How I Made My Best Friend During the Worst Tragedy of My Life

What single decision changed your life? Diane Penney, the 2016 Life Lessons contest winner, writes of a chance encounter during her darkest moment.

Photo by Bryan Mullennix/Getty Images

I spent my first night in Birmingham, Alabama, on a vinyl bench of the neurosciences waiting room at UAB Hospital, in a dress I’d worn to a party three hours away. A day that ended in shadows had begun with so much light.

The sky on that June morning, 2010, was a flawless periwinkle, and the breeze warm and willowy. My car was packed with all I needed for six weeks in Sewanee, Tennessee—about 100 miles from my hometown, Nashville. I was going to begin an M.F.A. writing program at the Sewanee School of Letters, a dream I’d never felt good pursuing until I knew my son would be all right on his own.

Ryan and I had always been a family of two, listed in the school directory or smiling in our Christmas-card photos—and now, at 20, he was pursuing his own dreams. He loved singing and acting, but dancing was his life. The years he had spent channeling Frank Sinatra, Usher, and Justin Timberlake had paid off when he was awarded a performing-arts scholarship to Samford University, in Birmingham. He had just finished his freshman year, had been initiated into Sigma Chi, and was going to spend the summer on campus for his first professional theater role. If there had ever been a time when I felt I could shift my gaze, it was then.

Before I left that morning, I got a call from Ryan telling me that he and his girlfriend were going water-skiing with her family. “Be careful,” I said. “I love you.” Eight hours later, while sitting in the Sewanee banquet hall for the welcome dinner, I got a call from an ER nurse in Alabama telling me my son had jumped off a 60-foot cliff into a lake, had broken his back, and was paralyzed from the waist down.

My memories of what happened next hang like portraits in a gallery of grief: the whispers above his bedside; the cracked eggshell of his MRI; the bowed head of the intern who said my son would never walk again as I begged, “But he’s a dancer, he’s a dancer, he’s a dancer!”

The impact had shattered Ryan’s T12, one of the vertebrae just above the small of his back. After eight hours in the OR, the neurosurgeon warned me that Ryan would suffer excruciating pain for weeks. He also believed that he would be paralyzed for life but added that every spinal-cord injury was different—like a snowflake. Although Ryan might regain movement, he had an 18-month window and would need countless hours of rehab. He also said it was crucial that Ryan return to school in the fall to be with his friends.

I was given a place to stay for the summer, and when Ryan stabilized in August, I said good-bye to my parents in Nashville, found a two-bedroom apartment in Birmingham, and moved Ryan into the Sigma Chi house. I didn’t give a rip if he ever graduated; I just wanted him around the piranha-filled fish tanks and his pledge brothers chanting him out of his wheelchair on the “fratio.”

That fall, my days were spent care-giving. I investigated clinical trials; struggled with the insurance company, which canceled Ryan’s policy anyway; encouraged him as he fought for mobility in his daily physical-therapy sessions; and shopped, cleaned, and laundered for him.

Occasionally I would end up in Whole Foods to get dinner to go. One October night, as I was leaving, a little voice said, “Go back and talk to someone.” Turning slowly on my heel, I took my rubber-banded container of pot roast and salad and parked myself at the grill.

That dark horse of a decision changed my life.

At first, I was mortified: “Oh please don’t anybody look at me. I know I’m middle-aged and alone. I’m just here to have a meaningless conversation, I swear!” But that was a lie. I needed someone to hear me say, “You have no idea what has happened to us.”

Right then, a blur of blond hair and four-carat bling sat next to me with her husband—and before long, I knew her life story. Her name was Susan Flowers, but her nickname was “Mermaid,” because her first job was swimming with dolphins at Sea World. She had moved to Hawaii in her 20s, married a plastic surgeon, and moved a year before to Birmingham, her husband’s hometown. She had hiked the Swiss Alps, been showered with cherry blossoms in Tokyo, and gotten baptized in the Jordan River. She had even hosted her own radio show.

She asked what had brought me to town, and I told her briefly about Ryan. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “You listen to me: We are going to be best friends, do you hear me? Best friends.” I was dazed. Who talks like that besides Anne of Green Gables? I had honestly never met anyone like her, so exotic yet so guileless.

We exchanged numbers, and soon after, she invited me to a small gathering in her home. I remember thinking how lovely it was for her to include me, but my life was challenging and I didn’t want to impose on her good nature.

All that changed a few weeks later. As I was folding Ryan’s clothes, I had what they call in the South “a total come apart.“ For months I’d had two choices—feel or function—and I’d had to function. But now, without warning, the anguish from what my son had endured so overwhelmed me, I thought I’d stop breathing.

I curled up in the dark on Ryan’s old bed and cried so hard the room spun. I thought of calling Susan but was afraid of running her off. By the third sleepless night, I didn’t care. When she answered, all I could do was sob. “I’m on my way,” she said—and in 20 minutes she was at my door with a CD player and homemade soup.

I collapsed on the couch. She stood a ways off, and I thought how the whole wretched scene must have freaked her out. Here was a woman she hardly knew, unraveling before her eyes. Then she said one of the bravest things I have ever heard: “Diane, your sorrow doesn’t scare me.” And she sat on the floor as the CD filled the room with what only the stricken can truly hear and only a dolphin whisperer would know to play: The Book of Job.

I closed my eyes and slept.

In February, Susan joined me for a fraternity singing performance at the Wright Fine Arts Center, at Samford. Sigma Chi members had their own act, but Ryan wasn’t there—until the end. He wheeled himself to the side of the stage, rose slowly to his feet, and—taking his first few steps in eight months—sang the finale.

Three thousand people rose to their feet with him.

With the aid of a walker and eventually forearm crutches, Ryan covered more ground every week. And although he will always need foot and leg braces, on August 7, 2011—14 months after his accident—he offered me his crutches and walked hands-free into the rest of his life.

Susan’s proclamation came true: We became best friends. And sometimes now when we are sitting on her back porch, I’ll think, I’d have left. I’d have taken Ryan out of school and gone back home to Nashville. I could not have stayed here without her. But I did stay—because one night in a grocery store I turned around, ready to receive what is sometimes just on the other side of hope.

About the Author

This year’s Life Lessons contest winner, Diane Penney, is a reading interventionist who works with children with dyslexia. She lives with her son, Ryan, in Birmingham, Alabama, where she enjoys volunteering for a golden retriever–rescue organization, lingering in crafts stores, and giving away Miraculous Medals, Catholic sacramentals.