On any normal cold November weeknight at 10:30pm I would have been fast asleep like most other working parents I knew. But this wouldn’t be a normal November night as my brother=in-law annoyingly kept calling me. I thought it must have been some type of not-so-funny-to-me poke as we share a fun, banter style camaraderie. I tried to ignore him but my phone kept lighting up so I finally answered with frustration.
‘What do you…”
“Have you talked to your sister?” He blurted
“She’s at the hospital. It’s your Dad.” He said.
My heart stopped and raced as my mind froze in the panic of the unknown and I headed to the hospital.
I’ve always submitted to the notion that challenges cause growth but tragedy is something entirely different. Like a death or a divorce, tragedy demands complete focus or a life change, many times more complete than we could imagine. Specific training or preparation is vague, reflected only by the wisdom accumulated through life experiences, as the specific challenge calls out characteristics that only a level of submission, acceptance and mindset permit superhuman strength and perseverance to appear. This felt tragic. It was.
For me my Dad’s accident felt like a fluke. A circumstance so unexpected and unimaginable our consciousness is immune to its presentation. Flukes show themselves to people as situations with a comic, almost ironic feature.
What fluke materialized in my Dad’s life? A misstep that landed my fully, healthy, strong, independent 77 year old father to fall flat on his face in the woods and shatter his C3 and C4 vertebrae. The impact: instant and entire paralysis shifting his reality from one of independence to complete dependence. Physical, bodily functions – swallowing, speaking, moving left him, leaving him a prisoner to his own body with only the ability to watch but not impact. His eyes acting as the only window to his needs, his pain, his fear, his sadness and at times, despair.
I am blessed by the love of my family and instantly we gathered and waited in the darkness of the unknown as doctors inserted steal rods as replacement vertebrae, not knowing if it would save his live or provide any real remedy to him. With his life secure my brother Nathan, sister Noelle and I monitored, discussed and counseled my Mom on my Dad’s behalf, as all she could physically withstand at her 72 years was the role of loving support, translator and interpreter to my dad’s needs. Within less than 7 days, he was 90 miles west of our hometown in the Northwestern Rehab Institute in Chicago where we believed his best chance at a normal life. Or whatever normal would become.
My Dad is always an example of creativity, curiosity, hard work and new perspectives. Believing in and loving each of us, his support of crazy childhood ideas inspired us to dream, to try, and to ignore what the rest of the world was saying. To just go for it because, as he demonstrated, the outcome isn’t known!
He faced his greatest challenge: to retrain is 77 year old body to do all of the seemingly autonomous functions learned as a toddler. Swallowing. Chewing. Lifting fingers individually and together to coordinate the collective movements to grasp a pencil or paintbrush. No scratch your own nose scratched or shift your legs that have fallen asleep. And the fear that was so great! Wondering if anyone remembered you might be hungry. Having no way to call out or push a call button. Oh how humbling and embarrassing to wet the bed and not know. If you could only run and hide.
Ultimately accepting the challenge is a personal decision. In my Dad’s case, his 26 person familiar army could only support his decision, his work to relearn these tasks and face the uncertain outcome while accepting the reality of the worst physical pain you have ever felt. A decision requiring the guts, strength, will and resilience to give it all you had day after day.
Between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day the next year, my Dad worked painstakingly hard to rebuild his life to the highest level of independence he could. While he doesn’t have his former physical strength, his interior strength inspires me and countless others to persevere. Today, he will wake up, make coffee, take care of his personal hygiene, read and most importantly paint. Every day he tests his limitsto my Mom’s chagrin – just to see if he’s capable of more.
I am grateful for all those in my life who have lovingly walked with me and encouraged me in my difficulties. And I am especially grateful that my Dad’s vie d’etre is etched into my memory as my interior reminder that I can always standup again.