Being from Iowa, it’s only natural at some point in your life that you’ll end up meeting someone in a corn field. All kidding aside, this is exactly how I met one of my best friends, Taylor Morris. In the summer of 2003, I was randomly assigned by my detasseling superior to be the leader of a row with a bunch of 14 year old “kids.” Being 18 myself, I was disappointed to be separated from friends my age. This tiny moment in time changed my life forever.
Our friendship sparked immediately and from that day on, I spent almost every day with Taylor and his friends working on cars, motorcycles and having all sorts of dangerous adventures. He and his group of tight knit friends kept the boy in me alive. At the time, I was self conscious about hanging out with such young guys, but we simply had the best time, so I quickly got over it. They still knew how to be adventurous, live to the fullest and sometimes be tastefully mischievous.
Taylor and I remained close friends until he graduated from high school. After high school, Taylor pursued a career with the Navy. I was less than thrilled with his decision, but tried to stay supportive none-the-less. I told him, if he even once felt like the military wasn’t the right path that he should drop out and we could go to ninja school together. I didn’t see him much and we didn’t stay in touch very well. He ended up becoming a member of an elite class of soldiers known as the EOD. The Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams are the first men on the battle field. They clear paths of explosives for other soldiers, literally putting their lives on the line for their fellow men. The last time he was in Cedar Falls was over Christmas, 2011. I missed the opportunity to catch up because shorty after, Taylor was deployed to Afghanistan. So when I received this message from Taylor, Sunday June 10th, 2012, I was thrilled.
If you don’t know why this text message is anything but extraordinary, let me back up 6 weeks.
On May 3, 2012, Taylor stepped on an IED. When the news hit our hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, our community dropped to their knees. The damage Taylor sustained was extremely severe. The explosion blew off his legs, his left arm and his right hand. After receiving immediate medical attention in Afghanistan, he transferred to a hospital in Germany, and May 6th was taken to Walter Reed Medical Academy in Washington DC to begin the long rehabilitation process.
That following week his closest friends began meeting nightly to figure out how best to help support Taylor. Within days we had a website, a facebook page, a twitter feed, T-shirt and bracelet designs, and were working hard on planning a benefit event for Taylor.
I’m not here to tell you about what happened to Taylor in great detail, or to try and keep you up to date with his day-to-day life; I’m here to share with you what I witnessed when his childhood friend, Neal Price and I had the honor of catching up with an old friend this past weekend.
We arrived in Washington DC at 12:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 16, following a quick flight directly from Chicago. We went straight to bed so we could see Taylor in the morning. I was a little nervous to see Taylor, not knowing if I’d be emotional or if Taylor would really care to hang out too much. I wasn’t sure what to expect and those thoughts kept me up that night.
The following morning we rushed up to Taylor’s room as soon as Danielle (Taylor’s long-time girlfriend) sent us a text message saying they were up and ready. We walked into the room to see Taylor sitting in his wheelchair, Danielle on his hospital bed, and a nurse at their side dressing Taylor’s wounds on his legs. I had seen many pictures of Taylor in this state, so I was ready to see his injuries up close and personal. Taylor and Danielle both flashed us a quick smile, but their attention immediately returned to the dressing. This anti-climatic greeting helped ease my nerves. It made me immediately snap out of any thoughts of pity or feeling sorry and put me right smack in the middle of his current life.
Once the nurse left, we picked up conversation where we left off years before. Taylor is still the exact same person he always was. We talked about everything: Cars, motorcycles, the incident itself, their future, their plans, their goals and expectations.
Taylor showed us around his room, showed off all the tricks he’s acquired in the past month, and joked around with us just like always. The passionate spark was still in his kind eyes when he laughed, but they are even more lit up when he looks into Danielle’s eyes. He admires the beautiful woman he has at his side. He adores her, and rightfully so.
More of our hometown friends met up that Saturday afternoon. Chris and Kathryn drove up from North Carolina, six hours each way to spend two hours with Taylor and Danielle. We all had such a good time reminiscing about things back home and about all the trouble Taylor and “the boys” had caused in Cedar Falls back in the day. He’s still as daring as ever before. On our way to a barbecue, Taylor spontaneously decided to go off-roading and try to climb a large dirt mound on his electric wheelchair, to the amusement and surprise of us all. Taylor blew us all away with his attitude. He didn’t slow down, he didn’t complain ONCE, and he is sincerely thankful for his second chance at life. This attitude is contagious and immediately obvious to all those who work with Taylor on a day-to-day basis. You can tell in his big, puppy dog eyes that he is genuinely thankful for the love, support and encouragement he’s been receiving from everyone.
