Forget Harry and Meaghan’s bump, the opportunity the Invictus Games gives to the impaired should be our focus. One athlete made this clear to me when he shared his story.
There will be a lot of Harry and Meagan coverage this week. But while you enjoy the fashion and the royalty, don’t forget what the Invictus Games are really about. Opportunity. I spoke to one athlete who is set to compete, not about his event, but rather the events that led to his disability, the desolation afterwards, and what the Invictus Games truly represents.
First, there was Before. With the benefit of hindsight, in Before everything looks sunny and bright. Like childhood, through nostalgia, always consists of endless freedom, days on the beach, running around without responsibilities. In his Before he was never sick, never unhappy, always full of life. Everybody loved him and he loved everybody. His body was a tower of strength. It could fight and fuck, take feast and famine. It was his pride. It looked good, too, and women were drawn to it. He has pictures of that time, but he hardly ever takes them out. It is better to lock Before into his mind, a prized possession, a closely guarded secret.
Then came the Moment, but that is too difficult to discuss. Part of it is hearsay anyway. Bystanders telling him of the blast, the noise of it, the smell of burning flesh. Two of his friends saw his bones stick out, the blood pooling on the dirt road, his guts outside of his body, his face white. He only remembers fragments. And snippets of vision: the sun rising over the hill, the underside of the Humvee, a few little stones in front of him that looked like gold nuggets. There was the pain, of course, but not then, not straight away. Later, sure, but not so much in the Moment. There was more surprise then, or maybe not surprise but resignation. Bound to happen, something like that. Or: better me than John, who was his friend, and weaker, he thought, less able to handle something like this.
He would like to call the next phase After, but knows now that it wasn’t, not yet. It was more Hell, if he is honest. The hospital, first of all. The endless operations, the torture they called rehab. He sees himself screaming. Out of pain, but mostly out of frustration. He felt like a baby, and he was. Nappies, even. And the realization that he would never, ever, be able to, you know, do it. Not like before. Had they left him to his own devices, he would have killed himself. At night, that was all he could dream about: letting himself go under, the ocean closing over the top of him. But there was his mother, so he couldn’t do it. She had lost so much already, it wouldn’t have been fair.
Then there was After, but only, thankfully, mark one. He spent most of it sitting in his old room, where he had been a boy, full of expectations and promises. It seemed like this was the only place left for him in the world. No use, really. Not for him, not here. For a while, he forgot about his mother. He had a gun, still, and the Royal was close by. He sat there for hours, at the top of the escarpment, overlooking the water. After a while, a small herd of deer approached. They just stood there, eating, looking at him. For the first time, he cried. Not for himself, but because of the beauty of the world. And the kindness of the universe, to show him his place in it. It had taken him an evening to walk back home, he remembers, but he had felt light, almost weightless.
It had been the start of After mark two, the real one. They had given him a dog to talk to, and a gym to train in. He is a runner now, but more to the point: he is a man again. In charge of his days, of his thoughts, his future. Because beyond After, there will be something else. Although he doesn’t know what that will be yet, he cautiously calls it Life.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My heady is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
—”Invictus”, by William Ernest Henley