Becoming a parent and a caregiver at nearly the same time has taught me much about learning to hold on and let go in life. In some ways, the demands of these two roles are not so different. In other subtle ways, they are quite distinct. These days I am far less of an active caregiver than I once was. In the past few years, my husband has made such tremendous gains in his independence that it is only rarely that he relies on my caregiving support. Instead, I choose to identify as a spouse first. To keep moving forward in our post-TBI life, it has been essential to reestablish the boundaries of our relationship: learning once again to prioritize our roles as partners in marriage.
But an event in the past month has signaled a new wave of change, another significant milestone loosening the threads of our caregiving relationship: TC returned to driving. Relearning to drive is an event that might seem to pale in contrast with TC’s other accomplishments since his injury: his return to walking, his gradual remastering of language, and, of course, his return to work. But for me, the weeks leading up to that trip to the DMV were packed with significance. In the past three years, we have learned to structure our lives around a single driver scenario. I have clocked countless hours behind the wheel, driving TC to appointments, our son to various activities, and navigating road trips as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we spent an entire summer participating in intensive speech therapy for TC’s aphasia.
Despite the thousands of miles spent on the road, the role of chauffer is not one that has much bothered me during all this time. I’ve become accustomed to finding the driver’s seat locked in its Abby-fitted position; close enough to the steering wheel to accommodate my 5’2” frame. I like the sense of control I feel behind the wheel, convinced that if I remain alert and focused, our safety will be better ensured. This desire to remain in control is a natural caregiver tendency, stemming mainly from the upheaval of our lives in the days and months following TC’s injury. Logically I know that driving is one of the most dangerous situations humans encounter on a daily basis, but putting myself behind the wheel has helped me to mentally downgrade that risk.
TC’s return to driving has been a long, multi-step process involving an expensive driving course at a nearby rehabilitation hospital, the installation of even more expensive adaptive equipment to compensate for his right-sided hemiparesis, and several maddening trips to the DMV, where, unfortunately, they are not all that well equipped to address the needs of disabled drivers (no one said it would be easy, I suppose!). For years, people would ask us when TC would drive again, but it’s taken a long time just to knock down our recovery to-do list far enough to prioritize driving. You have to learn to crawl before you walk, as they say. With license now in hand, however, TC and I find ourselves squarely at the entrance to this next landmark in independence. And, quite frankly, I’m terrified.
It’s not my fear of no longer being needed. The fact that we’ve come so far is an indication of a job well done for the both of us, and I don’t need to serve as an active caregiver to recognize my importance to my family. What I’m terrified of are all the unknown possibilities ahead: the reckless drivers TC might encounter on the road, the slim possibility of a seizure or medical issue while driving, the notion that I might not be present to intervene in an emergency. I’m terrified of another life-shattering phone call at a moment in which I least anticipate it. I’ve had too many of those calls in my adult life and the very memories incite post-traumatic anxiety.
And here is where the paths of caregiving and parenting once again intersect: it is my responsibility to let go, to exhale any fear, and take in a breath of faith instead. Just as I will learn to do at the end of this summer, when I wave goodbye to my 5-year-old son at the bus stop as he navigates the foreign terrain of kindergarten, and just as I will in eleven years when he makes his own trip to the DMV to secure that precious plastic card, I will need to step back and allow for independence to take root. The world is a big, scary place and witnessing our loved ones walk freely in it can be a terribly frightening experience. But this is the goal of any parent or caregiver: to smooth that path of entry (or reentry) and to prepare our loved ones to tackle the challenges they will encounter along the way. With trepidation, this former caregiver will be mustering all the faith she can over the next few months. The time has come to hand over the keys and watch TC get back on the road again.