Break It Open

Last night, I had a dream that I was on a train to D.C. I accidentally got off at the wrong stop (Crystal City – which as anyone who lives in D.C. will tell you, is not actually on the line to Union Station, but when have dreams ever been rational?). I had to jump back on the train and purchase another ticket for the rest of the journey. I wanted to call my dad to let him know what had happened and that I would be late to see him.

I pulled out my phone and found it was an old flip phone, the kind I would have had back in undergrad when waiting until after 9 PM to talk in order to preserve precious minutes was an actual way of life. I was flustered by how inefficient this phone was. I couldn’t navigate the contact list well and couldn’t find my dad’s number. I approached a couple on the train to use their laptop and see if I could look it up, but whoever bought my dad’s radio station had finally changed the WNMB website, and his number was gone.

Why is it that I could still recite my house phone number as a kid? Or the number for the old station in Albemarle? But in this dream, all I wanted to do was talk to my dad, and I just couldn’t remember his number. I couldn’t reach him.

I was startled awake by my alarm (iPhone, nice to see you). I sat in bed for a few minutes trying to regain my composure. It was the type of dream that leaves you unsettled and casts a shadow over the morning. Not so much a nightmare, but a reminder that dreams speak to the fragility of our emotions and old wounds.

I found myself reflecting on what this meant in the context of my life now. I often wish that I could talk to my dad to get his perspective on things, even five and a half years later. But not so much as I have over the past few weeks, and this dream reinforced the permanence of the fact that I cannot, in fact, call him.

When these subtle reminders hit me full force, I find myself turning to other ways in which I can experience the memory of my father. Music. Swinging with Ellie in the sunshine. Soul searching with good friends.

I recently finished The Bright Hour, by Nina Riggs.

“Break it open,” she writes, quoting one of her favorite authors. “Look inside, feel it, write it down.”

In recent weeks,  I have reached out to close friends–kindred spirits, new and old. Through our conversations, I have come to better appreciate the idea of breaking, looking, and feeling. Of reaching out, standing up, leaning on.

Riggs also writes about a trip took to Paris she took with her husband after receiving news that her breast cancer was terminal. They visit a restaurant they frequented years before as newlyweds living in the city. The walls are crumbling, cracked,  and covered with plaster. The menu has changed. The floor is worn.

But, Riggs writes, “the breakage and repair are integral to the history of the object, rather than something to disguise.”

The object, or place, or memory–recognized as a whole, appreciated for the good. And the bad. The loss, and the gain.

As I muddle through the last semester of coursework in my doctoral program, the real work is just on the horizon.

At 34, I am too young to be like the restaurant that Riggs describes, but some aspects are true. I have been broken. Plastered over, yes, but the cracks are still there. I cannot talk to my dad, no matter how many times I dream about it.

I cannot imagine at this point where life would have taken me–us–if I hadn’t been kicked in the head on June 4th, 2013.

But.

What struck me most about Riggs’ reflections of life and loss is the delicate balance between living in the moment and accepting the fact that, at the end of the day, we can only control how we ride the waves.

“I have to love these days in the same way I love any other. There might not be a ‘normal’ from here on out.”

 

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Grasping at Straws

A few weeks ago, Paul and I took Ellie out to eat at Tyler’s, one of our favorite local places to go. We’ve been taking Ellie out and about since the day we got home from the hospital last May, partly in an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy and give us a break from the many hours spent in that wonderful, awful, confusing, enlightening newborn phase. Now going out is no longer a race to finish our food as quickly as possible and Ellie joins us at the table in a high chair, entertaining herself with toys, coasters, straws and anything else within reach (note to self, continue to remove knives from reach).

On this particular night, Ellie was happily playing with her Eeyore rattle (which just entailed tossing him about and then throwing him on the ground – “How often will Mommy pick this up for me?” seems to be a fun new game) and Paul and I were debriefing after a long week at school. We were surrounded by families, which seems to always be the case when you go to dinner at 5:30 PM on a Friday (whatever, it’s the new party time).

