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When I rolled into the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Irvine, California, the irony was unmistakable. Almost eleven years ago, in this very room, I danced my last dance with Mike, then my fiancé. He had just given me my engagement ring, and I was undoubtedly the happiest woman on earth. I never suspected that in less than thirty-six hours, my life would be turned upside down, forever.
As I waited for my name to be announced, when I would go forward to accept the Walter Knott Service Award for Overcoming Disabilities, I couldn't help but think how different my life was from what I had designed, dreamed, and imagined that night. Sometimes our lives take turns we didn't plan and wouldn't have chosen. Mine definitely did. But, of this I am confident: God is real, and God is faithful. This is how I know.
Eleven years ago the occasion that brought me to the Hyatt Regency Hotel (then the Hilton) was the San Clemente High School prom. I had a wonderful job teaching choir at San Clemente High, a large Orange County school where students could literally walk to the beach.
Music had always occupied much of my energy, time, and heart. What could be better than merging my passion with my career? Still, my career was not without trials. My first year, there were only eighteen students in the entire vocal music program, which tells you where Bach, Brahms, and Mozart were on the priority list of all the surfer dudes at San Clemente High. But when we love something, when we cultivate it and fertilize it, it grows. Within two years the program had grown to 150 students and was still increasing.
Even more exciting than my profession was my love life. Mike's and my wedding day was scheduled for July, just two months away from the prom. I was ecstatic about our wedding and was in the middle of all the last-minute details. Most of all I was excited because Mike was not only the love of my life, he was also my best friend. Like any woman about to marry the man of her dreams, I couldn't have been happier about my life, and I had big plans and lofty aspirations for my future.
Saturday, May 15, 1988, was the big prom day. Mike was in town on business from Denver, where he had been living and working for five months as a staffing specialist for Martin Marietta, an aerospace company. We were asked to chaperone the prom, and I was as excited as the high school girls. I hadn't seen Mike in four weeks, so I was eagerly looking forward to this evening. He came by that morning for a visit, and then he went to see his family and to run "an errand." Meanwhile, I got a manicure and had my hair done (I had it put up in a French knot to see if I would want that "sophisticated" look for the wedding).
Mike took me for a romantic dinner that evening at the Velvet Turtle, one of our favorite restaurants. During the entrée he got a mischievous look on his face, like an excited child with a special secret. He reached in his pocket and produced a tiny little box, opened it, took out the contents, and handed it to me. "Well, here it is. I made the last payment and picked it up this afternoon," he said. My engagement ring!
A year before when Mike asked me to marry him, he gave me an exquisite teardrop sapphire necklace, and then we went to look at rings. Together, we chose the style-a unique one with the wedding band actually inside the engagement ring-and we even selected the diamond. When Mike presented the ring to me, I couldn't get over the fact that the same diamond that looked tiny lying on the black velvet in the jewelry store looked absolutely enormous in the setting! It was a rock! I was blown away. Mike slipped it on my finger, and it fit perfectly.
We were off to the Hilton for the prom. "Somehow" the news leaked out that I had my ring. Could it have been the way I was walking? You know, with my left hand preceding me into the room for all to see? And I guess I did ask my students once or twice, "Did you know Mike gave me my engagement ring tonight? Want to see?" "Did you happen to notice the sparkle coming from my left hand?" "Have you seen my ring?" "I'll bet you haven't seen my ring yet!" (In fact they had-several times.) Groups of excited girls gathered around to admire, to ooh and ah, while their dates waited, rolling their eyes in boredom.
When we weren't checking out the bathrooms and carrying out other chaperoning duties, Mike and I danced in each other's arms. Dancing was almost as important to me as singing. Mike, bless his heart, having absolutely no rhythm but knowing how much I loved to dance, had taken dance lessons the previous summer so that he could share my interest. The dance lessons paid off! We had so much fun that night. We did the swing and the jitterbug, and the band played our song, Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." It was a storybook, romantic evening. I felt like Cinderella dancing with my Prince Charming at the ball. We could not have imagined that we would never dance together again.
The next morning Mike and I had brunch with my family to celebrate Mother's Day. He left from the restaurant in his rental car to go to the airport for his return flight to Denver. I went to Nordstrom to pick up my bridesmaids' dresses and to shop for their gifts. Late that afternoon found me back at school where I conducted the orchestra in the spring musical, Pajama Game. This was a banner day because we played to a packed auditorium. Getting the surfers off the beach and into the theater on a sunny Sunday afternoon in southern California was near miracle status. The performance was wonderful, the audience enthusiastic, and the actors and musicians proud. I was doing what I loved.
