For me, Thanksgiving is often marked by moments of crashing reality. Six years ago it was the near fatal car accident TC and I were in on Thanksgiving Eve. Hit head on by an unlicensed, uninsured teenage driver and two of her friends, TC and I were lucky to make out relatively unscathed: me with a broken arm and a few cuts, TC with a lacerated bladder and some deep cuts to the head. After the accident I spent quite a lot of time trying to make sense of how we had been so fortunate while simultaneously processing my newfound realization that safety is merely an illusion.
This year those thoughts seem laughable as I consider the range of feelings I have experienced in the past three months. TC has so narrowly escaped death once again, but not only has he survived, he approaches his recovery with the most inspiring display of resilience and determination one can imagine.
Although his personality is not severely altered, he is most definitely a different person. We all are. He is sweet, helpful, and even more gentle than he was before (which may be hard to believe if you knew TC before). He can make basic conversation, but he greatly struggles to articulate anything more complex than “That’s cool!” and it’s unclear whether he comprehends much of what we say to him. But God almighty, he is determined.
As I stand in the kitchen doing the dishes, I hear him practicing his speech on the iPad. He says words over and over until they sound correct to him, which often takes many tries since he can’t speak well out of the right side of his mouth.
He walks well with his cane, practicing his leg exercises when he has a free moment. Although he has a wheelchair, he has not used it once since coming home. He wants to help in any way he can, so he bends down ever so gingerly to pick up Jack’s toys or pour himself a glass of water.
Then there’s that right arm. With a look of concentration you’d expect only from a surgeon or a mind reader, TC practices moving his arm up and down, bringing it to his mouth and giving it a kiss. It’s remarkable. In only a week he has regained an incredible amount of movement in his right limb.
These moments of brilliance are often followed by moments of frustration. TC will talk excitedly to me for minutes at a time only to discover that none of the words he has used make sense. I ask him to repeat things over and over but am ultimately forced to admit that I don’t understand what he’s saying. I try to confide in him as I used to, but he stares at me blankly, not understanding the significance of what I have just shared. I often feel alone and I know he does too.
Now we are home, not quite settled, but certainly in a different stage of recovery than we were several weeks ago. While the mode a few days ago was survival, making it through another hour, another day alive, the goal now is living.
Most literature about brain injury implies that patients and caregivers should learn to accept a life less satisfying than the one before. Unsurprisingly, this thought depresses me. I began wondering instead if it was somehow possible to live better than we had been.
Don’t get me wrong. We were a happy family three months ago. We had exciting and beautiful plans for our future that may be permanently on hold due to TC’s injury. But we were also stressed. We worked too much. We planned a lot. We didn’t always stop to appreciate the small moments and gifts we had received.
I recognize that living better requires me to work harder, think differently, and push myself further than I ever have before. I recognize it won’t be easy. While the path behind me was painful and agonizing, the one before me is equally uncertain and most definitely longer.
So what does it even mean to live better? Imagine a life in which you experience the range of your most heightened emotions every day and occasionally every hour. Imagine looking at your spouse and feeling the most profound awe and admiration every time he or she pronounces your name correctly. Imagine the freedom you’d feel letting go of what other people think because going out with your family in public almost always guarantees strange stares. Nothing in this new everyday feels the same as it did before. The love is so much richer, the fear is so much deeper. The gratitude knows no boundaries.
Imagine if you had to be your best version of yourself every minute of every day; holding back tears as you look at the face of a spouse you did not marry, and releasing those tears in excess every moment a piece of him returns to you. Living better is exhausting. It’s challenging. It’s a constant choice, not a permanent mindset you easily adopt.
But the advantage is perspective. You will never look at your child, never kiss your spouse, never tell someone goodbye without savoring each instant of each interaction. Your idea of permanent has been forever altered. Nothing in life is permanent. There is only here. There is only now. And there is so much possibility in the quiet moments of our everyday lives.