Fourteen years ago this month, I fractured my spine in a pool diving accident. I was twenty-four years old at the time and living the life I'd always wanted. Then, in a flash, I found myself face down in a pool, as scenes from my life up until that point played out like a movie montage in my head.
Technically, with each moment that passed, I was inching closer and closer to death. But even in those first few moments, when I began sinking toward the bottom of the pool, when I realized I couldn't move my body, and my lungs began to breathe in chlorine water, my brain refused to see the possibility of mortality. Somehow, I knew that I would survive.
Given the circumstances I just described, I realize I might sound like a bit of a lunatic. In fact, the first surgeon I encountered at the hospital a few hours later told me I probably wouldn't make it. The only way I can explain my thinking is, in my head, not surviving just wasn't part of what would happen. It wasn't an option.
Now, I can look back on everything I've experienced and accomplished and know that, little by little, the life that I initially thought was taken away from me was, in reality, becoming so much greater than I could have expected. The truth is, what happened did nearly suck all of the energy from my body and soul to want to continue. But I eventually learned to use those feelings of anger and despair to motivate myself to continue to grow.
One thing that comes along with being in a wheelchair is that, no matter if my injury happened one month ago or fourteen years ago, people will continually ask the inevitable question of: "What happened?" And, while I'm used to people asking me that question, June 1 is one of the few days of the year that I ask that to myself.
It's a hard question for me to answer, because it feels so much bigger than one event, or string of events. My injury certainly made me think about life differently, and how it seems to unfold for each of us in different ways. Up until my injury, moments that "happened" in my life were mainly good, sometimes serendipitous, and (ironically) often forgotten. Now, as I sit in my chair and type this, I may not remember every single moment of that night, or the following days, months, and years, but I'm always reminded of how close I came to not existing anymore.
Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, presented the case for human temporality, where we essentially define ourselves and existence in relation to the time we have, our "meaningfulness." I often think about this theory as it relates to the experience of facing death, and know that ultimately, I do not define myself based on my past, present or future. Instead, I operate in the moment, and allow myself to sometimes make it up as I go along.
While I've come so far fourteen years later, there are still many obstacles to surmount. Sometimes, I go to reach for a glass of water, only to remember that (for now) I can only stare and wait for help. But those many obstacles continue to motivate me to keep going, to once again defy the odds.
I waste little time in taking action toward goals I want to accomplish, either through my company Clark's Botanicals, or my work with the Reeve Foundation, but I also know that it's just as important to enjoy time with family and friends, to allow space for not planning, a bit of "nothingness" to balance the goals met and actions taken. Each has its place, and is surprisingly connected to each other when it comes to overall happiness and fulfillment.
Work gives me a strong foundation and structure to my days, where I might otherwise feel lost and listless. I've had successes and setbacks in my business, but oddly enough, I've found that as some areas flounder and disappear, some flourish and grow. I've discovered so much meaning in my work that I never imagined was possible -- I've felt the relevance of something as innocuous as a moisturizer gain ground when I start to see how that little jar might give back to medical research.
Not everything happens for a reason; I really do believe that sometimes you just fall. And, what transpired after that moment on June 1, 2002 has been equally as difficult as it has been rewarding. I know that, above all, I'm glad to be here, able to share this moment with you. And, while I've been physically changed, I know that I'm the same person with the same values and personality at my core.
-- Francesco Clark