I Don’t Want Normal Anymore

September 24, 2023

My feet are freezing.

It’s 90 degrees outside in August and I’m walking barefoot on our hot back patio, but my feet feel like they’re suffering from frostbite. It’s been this way since my accident last September.

Only my feet aren’t really freezing.

Every so often, I’ll ask Cari to touch my foot.

“Does that feel cold to you?”

It never does.

This is, fortunately, about the worst physical ailment I deal with now, a year after almost drowning in the Pacific Ocean while we celebrated my birthday in Maui. Cari and I were swimming at Kaanapali Beach — my favorite place on earth.

Suddenly, an unusually big wave grabbed me for…I don’t know…maybe 10 seconds??…and tossed me around like a ragdoll. It slammed me headfirst into the sand and left me unconscious and paralyzed underwater. If not for the heroic actions of a handful of angels on the beach, I’d be dead.

But today I’m very much alive. And my feet feel cold all the time. It’s something to do with the nerve endings not recovering after the accident. It’s annoying, but not painful. I look at it like a souvenir, a gift — a reminder of where I was then and where I am now.

The First 24 Hours

The hardest thing, physically, was not being able to move my neck. Two neurosurgeons worked with me in the 24 hours I was at Maui Memorial Medical Center. They put me in a neck brace and gave very clear instructions: Keep my head and neck perfectly still.

Matt in the Maui ER

“Do I have to wear this thing while I sleep?”

“Yes,” neurosurgeon #1 said.

“What about when I shower?”

“You can remove it then, but be extra careful. (Looking at Cari) You’ll probably want to help him in there. (Looking at both of us) Be sure to put it back on as soon as you’re dry.”

I passed all the physical/occupational therapy tests that Sunday morning at the hospital, which basically involved taking a slow walk from my room to the nurse’s station and then doing random pushing, pulling, and squeezing exercises with my arms, hands, legs, and feet.

They said I could fly home the next day and told me to see my primary doctor and a neurosurgeon.

“Will I need surgery?”

“That’s for them to decide,” said neurosurgeon #2. “If you were in worse shape, we might’ve done it here. But you really dodged a bullet. We see a lot of people who go through what you did, and we send most of them home in wheelchairs.”

The neurosurgeon said I’d need to wear the neck brace for six weeks to help my neck and upper spine stabilize. SIX WEEKS?!? I wasn’t looking forward to that at all, but JFC how could I possibly complain?? No surgery (yet) and no wheelchair?? I was just glad to be alive. Still am.

First Days at Home

I could walk on my own, but very slowly and gingerly. Both kids were at college, so it was just me and Cari. She had to escort me whenever I wanted to move from one room to another. I was weak and wobbly and had to hold on to whatever I could as I moved around the house.

(Cari was incredible this whole year, but especially in the beginning when I was pretty much useless around the house. I get emotional to this day thinking about how strong she was in my weakest days.)

I sat at my office desk for a couple hours on Tuesday, the first full day home. I checked in on my co-workers in the HomeLight Slack. I answered some emails. It hurt to type, so I figured out how to use the speech-to-text tool on my iMac. But there was a lot of I’m tired, I need to lay down every day in the beginning. I napped a lot.

My body was tingly all over — like a million sharp needles were pricking my skin non-stop. It hurt to put clothes on. There was a moment in the first couple of days when Cari gently touched my arm and I screamed in pain.

The underside of my forearms itched like crazy. I scratched them so much that I opened up a couple small wounds.

Headaches were a regular occurrence in the beginning. I started taking Advil to help with that and the tingling and the general pain. I took a lot of Advil for about 3-4 months. Probably too much.

You never think about how often you move your neck until they tell you not to. I dare you to not move your neck for the next five minutes. Look straight ahead. No tilting your neck up or down. No turning it left or right. Perfectly still. Good luck.

Showering was a huge challenge; and yes, Cari did help with that. We had a chair in the shower, which helped a ton. A detachable showerhead did, too.

Shaving was another problem. I’m right-handed, but I couldn’t stretch my right arm far enough to shave the left side of my face. And I couldn’t turn my neck. So I became ambidextrous as fast as I could, out of necessity.

