“Lucky Break: A Love Story” by Belinda Ann Begley is a captivating true story about how Begley met, fell in love, and shared an amazing life with the late Kirk Kilgour, a C4 complete quadriplegic – the result of an accident while training with the Italian National Volleyball Team in 1976 (at age 28) – with no movement below the shoulders.
Reading the book about Kilgour’s life, one is reminded of “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials. A similar commercial featuring Kilgour would play something like this: “He has coached five volleyball Olympic gold medalists. He travels the world as an Olympic network broadcaster. The Pope once asked him for an autograph.” (The camera pulls back from a close-up to reveal Kirk in a power chair, complete with a chin control, while fascinated women and men hang on his every word.) “He is the most interesting man in the world.”
At age 46, author Begley was a divorced mother of three grown children, content with her life in the mountains of Vail, Colorado. Toned, athletic, well educated, and financially secure, the one thing she was missing in her life was true love. As a self-professed sports junkie, she heard that Kilgour – who was 47 and living in Southern California – was looking for an attendant to travel with him to Atlanta for his upcoming broadcast of the beach volleyball match at the ’96 Olympics. A perk of the gig would be accompanying Kilgour with an all-access pass to the games. Begley was determined to get the gig, despite having no knowledge of quadriplegia or attendant care. She phoned Kilgour and pursued the idea of being his attendant at the games. Several phone calls later he agreed to have her fly out to his home in Southern California for a week to learn how to be his attendant; a training trial to see if it would work.
Through Begley’s record of the week of training, the reader gets an in-depth look at Kilgour’s daily routine – made more challenging by his 6’4”, 200 lb. body – and how he managed many of the challenges of quad life, including finding and keeping good attendants on the minimal salary allotted by the state. It explains the two-hour process of getting up, bathing, shaving, bowel and bladder routine, getting dressed, all the while highlighting the key to Kilgour’s success: hard work, attention and pre-planning the finest of details, including alternatives if things went wrong. Some of the fine details include that he wore a corset to help with breathing and to make him appear slimmer, and he wore clothing designed to look good sitting – all tactics to stay competitive in broadcasting. And how he constantly monitored his health, paying close attention to his skin and the importance of a cushion – Kilgour used a High Profile ROHO.
Begley says that at first the attendant duties were overwhelming for her, but with Kilgour’s calm encouragement and playful humor, she catches on. She becomes fascinated by his stories, of his life before his accident: growing up a competitive athlete, surfing, playing beach volleyball and skiing, later becoming a star volleyball player for UCLA, touring the country with Wilt Chamberlin as a member of Wilt’s Big Dippers volleyball team, being the first American to be recruited to play professional volleyball in Italy – a sport there second only to soccer in popularity – and becoming a national sports superstar in the process.
Begley becomes even more fascinated with the way Kilgour handled his injury mentally, explaining that he allowed himself only one night of crying after his injury, then decided to be the best quadriplegic who ever lived. She notes that he chose to live by a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven out of hell, a hell out of heaven.” Kilgour chose to make a heaven out of hell; he chose to find happiness by living in the “here and now” and appreciating everything as it was happening.
(This personal philosophy would serve Kilgour well. After his injury Kilgour coached volleyball, became an actor, a writer, a producer, a disability consultant, a motivational speaker, a voice-over talent, a network broadcaster and a volunteer for countless organizations.)
With each day of her new job, Begley is becoming comfortable with all of the attendant duties, and she and Kilgour are becoming drawn to each other. By the end of the week they fall deeply in love.
After a period of long distance dating, Begley goes to Southern California and moves in with Kilgour. They want to get married but Kilgour is caught in a financial trap all too common for people with high level injuries: he can only earn so much before he would be cut off from SSDI benefits and MediCal (California Medicaid). As a married couple, the addition of Begley’s income would cause him to lose these vital benefits – something even her portfolio could not afford. So they chose to live as fiancées.
We learn about the couple’s extremely busy life, from vacations to Hawaii and Europe, to an in-depth, backstage view of the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, to attending various receptions and events where they rubbed elbows with movie stars – many of whom were friends of Kilgour’s. And this is all squeezed in between Kilgour’s many projects and Begley attending law school.
The author explains how Kilgour travelled both domestically and internationally, at times taking flights independently. She explains how he had a very specific system, which he directed, when having his chair prepared to load in the cargo hold of the airplane, right down to having directions printed in different languages, specific tools, bungees and straps to keep parts secured and with the chair.
The book follows the couple as they fly to Italy where Kilgour would be part of a celebration and Mass by Pope John Paul II. Years earlier Kilgour had written a poem – in Italian – about disability. A famous artist picked up on the poem and included it in one of his paintings. As the painting earned notoriety, so did Kilgour’s poem. As a result, Kilgour’s fame in Italy grew, arguably more as a poet and a man of indomitable spirit and hope for a happy life than as an athlete. Kilgour was part of a day-long celebration attended by more than 150,000 people and seen by millions on TV. The following day, Belinda and Kilgour had a private meeting with the Pope, who requested Kilgour sign (with his mouth stick) a card with the painting on one side and the poem on the other side. (You can read Kilgour’s first-hand account of this event in his column, “The Call to Vatican City”, which appeared in New Mobility, May 2002.)
Begley shares details as Kilgour’s health fails – 26 years after his injury, when he was only expected to live 10 – in a brave, year-long battle. In and out of hospitals, fighting sepsis, successfully coming back from being intubated, getting off of a respirator and fighting for life to his last breath.
In one of the many powerful quotes in the book, Kilgour describes his life and his accident. “I have no regrets. I love my life. If I had the power I would not change one thing. Nothing, and that includes the accident, especially the accident. Were it not for my injury I would have had a great life. I would have had some cute kids and been well off. If I had played in Italy a little longer, I would have ended up coaching there and making a million bucks a year. Yeah, I would have had a nice life, but I would never have had the experiences I’ve had as a disabled person. My life is so much richer. I know that sounds like crap, but I mean it. I see things in a different way, and I understand exactly what is important in this life. I know how to be happy. No, I don’t regret the accident because I like the view from this chair. Not that I would recommend to anyone else to give it a try.”
The book is available on Amazon.com ($11.99 in paperback) and on Kindle (for $4.99), and the Kindle version is available to borrow for free from KDP Select (Kindle Direct Publishing, an Amazon company) for Amazon Prime customers, through August 9, 2013.