I got home to the condominium I shared with Dorothy Henry and her twelve-year-old daughter, Jennifer, around 7:00 P.M. Living with them was just a temporary arrangement until the wedding. For five years I had roomed with my good friend Debbie Thomason, but in January she had gotten married. Assuming the newlyweds didn't want a third roommate for six months, I went to church and asked in several places, "Anybody here need a roommate?" Dorothy responded, and I moved in. I was so busy with my school work and my wedding plans that I was seldom home, so I really didn't know them very well.
That night I sat at the kitchen table, had a little dinner, wrote out some lesson plans, and got ready for bed at about 11:00. Before turning out the light, I admired my "rock" one last time. As I drifted off to sleep, my future felt as snug and secure as my cozy bed. I was safe and happy.
Suddenly, I woke up out of a deep sleep in midair. I had time to think only "Huh?" before WHAM! I landed on the top of my head, finishing the flip with my feet in the closet and my head against the dust ruffle. Still half asleep, it didn't occur to me to wonder why I had dived off the foot of my bed or if I had really hurt myself. My only thought was simply to get back into bed. I rolled onto my left shoulder to get up, but as I did the right side of my neck went CRACK! The pain threw me to my back. I tried rolling onto my right shoulder to get up, but as I did the left side of my neck went CRACK! Oh, man! The excruciating pain threw me to my back yet again.
Now you've really done it, I thought. Since it was my neck, I assumed I had just aggravated an old whiplash injury that had bothered me since a car accident a few years earlier.
By now, I was wide-awake. I realized with some bewilderment and surprise that at twenty-nine years old, I needed help getting up. Because my bedroom was downstairs and Dorothy's upstairs, I knew I'd have to be loud to wake her up. So I took a deep breath and tried to yell "Dorothy!" but all that came out was a whisper! Come on! You're a singer; you teach breathing! I thought to myself. So I took a breath from way down deep and tried again, "Dorothy!" Still only a whisper. Now I was really scared. My bedroom door was shut, and I couldn't call out for help. Dorothy hardly knew me, so she wouldn't check on me the next morning. She didn't keep up with my morning routine. When she saw my door closed, she'd just assume I was sleeping in. I could easily lie there for hours, even all day or longer, and no one would find me.
About the same time I was falling out of bed, Dorothy woke up-DING!-wide-awake. She thought she'd heard a voice, so she got out of bed, walked to the top of the stairs, and thought, Renée wouldn't be on the phone at 2:00 A.M. Within one minute of my fall I heard Dorothy's voice. "Renée? Renée!" I heard her footsteps on the stairs, then her hand on the doorknob. Without even knocking or stopping to wonder why she was entering my bedroom unannounced in the middle of the night, Dorothy opened the door, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Seeing me flat on my back, she asked, "Why are you lying on the floor?" I said, still in a whisper, "I don't know, but it's my neck. It's killing me. I don't know what I did, but I did something big. I can't get up. Call the paramedics."
Dorothy stared at me on the floor, then picked up the phone and called 911. When she hung up, she said, "Okay, they're on their way. I've got to go out to meet them."
"No!" The pain was excruciating, and I couldn't bear being left alone. "Don't leave me!" I pleaded.
"I have to," Dorothy responded. "They'll never find us." My logical side knew that. We lived in one of those really expansive condo complexes; our unit was way in the back and not particularly well marked, so she was right. The paramedics would never find us, at least not easily or quickly. But I was scared. "Please don't leave me!" I insisted again.
"I'll get Jen," she offered. She stepped to the door and stuck her head out to call for her daughter. It was at that time that the strangest sensation came over my body. The only way to describe it would be as a wave, maybe a wave of silence. All of a sudden, starting at my neck, I felt this WHOOOOOOOSH as a wave slowly rippled from my neck all the way down to my toes. What on earth was that? I thought. I can't be paralyzed! All I did was go to bed! Although the thought did cross my mind, I didn't think for one minute that it could actually be true. Like the light of a firefly, the idea was there and gone. Looking back, however, I now firmly believe that the undulating wave was the onset of paralysis, because I never moved again.
