Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There are still mornings when she forgets that it happened. Anna Beninati will wake up and roll out of bed, just as she always did. It's only when she crashes to the floor that she remembers: Her legs are gone.
"That actually happens a lot," she says.
It's been a year since she lost her legs while trying to hop a train in Colorado in an accident that reverberated nationwide, at least partly because of the recorded 911 call. She has only inches remaining of her left leg, and half of her right leg.
Anna has had terrifying flashbacks that wake her in the middle of the night, bathed in a cold sweat. But after a year and 11 surgeries, she has gradually distanced herself from the accident in some ways, although in other ways she has drawn it closer. Last January she returned to the scene of her accident, but more on that later. She has tattooed the date of that fateful day on her left arm — September 5, 2011.
"I've made my peace with it," she says. "It's not ruling my life. I was angry for four months. This is my fault. There was no one but myself to blame. I had to forgive myself for being stupid. I had to own it."
The irony is that she has never been happier in her life.
On a recent morning she was talking to students at Lone Peak Elementary, not far from her home in Sandy. At 18, she is not much older than some of the students. She punctuated her speech with giggles and "you knows," bounced nervously in her chair and drummed the seat absentmindedly with the stump of her right leg. All that youthful energy has to go someplace now that she is mostly confined to a chair.
The kids are riveted, not only by her condition but by her spunkiness, the weight of her words and her sense of humor (when she shows a photo of her siblings to the kids, she says, "I used to be their big sister; now I'm their little sister.").
Her messages are the simple, hard-earned lessons of the accident. Listen to your inner voice — "If it doesn't feel right, don't do it," she tells her audience. Life goes on after setbacks — "My first week home from the hospital, I was really angry," she says. "I had to make a choice. Either stop where I am and do nothing but wallow in self -pity about why I don't have legs or get on with it. You can give up or get up. My second week home from the hospital I decided today is the day I'm going to figure out all the things I can do."
That turned out to be many things. She took up hand cycling, weightlifting, bungee jumping, bowling, horse riding, swimming and rock climbing. She learned to drive again. "I learned to do handstands and wheelies in my chair," she says. In November she will begin training for paralympic ski competition five days a week. She coaches other disabled people through Snowbird's Wasatch Adaptive Sports program. She mentors members of the Utah Youth Symphony once a week. She plays guitar, piano and bassoon. She is taking online classes with plans to resume her music therapy studies at Colorado State.
"My accident was not the end of having fun," she tells the kids. "I let my disability be the start of a new life. I do things now that I couldn't or wouldn't do before. Every day is an opportunity for discovery."
Later, when she is away from the kids and alone with an interviewer, she tells a different part of the story that is darker and even more redemptive. You wouldn't know it to observe her now, but she was an angry, unhappy teenager suffering from anorexia before the accident.
"I never liked rules," she says with a wry smile. "Which is why I'm here in a wheelchair."
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