I looked over at the booth to my right, where a harried looking mom was sitting with her husband and two kids. The daughter picked up a straw, tore the top of the wrapper off, then blew the rest of the paper in her dad’s direction.

He laughed.

I started crying.

They were silent tears, but still they rolled down my face. Ellie was oblivious, of course, but Paul knew. And when he glanced over at the family, he also knew why.

Such a simple, almost mundane interaction between a daughter and her father, but I will never know it again with my own dad.

We got to the point where–when my dad was still alive–he would take out one of the ballpoint pens he always carried and actually write his name on the straw first to make sure I didn’t steal it. Then whenever I wasn’t paying attention, off came the top of the wrapper, and into my face the rest flew.

Virtually every single meal out that we shared.

I never thought that just seeing that sort of moment being shared by another father and daughter would affect me so much. It just was a little tug at the stitches I have worked so hard to maintain in order to hold myself together.

It often strikes me how little we will ever know about most of the people we encounter in our lives. It was raining last Tuesday morning, so I took the bus and enjoyed listening to some music on my phone. We hardly ever have to drive much of anywhere anymore, so taking the bus or running is really the only time I have just to sit and listen to music. As I thumbed through my music library, the Beatles’ “I Will” came on, and I stopped my search and just let the song play.

I’m not sure really how it became our de facto song as a family, but it did, and no matter how many times I hear it, I think about my mom and dad singing it on one of our many beach trips, or about how Paul and I walked down the aisle to it after our wedding. All these memories somehow manage to roll past my eyes in the 1:46 it takes for the song to run its course.

Looking around the crowded bus, it occurred to me that no one else knew exactly how I was feeling in that moment. That in that short span, I heard and saw my dad and my family as complete, even if just in my mind. No one else knew how bittersweet those memories felt even after four and a half years.

But then, looking at all the different faces surrounding me, I realized that I also would never know what they were thinking or feeling. Maybe someone else has a broken heart, or is stressed about an upcoming exam. Maybe they just got a new puppy. Maybe they drank too much last night. Maybe they’re going to drink too much tonight. Maybe their mom has dementia. Maybe they just got engaged. I will never know, and that’s just life – it’s okay as long as we respect that other people are also experiencing their own battles.

Maybe that’s the art of empathy and just maybe that’s something we could all be better at, especially in these tumultuous last few months.

It’s Just a House

Paul and I began 2012 like most other years – excited about the prospect of a fresh start and a new year to experience together. That spring, I was promoted at work, and we began to seriously talk about starting a family. I loved the little townhouse my family had purchased a few years before, but it was time (so I felt) to move up and along to a real house.

Paul and I got on a kick looking for restored bungalows, somehow ending up doing the majority of our searching in Durham. Paul wanted to be somewhere walkable to restaurants and other fun things to do, and I wanted a home for the future family I envisioned. We stumbled upon the listing for our house – I was instantly smitten. Built in 1916, it had been beautifully restored. Yet, we actually bypassed it after the first showing. We were still “new” to downtown Durham, having been UNC students.

The house was in an area of Durham still in transition, and we were temporarily blinded by the dilapidated church across the street (now an art gallery) and the uncertainty of what we were getting into. We looked at other places in the next month or two after our initial showing and just didn’t see anything that seemed suited for us. Something about the house stuck with us, so we went back and gave it another chance. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was perfect for us. We decided to put in an offer and make our home there.

We closed on the house the morning of September 28th, 2012. Less than two hours later, my mom called me. My dad had suffered a major stroke – a stroke that would take his life just over two weeks later.

Instead of unpacking and making our new house a home, I spent time planning my dad’s funeral. The next few months were a blur, and to be honest, I don’t remember much about that time apart from barely functioning. Yet, somehow the fog lifted a bit the next spring. I remember specifically that Memorial Day weekend – Paul and I took our two dogs to Umstead Park for a long hike. I crouched on a rock in the middle of the creek and watch my dog enjoy the rushing water. I looked at the sunlight filter through the trees and thought for the first time that life could be okay again.

