As life continues its slow crawl toward whatever our post-pandemic new normal will look like, my wife Sarah and I have been taking small, careful steps back into the world at large. Like so many others, I’ve found that it’s not simply as easy as just flipping a switch. Should I venture out? Am I safer at home?
I try to make the decision that feels right at the time. Last month, my wife Sarah and I made the decision to get out for an epic road trip, our first since 2019. We spent two days driving south along the east coast, a few days in Florida, and a couple of days driving home. It was magnificent, and for a few short days, life felt very close to the way it did before 2020.
Driving 2,400 miles over the course of the week, we had plenty of time to talk about most anything you can imagine. As we shared the driving, I had plenty of time to take in the scenery and to think. I think more than I ever have these days. And while sitting in the passenger’s seat somewhere between Georgia and South Carolina, I thought about where I am right now in my life’s journey as a traumatic brain injury survivor. The clarity that came to me as the green mile markers passed by in a seemingly endless blur was both bittersweet and joyous. But then again, most anyone with a heartbeat, brain injury or not, knows both joy and pain. It’s part of our shared human condition.
My eyes teared up as I thought about the loss of my children. This is a soul-level pain that I share less about, lest I reopen the most painful wounds of my journey. In the year following my 2010 injury, my oldest two sons quietly exited my life. No explanation and no harsh words, they just left, leaving me wondering for close to a decade what happened. Were they unable to reconcile the dramatic personality change that came as a result of my injury? Did I say something offensive or unkind during the early months after my brain injury? With my verbal filter virtually shredded early on, I was prone to say anything, completely blind to the implications of my words.
Life has moved on, brain injury or not. Both of my older sons bought new homes in the years since; one got married. These joyous life events I heard about secondhand. Nothing about those early years was easy. The losses still affect life today.
More mile markers passed by. More thoughts came to me. Being away from my regular work-a-day routine was proving to be a great opportunity to just let my mind wander. By this time, it was late in the day. We had over ten hours of driving behind us and I was feeling the weight of exhaustion rolling in. Exhaustion and brain injury are not best friends. When I am overtired, my ability to speak still falls away, I lose words and stutter. Aphasia rears its ugly head and I have a profound disconnect between my brain and what I actually say. Of all my post-TBI challenges, it is the speech difficulties that most affect my self-worth. Lost in a sea of garbled words, I feel less than the rest of humanity.
Frustrated at my inability to communicate, I asked my wife Sarah a simple question, “Can you press my reset button?” She smiled coyly – a sure sign that mischief was at hand.
“Nope, it doesn’t work.”
I can’t begin to tell you how hard we both laughed at that one. It was probably a good two or three-mile-marker laugh. Thank goodness for our ability to both see the humor in it. If you had told me in the early years that we’d laugh together at something like this, it would be beyond my ability to comprehend, yet here we are!
Nine days later, we found ourselves rolling back into New Hampshire, both of us a bit road-weary, but grateful for the experiences that come only with epic, immersive road trips. But before we say goodbye for today, I want to share one more tale of unexpected laughter, one that brought happy tears, though no one saw them.
My youngest son and his wife just purchased a home. He was living at our home when I was injured and saw firsthand my challenges over the years. Out on our back patio last week, he pulled out his phone, with the intention of showing me pictures of his new house.
“Dad, you’ve already seen these pictures before,” he said, pushing his phone in my direction, so overtly excited about purchasing his home. My reply was not what he expected. “It’s going to be new to me every time I see them,” I quipped back, poking fun of the type of memory loss that comes with brain injury.
I looked up from his phone to see him laughing.
Where do I even begin to go with this? Like everyone close to me, he had to reconcile the changes in me that came from my injury. But just like Sarah and me, he seems to have found his way. His laughter was an outward manifestation of his acceptance of me and his unconditional love.
Our eyes met, he didn’t say a word, but if he had spoken, he would most likely have said, “I get it Dad. It’s okay, I love you as you are.”
How do you put a price on that?