I became an incomplete paraplegic at the age of 22, because of a road accident. Running was the thing I loved to do most in life and it was taken away from me in a split second without warning or consultation.
Meeting the man who put me in a wheelchair was not going to be easy. I didn’t feel anger towards him or crave retribution, but I was apprehensive about getting in touch with him, hearing his voice, seeing him in person. My concern was that it might be a negative experience—and that would make things worse for me, not better. But I also knew that if I didn’t face up to this I would never be free of it. I wanted to know what happened in the cabin of that truck just before it hit me and what the driver’s reaction had been and how his own life had turned out. I wanted to know for sure that it was an accident, that my paraplegia was an unfortunate consequence of a random event.
Dialing the number was extremely difficult. It was nothing compared to facing up to the injuries I’d suffered when I woke up in the spinal unit at the local hospital, but I had no choice but to keep going then. Facing the man who put me in a wheelchair was another issue altogether. I would be putting the ball squarely in his court and that was both risky and confronting.
“Hello,” he said. “Hello, my name is John Maclean,” I replied. “I have been trying to get in touch with you for a while. I am at a stage of my life where I am moving forward and I was hoping we could meet. I have no intention of malice but it would help me with closure.”
There, I had said it—blurted it out, more precisely—before he had the chance to hang up. My heart was beating so fast and loud I could hear it thumping through my shirt. “I am okay with that,” he said. No objection or questions, just five words in a non-committal tone.
Two weeks later I wheeled into the lobby of the agreed hotel, and transferred from my wheelchair into a lounge chair facing the entrance. I knew he would recognize me—the wheelchair parked beside me would make sure of that. I had rehearsed what I would say in an attempt to put him at ease. The first few seconds of any meeting are critical and I wanted to take the edge off any discomfort he might be feeling. This was not about retribution or anger. It was about closure and forgiveness.
He looked really nervous and jittery, and suddenly I realized how much courage it had taken for him to come here today. I thanked him again for coming and explained that I had been revisiting parts of my life in an attempt to get closure. “The last part of the jigsaw was to finally meet you and get your interpretation of how the accident unfolded. What was your recollection of the accident?”
Tom drew a deep breath and shifted a little on the lounge. I felt he was choosing his words carefully. “I was driving down the highway and was coming up on the back of another truck and I was indicating and wanting to go out and around,” he said rather nervously. “I don’t remember hearing anything. And I don’t remember seeing a cyclist, I was looking in my side-view mirror and didn’t realize anything had happened until I saw this guy on the motorbike coming up beside me waving at me with one hand and motioning for me to pull over. I first knew something had happened when I got out and walked around and saw the front of the truck. I didn’t walk back to see you on the side of the road. I thought you were dead. I was only 20 and I just didn’t know what to do. The police took my statement and my details, and I went back to the warehouse to tell my boss.”
I had lain in hospital for several weeks, expecting the truck driver to walk through the door at any moment. I had waited for him, listened for his footsteps even. “What about the hospital?” I said as evenly as I could. “Was there a thought of going to the hospital?” “There was certainly a thought,” he said, a little nervously, as if he understood this was an issue for me. “When the boss actually found out what had happened he told me to stay away.”
“Part of me—a big part of me,” I said, “was waiting for you to come in and say, ‘I’m sorry.'” Accidents happen every day and that would have been good for me to hear at that time. People have said to me, “What happened with the truck driver?” and I say, “I don’t know, I never heard from him.”
I saw his eyes mist over. He was on the verge of tears and for the first time I realized that he had not escaped the incident unscathed either. His voice faltered, “When you called a couple of weeks ago, I was shocked, but I thought, ‘Yes, I want to meet him.’ I want to go and say ‘Sorry’, and that if I could do anything different I would.”
And there it was! He had finally used the word “sorry”. He hadn’t looked me in the eye and said it directly to my face. But he had said it, and I believed he was. All that had transpired between us in terms of the impact we’d had on each other’s lives was not going to be erased after one meeting. But the sting had gone out of it, at least for me. I respected the magnitude of what we had achieved today. It was, as I’d hoped, a cathartic experience for me, and I hope for him.
It dawned on me why the meeting was so powerful—what you hold onto in life holds onto you. That’s what I learnt that day. I had faced my fear. It was not enough to talk about what had happened, I had to have this meeting—I had to go through the process—to get it right in my own mind and be free of it. I no longer felt the need to hold on. I felt a sense of closure.
John Maclean is the author of How Far Can You Go? My 25 Year Quest To Walk Again. In June 1988, John was hit by an 8-ton truck as he rode his bike. Somehow this near-fatal accident was the making of him. John decided to rebuild his life and became an elite wheelchair athlete and Paralympian. 25 years after his accident John faced his biggest challenge yet – learning to walk again. For more information visit www.johnmaclean.com.au.