Over the weekend, I clutched my Kindle to my chest as the car made its way through long, winding stretches of mountainous Colorado landscape. Grateful not to be in the driver’s seat for once (I’ve clocked over 40,000 miles since becoming the full-time family chauffer), I was nestled in the backseat, immersed completely in the memoir of Nicole Bingaman, whose son Taylor, now 24, suffered a catastrophic fall just months after my own husband’s injury.
To say I enjoy reading about TBI is probably not the most precise statement. Since the moment my husband TC sustained his severe head injury, I have surrounded myself with brain injury literature as a way of building understanding about his challenges, accepting the new realities of our lives, and sustaining hope for the future. I don’t read about TBI for recreation. I read for knowledge, for potential empowerment. In learning the stories of other TBI survivors and caregivers, I feel an immediate kinship, a sense of connectedness to those with a shared experience.
But there is also a downside. After my own heartache, words have become more powerful than ever. And falling into the stories of those who have known great struggle or grief often triggers an undeniable post-traumatic response. It’s hard to stop myself from reliving the early, terrible memories following my husband’s assault – the ones I’d just as soon forget if I had a choice in the matter. That’s why I felt a slight degree of hesitancy before diving into Nicole’s memoir. I wasn’t quite certain what reaction her words would elicit, or whether I was ready to return to that dark, difficult place.
A reference to the freak fall that would forever alter the course of the Bingaman family’s trajectory, the aptly titled Falling Away From You is a raw and difficult portrait of the ripple effects following Taylor’s traumatic brain injury at age 21. The first part of Taylor’s story resonated deeply with this caregiver, as Nicole narrates her son’s initial fall down the family’s staircase, his near-death experience in the ICU, and the months of arduous inpatient rehabilitation. For so many of the families in the TBI community that I’ve met or read about, these experiences (and the associated shock and devastation) seem to be common pit stops in the grief and recovery processes. I was surprised to find while reading, however, that despite the familiarity of the Bingamans’ circumstances, Nicole’s words incited a sense of awareness and empathy that I had not yet explored.
When TC was injured, it took a long time before I could acknowledge that I was not the only one entitled to a long and complicated grief process. As his wife, it seemed inconceivable that anyone else in his life could truly understand my pain. However, as I traveled Taylor’s journey through the eyes of his mother, I was reminded that brain injury does not happen solely to the injured and his/her primary caregiver. It is a family experience, felt and interpreted differently by every member. Falling Away From You forced me to consider my husband’s injury from other viewpoints: that of TC’s mother, his stepfather, his brother, and friends. For everyone, it was a devastating event, but one that left us each with a different scar.
From her perspective as a mother, Nicole captures this heartbreak with a raw, courageous honesty. And as someone who rarely holds back in my own descriptions of struggle, I admired the vulnerability she willingly exposes in her writing. As adults, it is one thing to abandon our own hopes and dreams. As parents, we are inclined to fight infinitely harder to preserve those of our children. In reimagining Taylor’s future, Nicole wades through truly complex grief, learning to find moments of joy and serenity in subtle, rare hiccups of calm. She reminds the reader that TBI is a journey with no known destination. And perhaps the most powerful part of this memoir is its conclusion: a heartfelt reflection told by Nicole and Taylor’s two younger brothers, in which they share the lessons they’ve acquired as individuals, and acknowledge their fears about what lies ahead.
The Bingamans’ story, like all of ours in the TBI community, does not conclude at the moment the book closes. Like us, they are a real family, still swimming through the aftermath of a very traumatic event, learning how to live in the company of great challenge. It’s not easy to read about TBI. But despite the aching and familiar feelings of grief that were stirred while reading, I loved this book. I experienced swelling pride not only for Taylor and his incredible survival, but for each of his family members, who have dug into the deepest trenches of their humanity to reach for strength and remain united. I haven’t met Nicole in person, but I’d like her to know that in me, she has a faithful cheerleader.
Like Taylor, Nicole and her family have been broken and transformed. However, I derive much inspiration from the fact that in light of all of the hardship they have endured, the spirit of their family remains ignited - hardened, but perhaps stronger. It is a reminder to me, and to all readers, that sometimes in life when the things we love fall away, it is our true, most powerful selves left standing in the wake.