Until I was forty-six years old, I believed that I was a part of my husband, and he was a part of me; that we would always be together no matter what, and that I would never be alone — and so it was a revelation when I realized that I’d always been alone and always will be.
I learned this lesson on April 13, 2002, as I watched my husband lie on a gurney near death, and there was nothing I could do but hold his hand and beg him to hold on. He had to struggle while I could only stand by.
He was alone.
I was alone.
At first, this revelation felt alien and horrifying to me. I always believed we were sharing our life journey, but that day our lives diverged. I realized I could only hold his hand and whisper words of encouragement. I could try to connect, but I could not go where he was. There are some things we simply cannot change. We are born alone, we make our own choices, and we die alone.
Through twenty-four years of marriage, I believed we had a connection that nothing could sever, and then his brain injury separated him from our past.
“Remember the song we always sang to the girls when we bounced them on the bed?” I asked Hugh just recently.
“No. What song?” he said.
“The silly one my sister recorded as a gag for us. Remember?” He did not.
Thirteen years after his TBI, I’m still learning about the memories that have been wiped out of my husband’s psyche. It’s a source of endless fascination and misery to me — the things he remembers and the things he has forgotten. But does this matter? I’ve only begun to explore this question.
The first few years following Hugh’s injury, I didn’t quite know how to exist as one-half of the new couple we had become with my vivid memories and his loss of memory of the way we were. But as he began to heal, and as I saw glimpses of the man I knew before, I felt hopeful. Eventually, the past and the present melded together, and we once again formed a new intimate connection — a satisfying relationship in which we incorporate different images and impacts from our past.
More recently, I have been transformed by the knowledge that we are all ultimately alone, and it finally feels okay. I can stand alone. In fact, I am more capable than I knew; I am stronger than I realized; and I’ve learned a great deal about myself by being forced to dig deeper into the inevitable mortality we all face.
Albert Einstein said, “Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” TBI gave me clear eyes and a sense of heart-strong urgency in my life — an urgency not shaped by what others have told me but by my personal experience. An urgency to do the work I love; not to own more, but to give more away and live simply; and not to try to belong to my husband, but to get along with him.
Clarity and strength are the gifts of owning ourselves completely, and from there, we can stretch out our hand to others.
The ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching says:
Attain the ultimate emptiness.
Hold on to the truest tranquility.
Each of us will one day be the one on the gurney, or the bed, or in the crashing car that ends our life. How will it feel to be alone as we pass away, even while loved ones stand by? Did we attempt to tap into the tranquility we would need in those final moments on earth to pass peacefully? No one can give us tranquility; we must summon it up from the whole of our experience. Is it possible to prepare yourself for a peaceful death by “holding on to the truest tranquility?”
Christopher Pike in Phantom wrote: “Krishna was once asked what was the most miraculous thing in all creation, and he replied, ‘That a man should wake each morning and believe deep in his heart that he will live forever, even though he knows that he is doomed.’”
I wish I could believe I’d live forever. TBI has taught me the opposite, so I’ll opt for living authentically. I’ll believe in the power of love to connect with others. I’ll appreciate the full experience of my life, imperfect as it is. I’ll use all my talents for as long as I can, and I’ll embrace the beauty in this world so I can leave in peace in the end.