In his last happy moments, he was a guy you might have envied. Handsome, athletic, 6-feet-2, water-blue eyes, a charmer with women. It was close to Christmas and his buddies were out at the Goat Farm bar on Novi Road. John Foley, only 22 years old, had a few beers with them. And a few more. Maybe he talked about the glory days at Northville High, when he dunked on the basketball team. Maybe he slapped a few backs and laughed the careless laugh of youth. Then he went to another late party, did some more drinking. Then he decided to visit a girl out in Ypsilanti. He got into the Oldsmobile station wagon, turned the key and sped off into the darkness.
The next time anyone saw his eyes open was weeks later, when a nurse slid a plate of bacon under his nose at the hospital. His mother and father stood nearby, praying the smell of his favorite food would bring John out of his coma. But his reaction was mere reflex, and his eyes quickly shut back into darkness, unable to see the damage he had done: the shunt in his skull, the cuts on his liver, the spleen that was removed, the leg that was snapped, the eye that was blinded, the cheekbone and jaw that were broken, the internal bleeding, the paralysis, and, worst of all, the damaged brain that meant no more dunking basketballs for John Foley, no more pitching baseballs, no more speaking or even thinking the way he used to do. He was only a few weeks older than that last happy night.
Nobody envied him now.
Who do you blame when you are your own worst victim? Many a drunk-driving story ends in death, and those are frightening enough.
This one ends in life. This one ends not in how you might leave this world, but how you might rejoin it, damaged forever, limping uphill.
This one is the most frightening of all.
‘It’s just done’
“I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s done, it’s done, it’s done. . . . “
John Foley is smiling, but it is a confused smile, his blue eyes blinking, as if something might kick in upstairs. He sits with his parents in their wooded home in Northville, speaking in a high, halting voice, trying to remember the night his world collapsed. He remembers nothing.
“What about the sports you played?” he is asked. “Can you remember those?”
“It’s done; it’s just done.”
“The sports you played?”
“Oh, basketball. I played basketball. Yeah. I could dunk.”
“What other sports?”
“Track. Uh-huh. Track.”
“Um . . . um . . . wait . . . ” He wiggles his fingers back and forth, like someone running. “When you go from here” — he flops one hand over the other
— “to there.”
“Yeah, yeah, high jump, high jump. I went” — he counts quickly on his fingers — “One-two-three-four-five-six . . . yeah, six, I went six.”
“Six steps. I went six steps.”
In such snapping flashes does his old life return. He has to count sometimes, he can’t remember many words, and you can see through his still-charming eyes the terrible battle going on inside his brain. And yet, this is major progress from where he was the night of that crash on North Territorial Road, a collision so bad, rescue workers needed to pry him from the wreck, then take him by helicopter to the hospital. At least once during the 10 hours of surgery that followed, John Foley was headed for the angels. His breathing stopped. The doctors revived him. Later John would ask, “Why didn’t I die?”
Sometimes he would add, “Why couldn’t I die?”
His coma lasted six weeks. He was strapped inside an electric bed, which tilted back and forth to keep his lungs from clogging. Tubes invaded his body. Bandages wrapped his head.
Day after day, his mother, Colleen — who had yelled a cheery “Be careful” when he went out that night — sat beside his bed, telling him family news, hoping he would acknowledge her. His father, Jack, who had hoped to take his son into the family medical supply business, would prop up John’s hand and pretend to arm-wrestle him, always faking a struggle before letting John win. Maybe the old competitive spirit might stir him back to life, Jack figured. This is what you do when you love someone; you try everything.
Finally, one day, after months of empty hope, Jack lifted the limp arm and let his son win another make-believe wrestling match. This time, John smiled.
His father burst into tears.
Thus began an agonizing return to the land of the living; John’s right side was paralyzed, his left eye blind, his first words did not come for weeks, he did not remember how to chew or swallow food.
