Suppose you are bicycling along the side of a road and a distracted driver barrels into you, sending you careening down a hill, your bones snapping and one of your wrists severed. You are experiencing a level of pain you never even knew was possible. The crash scene is so horrifying that all the vehicles and personnel associated with fatalities are sent your way. Do you keep trying to breathe, trying to hold onto life? What if you knew that multiple surgeries and painful, relentless rehabilitation were in your future, and that you would never be the same again? And suppose, too, if you think it is relevant, that you are single. Do you keep breathing those agonizingly painful breaths?
Kristin Noreen kept breathing. She was that cyclist, and she held on for dear life.
On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed is her story. It is a story of heartbreak and healing, grit and resolve and triumph, and without a whiff of self-pity. It is beautifully told, both harrowing and inspiring in equal measure. It is movie material.
Before the crash, Noreen was an avid cyclist (routinely doing eighty-mile-a-day tours with stops at hostels), an adoring cat owner, and a tireless volunteer at the Humane Society. She had been married once; now she fully claimed her single life. Her job paid enough that she could buy a condo that was all her own (well, hers plus the cats’), arranged just the way she liked it. In fact, right before she left for that fateful bike ride, she had done what so many of us put off forever — she had gone through everything she owned, and created stacks of stuff for donating, ditching, or keeping. She figured she’d do the actual donating or ditching after the ride.
It would take six weeks in the hospital before she got back to her place, and even then, it was still not really hers. Her family had come to help, put all the sorted stuff away, and replaced her favorite things with theirs. She needed in-home care for three months and outpatient rehab for six months.
No wonder. Her injuries included: the fracturing of every single rib on one side of her body; a dangling hand that had to have every nerve and blood vessel reattached; a torn liver; a bruised spleen; a fractured shoulder bone; a shattered upper arm bone; two spinal fractures; a fractured skull; collapsed lungs; a collapsed carotid artery; and a stroke, along with the ongoing risk that another could occur.
Noreen could have written her entire book on the time she spent in the hospital and in rehab. But she didn’t. Much more of her narrative recounts her way back to touring “on silver wings” — her beloved bike, Silver. Readers come along for the ride as she makes her first tentative moves to get on the road again, and then gets back to the places she had been and the new places she fantasized about during those long stretches when getting back on the bike was just a dream.
Two years after the crash, she tells us, she wrote a letter to the careless driver who changed her life in an instant. That letter alone is worth the price of the book.
The prevailing cultural narrative about single people is that they don’t have anyone and they are lonely and alone. If this were true, then people like Noreen, who are this physically decimated, would be in desperate straits.
But those stories are not accurate descriptions of what single people really are like, and they are most certainly not true of Noreen. Before the crash, she had a whole circle of important people in her life, including family, friends from different times and places, and those who became part of her life as she pursued her passions. After the crash, so many showed up at her bedside that the hospital staff had to reschedule them or shoo them away.
Then she made even more friends. She befriended the people who physically hurt her as part of their jobs as physical therapists, nurses, and aides. She made new friends on the road with her bike, Silver. She resumed her work on a project she cared about deeply, and there were new connections to be forged there, too. And somehow, after she was finally free of the hospitals and the rehab centers, she really showed what friendship is made of when she volunteered to go back to those places with a friend who needed a partner to help her get through her own physical rehab.
One of the many things I loved about the book was its single-person sensibility. Before the crash, Noreen lived alone and rode alone. When she first returned home from the hospital, she needed her family there with her, and was grateful for their help. But it was hard, not having her own space and her own things arranged in her own way.
Eventually, everyone left and she was once again was a solo dweller, an avid cyclist, an adoring cat owner, and a tireless volunteer at the Humane Society. No, she wasn’t a hundred percent physically, and never would be again. In some significant ways, though, I thought she was way more than a hundred percent.
It seems to me that once something unimaginably horrible has happened to you, you should be done. The rest of your life should be smooth sailing. But of course, life doesn’t work that way. By the time you get to the end of On Silver Wings, you will have seen Noreen through several more significant losses. Somehow, though, her spirit prevails. No matter what happens, she cycles on.
On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed
Village Books, June 2015
Paperback, 320 pages