September 13, 2013

Lake City

Kenzie Gorden inched her wheelchair to the gymnasium stage.

Her classmates strode in purple robes and graduation caps in a line that stretched from their seats.

With both hands on wheels, Kenzie pulled her lips to one side and blew some wayward strands of golden hair from her eyes.

The high school seniors' names boomed from speakers as they climbed the steps and shook hands with the high school principal and nudged their tassels from left to right.

Parents stood with cameras hanging from their necks. Girls screamed at their favorite guy's name.

This was the moment that Kenzie's mother had dreaded a year ago, after the teen's pickup truck tumbled down a hill south of town on that moonlit June 2012 night.

Kenzie was driving home from her boyfriend's house in Audubon when a deer stood in the road. She swerved right, then left. Too far left.

The truck went off the roadway and landed on its top in a field.

The crash crippled her body not long after she had been named captain of the cheerleading squad for her last year of high school. She was a hard-working student and planned to graduate halfway through the year.

But all those plans were lost when the truck tumbled and broke her neck. A Des Moines doctor said she would never walk again. She could barely use her arms.

Her mother cried at the time and worried that someone would have to carry her girl across that gymnasium stage.

Kenzie inched her wheelchair closer.

Country music blared from a pickup truck in a dim school parking lot, where a dozen or so students gathered after a South Central Calhoun football game last year.

It's an after-game tradition, and it's where Kenzie wanted to emerge from the crash and surgeries and rehabilitation she had endured for three months. She had flown back that September day from a Colorado hospital, where her left knee abruptly tingled one night and Kenzie bent it for the first time since the crash. Many of her friends had watched the video.

Kenzie rolled into the lot in the passenger seat of her family's big diesel truck. A boy pulled out his cellphone: "You need to come here," he said. "It's an emergency."

Other students trickled into the lot as word spread by phone and text message that Kenzie was back. She sat smiling in the truck, sipping soda with two limp hands and chatting with her classmates through the truck's window.

She opened the door for the cheerleaders, for big hugs and tears.

They talked about the long scar on her neck and their hospital visits in the weeks that followed the crash. They talked about the pains of getting through airports with a wheelchair and loads of medicines.

They talked about friends and school.

Kenzie blew wayward strands of hair from her face and gasped awkward breaths, raising her shoulders each time.

Her dad, Steve, lumbered through the parking lot. Someone had called him for help - it was a ruse - to start a broken-down car. Steve didn't know Kenzie was there.

She leaned forward to the truck's window, where Steve stood for a moment with eyes wide and mouth agape.

And then he hugged her with his long arms.

First day of school

Kenzie was eager to get back to school - to get back to the normal routine of classes and friends and after-school activities.

On that first Monday back, her brother Nick, 30, lifted her from his truck and laid her in a self-propelled chair. She sat with left arm in her lap and right hand on a joystick that moved her. Her fingernails were green with silver specks.

"You ready for this?" Nate asked.

Her feet with their neon pink shoes sat on the chair's foot rests. Her left foot kept turning inward and sliding off. Her mother, Karen, who teaches at the school, reached down and put it back.

Students who dressed in pajamas for Pajama Day of that homecoming week ringed her as she passed through hallways.

"Wow, I'm really thrilled you're back."

"You look great."

Kenzie's braided ponytail covered a wide pink scar that splits her neck, where surgeons had fused four of her vertebrae together with eight screws, two plates and two rods. Doctors have said she will slowly regain some control of her body for about another year. Her fingers still barely move.

She went to science class where Mr. Schaeffer made room for her in front.

"This will be your seat."

Kenzie's face flushed. She drank water from an aluminum bottle while others scribbled notes. She looked around the room. Nothing was normal.

She at times felt like a spectacle for students who wanted a cellphone photo with her and TV reporters who wanted an interview.

Without her hands, she used a computer that typed as she talked, but at least one teacher was wary of the device because it spelled for her.

She took an elevator up and down the three-story school building, interrupting classes along the way.

At after-school cheerleading practice, she sat as other cheerleaders bungled the dance moves she had perfected before the crash. She snapped awkwardly at one girl, telling her that she'd break the girl's neck for another screw-up, "and that's something I know how to do."

Her boyfriend had left her while she still lay in a hospital bed.

Some of her friends stopped calling.

Kenzie and her mom talked with an adviser about life after high school.

Would she be a nurse, as she had planned? A doctor? Kenzie was already a certified nursing assistant and learned so much more in the hospitals in the prior three months. But they worried her body couldn't do the jobs.

"I don't even know what I'm interested in anymore," Kenzie lamented as she leaned back her chair.

The big moment

Kenzie lifted her purple-robed shoulders, drew a deep breath, and sat and listened to the high school commencement speakers in May.

It was about a year after the crash, and it was her birthday. She was 19.

Heidi Hunziker, the class valedictorian, stood on stage for her graduation speech as her purple-and-silver tassel waved.

"Don't ever let someone tell you you can't do something in life," Hunziker said.

Kenzie planned to prove that.

She invited television and newspaper reporters to watch what that doctor in Des Moines said she would never do again. She planned to walk - with the help of her brother and a walker - across the stage to get her diploma.

She wheeled to the stage, and Nick scooped her from the chair. With all eyes on her, she struggled to move her legs, which were stubborn from sitting for so long.

Minutes stretched for days as Kenzie mustered just a few awkward steps, and Nick's face flushed from holding her body.

"You can do it, Kenzie!" someone shouted and everyone stood and cheered.

But she had sat too long. And the shoes she wore didn't slide easy across the stage. The cheers gave way to tears.

Nick carried Kenzie to get her diploma. She smiled for the camera and grabbed a couple of white roses with purple tips for her parents.

She vowed afterward: "I know I can do it."