From a traditional viewpoint, they don't make much of a Thanksgiving meal, but this year David Lupash is thinking of chips and salsa as quite a feast.
"I think it's getting stronger," he said, glancing down at his right arm and moving it an inch or two. "I've been picking up chips and dipping them in salsa."
He smiled. "I'm doing pretty good."
Since July, 1988, David Lupash's life has been punctuated by such seemingly modest milestones. Moving the hand. Breathing comfortably. Having a lighter "halo vest" bolted to his skull. Coming home from the hospital for a visit.
Since the beautiful summer day when Lupash, now 14, struck his forehead on a sand bar and crushed his spinal cord after diving into the surf in Long Beach, he has striven for the small victories that are the rewards for the daily persistence, determination and cheerfulness that have inspired his family and friends.
In adapting to a turn of fate that most would call cruel at best, the young former competitive swimmer, violinist and A student from Westminster has built a life in which his immobile limbs are less important than friendship, and the pure love of life more precious than walking.
"He's the most extraordinary human I know," said Barbie Meyers, a family friend. "He never has a bad day, never has a bad attitude. When he wakes up, every day is a new day and a great day. He expects good things to happen. And he never, ever, ever focuses on himself."
Since the accident, David has lived in a succession of hospitals (currently Loma Linda University Medical Center); has been fitted with a succession of halo vests to keep his head immobile; has undergone three spinal cord operations and another to repair a blood clot in his left leg; has been subjected to consistent therapy, and has been fitted in a $15,000 computerized wheelchair that he controls with his breath through a strawlike "puff-and-sip" device in place near his head.
Yet on a recent visit home, surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers, David was seldom without a broad smile on his face, kidding and being kidded, talking swimming with his twin brother, Daniel, and tennis with his doctor, Mark Wheaton.
That afternoon, he had gone with his family to see his brother play water polo at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach, near where he suffered his injury the year before.
"Seeing my brother play was almost like seeing myself out there," David said.
And, he added, returning to the scene of his accident "made me feel better. I was really calm. It was like the peace of God."
His unfailingly positive attitude "doesn't seem strange at all," said David's father, Tiberius, a Romanian immigrant who works as a supervisor in the public works engineering division of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.
"He was obviously ready for it in a kind of supernatural way. He'll say, 'Daddy, sometimes I look around at these kids (in the hospital), and they don't even know what's going on. That's so sad. I'm really lucky.' At the hospital, he's like a social worker, like a baby-sitter."
David's reputation as a patient who can be relied upon to cheer up others is well known at Loma Linda, said Wheaton, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
"He's such a special kid," Wheaton said. "He's the best patient I ever had. He never wants to inconvenience anyone, and he has no thought for himself. He's always looking out for other people. And he knows more medicine at age 14 than I knew after one year of medical school. He'd be a great asset to the medical profession."
David said he doesn't know whether medical studies are in his future or not but, thanks to a full scholarship from USC, designed to be awarded to athletes who suffer disabling injuries, his college education is assured.
His hospital bills are another matter. Family insurance paid for only part of them. However, Meyers and other family friends have formed the David and Goliath Project, a grass-roots organization to raise money for David's rehabilitation, through the sale of sweat shirts and other fund-raising schemes.
Meyers said she hopes that the organization can raise enough money to allow David to be treated at a specialized facility such as the Miami Project, "a coalition of doctors who are working on a paralysis cure for spinal injury victims."
In the meantime, however, David is--above all--glad to be around to see it all.
"I'm just happy that I'm in a good hospital and a good environment and my family and my friends support me," he said. "I'm in good shape. I'd like to walk someday, but that's not something I'm going to dwell on all the time. I haven't taken it as a burden or as a problem. I'm going to be fine."
Still smiling broadly, he turned his eyes to a photographer in the room.
"I'm not just smiling for the camera," he said. "I'm smiling because I'm happy."