What if? It’s a question we all ask ourselves at one time or another.
“What if I had married that one person?”
“What if I had gotten into college?”
“What if I had gotten that job I really wanted?”
“What if I didn’t get sick?”
What if . . .
It’s a question we can spend all day thinking circles around, and if we’re not careful, it’s a question that has the ability to paralyze us in the past instead of propelling us into the present. So how do you move past living “what if?” to live “what is” and to find joy in it? It’s by no means easy, and it doesn’t happen right away, but after spending over a decade in a wheelchair, this is what I’ve learned.
Nightmares Can Be Real Life
That was me—the girl who loved doing gymnastics and dancing on the back of a moving horse. The sport is called equestrian vaulting, and I fell in love with it at a young age. I spent 10 years training in equestrian vaulting to become an international competitor. At that time, I was also a ballerina, I did gymnastics, I did cheerleading, and I was also a member of my high school diving team. I saw myself as an athlete and as a horsewoman.
But on June 21, 2005, I was training with my equestrian vaulting team and miscommunicated with my partner on the horse. I went for my aerial dismount and hit my partner with my leg. It changed my rotation in the air, and I landed in a position that broke my back and severed my spinal cord. I became permanently paralyzed from the waist down. My dreams for the future were crushed. My life drastically changed.
I remember shortly after my first surgery having nightmares. In the dreams I’d be walking around doing things with family and friends, and then all of a sudden I would freeze, and my legs would collapse from underneath me, and I was left stranded. I’d wake up and see my family at my bedside, and I’d ask them, “What are we doing here?” hoping not to get the answer I knew in my heart to be true. I was hoping they would say, “Oh, you broke your leg, Cambry,” or, “You had really bad food poisoning.” I wanted to hear something other than the truth. I wanted my paralysis to be a nightmare I could wake up from.
But I couldn’t. This nightmare was real life.
I remember the first week of physical therapy, sitting on a mat, trying to work on my balance, and I thought to myself, “Just last week I was balancing a handstand on the back of a moving horse, and here I am; I cannot even sit up on my own. Who am I? I’m not Cambry Kaylor. I’m a crippled version of what I used to be.”
Thoughts like “Who is going to want to be my friend? Who is going to want to date me now?” started to fill my head. I thought, “Surely no one who knows me as a paraplegic.”
I wanted to get back to my old life. To do that, I felt like I had to walk again.
You Don’t Have to Walk to Live
The doctors said walking again was impossible, and scientists were still researching methods to cure my spinal cord. But I was determined. I felt like I had to see my peers eye to eye and be at their level again. So I did some research and found a personal trainer who taught paraplegics how to “walk” with braces and canes. I spent nearly two years learning to walk again. At my peak I was able to cross about 50 feet in five minutes. As a college student going from class to class, you can imagine how ineffective that was. I found myself having to take naps during the day just to be able to keep my energy up enough to walk. I would turn down social engagements and not hang out with friends for fear that I was going to slow them down, and I didn’t want to be a burden.
On top of that, every time I “walked” I ran the risk of falling and injuring my arms, the only two extremities that I still had use of. One day I finally thought, “What am I doing? This isn’t bringing me any joy. I certainly don’t have my old life back. What am I doing?”
In that moment I realized that I don’t have to walk to be happy. In fact, “walking” was making me really unhappy. I came to accept that I wasn’t going to get my old life back. But I could create a new life full of happiness.
New Realities Can Be Happy Too
Happiness. That’s what I had been searching for all along. And happiness is not contingent on whether or not I could walk. To find happiness in my new reality, I went back to the place that had made me happiest—the stables.
I knew so much about equestrian vaulting I decided to become a coach. I thought if I could help others do dance and gymnastics on the back of a moving horse that it would fill that horse part of my identity that I used to have. And, to some degree, it did.
I didn’t get on the horse hardly at all, because I was afraid I really wouldn’t be able to do anything. But one day my mom’s riding partner didn’t show up, and she asked me to sub in and ride the horse. I said yes even though I was afraid of falling off or looking foolish if I couldn’t get the horse to move forward.
Despite my fears, I got on the horse. I didn’t fall off. We walked a little bit, and then we trotted. And I was on cloud nine. I thought, “This piece of me has come back,” and I was so excited. That is, until fear crept back in and I started to think that maybe this was just an anomaly. I had to know that I didn’t just imagine this and that I could in fact get back on a horse and ride.
I Can Do Hard Things
That afternoon, I didn’t let my fear overtake me. My mom was off talking to some friends, and her instructor had left, but I decided that I was going to get back on that horse again whether someone was there to help me or not. So, by myself, I used what I could find in the stable to get the horse ready for me to ride. I couldn’t stand up, so I used a pitchfork to bring down the saddle stored on a top shelf. I used the pitchfork to put the saddle on my horse. I didn’t have anyone to lift me up onto the horse, so I walked the horse around to a fence and climbed the fence rung by rung, with legs dangling, until I could muscle myself onto the horse. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. But I did it. And that was the point.
That day I learned that I can do hard things. And I can do hard things using the strengths and abilities that I do have. Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean that I can’t do hard things. It just means I do hard things differently, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Find Humor in Hard Things
Another lesson that I’ve learned after 11 years in a wheelchair is that sometimes all you can do is laugh. As a paraplegic, I have a lot of awkward experiences. One that I’ll never forget is falling into a cadaver during an anatomy class in college. Yes, into a cadaver (watch the video below to see me tell the story, because it’s classic). While horrible at the time—and absolutely mortifying—months later, I was able to laugh about it. Don’t be so serious. Find the humor in the hard and awkward experiences we deal with and it’ll always bring a quick smile to your face and your heart.
You Can Always Get Back on the Horse
When I first meet people, they usually have a bunch of questions, like:
“Were you born like that?”
“How did you get hurt?”
“Can you drive?”
“Can you live on your own?”
“Do you miss doing gymnastics on horseback?”
My answers are usually pretty straightforward. “No, horse riding accident, yes, yes, absolutely miss doing equestrian vaulting.”
And then I get this question: “What if you could go back to that day and change it so you never got paralyzed? Would you?”
What if? There it is again.
Well, 18-year-old Cambry would have said, “Yes, in a heartbeat.” But looking back on all of the experiences I’ve had since that day in 2005, my answer isn’t so quick anymore.
Since the accident, I’ve learned to love and accept myself, regardless of my physical appearance. I’ve learned what really makes me happy, and I go after it no matter what obstacles are in the way. I’ve learned how to find humor in awkward and difficult situations. My paralysis has taught me to look at the big picture and believe in God’s plan instead of my plan.
So my answer today is no. No, I wouldn’t go back and change that day so that I never got paralyzed. Living with paralysis has taught me how to live beyond “what if” and to live “what is” and to live it with joy.
So take it from me, the girl who fell off the horse and found a way to get back on: you can too. And when those questions of “what if?“ creep up, remember where you’ve been, remember how far you’ve come, and remember God has a plan. And it is full of hope.