Choosing Life [WITH VIDEO]

THEO PANAYIDES meets a tetraplegic injured in a diving accident as a teen who now enjoys life as a father and a painter

A corner of the glassed-in back porch holds the easel where Kyriacos Kyriacou makes his living as a ‘mouth painter’. The rest of the living-room is filled with toys, indeed the whole house – an Australian-style timber-built house in the village of Liopetri, surrounded by fields filled with clumps of the area’s trademark reddish-brown earth – overflows with toys, Legos and Minions and dinosaurs. The toys belong to Pantelis and Alexandra, six-year-old twins whose oversized baby pictures beam down from the walls. Children are always a blessing, of course, but one suspects these particular kids are especially indulged and adored, because they were so unexpected. Kyriacos had them in middle age (his wife Blanche is significantly younger) – but he’s also a tetraplegic, unable to move his legs, use his hands, or feel any sensation below the chest.

He’s 59, due to hit the Big 6-0 in a couple of months – “but it’s gone quick, you know?” he says of his life. “To be honest with you, when I first broke my neck back then, in the 70s, the life expectancy was around 15 years, they used to say”. That was in 1973, on a bright summer’s day when 16-year-old Kyriacos joined his parents, cousins and other friends on a day out: they left their home in London, went to Devil’s Dyke to cook some souvla – a favourite London Cypriot thing to do – then to Brighton for a bit of a swim. He and the other boys spotted some people diving off the rocks into the sea, “we asked if it was safe, and they said yes”. The boys started diving – and it was indeed quite safe, at least when they started. But the tide was going out, and the water getting shallower.

“The other day I was in Dhekelia,” he muses, interrupting his story, “and I could see these kids diving in from these rocks, just like I was that day – and, you know, I’m looking and I’m thinking: ‘They don’t realise. Split second, that’s all it takes’”. In his own case, he was gearing up for his seventh or eighth dive, “the last dive I was going to do, ’cos everybody said ‘We’re going’. So we were going to leave, and I thought instead of walking around to the family, I’d dive in and swim across. That was it, that was my mistake.” He plunged in, unaware that the water was shallow – and that was it, his whole life transformed.

Did he black out?

profile 2“No. I opened my eyes as soon as I hit the water, and realised I couldn’t move. I was under the water, and all I could think was ‘Well, I’m going to drown’. Because I couldn’t get above the water. And I was just waiting, I was calm. It wasn’t frightening, that was the amazing thing”. The sun was shining, the water around him a bright, beautiful green. “It was an amazing picture. It was like Paradise, the feeling – as I say, no pain, no fear, no anything. It was just waiting”. He compares it to the strange serenity one gets just before a car crash, “when you see another car coming towards you and you think ‘That’s it’,” a woozy helplessness like being in a dream.

On another day, he might easily have drowned – but his cousin happened to dive in after him and lifted him up, thinking he was messing about, “and I said to him: ‘I can’t move’”. Things happened quickly after that. He recalls people gathered over him, all shouting at once. His dad arrived, picked up his arm “and it was like it wasn’t part of me… They let it go, and it just fell like a stone”. Four days in a hospital in Brighton were followed by a year in Stoke Manderville, a specialist hospital for spinal injuries, where – after months of being kept in the dark – young Kyriacos finally learned just how bad his condition was. “First time I found out, a doctor came and told me: ‘We’re going to get you up today or tomorrow. You do realise you’re never going to walk again?’, that was what he said to me. And I said: ‘No, you’re wrong, I am going to walk again’ – but he wasn’t wrong, was he. I never did.”

There are seven bones in the neck, explains Kyriacos (though in fact “it’s not the bones, it’s the spinal cord that runs in the middle”), and a tetraplegic’s life depends on which ones are damaged. His own injury was a 5/6, which at least allows him to move his arms slightly – though his hands are closed, like paws, and his movements stiff and uncertain; his triceps muscles don’t work, so for instance he can put a hand to his shoulder but can’t push it away (it just flops down). Even more significant, however, are the health problems caused by immobility – especially, in his case, affecting the kidneys.

He nearly died in his 30s when a discomfort so intense it made him hallucinate turned out to be a leaking kidney (he wouldn’t feel pain if you stuck a needle in his leg, but inner aches and twinges are a different matter), then in 1998 his other kidney sprouted an abscess – undetected by doctors – and “basically exploded”. On the tray of his wheelchair, adorned with stickers by the kids, Blanche has lined up a cappuccino and two large plastic cups of water, all with straws through which he sucks at regular intervals; fluids are important, to rinse his remaining kidney (at one stage he was drinking nine litres a day, which in turn led to weight problems). Inside his body is a suprapubic catheter, a tube running to his bladder from the stomach area – Blanche, who used to be his nurse before she became his wife, changes it every month – and another tube called a JJ stent running from his bladder to his kidney, which gets changed every year.

The real struggle, however, is the one inside his head – and there, at least, Kyriacos appears to be winning. He’s a big man, chatting amiably in a London accent that persists after 30 years in Liopetri; the house is air-conditioned – another side-effect of his condition is that it becomes harder to control one’s body temperature, so he doesn’t sweat like other people and had to leave England because he was freezing-cold all the time – and he seems comfortable, interrupting to greet his dad (his parents and three younger siblings all live in the village) and field questions from his kids. The twins think the wheelchair is great, using it for rides – one climbs on the back, the other sits beside him – and are only gradually starting to wonder why he’s not like the other daddies. He hasn’t told them what happened yet. “Plenty of time for that,” he replies amiably. “Slowly-slowly. Childhood should be full of nice things.”

