They looked at me like they had just seen a ghost.
And in one respect, they had.
Just prior to the three-year anniversary of my traumatic brain injury, I stopped by my local service station to get my yearly vehicle inspection sticker. Doing not much more than killing time as my car was being inspected, my eyes drifted to the intersection directly in front of me. Cars passed back and forth, an occasional truck rumbled by, and off to the side, the mechanics in the garage working on my car made occasional clinks and clangs with their tools.
And in two ticks of a clock reality struck me.
I was staring at the very intersection where I was struck by a teenage driver just shy of three years prior.
For a moment in time that seemed to stretch for longer than it should have, I wondered how I had found myself at that exact spot without the fact of it having occurred to me before. Perhaps it was a sign that I was healing, ever-so-slowly.
A couple of minutes later, as I was paying at the counter for the new inspection sticker, I asked the attendant a couple of simple questions.
“Have you been working here for a while?”
The gentleman, a retired school teacher, shared that this was his ‘retirement job’ and had been for six years.
And I had to ask. “Do you remember a cycling accident right out front a few years ago?” And I waited. My heart was pounding in my chest.
His eyes had that far away look as he mentally walked back through time. “I’ll never forget it. It was horrible. The guy on the bike was hit right there,” he shared, pointing to the corner. “And he flew head over teakettle all the way to there,” this time pointing to a spot 40-50 feet down the road.
He went on to tell his version of the day that fate intervened in my life, about how the local fire department closed Main Street, about all the first responders who walked from the fire station a mere block away to attend to my broken body.
And I dropped the bomb.
“I was that guy.”
Four simple words.
He looked at me like I was a dead man walking.
“It was a horrible accident,” he said again as he sized me up with new eyes. As expected, he then asked me how I was doing these days.
Rather than using this as a TBI teaching moment, I opted for the easier, softer path. “I've still got stuff, but I’m alive.”
As I was leaving, he called over to the station owner. “Remember that bike accident a few years back? He was ‘that guy’ who was hit.”
“Such a horrible accident,” echoed the owner, staring at me like I was supposed to be dead.
I smiled, cordially thanked them both for taking care of my car, and walked, legs shaking, back to my car.
Thankfully, the PTSD is getting easier, the nightmares less frequent. I was unexpectedly grateful to simply be alive. To have a heartbeat. To still be able to hold my wife, Sarah’s hand. Just “to be.”
Seeing the crash that caused my traumatic brain injury through the eyes of others was quite surrealistic. But then again, so much of my life today as someone who survived a brain injury borders on the surreal.
And if your life has been touched by traumatic brain injury, you are no doubt nodding.
Because like me, you get it.