He was still 22 years old. When he finally could speak, the words he mumbled, over and over, were these: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Nothing natural
There is a photo of Foley on the Northville basketball team, rising for a jump shot with perfect form, legs straight, arm bent, eyes on the rim. It is from the year Northville played Detroit Cooley in the state tournament, taking on future NBA player Roy Tarpley. Foley looks completely natural shooting, as if he had done it a million times.
After the crash, however, nothing was natural. The closed- head injury damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, affecting his speech, motor skills, long-term memory, and learning.
Thanks to beer, the adult beverage, John Foley was a child again.
What is a sock? What is a toothbrush? How do you tie your shoes? A fork, a comb, a pencil — what are these things for? He needed to be taught everything. His nurse would tap his leg rhythmically and sing the Michigan fight song, “The Victors,” and amazingly, John could sing along — that, he remembered. But when the song stopped, he could not form a word; he could not answer even the simplest of questions. Somewhere in the deep canyons of his mind, he remembered his life; he did not remember how to operate it.
When he finally came home in the late spring, he was moving a little better and mumbling a few phrases. Wheelchair-bound, he could not go up the steps to his old room. For some reason, this became an obsession. He would look at the stairs each day with a sad longing.
One morning, his mother and sisters found him out of his chair, on the floor by the bottom step.
“John, what are you doing?” his mother yelled.
He turned his body backward, like a child, and began to lift himself, one step at a time.
“But John, you can’t . . . “
“Watch . . . ” he grunted.
One step, two steps, his arms straining to push his rear end another six inches higher, his face tight with effort, grunting as he went along. His mother was in tears. His sisters, at the top of the stairs, were crying, too. It seemed to take forever. This was the body that once made him so popular, that women admired, that fans cheered in hot and loud gymnasiums. Now he was pushing up the steps backward, on his butt, like a baby.
Getting drunk didn’t seem so adult anymore.
‘My own victim’
Today, 10 years later, John can walk and shake your hand. He works at Sunshine Acura in Farmington Hills, washing cars and filing papers. He can make himself understood, but the words often come in spurts. “He has Broca’s aphasia,” explained his tutor, Sherry Duff. “He processes what you’re saying, but he can’t process what he wants to say back. It’s up there, but it gets stuck.”
Still, Foley is clear when he needs to be. When he is asked to speak about his experience, this is what he says: “I am a victim . . . my own victim.”
He also says: “I have no friends or girlfriends. It’s done. Everything’s done.”
He wants you to know that life is not a movie, that everyone may applaud your comeback, but few want to be with you after it. You’re not as much fun. You speak too slowly. You’re not as sexy. You make them squirm.
“People hear me, think I’m dumb,” he said. “I’m not dumb. . . . I just did a dumb thing.”
Foley lives with his parents, eats with his family, watches movies. He goes to church, and prays “for my health.” He is 32 now and can’t throw baseballs because he loses sight of them and they might hit him in the face. He can’t shoot baskets the old way because his right arm is still stiff.
He doesn’t watch sports anymore.
This is who he is now, alive, here on earth, but far behind where he once was. He is a man who learned his lesson and who swears he would not do it again. It was just a few beers. Life did not forgive him.
In the corner of the house is a blown-up photo of John taking that perfect basketball shot. “What do you think when you see that?” he is asked.
He looks at the picture again.
“I think,” he says, “that’s not me.”
We talk so much about drunken driving in this country it is almost unfathomable to think people still do it. But they do. All the time. And despite John Foley, despite his walking hell, someone will do it again tonight, Christmas Eve. Someone will contribute to the 41 percent of holiday traffic fatalities that are alcohol-related.
Maybe that person is reading this right now. Maybe that person will swallow a few drinks tonight, go into the bathroom, splash some water on the face and figure, “I’m fine. I can make it.”
Think about John Foley when you do that. Think about him learning to hold a comb and button a shirt. And before you go, do one last thing, something Foley forgot to do 10 years ago. Lean into the mirror and kiss yourself good-bye.