A year ago, I was wrangling a 20 lb. dead bird, pulling feather remnants from its pink, rubbery skin with one hand as I conducted an internet search for “how to cook a turkey” with the other. I had never prepared a Thanksgiving turkey before. In fact, as a lifelong on-again, off-again vegetarian, touching meat is not among my favorite hobbies. But with an open mind and an iron stomach, I approached my Thanksgiving hosting duties the same way I had approached each day since my husband’s brain injury — with stubborn determination.
In the corner, my husband TC sat at the kitchen table, a similar look of resolve transparent on his face. With intense concentration, he focused on using his right hand to slide a single paper towel from one end of the table to the other. This was his occupational therapy task of the day. And from the look on his face, I could tell it wasn’t easy.
As I reflect back to Thanksgiving one year ago, there is much to be grateful for. In the fifteen months since his assault and subsequent TBI, TC has made tremendous progress. He is walking again, has made great gains with his speech, and is independent enough to care for our three-year-old son Jack during the day. It’s more than I could have hoped for one year ago, but somehow it doesn’t always feel like enough.
Try as we might, TC and I still struggle to let go of the part of our psyche that persistently argues, “Hey, this isn’t fair!” Brain injury is simply not part of the life we ever intended to lead, and as the path to recovery stretches into its second year, we continue to find ourselves in moments that require more grace and more gratitude than we sometimes have to offer. The bottom line is that we’re human. And 15 months of treading water is enough to fatigue even the most talented swimmer.
Throughout this time, we have received a lot of support. People stop us in the street to tell us what an inspiration we are. We receive e-mails and letters from around the world commending us on our attitude. We hold their kind words dear to our hearts, but they often feel undeserved. Inspiration? Can you be an inspiration and still be mad as hell from time to time? Can you be mostly grateful but still wish this terrible thing would go away?
These are the questions TC and I grapple with in our current life. And as we are discovering, gratitude is not a fixed character trait, but a renewed practice. Gratitude doesn’t always happen organically, no matter how strong or faithful a person you consider yourself to be. For TC and me, gratitude is a choice — an act that lifts the load of heartache when we find ourselves at our worst.
Thanksgiving has long been our family’s favorite holiday. We love Thanksgiving for its simplicity. We love to gather together with family and friends and we love that there are no gifts or obligations or other gimmicks attached. History aside, Thanksgiving is a built-in calendar day to practice gratitude. But the problem with Thanksgiving is that it’s only one day. And one day to reflect and give thanks is not enough for those of us who have had our lives changed by TBI; for we are among the people who have experienced first-hand the importance of gratitude, and we are among those who need gratitude the most. Life with TBI can feel like a battle. It’s hard to focus on the blessings when so much has been taken. And it’s hard to feel secure about what you have when you’ve experienced such an unexpected, catastrophic loss.
I approach this Thanksgiving holiday with a clearer understanding about gratitude. I see now that gratitude extends far beyond the act of going around the table, each sharing one thing you’re thankful for. Giving thanks is an essential life skill for us all and should never be reserved for one day alone. If you practice hard at it, gratitude has the potential to become the little voice in your head reminding you each day of life is a gift, even the days in which you are met with challenge or suffering.
Like most people, I consider myself a work-in-progress and, admittedly, I often lose touch with my sense of gratitude. But the experience of TBI continually pushes me back toward this understanding. Before TC’s injury, I wasn’t very good about acknowledging a day when things simply went well. Now these days jolt me like a happy thunderbolt. A day with no emergencies or a day of rest is more than I ever thought I’d get a year ago. And these days are most certainly cause for celebration.
While there are a lot of big changes that distinguish this Thanksgiving from last, it is the little changes that have made a world of difference: a smile exchanged between TC and Jack, a successful therapy session or doctor’s appointment, a little help from my husband in stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey. These little blessings have amounted to great change in our post-TBI lives and for that, I am deeply thankful.