Bill Inman wheels deliberately into the room and I follow him. As I grab for the first seat that crosses my path, he immediately gestures toward another, straight in line with his right eye. Head cocked, understanding my questioning pause, he tells me that he's partially blind from the accident. So I settle myself as directed, and he begins his story.
The year was 1981, the week before finals at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Forty miles southeast, on what seemed like an ordinary evening to most, a rowdy BMW packed with young men tore through the streets of Englewood. Bill's friend was getting married the next day and had loaned the car out for his bachelor party. The mood was high inside as they raced along, concrete trailing the fading echoes of a raucous bash.
Swept by the excitement, the driver careened into a turn at 77 miles an hour.
An odd stillness fell as the car sheared and flipped three-and-a-half times up and down a dirt embankment. And then reality rushed back in deafening chorus when the vehicle slammed to a jarring halt, throwing Bill and two other passengers. The fleshy backside of his head hit the street with a sickening thud.
Nine months later, Bill woke from a coma to learn that doctors had given his folks little hope for his life, let alone any recovery.
While fighting to save the 23-year-old, surgeons removed nearly a third of his brain, taking with it his speech, motor skills, and, as I learned, entire left-field vision.
"I don't remember anything from the accident, the time right before it, or during the coma," Bill says. "But after I came to, I just wanted to go home."
For nearly two dark years afterward, he was bedridden under the care of therapists and family members.
But today Bill sits across from me smiling brilliantly. In May he completed a bachelor's degree from Colorado Christian University, a suburban liberal-arts school in Lakewood.
"So," I begin, "you've been in college on and off for more than 30 years, and earned an associate degree..." -- "Yeah!" Bill interjects, stirring excitedly.
"...and now your bachelor's..." -- "YEAH," he says, even louder.
From 1978 to 1980, Bill was a part-time student at Red Rocks and Auraria community colleges near Denver. The little boy that once stood in the back yard and wondered at the stars was now a young man dreaming of an astrophysics career at NASA.
By '81 he had transferred full time to CU-Boulder but, as he says, took "a few years off" following the accident.
A few years off! I marvel. Continuing any sort of schooling would be low priority for most people in Bill's shoes. Instead, he saw himself on a short break between jaunts. (In truth, school has helped recover much of his short-term memory, also damaged from the accident.) In 1988, Bill returned to Red Rocks -- taking one course each semester, as much as his abilities allowed -- and graduated in 1992 with an Associate in Science. A few years later, he began a 13-year endeavor to earn his bachelor's from CCU, also at one course per semester, but this time toward a degree in social science.
The change came in '92. One of Bill's favorite nurses from after the accident had become a teacher and invited him to speak to students about his injury and recovery. "It was the most rewarding thing I'd ever done," he recalls. Despite his physical limitations, Bill's mind had been showing progress toward his old pursuits, but he began to sense God was pulling him in a new direction in the sciences. It was a galactic shift from his stargazing days, and I rib him that such a realization, for someone so deep in astrophysics, must have been akin to a second traumatic brain injury. To my relief, he laughs deeply.
"I think that for anyone to recover like you have takes an incredible amount of character," I comment. "I only move forward," Bill replies, "and look to what I can do." Since that first speech, he's done many more.
A patient and resident of Learning Services, a national care provider, Bill receives physical therapy three days a week to strengthen his body and mind. Driving again is unlikely due to his vision, but his goal otherwise is to walk independently and become fully self-functional: "I keep getting better, slowly but surely ... doing new things because I keep trying." Although he often uses a wheelchair, nowadays he's also pacing around with the assistance of a walker, as in May when he crossed the stage to receive his CCU diploma. And he's taken four steps quite a few times, and nine once, without the walker and without the aid of his physical therapist.
The flip side to such determination is frustration at the arduous process, and Bill's had a plentiful share, like when his body won't follow his mind or it takes inordinately long to accomplish routine tasks. "I had to learn how to do almost everything all over again, including dressing myself, taking a shower, talking," he explains.
Bill reflects on himself before the injury as very carefree, mostly focused on having a good time. "I did a lot of drugs," he offers frankly, "was high all the time." The accident and rehab actually gave him more focus in life -- a byproduct of the intense concentration now required to do things like pick up a fork, raise it, and chew and swallow -- things I take for granted.
So has Bill, a Christian, ever been mad at God about what happened? About the excruciating years or the obstacles he faces daily?
"No, no, no," he counters. I learn about his Catholic upbringing, distance from God as a teenager, and then coming back after the coma. Naturally, there was anger and confusion and sorrow during those first years of recovery. But he chose to leave them in bed. "I thank the Lord every day for his blessings," Bill says. "He's been very good to me."
"I lost a lot in my injury -- my abilities and goals -- but I gained a lot, too, because it made me focus and brought me back to the Lord."
"And that's more important?"
Three decades in the making, Bill Inman's a fresh college grad. With his growing interest in public speaking, he wants to hit the lecture circuit to educate others on brain injuries and his unique story, which he's also penned as a book being considered for publication. But unlike the world-as-my-oyster, mile-a-minute expectations of most newbies, his are infused with patience and respect for life's uncertainties and unfairness juxtaposed with surprisingly sweet change.
And he skis, too -- first assisted by a special walker, which he later ditched for forearm outriggers. During summers he rides horses; their therapeutic motion resembles a human gait pattern. And next month he'll embark on a cruise to Northern Europe: A graduation present long overdue and the sixth he's been on (to the Mediterranean, Panama Canal, Caribbean, and Hawaii -- plus Alaska, twice) since the accident.
"I do more than most people," Bill says softly, while his eyes betray that ambitious spark and I lean back and grin at the irony. He adds, "I want to make the most of this life because the Lord has given me a second chance."
What he's found this time around is stout purpose, far more resolute than before, and not at all as planned. I stand to leave, and I observe that Bill looks rather unassuming sitting in the wheelchair, graying head near my waist, shoulders slumped, watching me.
Funny, though, how dwarfed I feel.