We were in the room with Taylor one night watching a movie when a new nurse came in to give him his pills. She’s a kind, soft spoken Jamaican woman, who after briefly chatting with Taylor said, “Boy, you have a beautiful attitude.” Her face lit up when he nodded modestly with a soft spoken, humble “Thank you.” As she walked out of the room, she gently proclaimed “You’re such a sweetheart.” Come to find out, admiration from the staff at Walter Reed comes often for Taylor.
Another Doctor told Taylor, “You’re the most injured one here, yet you’re the easiest to work with.” I couldn’t agree more. Taylor didn’t complain to them even when things weren’t ideal. You can tell his goal is not to stay in that room, it’s to get out and continue his life as soon as possible.
Other patients, even the older ones, seem to look up to Taylor. Everywhere he hurriedly goes on his motorized wheelchair, he leaves a trail of inspired people. It seems an often occurrence that Taylor is speeding down the hall with Danielle’s teasing voice of concern soon to follow.
Speaking of voices of concern, Taylor’s mom Juli is always close by. She’s there as a constant reminder of how important things like posture, bands around his legs, compression sleeves, getting vertical and eating good food are. Juli is not (and never has been) your typical mom. She picks on Taylor now just like she always has, which is good for Taylor because it subconsciously serves as a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with YOU. She likes to triple check all the work done by the doctors–not because she doesn’t trust the doctors or Danielle’s watchful eye–she’s just a mom, and that’s what moms do.
Danielle is an incredible woman. She dropped everything she was doing, put her plans aside, and rushed to Taylor’s side. I remember when Taylor and her first started dating in high school. We teased him thinking she might be trouble. Now I would still agree with that, she is trouble. She helps Taylor cause mischief around the hospital. Things like drag racing wheelchairs against him or stealing the whole two gallon tub of ice cream from the hospital freezer, she helps Taylor stay Taylor.
She even challenges him constantly in the smallest ways. While she was laying in Taylor’s bed, Taylor asked if she wanted ice cream. Without hesitation she purposefully requested, “Sure, pass it down.” You could tell by the little smirk on her face that she was giving him a challenge and forcing him to use his manners. This tiny challenge, something that would be so easy for you or me, is a much bigger ordeal for Taylor. Most of us would feel sorry for Taylor and get up and serve ourselves, but she knows these challenges will help him regain his independence. Taylor has never ever backed down from a challenge and this attitude still lives on with him. She doesn’t baby Taylor because she fully knows Taylor isn’t a baby, he’s a full grown, incredibly strong man who is on a long, grueling path towards normalcy.
Their life together consists of new routines. Most days it’s in and out of physical therapy, wound care and the prosthetic lab. Danielle is always there and takes as much of the events on herself as she can. My favorite thing is how even during these routines, they still find time to flirt and continue showing their love to one another constantly.
Their routine days are beginning to draw to a close as Taylor continues to make progress. While Neal and I were there, we got the feeling he didn’t want to be left out when we went out to dinner, or downtown DC, so he didn’t exclude himself. We could not have been more ecstatic to know we didn’t have to split our time between site seeing and Taylor. He simply came with us. This milestone of leaving the hospital and traveling downtown will surely remain in all of our minds. It was Taylor literally at the crossroads between patient and civilian. I loved seeing his eyes sparkle when we saw the rockets at the Air and Space museum, or when we went through the art exhibits at the Hirshhorn Art Museum.
If there’s one thing I learned this weekend, it is that Taylor remains to be his typical humble, adventurous, fun, sincere and passionate self. He does not want to be called a hero. He states “I was simply doing my job, which I knew the risks of. The people who went into known danger to save my life are the real heros.” Taylor might not want to acknowledge being a hero on the battle field, but in my opinion, he can’t deny being the strongest inspiration to everyone who hears his story. The bomb took much more than his limbs, it took his independence, privacy, ease of living and maybe most importantly to him and Danielle, their favorite way of showing love for one another, hand holding. Yet through all this, Taylor is determined. He is not letting his situation get him down or even get in his way. He soldiers on fighting to make strides not only for himself, but for Danielle, for his family, for his friends, for his community and for his country. I told Taylor, “When you feel like slowing down, just remember we’re all waiting for you to come home so we can hang out.” I could tell in the intensity of his stare, he took that as an order.
When I first met Taylor, I really hoped he looked up to me. I’m in awe by how much the tables have turned. I don’t look up to anyone more than I look up to Taylor. He’s the greatest inspiration, the strongest fighter, and he will continue to amaze us all with his progress.
Read the follow up to this story here.