Jenni came in, somewhat disoriented after being awakened from a sound sleep. Her hair was disheveled, her night-gown was hanging off her shoulder, and her eyes were barely open. She definitely was not with the program. I whispered, "Jenni, Jenni, come pray with me, come pray with me."
She stared at me on the floor with that typical southern California surfer girl look that insinuated, "Uh ... What's goin' on? Uh ... What do I do now?" But she sat down next to me, took my hand (noticing that it was completely limp), and started praying, "OurFather whoartinheaven hallowedbethyname thykingdomcome thywillbedone ... onearthasitisinheaven ... giveusthisday ... ourdailybread ..."
As she was going through her prayer, I was saying my own. "Let's go, Lord, I'm ready. I'm your instrument. I'm your tool. I'm your tool. I'm your instrument. I'm your instrument. I'm your tool. Use me!" It was weird that I was praying these words. Although I had accepted Christ into my heart years earlier and had an active prayer life, "instrument" and "tool" were not words I commonly used when praying. And besides, it would have made much more sense for me to pray that this injury would not be serious, that the pain in my neck would go away, and that I could just return to bed. Looking back, I think the Holy Spirit was praying through me, that the words were almost or even actually prophetic.
I heard the fire engines arriving. Such a familiar sound. All my life my father had been fire chief of our hometown station, and now my brother Danny was also, so the roar of the fire engine was a sound I had been raised hearing. Dorothy met the paramedics and, being a medical assistant (which I take as no coincidence), she told them, "She's complaining of pain in her neck, her voice has been reduced to a whisper, and she's as white as a ghost." In disbelief she added, "I don't know how she did it, but I think she's broken her neck."
I heard the paramedics coming into the condo, and I could almost sense the heaviness of the equipment I knew so well-the drug box, the scope, the oxygen, the radio-as they came toward my room. It was all familiar, but it was also very strange, knowing that they were coming for me.
When the paramedics entered the room, one went straight to my feet and tickled them to see if there was any response. There was none. The first question EMTs ask an injured person when they come on the scene is not "What happened?" or "Where does it hurt?" They ask the victim her name to see if she's cognizant and if they can trust the information that is given when they do ask about injuries. So they asked me my name, and I said, with rising panic, "Renée Lacouague. Yes, Danny is my brother. Please call him!"
Stunned silence. Because my brother was the fire chief of Station 7 in San Juan Capistrano where I lived, they knew him well. So all of a sudden this was a very personal situation. The victim was almost family.
The paramedics were efficient and gentle. They tried very hard not to move me as they put the brace on my neck. At the time I thought they did this to prevent further pain, which by then was completely out of control-sharp, biting, shooting pain that I had never experienced before.
They lifted me onto the stretcher, covered me with a blanket, and rolled me out into the night toward the waiting ambulance. On the way to the hospital, I looked at the meters and hoses above my head, listened to the hum of the tires on the freeway, and wondered if it was a good sign that they didn't turn the siren on. It seemed that the familiar fifteen-minute drive up the freeway was taking an awfully long time. I just wanted to get to the hospital so that the doctors could see what was wrong, fix it, and take away the pain.
In the emergency room, myriad faces and voices blurred around my bed. Because of the brace on my neck, I could look only straight up. I couldn't see who they were or what they were doing.
Then I saw the face of my only brother, Danny. He is six years older than I (I'm the baby of the family). When I was in junior high, he was in college five hours away, so I really didn't know him very well. As his face came into my field of vision, his big blue eyes reflected his concern, yet there was so much peace. I had never been so glad to see him.
"What happened?" he asked, gently shaking his head in disbelief.
"I don't know.
Excerpted from The Last Dance but Not the Last Song by Renée Bondi with Nancy Curtis Copyright © 2002 by Renée Bondi. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 13, 2005
This story is a wonderful story for both adults and teens. I was able to see Renee speak and a teen conference and she was so inspiring. Her book was even more inspirational. She is really a great person and has overcome so much, and never once 'blammed' God. She has accepted it and 'Surrendered to his love'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 17, 2004
Bondi's story is astounding. She lost the use of virtually all of her body--much like Christopher Reeves. Yet she excels anyway. She married, gave birth to a son, and somehow mangaes to sing and speak and live what appears to be a beautiful life. More able-bodied people like me ought to be reading this book. I'm looking forward to hearing her speak one of these days.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.