When Carey Collingham was 3, his mom carted him to a concert at Lincoln Northeast High School and the little blond boy pointed up at the cello section on stage.
He said: I want jel-wo.
Maybe he was hungry, the 37-year-old personal injury attorney said.
Or maybe he liked the sound those over-sized violins made.
In either case, his parents seized the moment and bought him a pint-sized cello and signed him up for lessons.
“I wouldn’t say I was very good those first few years,” Collingham says. “But it became something I enjoyed doing.”
And then it became his passion. A part of his identity.
Carey the cello player. Talent shows in middle school. Youth Symphony Orchestra. First chair in the Nebraska High School All-State Orchestra.
A music scholarship to UNL.
In October of 2015, the cello was in the backseat of his Malibu station wagon when he was rear-ended by a heavy-footed teen driver in the midst of a zipper merge on I-80 near L Street in Omaha.
A year later, he was on his way home from his job at Spring Creek Prairie — to dress for a gig that evening — when a truck turned in front of him, leaving the cellist with a broken wrist, a broken left toe, torn tendons in his right foot, plenty of bumps and bruises and reinjured a disk in his neck.
This time, he hired a personal injury attorney.
And then he became one, too.
* * *
There he is in a commercial for Berry Law Firm, wearing a suit and a gold tie with a cello in the middle.
He’s sitting with his cello, playing Bach.
He’s at his desk going over documents.
Then he’s looking at the camera, telling potential clients he knows what it’s like to have something taken from him and he knows what it’s like to fight to get it back.
He resisted filming the commercial. He didn’t want to commercialize his story, Collingham says. And he doesn’t share that story with most of the clients who come to him after being injured in a crash.
But he will if it seems right, like when a client was reluctant to have the steroid injections his doctor recommended. The same treatment Collingham received after both his crashes. He urged the man to take them, explaining how they’d helped.
“Such a little thing, but for me, one of the first times I felt personal experience helped someone else.”
After he’d graduated from college with a major in music performance and a minor in business, the cellist tried a job in the corporate world, but it left him cold.
So he turned to nonprofits. Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Arthritis Foundation, fundraising for Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center.
He liked giving back. Making a tangible difference in people’s lives and in the community, the same feeling that making music gave him.
And he hadn’t given up the cello. He played at 15 or 20 weddings a year and had a handful of cello students, not because of the money but to nurture their talents the way his teachers had done for him.
He joined the Lincoln Civic Orchestra and became its principal cellist.
He was a leader, said the orchestra’s director Rob Salistean, who has known Collingham since their youth symphony days.
Collingham helped him when he took over the helm of the civic orchestra and did the same for other members, sharing his knowledge of musical techniques and styles, a helpful coach with an endearing personality.
“Many in the group look up to him and enjoy his musicianship but also his goofy side,” Salistean said.
A few days after Collingham’s first crash, the orchestra had a performance. As they played, the cellist noticed his right hand begin to tingle and burn.
By the end of the concert, he could barely grip the bow.
He leaned over to the musician beside him. Something’s wrong.
“It didn’t really hit me that something was really wrong,” he says. “I had to sit out the rest of that season.”
The jolt of the collision had blown a disk in his neck and impinged a nerve. Every time he lifted his right hand the symptoms began.
It hurt too much to play.
“Losing the orchestra was the most devastating thing that could happen,” Collingham says. “Those are my people.”
Steroid injections helped his hands. And the cellist faithfully stretched the tendons and gradually made his way back to rehearsal.
A few weeks later came the distracted driver behind the wheel of a truck.
Collingham remembers moments. The lid popping off his coffee cup and brown liquid flying through the air.
The ambulance ride, a brace supporting his neck and his arms, hands in the air, giving two thumbs-up.
And he remembers the irony of it: He’d been on his way home to put on his tux and grab his cello to play for a bridal fair called The Wedding Crash event.
He got home from the hospital to find his orchestra friends there to help. Meals from Amigos. Funds to help pay his medical bills.