(Possible TMI warning here.) Using the toilet was also rough. Guys, try aiming when you can’t tilt your neck down. Right?? The Maui hospital had sent me home with a plastic bottle that I had used to go #1 while I was there, so I ended up using that at home, too, for a while.

Then there was sleeping. Challenge #1 was the damn neck brace. Challenge #2 was that we had a queen-sized bed with a very high mattress (about 36 inches if you’re curious). I couldn’t get in bed without a step stool.

Sleeping challenge #3 was my wife. God bless her…she’s a violent/active sleeper. She tosses, turns, and kicks a lot. There’ve been nights where I’ve been startled awake because she rolled over and inadvertently punched/slapped me in the face. 😅

We agreed it was too risky for me to sleep next to her in the close quarters of a queen-sized bed, so we brought in a twin bed from one of the kids’ rooms, bought a new mattress for it, and placed it at the base of our main bed. The first couple nights were tough, but I eventually learned to sleep perfectly still on my back all night and with the damn neck brace on. About a month later, we got a king-sized bed. (FFS, what took us so long??)

Two Weeks Later: Freedom

We saw my primary care doctor first — on Sept. 29, five days after the accident. I told him my feet were so cold that I was worried my toes were going to fall off. He told me to take off my shoes and socks, touched the toes on my right foot, and promised me they weren’t cold. I didn’t believe him.

During the visit, he made a bold prediction: I wouldn’t need to wear the neck brace for six weeks.

Fast forward to October 7, just about two weeks after the accident. That’s when we saw a local neurosurgeon. He’d received all the x-rays and scans and MRI results and everything from Hawaii. He showed us some of it, including the x-rays of my upper neck. He pointed out the two discs that had pretty much been destroyed. It was crazy to see those scans compared to the other, normal discs.

He said he didn’t think I needed spinal surgery right now, but I might in the future depending on how the healing goes. He talked about a couple of different surgical options. It all sounded scary.

“What about the neck brace? The neurosurgeon in Maui said to wear it for six weeks.”

“You can stop wearing it now.”

“Are you serious??!!??”

“Yes, but keep it around and put it back on if your neck and back start to hurt more than normal, or if you’re just feeling like you need some extra stability.”


“What about driving?”

“I don’t want you driving until you can move your neck enough to see traffic to your sides when you’re making a turn. And don’t drive when you’re on Advil.” (I drove for the first time at the end of October, about five weeks after the accident.)

Recovery, Rehab, and a Backyard Breakthrough

The local neurosurgeon didn’t prescribe any medicine, but he did want me to start physical therapy as soon as possible. I started going to a small PT facility just a couple miles from my house. Cari drove me twice a week.

There were usually 3-5 other patients in the facility at the time, and almost to a person, everyone had a look on their face that said I’d rather be anywhere else in the world than here. A few were genuinely struggling with their rehab, but most seemed to be going through the motions. I didn’t get why everyone else seemed to not give a shit about their own recovery and rehab.

Then there was me — and I’m proud of this — giving everything I had to beat what I’d done on the previous visit. If I did two sets of 10 rowing pulls, the next visit I’d do two sets of 15.

That wasn’t all. There I was, an unabashed, keep-to-myself introvert, smiling and talking to the therapists on every visit. Asking them questions about what I was doing and feeling with each exercise. I usually keep pretty quiet and to myself, but I was the life of the facility most days. What’s gotten into you?, I’d ask myself.

Our German Shepherd, Blaze, was about 2.5 years old when this happened, and still thought she was a puppy. (She still does, for that matter!)

In the first days after the accident, it was Cari’s job to play with Blaze. That was normally my responsibility, but I could barely get outside in the beginning. And when I finally did get out there, I couldn’t throw a ball more than 3-4 feet. I still remember the look on her face, wondering why the hell I wasn’t playing with her.

After a few weeks of physical therapy, I could throw the ball underhanded further and further. A month or so after the accident, I was finally able to throw a ball across the entire backyard. Blaze was thrilled!

The sweetest thing was when she’d follow me into the bedroom when I needed a nap, and jump up on the little twin bed to keep me company. Dogs. I tell ya…

I stayed in physical therapy until mid-January of this year. I probably could’ve stopped a month earlier, but I wanted to be sure. The regular exercises had gotten pretty easy by Thanksgiving. I wasn’t making much new progress.

