For many, it’s the first thing people see when they see Kenny Salvini. I’ll have to admit. I did. I’m referring to his wheelchair. But after a while, after you spend some time getting to know this man, while you’re listening to him talk about life and love and the things that matter, something happens. It did for me. You don’t see the wheelchair anymore; like it doesn’t exist.
“You don’t even realize he’s not moving,” said Jeanne Salvini, Kenny’s mother.
If only he could. If only we could un-do those moments in our lives that change our lives for the worse. Rewind nine years, February 11, 2012.
“I hit it going too fast,” Kenny said.
It was that moment when he flew off a ski jump in the terrain park at Snoqualmie Summit. Kenny was 23 years old.
“I overshot the landing and fell about 40 feet onto my head, broke my neck, my back, and my leg. All in one shot,” he said.
The cliché: It changed his life forever. Of course it did. Kenny is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. The accident - it’s the last time we’ll mention it. Kenny would much rather talk about her - his soul mate, his everything. Kristen.
“I had no idea that the nurse helping me at the time every day would end up being my wife,” said Kenny. “She taught me how to love and be loved.”
Taught - past tense.
“Yeah, it was tough watching Kenny go through that,” said Skip Salvini, Kenny’s father.
Kristen Salvini died from an accidental drug overdose 15 months ago. Here’s what she wrote to her soul mate on his birthday:
“You are the sweetest, kindest, fun, funniest, the smartest best looking, most loving... most inspirational man I’ve ever known.”
Here’s what Kenny wrote to her after his loss:
“You burned brightest and hottest my love. You taught me so much in the course of the last eight years. And the love we shared in the final two is still legend.”
I asked Kenny if he thinks about Kristen every day.
“Every day,” he said. “I’ve kept her voice in my head.”
And he’s kept her words on his hand.
“And I’ve actually got it tattooed on my hand, in her handwriting.” It reads 'Do Life,’” he said.
Do life, she begged him. Do life. And he is.
“Yeah, this wheelchair doesn’t mean I have to be a spectator in life,” Kenny said.
He and his late wife had always talked about joining forces to help others also suffering from paralysis. It’s happening now. Kenny is in the early stages of creating the Hear and Now Project to help people with disabilities make the transition to their new lives, so they can “do life” too.
“I look to create opportunities for people in situations similar to mine to share their stories,” he said. “My hope is to build a community where a group of people in seemingly dire circumstances are able to pool their collective experience, strength and hope in order to successfully achieve enhanced, more accessible life.”
Kenny said Kristen would have been very proud of the work he’s starting to do with the Hear and Now Project.
“I could roll over. I could give up,” said Kenny. “That’s not the way she wanted me to live.”
She lifted him up before her time was up.
“You plucked me from the depths of despair,” he wrote to her after her death. “And showed me how to live life like I never thought possible. My only hope is that I can carry on your story in a way that remotely does justice to the way you lived life.”
How she lived, and how she loved.
“Intensely and unafraid,” he wrote. “I love and miss you more than words can express.”
You can follow Kenny’s updates on the Hear and Now Project on his Facebook page