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The next week, the accident occurred and I sustained my TBI, aphasia and apraxia. Once again, our “normal” life took a backseat. Instead of cherishing our first summer in the new house, we spent time driving back and forth to doctor and therapy appointments. I spent much of my time sleeping on the couch, trying to recover from the shock and haze of my injury.

All I wanted during that time was for things to be stable – to have something solid that I could hold on to. Life was not at all what I had envisioned the morning we closed on our house. But as it goes, life went on.

I attended an aphasia caregiver panel recently at UNC, and the more I hear other people’s stories, the luckier I feel about my own recovery. I wasn’t lucky to go through the process, but things could have turned out much worse. Here I am on the other side, and I’m able to utilize my experience in order to live a richer life.

I actually started writing this post a couple of months ago, when we confirmed the move date from our bungalow to a modern condo in Chapel Hill. It was a huge decision for us and not one that we made lightly. But with Paul in school and my acceptance to the Speech and Hearing doctoral program at UNC, moving back to Chapel Hill just made sense. And, with Baby Shafer set to make her debut this May, we wanted to down size and find a place walkable to school, daycare and all the places we love in Chapel Hill.

I’m glad that I sat on this post for a while, because if I’d finished it back in February, it would have been a pretty maudlin read. I was convinced that I would be devastated to leave the house that I had placed so many hopes and expectations on – I had placed the dreams I had for that house on an unreachable pedestal, just by virtue of how life turned out to be while we were there. That’s okay, but it wasn’t realistic to expect life to cooperate just because I wanted it to.

There is a pivotal scene toward the end of the movie Up where Carl lets go of the house he shared with Ellie. He understands at that point of the movie that it’s just a house and that letting go of the actual house doesn’t mean he has to let go of the memories he made there.

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I have learned to let go of a lot of things the past few years, and then more I have to let go, the more I understand that I keep what matters most close to me – what matters is not necessarily where I am but who I am with and what I choose to do with my time.

To spend time with Paul and our animals, to embark on this new journey together with a family and school, it’s more important than any expectation I could place on what, in the end, is just a house.

Two Lines

There is this hill on my typical running route that always gets me, no matter how many times I scale it. Some days I can tackle it with a little more enthusiasm, and other days leave me huffing and puffing with a stream of expletives running through my head. A lot of the time, I just put my head down and focus on keeping one foot in front of the other.

I guess the irony is not lost on me – that is how I have mostly approached the last (almost) three years. After my dad died, it was literally all I could do mentally to function, and a lot of the time, it was more about getting through the next five minutes without having a breakdown. Eventually, the minutes became hours, then days. Not that I didn’t think about him all the time, but I was better able to look at the big picture–the good times, the memories–than just keeping my head down and focusing on my emotional survival.

My recovery from a Traumatic Brain Injury has been much the same way. I wasn’t scared to look up toward the top of the hill–to set goals for my recovery–but I often had to focus on the smaller chunks of recovery. And many times, I had to re-set and adjust my goals along the way. I had to be flexible, which hasn’t always been my forte.

Recently, we took what may be our last trip down to the beach for the foreseeable future, as we finally sold my family’s condo there – the last vestige of our presence there. It was bittersweet saying goodbye, and for a long time, I didn’t want to believe that that chapter was finally closing. I worried that by leaving the beach behind, I would be losing a piece of my dad. I gradually came to understand, though, that it was never the beach itself that mattered – we could have gone anywhere. It was the memories we made together as a family. And while I can’t take the ocean with me, I will always hold the memories we made there in my heart.

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And I said goodbye, for now, to the beach.

I had no idea, though, that less than a month later, Paul and I would be writing another new chapter in our lives.

I am going to be honest.

A baby is something that I have always wanted, but not until the last couple of years did my desire to have one really materialize. Once we finally started trying, everything else happened. I lost my dad. We helped my mom move up here. We dealt with the properties, the radio station, and ourselves. And then I got hurt. In the mean time, several good friends were blessed with children, and I was so very happy for them, truly.