What I continued to love about PT, though, was the heat/electrical treatment and massage. They’d attach four little pads to various spots on my upper back, turn the electricity machine on, close the door, and I’d just lay there on heating pads for 15 minutes with the electricity pulsing through my body. It was awesome. And that was followed by a 5-10 minute massage, which was also awesome.

As we got closer to the holidays, I had a couple conversations with the main therapist about my release date. I said I wanted to wean myself off of PT rather than stop cold turkey, and he agreed. So for the last month, I only went once a week until my last session on January 12.

The Emotional Rollercoaster

I cry a lot since the accident.

In the first few months, I would cry at the drop of a hat — anything emotional that I’d read or hear or see on TV and BOOM! Tears. I’d break down hearing the stories of contestants on The Voice who overcame some personal tragedy to pursue their dreams. I’d cry during episodes of Yellowstone. I’d cry during songs that never moved me emotionally in the past.

I had to be careful what music I’d listen to before going to physical therapy or to the store or wherever, lest I had to walk in with red, bloodshot eyes. It’s tapered off a bit, but I’ve cried at all but two of the 12 concerts I’ve seen this year.

And here’s the thing: I’m cool with it!

It may sound weird, but I think I’m in the best emotional “shape” of my life. I feel like I’m more in touch with my own feelings, and the feelings of others, than ever. I feel like I’m more empathetic than ever. Not to say I don’t have room to improve — I sure do! But I’m a different person emotionally than I was before the accident.

The Mental Roadblock

The mental stuff is still difficult. I have problems with water.

Cari and I were at a real estate conference in August in Dallas. It was 100+ degrees each day, and our hotel had a beautiful rooftop pool. We brought our swimsuits. The idea was that we’d both go to the pool together, Cari there to help and support me as needed.

But we were too busy to make it happen. 🥺

Just last week, Cari and I booked a return trip to Maui! I wanted to stay in the same hotel room and get back in the ocean at the same spot where the accident happened. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it again. That I could get over the fear.

But after booking the flights, hotel, and rental car, I immediately had second thoughts. It was the fear of water, but with a twist: I couldn’t get past the thought of spending ~6 hours flying over the Pacific Ocean. I’m now apparently afraid to fly over the ocean for that long.

It was a weird mental struggle: Part of me thinking about all the things that could go wrong on such a long, overwater flight…part of me telling myself that flying is the safest form of travel.

The former argument won the day. I canceled everything. We’re not going anytime soon, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever be ready to go. Kaanapali Beach is my favorite place on earth. I used to love being in the water there — swimming, snorkeling, you name it. Now all I can do is hope and pray that I can get over this mental hurdle and go back someday.

One Year Later

Life today feels about 90-95% normal compared to before the accident. I’m learning to live with the few physical issues that remain. I wear socks a lot to keep my “cold” feet warm. I use a TENS unit a couple times a month to recreate the electrical stimulation that physical therapy used to provide.

My body hates cold and loves heat. Hot showers are the best. I believe Thermacare heat pads are mankind’s greatest invention. 😂 I wear them regularly around my neck and lower back.

Every so often I still get wobbly/dizzy spells and need to hold on to something to keep my balance.

I still get tingly almost every day. Some days it’s better than others. I can usually deal with it and get on with life. When it’s worse than usual, sitting still or lying down for 20-30 minutes usually resets everything and makes the tingling go away.

I’ve gone to 12 concerts this year all over the country…part of #MyYearOfConcerts. It’s gotten easier over time. I had to sit down several times during the shows early in the year, but I stood for all of Counting Crows’ gig two weeks ago, which lasted about an hour and 45 minutes.

The Gift of Clarity

The biggest thing the accident has given me is clarity.

Everything changes when you come a few seconds from dying…when your head slams into the sand and you think, If this is it, God, come get me. I’m ready. And moments later, when you regain consciousness underwater, unable to breathe and unable to move, and you think again, Is THIS it, God?

That wasn’t it. This world isn’t done with me yet. I have more life to live. And I know better today than ever what that’s supposed to look like.

The accident gave me the clarity to realize that I needed to get away from the corporate job where I’d been underappreciated and underpaid for 3+ years. The change to being my own boss has been tough. I’m not yet earning anywhere near what I did before, but Cari’s had a great year despite the Tri-Cities real estate market being down ~30% in sales activity.

