" really I was out on a paddle board and fell in the water where a small shark took a bite. Be careful out there"
I hoped that adding some colour to my story would satisfy his curiosity. David gave me a look that said. "I don't believe you but OK"
We went back to our tables and enjoyed our meals away from any more interrogation but as I went up for pudding (yoghurt, nuts, fruit and another slice of pizza), he cornered me in the fruit section asking again what I'd done to my face. I respected the guys determination but needed to come up with something else. Something that would shock Tarantino style. Something he wouldn't want to hear more about.
"Ok I'll level with you I got the cut on the head for the same reason that I'm sat in this wheelchair.
"Go on" - he leaned in closer, ready for the big reveal. I could see that he was happy he had persevered at asking the same question enough times to finally hear the truth.
"Are you sure you are ready to hear this?"
"Yes" he said moving closer.
"I was masterbating so hard I broke two vertebrae in my back. Yesterday I did it again and fell off the shower seat smashing my face on the floor".
I can still see the look of shock on David's face. It was as if he had just watched the end of Sopranos or been told by his doctor that he was going to try it "dry" today moment before a prostate exam.
I didn't see David after that but often wonder how he spent the rest of his evening. Was he as shocked as when I left him? Staring ahead unblinking while his children waved their hands in front of his face.
"What happened Daddy?"
"It doesn't matter Tabitha. Eat your smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, we are leaving."
I have used variations on this explanation when asked about my injury several times since and it has worked every time. I am more then happy to discuss the course of events that led me to be a full time wheelchair user but only to those that know me as a multidimensional person. I am a father, a worker, a keen sportsman and I have other stories to tell. I am more then just a wheelchair.
So if you find yourself asking a stranger a question where the answer is "wanking injury" bear in mind you might have been given an inappropriate answer to an inappropriate question.