From Pride to Prasad
I went to college on a basketball scholarship. After 4 years of playing my favorite sport, with fantastic teammates and partying like most normal college kids, I found myself sitting in the church during our graduation mass, thinking to myself, “what am I going to do now?” I honestly hadn’t given it any thought…
Three months later, travelling across America, I had a serious car accident. I broke my neck and back as well as a few other bones. I was paralyzed and had a major surgery. Strange things occurred right from the very beginning. The accident took place outside of Butte, Montana in the middle of nowhere. Driving behind us were four EMT first responders on the way to a wedding. They saw our car flip over three times and were there seconds later after calling it in on their CB radio. I was trapped inside the car but was already struggling to get out to see about the other passengers, when one of the first responders crawled in through the back window and held my head against the head rest, talking to me, assuring me that I was going to be alright and that help was coming. I had a broken neck. If I had continued to struggle to get out of the car, I could have caused a lot more damage.
After about three days of being in the hospital, my father put a big ad in the local paper asking the four EMT responders to come forward. He and the fathers of the other girls who were in the car wanted to thank them. But no one ever came forward. I remember one of my nurses saying that they were angels.
After the surgery, I had fourteen months of rehabilitation: a long and lonely path mostly filled with a combination of extreme boredom and chronic pain. So I had a lot of time on my hands to think and ponder my life situation.
I grew up in a good family. Most things came easily to me. I loved sports and had a wide circle of friends. All of my education was in various Catholic schools but my parents weren’t practicing Catholics. I do remember as a child going to mass with my grandparents, singing songs from church in the backseat of my grandfather’s car. My favorite was, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I also had a children’s bible that I carried around with me, demanding anyone who visited our house to read to me while I sat like a little princess on their lap.
At some point in my pre-teen years I stopped going to church. So now, fast forward to my 21st year. I am sitting in my parent’s house in a brace that immobilized me from the waist up. I had to wait for someone to come and help me get up out of the chair, I couldn’t do it on my own. Just one month earlier, I was training for mini triathlons; running, biking and swimming hours each day. Overnight everything changed for me. One thing I remember was observing that no matter how much my parents loved me and tried to do everything they could for me, I was still alone with all this pain and feeling very miserable. There is a limit to how much other people can do for us. At a certain point we have to decide to help ourselves.
It was during this time, sitting in that chair that I remember thinking “who am I?” This body that I had been so identified with was completely different. Actually everything was completely different. I couldn’t relate to my friends who were all focused on getting a job. I broke up with my perfectly nice boyfriend because I just had nothing to say to him. Everything he talked about felt superficial and ridiculous. I found myself wanting to scream, “Don’t you get it? I almost died!!!!”
My surgeon told me that I was a centimeter away from death. Other doctors who watched parts of my surgery all said it was a miracle that I was walking or that ‘someone’ was watching out for me. Filled with self-pity, I didn’t feel very lucky or fortunate at all.
One day there was a knock on my door and my grammer school atheletic director was standing on my porch. She asked about me and soon started to explain the reason for her visit. The girl’s basketball season was starting and they had no coach. I burst out laughing! With all the respect I could muster, I asked her if she was blind. I had lost thirty pounds and could barely function, immobilized as I was in this huge brace. She slowly and with all the finesse of a lawyer stated her case, ‘We have no one else… The season starts in a week… You really just have to supervise, it won’t be too much…” and on and on. Oh and of course, “there really isn’t any money to pay you with.” Finally I agreed to try, but told her to continue looking for someone else because I really didn’t want to do this
So I went and after about three days I threw all my pain medication away. The depression that followed me around like a black cloud was gone. I was in hook line and sinker. These girls opened up my heart and touched a very deep need in me that I didn’t even realize was there. They taught me much more than I taught them. I taught them how to shoot a lay-up but they changed the course of my life. They taught me the sweetest lesson possible-that in giving you receive. This was my first experience of seva. I knew that now I had to live a life that was meaningful. I still had no idea what that would look like but I know without a doubt if it wasn’t for that accident I never would have found myself on the road to the spiritual teacher Amma, who’s ashram I have resided in for the past twenty-six years. I was an arrogant, beer drinking jock from New Jersey. I had no interest in spirituality at all at the time of this accident. I never would have had the humility to agree to go and meet Amma.
This taught me a valuable lesson-that at first glance a situation might seem horrible or tragic but that’s because we haven’t seen the end result yet. After a really fierce storm sometimes there is an exceptionally beautiful rainbow.
Sarayu has been a resident in Amritapuri ashram since 1993. She briefly worked as a chaplain in America and later wrote Being With Dying (available on Amazon) based on her experiences.