But it was hard. I guess it sounds selfish, and I don’t intend for that – because I truly, truly was happy for my friends. It was just hard to want something so badly and not have it happen month after month. It wasn’t really something that I shared with many people. I know other women have gone (and are going) through the same emotions. It took me a long time to realize that it was completely okay to want something to go right.

Still, this past Wednesday morning, I wasn’t expecting this:

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I probably shouldn’t repeat the exact words running through my head at the time. I was just in total disbelief. I still am.

Wednesday’s blood test confirmed it, and today’s blood test showed everything is on track so far.

As you can probably guess, it’s very early on. So why am I sharing? A lot of women wait until their second trimester. I just couldn’t. I understand that there is always a chance of something happening, but I have determined that I can’t live the next two months full of anxiety and “what ifs.” I have to live the life that I have today, and today I am thrilled and excited.

Through this blog, I have shared the ups and downs of my recovery from grief and TBI, and here I am. I am so excited to share this now.

I don’t have a due date yet – that will come in a few weeks with the ultrasound. But it’s looking like May. Again, the irony isn’t lost on me – my dad was born on May 8. While I am devastated that he won’t be physically here to meet his grandchild, I always carry him in my heart and can’t wait to tell our child all about him. I am grateful that I have my mom, Paul’s parents, and kind and understanding friends.

I am ready for this new chapter and can’t wait to share it.

Two Years from 23,000 Feet

Tomorrow marks two years since my accident.

In my mind, it’s last Saturday afternoon, and I’m on the first of three flights, flying from Monterey, California, to Los Angeles. Miraculously, I have the row to myself (I use the term “row” loosely, since the plane was so small – a trip to the bathroom resulted in contortions). I also have a window seat, which I treasure. Some people are terrified of heights and so they keep the window shades pulled down tight. While I try not to think about the fact that we are hurtling through the air in what is essentially a tin can, I get a sense of comfort from looking at the earth below. It makes me feel very present.

The scenery from Monterey to LA was dotted with mountains and cloaked in fog. We flew down the coast, but it was impossible at times to discern the fog from the ocean. It was as though the fog just rolled right into the beach and beyond. The man behind me has been talking non-stop since we boarded. He seems to be unaware that speech is something to be preserved and conserved like water in the drought-stricken state we are passing over.

When I look at the earth below, I note its cracks and deep veins, as if the earth was literally being sucked dry despite being so close to the coast. Visualization has been a powerful tool in recovering my speech over the past two years, more from the perspective of “seeing” a new way of thinking about how to say a unique or complex word. Glancing at the rolling earth below, I think this must be the literal visualization of “arid.” I could almost see the word floating up through the air currents. I wondered if I could reach down and touch the earth below, would it blow away?

I think about the last five days, which I spent at my first Clinical Aphasiology Conference in Monterey.

I am avoiding finishing the last few pages of my book–like the last bite of a tasty dessert, I’m just not ready for the end–and so I take some time to let the past few days settle and absorb. I had been mentally preparing for this conference (and this trip) for months, and it was hard to admit that it was over, and I was coming home.

It was even harder to absorb where I am now compared to where I was two years ago.

I learned so much at the conference, which is a fairly intimate gathering of some of the top researchers in aphasia. I also had the pleasure of meeting some really lovely people. I am not certain I could adequately convey the impact that attending this conference had on me, both professionally and personally. Seeing data from my recovery presented to a group of clinical researchers and standing up to share a bit of my experience was invaluable to me. More than that, I hope that it is a inkling of work to be done and can help to further the field in some way. Because more than anything, what good does all the research in the world do if we can’t apply it and see it make a difference in someone’s life? What are we doing, then? I hope that my own recovery–understanding that we are all unique–gives even one person hope that there is something beyond those fragile first few months.

Ironically, my favorite memory from the conference was the evening that a group of us drove over to Carmel-By-The-Sea. It was chilly for late May, but there was something undeniably magic about the town. We walked on the beach and back up through town, stopping at the Cypress for dinner and drinks. Just having an intimate conversation with a group of lovely ladies, most of whom I had just met at the conference, was fantastic. To be able to sit and converse and relate on a personal level, isn’t that really what it’s all about? Two years ago, I had no promises that I would ever be able to do so again.

