Joseph J. Esposito has only two requests this Christmas: a simple ride home and a miracle that will make him walk again.

The 17-year-old teen-ager from Deale was left paralyzed from the neck down after a freak swimming accident in Ocean City, Md., in July. He has been hospitalized since then, most recently at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington.

"I know that I'll never walk again unless a miracle happens. But I'm young, and I know that with today's technology and medical advances, I might have a chance," Esposito said.

Doctors told Esposito's parents that physical therapy will keep their son at the hospital until at least mid-January. But they said they will allow Joey, as he is known to his family and friends, to go home for Christmas Day if his parents can obtain a van to transport him home from the hospital and back again.

James Esposito, a retired Washington postal worker, and his wife Mary, a secretary with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, do not have the money to buy a van and have not found anyone willing to volunteer use of one.

"I'd buy a van today if I had the money, but I don't, and if Joey's not home it's going to be a sad Christmas," James Esposito said.

Joey Esposito has made friends and enjoys talking with patients at the hospital, but he concedes that a short visit home tomorrow would be a welcome change of pace.

The teen-ager spends each day at the hospital engaged in physical therapy and independent study with a tutor, talking to patients, watching television and thinking about the eerie events that left him a quadriplegic and his parents thousands of dollars in debt.

His sister had asked him to spend four days in Ocean City, where she planned a vacation with her four young daughters. Esposito, who was working at a full-time summer job, had made a successful plea to his employer to let him have the days off.

"I sometimes wonder if I would have been better off I didn't ask for the days off; then I think that if it was meant to happen it was going to happen anyway," said Esposito, who was about to enter his senior year at Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George's County when the accident happened.

The day still haunts him.

It was July 21 -- the final day of the vacation. Joey was standing in knee-deep water waving to one of his nieces as she ran from the water to shore. Suddenly, a wave hit him from " . . . If Joey's not home it's going to be a sad Christmas."

-- James Esposito

behind, knocking him face down in the water. The jolt severed his spinal column in his neck and left him helpless.

"It was scary. I remember not being able to move. All I could feel were tingles up and down my body," said Esposito, a good swimmer who had vacationed in Ocean City many times before.

He was conscious when he was rescued by two swimmers on the beach. He was transported to a local hospital, then flown to the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he underwent surgery to repair his neck and was listed in critical condition.

His parents, who were living in Forestville and were in the process of buying a house in Deale, rushed to Baltimore. That is where the bills began to pile up, Joey Esposito said.

"I could hear my mom and dad talking about the bills. They thought I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could hear every word," he recalled.

Esposito's condition was eventually upgraded, but the damage to his spinal cord was permanent. On Sept. 1, Joey was taken to the rehabilitation hospital.

The Espositos are not sure how they will pay the $70,000 they owe the Shock Trauma Center, nor do they know where they will find the $8,000 a week it costs to keep Joey at the hospital, the $18,000-plus they need to make the family home accessible to their son and the $25,000 it would cost for them to buy a van and a lift.

"Our life was going pretty good there for a while; now all of a sudden we're broke with nowhere to turn," said James Esposito.

James Esposito said his wife has an insurance policy through her employer but that medical bills have exceeded the policy limits. He said a back injury forced him to retire early. His monthly pension is $700 -- enough to pay the mortgage.

Joey Esposito said he does not let the bills worry him. "They will be taken care of one way or another."

His chief concern is to regain his health and return to school, where he is a National Honor Society member. He plans to graduate with his classmates in June and hopes to attend college in the fall to study business administration.

"I've pretty much accepted what's happened to me, and the strange thing is I haven't flipped out about it because I have a supportive family and I know they love me," he said.