All those years ago, and I can still feel my heart race when I remember the early days of my husband’s severe traumatic brain injury. I vividly recall forgetting what my life used to be like: waking up and having coffee, seeing the kids off to school, cleaning the house, working at my computer, visiting with friends, having dinner with Hugh and the kids, and thinking it would always be that way. In the past ten years, I found myself laughing when I thought of Hugh’s pre-injury days—those glorious days when I thought I was so busy and hectic.
Once the dreaded accident phone call came and I rushed to the emergency room, I discovered what busy was all about. Busy was a cyclone of information, a deluge of activity, even when it felt inactive as we sat around the hospital waiting for any new sign that all would be well. Handholding was active as surges of my hypervigilant energy passed to my husband’s lifeless hand. Watching turned into a spine-tingling, nerve-burning occupation.
At some point one day, I wondered, is there a life outside these sterile walls? Did I used to have one?
My children brought me back to life with reminders. “Mom, we have homework. What should we do about school?” Oh yeah, school.
“Mom, we’re hungry. When are we going to eat dinner?” Oh yeah, dinner.
Urgency and inaction collided in almost comical ways. “I can’t leave the hospital—something might happen.”
“But you have to take care of yourself.” This was the phrase I hated most of all.
Gradually, Hugh woke up, he spoke, he walked, he made progress and had setbacks, and life crept back in. I spent a morning at home to do laundry and eat a real breakfast. I spent an hour with a friend. I sat and looked at flowers outside on a spring day.
Our brains are capable of immense feats. We hear what we allow ourselves to hear, and deal with the things we manage, we block out what might plunge us into despair with denial, and we give ourselves over to grief when the flood of bad news is too powerful to overcome—and yet, we overcome in time.
I’m still amazed that my husband woke up!
I’m still amazed at what my children overcame in their young teens, the loss of childhood innocence, the close kiss of death and disability they witnessed, and how they returned to life, and just like other kids, they strapped on their backpacks and got on the school bus and passed their tests.
How did we all do it? How does anyone do it?
We do it in stages.
We drop our lives when we must, for love and family, and then we pick it back up, piece by piece. I’ve seen family after family do this. Heroic feat after heroic feat accomplished, until one morning, that family wakes up, one person walks to the kitchen and starts the coffee, and another answers the phone without a panic attack, and each one looks out the window giving thanks for another beautiful day without grief or pain. I once joked that any day without a trip to the ER was a good one.
There are a million sayings for what happens in between the crisis and the end of the crisis: It will be what it will be; everything works out in the end, or trust the universe. This advice is impossible to take immediately after a loved one endures a TBI, but impossible as it seems, it’s true.
One way or another, life goes on. If you are a family in the first few weeks or months of this heartbreaking injury, start noticing how small changes make a big difference—the day you remember someone’s birthday, the day you return the library book that’s six months overdue—and you’ll see, your life is coming back to you. It never really left; it’s you who went away for a while. Your life is out there waiting for you to return when you are ready.