Some people who sustain a TBI suffer immeasurable changes in personality. While I am beyond grateful to say that that has not been the case with me, I would be untruthful if I said I hadn’t changed at all. But, for me, it’s been more of a slow evolution in the things that sustain me – the things that I value and treasure. Gradually, I have come to the realization, as I wrote in my last post, that I need to be more present. More appreciative of the mundane moments that make up life, because really – the moments that sweep you away  (whether in tragedy or joy) are few and far between compared to the everyday. Maybe it’s not that I have changed all that dramatically. I am still the same person, but to put it succinctly, maybe it’s just that I let myself feel more.

So I come full circle, back to the guy in the seat behind me, talking incessantly.

Maybe any other time I would be annoyed. However, reflecting on the then and now – I let myself be.

Some people are uncomfortable with silence. They will do anything to fill it. After having to think so hard about speaking after my accident, I became a lot more comfortable with silence. I accepted that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Whether you say it in words or not.

Here’s to two years.

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Heal Over

Last year as my mare recovered from a severe episode of founder, I leased a nice, (mostly) well-behaved gelding named Winslow. Over the summer, Winslow developed a nasty little sore near one of his front feet. We never figured out how he got it – probably just being a dunce in the pasture.

We (myself and his owner) would treat the sore. It would scab over and appear to heal, and then somehow he would always come in, having irritated it. It never appeared to bother him or interfere with his daily activities (admittedly, his daily activities weren’t all that demanding); it just wouldn’t go away completely.

Winslow moved on to another local barn and is enjoying being semi-retired and teaching kids and adults how to ride. I hear that the sore is still there.

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A little over a year and a half since my accident — and over two years since losing my dad — I have found that this blog has changed and evolved with trajectory of my recovery. My recovery no longer refers solely to my physical injury; it also refers to my emotional recovery from two very different, tramautic experiences.

I have discovered that emotionally, dealing with a significant loss is much like Winslow’s sore. The acute phase of grief needs to be treated and acknowledged for what it is: a trauma. It may not be a physical trauma, but emotionally, the impact is every bit as devastating. And, much like a sore that scabs over but never seems to fully heal, grief has a lasting impact.

A few weeks ago, Paul and I finally set out to clean out the radio station building that my dad owned and get it ready to sell. Continuing to deal with the repercussions of a sudden death is a weight on the people left behind. The weight is not only dealing with the grief of the loss but also with the fact that we can’t fully move on with other aspects of our lives until the logistics of death are dealt with in full. In our case, it just happens to be a much more complex situation.

I go about my daily life but always carry around a sore, just scabbed over. I cut it open much less frequently than I used to. However, it doesn’t take much to irritate it.

We had saved my dad’s office for last. I knew that under his desk were a couple of pairs of his walking shoes, left just as they were before his stroke. There were also a few items I had stored under the desk to deal with at a later date. However, when that date came, it was like getting hit with another blow.

For me, cleaning out my dad’s desk was like cutting an artery open.

Regardless, I knew that these things needed to be done. In the end, seeing the building completely emptied, I felt a curious blend of sadness and optimism. Since his death, I have longed to just be sad. I can handle the grief itself but adding insult to injury by having to deal with all the things he left behind is just too much at times.

I find it interesting how much this blog has changed over the past year and a half, and I often think my experience is not unique. I just happen to have laid it out in writing from the beginning. I don’t often write specifically about my injury anymore because it has become a part of what I have been through and not necessarily who I am. I visualize what happened to me as being completely separate from losing my dad, who was and is a part of me.

Of course, I wish that my own injury had never happened. But in a way, I am richer for it. Because I have recovered so well, I can use my experience and insight to help further research and assist other people going through similar situations. The experience also took me down a different emotional path.