He’s actually rather an inspiring interview, radiating calm and positivity. “Life, on the whole, is not bad as a paraplegic or a tetraplegic,” he claims at one point, counter-intuitively. “If you choose it to be good, it will be good” – and maybe that’s the point, ‘if you choose it’ to be good. After all, Kyriacos is under no illusions about the enormity of his life-changing injury. “It’s not just that you’re in a wheelchair,” he explains. “You have no control. Everything is taken from you: eating, sleeping, weeing, toilet, everything… You are not you anymore”. Paraplegics – who break their backs rather than their necks – are relatively lucky, he says: “Compared to a tetraplegic, they can live a reasonably normal life on their own. But a tetraplegic becomes a baby again”. Many can’t handle it, he admits, thinking back to his fellow sufferers during the year in hospital. Some commit suicide.

Why did Kyriacos emerge relatively unscathed? Why did he ‘choose’ his life to be good, or as good as it can be? One reason is undoubtedly family. Right from the start, he had support. Stoke Mandeville is miles from London, and his parents didn’t have a car at the time – yet they visited every day for a year, never missing a day (his mum did miss one day, but that was because she’d had a heart attack, he adds with startling casualness). Even by Cypriot standards, the family are remarkably close-knit. They all moved together to Liopetri (his father’s birthplace) in the 80s, but “couldn’t stick it” and went back to London – but meanwhile his younger sister had fallen in love with a Cypriot and “my mum wouldn’t let her come on her own”, so they all came back en masse again, and have been here ever since.

Family helped, no doubt about it, and his own late-blooming family, Blanche and the kids, helps even more – but another reason for his positive demeanour must be simply the kind of man he is. Kyriacos is naturally active, a doer, not much given to passive acceptance. He tells me of the time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wouldn’t let his wife’s sister into the country to help the family – Blanche (who’s a Filipina) spent four months in hospital during her pregnancy – and going to Nicosia in his wheelchair to have a “big argument” until they relented.

He tells me how busy his life is, from speaking engagements in schools to taking his kids on excursions all over the island. He also tells me that he used to be an athlete before his accident. He played cricket in the school team – he was actually supposed to be at a cricket match that day, but chose to go swimming instead – and played rugby (in his age-group) at a very high level, having turned out for Middlesex, London and South-East England and even gone for an England trial. “I just failed to make the England team that year, and I said ‘Next year’; but next year never came”. On the one hand, he must’ve felt immobility even more acutely after living such a physical life – yet the discipline and focus of top-level sports surely must’ve helped, when it came to navigating his new existence.

There’s one more reason why Kyriacos was “lucky”, as he puts it – because he found work, a way to earn a living and feel in control of his life. Since 1981 he’s been a ‘mouth painter’, having used his ‘O’ Level art skills plus hours of practice (the athlete’s discipline again) to gain acceptance to the MFPA, i.e. Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. I watch him at work for a few minutes: he needs a little help at first (Blanche has to set up the canvas and squeeze the paints out of the tubes), but once the palette’s in front of him he’s entirely on his own, paintbrush in mouth, mixing and dabbing and mixing and dabbing. He paints for about five hours every day (he used to do more, but his eyes are going); he doesn’t work weekends – though in fact, at this stage, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t work at all. The organisation, which is based in Switzerland, guarantees all members a monthly stipend even if they don’t deliver, making its money by collecting paintings from all over the world and reproducing them as Christmas cards and calendars.

What does he do when he’s not working? “Family,” he replies vaguely: Blanche and the kids, a house full of toys, convivial games of chess and cards (using a card holder). Was he never tempted by drink or drugs, those easy shortcuts to forgetfulness and sweet oblivion? He’s never been that desperate, he replies – though, even now, “I have days when I still don’t believe I’m in a wheelchair”. Even now, after 43 years, he’ll sometimes have dreams where he’s fine again, walking and running like the 16-year-old he used to be.

“Sometimes I still think it’s a dream,” muses Kyriacos – and sometimes it makes him sad, or angry, “but then I bring myself back to reality and say, if I didn’t have this accident I wouldn’t have my wife, I wouldn’t have what I have now. And I think to myself, if somebody tomorrow came up with a cure, would I take it? Would I say ‘Yeah OK, I want to walk now’?”. It’s not like he’s forgotten what it feels like to walk – but he’s now spent twice as long as a tetraplegic than he has being mobile. “I know what I’m missing. But I’m not missing it now, on the whole. Because this is my life, and I’ve got used to it this way”.

But the whole existential question, the matter of a young life casually destroyed – in a split second, as he says himself. Does it not disturb him? Does he never seek some kind of validation? Is he never troubled by how fragile and arbitrary our lives seem to be? Does he never blame God, or karma? Does he never wonder ‘Why me?’?

Kyriacos pauses, taking a sip from his straw. “Do you know how many others were diving in that place where I broke my neck?” he ponders. “There was me, my cousin Barry, my two other cousins – there were about seven of us diving, relatives and non-relatives”. All were oblivious to the danger. The accident could’ve happened to anyone, or no-one – yet it’s also true, he notes, that “the closest cousins and friends I had, that were up there with me, they’re all dead now. My cousin Barry died of a heroin overdose. My friend, my best friend, they’re all dead – and I’m here. And the odds were against me being here.

“So there’s no plan, there’s no reason to anything. It just happens the way it is… As for God, no, I’ve never blamed God. I’ve never said ‘Why me?’. You know, sometimes I think to myself ‘I’m unlucky’ – but other times I think ‘Ah, don’t be silly. Have a look at what you’ve got. There’s a lot more people worse off than you’. And there are, and that’s the way you’ve got to think of it”. A motorbike zips by outside, mingling with the sound of children’s voices in the next room.