They call it Kydex. To me, it was just hard, tan plastic, but it must have some unique qualities to warrant having its own trademarked name like that. Anyway, the two-piece clamshell jacket was the only thing holding my back together for the next few weeks until the bone grafts set, and I had to wear it anytime I was awake. Cast from a mold made of my torso sometime while I was unconscious, it was hot but oddly comforting in the way it kept me from bending or twisting, like I'd done all through the night after I crashed, which probably did a lot of the damage to my spinal cord that would keep me paralyzed, they'd just told me, probably for life.
That long, cold night passed all the more slowly for lack of one thing: hope. I didn't need to speculate about my future. I was still on new-hire probation at a respectable airline when I crashed a perfectly good airplane. They'd be fools not to fire me. The FAA would almost certainly suspend, if not revoke, my pilot's license, and even if the doctors managed to put me back together, there's no way I'd ever work as a pilot again. I was an embarassment to my employer and my profession and felt I deserved every bit of what I was about to get.
I didn't get any of what I deserved that year, though, either for my birthday (on what I'd always point out was the "darkest day of the year"), or for Christmas itself.
I got a care package from my brother, with a little fake Christmas tree I still take out reverently, plug in, and place on my desk every year. It reminds me of the stuffed Santa Claus in my son's room, which was given to me by the girlfriend of a fellow pilot I barely knew at the time, whose Christmas cards arrived faithfully every year since. Like a few others from a few other fellow airline people who came to a stranger's hospital room to say, "We heard you had a Bad Day, we're here to help, and it's all still right where you left it, if you can just make it back."
I turned twenty-five that Christmas, and people brought trinkets and treats, cards and balloons, and donated sick time and vacation days. People I barely knew paid my rent, told creditors to back off, took care of my parents and my possessions, and called when they couldn't visit, just to make sure I wasn't giving up yet.
I didn't get any of the horrible things I deserved that year. I didn't get killed. I didn't get burned. I didn't get disfigured. I didn't get eaten by coyotes. I didn't get paralyzed, at least not permanently. I didn't get fired from the job that I loved, disconnected from the airline I'd moved halfway across the country to fly for. I didn't get ostracized from the tiny fraternity of pilots, of which I'd still do anything to remain a member.
I lost something I'd always taken for granted: the use of my legs. But I got something I never knew I'd had, which gave me the will to make the most of the miracle that was to come: acceptance. Like my Kydex jacket, it was hard and tough and absolutely would not be bent; yet it was made just for me, accomodating my every unique bump or curve. I could feel it all around me - Strength from Without, where I myself was still so very weak.