Since time sort of paused at first after my injury, and I became immediately focused on recovering, I didn’t have as much time to sit and wallow in emotional despair (do I sound dramatic? Good, I mean it!). I suddenly had to become very focused on something besides the loss.

When I finally got back to a place in my physical recovery where I could re-visit my grief about my dad, I was struck by how inspired I felt by my dad and how grateful I was to have had him in my life. He had a mental fortitude that I could only hope to emulate.

Often in the past I would encounter other people who had lost significant others (whether it be a parent or other loved one) and who seemed to be carrying on like normal. I was mystified about how I could accomplish this. Of course, now I understand that coming out on the other side of loss causes you to re-define what normal is. There is no mystery involved, no secret to discover about how to carry on.

You just do.

Christmas Lists

I know that Thanksgiving is two days away and that today marks a month until Christmas. Still, I continue to exist in a state of denial. Maybe it’s because I enjoyed the summer so much this year, and fall–while still my favorite season–just sort of crept in without my knowing it. Now it seems as though time is passing by faster than I’d like.

Still, getting into the holiday spirit wasn’t hard for advertisers, it seems. I can picture company ad executives just chomping at the bit for November 1st, as it seems that holiday avertising trumps all things Thanksgiving-related anyway.

The other night, Paul and I were enjoying a lazy evening on the couch, watching TV. Among the numerous commercials advertising Black Friday specials (on Thursday, mind you), one commercial stuck out at me. It was an ad for a fancy espresso maker that cost something like $150. Don’t have the cash? No worries, just buy it on a payment plan, and pay only $12.50 per month for a year!…Or something like that. I started thinking about how many people are going to fall for it, thinking it’s such a great deal, and how much stuff they would likely buy in this same frame of mind.

I used to have absolutely no issue making a Christmas list. My favorite thing to do when I was young was to chuck open the latest JC Penny catalog or Toys R Us gift guide and go to town, circling my selections with a giant highlighter. I would dog-ear the pages and make lists for my parents, and then I would anxiously wait for Christmas morning to see what gifts Santa had felt fit to bring. Creeping down the stairs and taking in the vista of gifts before me was a magical feeling.

Years later, I find myself thinking about what made those Christmas mornings so special. Sure, I enjoyed tearing through the gifts under the tree. But was it really the gifts I ended up cherishing, or the memories we made as a family?

I can smell the coffee brewing; I can hear the bacon popping (my dad always made it in the microwave). If I think about it hard enough, I can even taste the slightly burned bacon (crispier was always better, anyway). I never became a coffee drinker, and I rarely eat bacon now, but every time I catch a waft those two smells, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia washes over me.

Inevitably, I would put some new toy on my wish list with complicated assembly instructions. So, my poor dad (whom I awakened with my mom before 6 AM, most likely) and I would spend hours putting together Mouse Trap and the latest Barbie Dream House.

What did I cherish most, in the end? Playing with the toy or the jokes and funny stories we must have told each other while putting it together?

This year, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I want for Christmas, and I have found over the past couple of years, the things I want most can’t be placed on a list. There is no catalog for the things I want. No gift guide to thumb through and circle; no page numbers to write down. I can’t send my list to Santa because the things I want are not tangible.

I want time. Time with my dad, trading funny stories. I want his advice on certain things in life that only he could give, and unfortunately, I will never get it. He didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear, but he always told me what I needed to hear.

I want time with my mom where I am not thinking about the empty seat at the table.

I would love to have an argument with my dad about political topics even (he was quite conservative). And really, that’s saying a lot.

At any rate, as I watched this commercial imploring people who cannot afford a $150 coffee maker to go ahead and buy it anyway, I found myself thinking about how focused we get on the things that ultimately don’t really matter. Gifts are supposed to be fun, and things that you buy for other people you care about because you want to, not because you have to.

Sometimes, less really IS more.

I don’t know where the toys and clothes and other things I accumulated over the years ended up (well, that’s a lie – I am fairly certain my parents hoarded them away in boxes, but that’s a completely different story). But, I certainly carry the memories with me every day.