The accident also gave me clarity about living in the moment and chasing the things that I love, the things that make me happy and feel alive. Not in a selfish way, but in a life-should-be-lived-to-the-fullest way. That’s why this year has been #MyYearOfConcerts. Live music is my love language. I’m gonna keep seeing more shows as long as I’m able. No more “I’ll see them next time.” Carpe diem. You may not be around to see them on the next tour.

The accident gave me the clarity to ignore life’s bullshit…especially the kind of bullshit that permeates social media. I can’t count how many times I’ve been this close to adding my two cents to some overheated discussion on Twitter, Facebook, or Nextdoor…then realizing: This. Doesn’t. Matter.

In my final moments, I’m not going to wish I’d spent more time arguing with strangers, gossiping, and trying to get more likes with hot takes on the latest political or entertainment scandal. I say that with confidence because I’ve already felt what I thought were my final moments, and none of that shit mattered.

You know what did matter in those moments when I thought I was about to die?

Here’s a list: My wife, first and foremost. My kids. Love. How you’re going to remember me. Did I give everything I could to this world? Did I squeeze everything I could from this world? Did I lead a good life?

The accident gave me clarity about the importance of feelings — i.e., how you feel and how you make others feel.

I’m glad to cry during concerts and TV shows because it proves to me that I’m feeling something. We guys, especially, are taught not to show emotions, and not to let our feelings get the best of us. Fuck that. I want to feel everything there is to feel. That’s how you know you’re alive. Since the accident, a good day is when something makes me laugh and something makes me cry.

The accident gave me clarity not only about how I feel, but also about how I make others feel. I don’t get angry as often when I experience bad customer service. That’s another human being and who knows what they’re going through? Empathy matters. We’re not here to judge and attack others. We’re not here to lift ourselves up by putting others down. If you can put a smile on someone’s face, make them laugh, or make them feel good inside…you’re having a good day.

More than anything, the accident taught me that every day is a gift. And when you really understand that — not just understand it, but act on it — everything changes. Everything.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

There was a tweet a little while back where someone asked, “What’s one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?”

I half-jokingly, half-seriously replied, “Don’t get in the water on September 24, 2022.” 😂

My great friend Tim, who happens to be one of the most thoughtful people I know and is a therapist/counselor in his day job, replied to my reply with this: “Serious question…would you?”


That hit me like a brick wall. I thought and thought about it. I told Tim I’d probably need a counseling session to come up with the answer.

In the weeks since he asked, I’ve come up with my answer: No, I would not tell my younger self to stay out of the water.

Sure, if I didn’t get in the water a year ago today, I’d feel better physically. I probably wouldn’t cry as often as I do. I probably wouldn’t be afraid to get in the water again. Life would be normal.

But the past year has taught me that I don’t want normal anymore.

I want more. I want extraordinary. I want to feel all the feelings. I want to see all the sights. I want to count all the blessings. I want to really live whatever days I have left. That’s what we’re all here to do.

That’s what I’ve spent this year trying to do. And this year, in all the ways that really matter, has been the best year of my life…even if my feet are freezing right now. 😄


  • Reply Jennifer DK October 4, 2023 at 6:01 am

    Oh, Matt. What an incredible post. I’m applauding your honesty and openness, even as I’m weeping while reading your extraordinary insights.

    In our darkest times, we find out what we’re made of. We all knew that you and Cari were extraordinary people . . . and now it’s fully confirmed.

    A million years ago, you sent flowers to Cari at a Betsy-Tacy Convention, and we cooed over their beauty. But we had to leave that hotel via a packed tour bus to spend the remainder of the convention in Mankato; “I guess I have to leave them behind,” she said, regretfully. I *could not bear this,* and even though I was already transporting my enormous suitcase plus Barb’s plus Radhika’s in my car, I added Cari’s flowers to the pile and trekked them to Deep Valley. True love for the win!

    Thanks for writing. Glad to have you on this earth for many more decades.

    🩷 Jen

    • Reply Matt McGee October 4, 2023 at 8:40 am

      Jen, this is the kindest and sweetest thing to say! Thank you so much. And thx for being our flower transporter way back when. Cari loves you and holds your friendship close to her heart. 🥰

    Leave a Reply