He was grateful, but really? One crash and now another? Neither one his fault?
And the nerve problem in his right hand? The second crash caused the same pain to his left, making it more painful than ever to play the instrument he loved.
“I spent the better part of six months being angry,” he says. "It felt like God, fate, karma, the world, something, was trying to tell me, 'No. You should have given up the first time.'"
* * *
David Handley and the civic-minded cellist knew each other from Rotary Club No. 14.
Handley has his own Lincoln practice and takes personal injury cases, like Collingham’s.
As they made their way through Collingham’s case, his fellow Rotarian peppered him with questions.
“Clients generally want to know what’s going on,” Handley said. “But he was why? Why? Why? He had a love for wanting to know what was happening.”
Collingham was inquisitive and sharp, Handley said. He seemed ready for a career change, too. And he seemed to have what it took to be an attorney — a mind for research, a desire to dig deep.
“I encouraged him and he thought about it for a while and then off he went. I’m telling you, his eagerness and passion for the law, you don’t see it very often.”
Deciding to go to law school was a process, Collingham said. Handley had inspired and encouraged him, but was he ready?
He’d be in his mid-30s by the time he graduated. He’d be back in student debt land.
During his high school years, he’d volunteered as a student attorney at Teen Court, Lancaster County’s diversion program. He’d liked it.
So he started studying for the LSAT.
That went OK.
He took the test and that went OK, too.
“Before I knew it, I was ordering books for the first day of law school,” Collingham said. “I had given up the entire life I loved and was comfortable with and starting something new.”
* * *
Collingham loved law school.
He’d get giddy reading about cases like his own, knowing he was learning how to help someone else navigate the aftermath.
He clerked for Berry Law, a longtime Lincoln firm.
He passed the bar and joined the team in September. He’s a cheerleader for the work the lawyers do and the way they do it.
“Every client I have is personal,” he says. “To a small extent, I can understand what they are going through, having something ripped away from them.”
And he returned to the Lincoln Civic Orchestra last year, too.
Members welcomed him back to their smaller, socially distanced cadre, Salistean said.
“He’s now serving as cello section leader and anyone can tell how much it means for him to be playing with the group again.”
And there’s a bonus, Salistean said.
Collingham’s fiancée — Amy Fischer, the orchestra’s concertmaster — sits directly across from him with her violin.
“So I imagine they make googly eyes at one another throughout performances.”
A sweet surprise, Collingham says, brought on by his crashes.
“It took us a couple of years of me not being in the group for us (he and Fischer) to realize one of the things we missed was our time together.”
All his life, Collingham urged people to make the best of things. He knows he will need neck fusion surgery one day. He plays his cello through the pain — his new normal — figuring out a way to make the best of it.
Playing for weddings is great, he says. Plenty of breaks. Orchestra rehearsals are tolerable.
And now he gets to help people get their own lives back.
“I have the opportunity every day to help them figure out what’s the best new version of themselves they can be,” the cello-playing attorney says.
And if the situation feels right, he can offer more.
Hey, I don’t know what you’re going through, but let me tell you what I experienced ...
FIVE COLUMNS FROM 2020:
Five Cindy Lange-Kubick columns from an upside-down year
Columns from an upside-down year: Soups and scones
This story is about nostalgia -- so many of us, packed so close together in the pursuit of good soup and scones. It gives me hope that those days will return.
Columns from an upside-down year: Remembering Chuck E. Cheese
Sometimes it's the little things that put a lump in your throat, like not knowing that the last time you took your sweet grandson to the germ-infested arcade parlor he loved would be the last time.
Columns from an upside-down year: Dying alone
So much pain during the pandemic, but none worse than the grief of families and health care workers as so many die alone in the hospital.
Columns from an upside-down year: An ugly baby?
Who doesn't love an ugly baby story?
Columns from an upside-down year: The Angel in Room 255
A story about hope and goodness and friendship at a time when people needed to hear about the angels of this world.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @TheRealCLK