My free fall, and the madness, stopped on my fiftieth birthday. Not because I had found wisdom or had realized the damage I was doing to myself and others, but because I found myself in an ambulance.
I had gone into the gym an hour before, determined to prove myself still capable of a killer leg workout, and while I didn’t buy into what I had been hearing all week from my friends and coworkers, “Fifty is the new forty; who looks like you at fifty?” (Where does that delusional thinking lead? “Sixty is the new fifty?” “Fat is the new skinny?” How long before we arrive at “Dead is the new alive?”), I did think I still had the ability to move some heavy iron. So I loaded up the leg press sled with seven 45-pound plates on each side. The leg press is how old men do squats.
“ . . . EMT Unit 137 en route, patient stable, vitals strong, request support on arrival, we got spinal issues, not good . . . ”
“Uh, I’m still awake here, guys, let’s work on the bedside manner.”
A fiftieth birthday is tough for anyone. Add on the fact that I was born on Valentine’s Day—a day guaranteed to elicit awws from clerks verifying your credit card and TSA agents checking your driver’s license—and it gets even tougher. Throw in being born on Valentine’s Day when you are divorced and live alone and, well, you go to the gym to stop thinking about it.
There are two hooks at the bottom of the leg press sled. When you have completed your reps, you slide the hooks under the weight, and the weight is suspended until your next set. I finished my tenth rep, my quads spent. When I went to hook the weight, the entire hooking mecha- nism fell off the sled poles. I probably should have yelled, but my old nemesis and guidance counselor—shame—kicked in, and I said noth- ing as the 630 pounds of weight, obeying gravity, began to slide down toward my face. My knees were being pressed against my chest. With no hooks to stop it, I realized, the slide wouldn’t finish until it made its way down the machine’s track, leaving my legs behind my face in a porn position I had previously viewed but never experienced. Near the very end of the ride, I heard a surprisingly loud crack near the base of my spine.
They tell you, in moments like this, that things seem to slow down. Flashes of your past are supposed to come back to you. I always thought this was a convenient plot device for filmmakers with a smoke machine and a paucity of imagination. But damn, I can confirm that between the time it took for some guys who heard me scream to get the weight off me, and the time I was lying in the ambulance bed with a searing, burning pain, I did seem to have forever to think about my two years of free fall. How I had lost, in order, my mother; my wife; my home; my cats; nearly all my friends; the trust and affection of nearly everyone I worked with; and now, apparently, at a time when I was utterly alone, my ability to walk.
I probably should have thought this was Karma. That would have been rational, and I could have made a case for deserving it. But that’s not me. One of the ways I make a ridiculously great living is being a motivational speaker. And on the way to the hospital, I was already thinking I could now justify buying a Segway. I could whirr around the stage and use my free hand to click the PowerPoints that would docu- ment my amazing battle and recovery. (How I would get the Segway on and off airplanes never occurred to me. I was spitballing.)
Even better, I could finally end the drama. I had blown up my life over the past two years. Complete carnage. But this would bring it to a close. I couldn’t stop the free fall through choice, so it had been stopped for me, by a free-falling weight. And then I felt so damn grateful I was almost giddy! Because now I would have time to write my book!

Author's Bio: 

Danny Cahill started his career at the headhunting firm Hobson Associates straight out of college. He was its rookie of the year and subsequently its youngest top producer and its youngest manager. At twenty-seven, he bought the company and built it into one of the country's largest privately held search firms. His success led to a speaking career that culminated in being awarded the recruiting industry's first (Knutson) ''Lifetime Achievement Award.''

In his other life as a playwright, his works have been produced off-Broadway and he has won the Maxwell Anderson, Emerging Playwright, and CAB theatre awards. His first book, Harper's Rules, won an Axiom award.

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