A Notion of Thankful (16 Month Update)

November 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Our Recovery Journal

One attitude that populates all of our minds each November is the notion of being thankful.  We were first introduced to the idea of appreciating what we had a long, long time ago.  We were taught the concept of thankful when we were far too young to comprehend its meaning.  A much younger version of ourselves understood that we were lucky and blessed to have the life we were given.  The feelings that come with a thankful heart have lived inside of us ever since those days.  As we navigate through each gathering and family tradition, we are reminded of all the people and events that have made our life so special.  The decorating, shopping, and family time during the next month represent a marked change from our typical lifestyle.

Arriving at the destination of thankful requires a journey through our own psyche.  Many of us arrive at thankful as a result of a carefully constructed list of positives in our lives.  Like a home that has been staged to host the obligatory Thanksgiving gathering, our lives are pure and clean… everything put neatly in its place.  Our metaphorical house is the perfect place for families to gather and celebrate all the things that they have.  The meal scene is as pristine as a Norman Rockwell statue, and all those involved have a smile on their face as excited taste buds partake in the most fabulous meal they have encountered all year.


An Alternate Definition of Thankful

Others arrive at thankful after a great deal more soul searching.  As our life winds through the good times and the bad, the baggage of our past gradually increases in size and weight.  It is no longer practical to adhere to the childhood view of thankful when everyday life is weighed down with memories of past decisions and events.  While the people from the previous paragraph may have tied up the loose ends of their life, the rest of us carry the additional weight of the unfinished business of today.  This season can be a time where we are reminded of just how many people carry around the permanent baggage of guilt, regret, dependence, or physical exhaustion.  It would be nice if this baggage functioned like a luggage set that could be used for our travels and then put away when we returned home.  Unfortunately, the memories that make up our baggage are shackled to us forever.

Criminals who commit serious crimes may be sentenced to a lifetime alone with their thoughts, but even those who have lived lives of commendable decisions and positive action can look into the past and see all the events and people that have made an impression.  The memories that are the strongest are those that have affected our lives the most.  For people who carry memories of disappointment and doubt, it is much more difficult to arrive at the conclusion of thankful. The effort needed to the baggage away and achieve a clean metaphorical house is beyond our grasp… most people have too much stuff and not enough closet space.  Guests at Thanksgiving dinner at this house may have to deal with the clutter left behind after the hosts have discovered that exhaustion prevents them from the perfectly clean house they desire.

While it is easy for most people to make a list of things to be thankful for, it is equally easy to acknowledge that our positive perception of life contains many shades of gray.  Thanksgiving is a time to spend with good friends and family, but many of us are also forced to spend it with the very people who have resulted in the baggage of our life.  Worse yet are those who don’t have the opportunity to see family due to the disagreements of the past and the stubbornness of the present.  No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to block out thoughts of an estranged father, mother, sibling, or other loved one who refuses to allow us into their life.  The baggage of wondering what might have been has stolen the innocence from our hearts.  Wondering why we weren’t good enough for that person led to feelings of apprehension about our overall value.


From Youth to Adulthood

When we were young the world held so much promise for us and we naively believed that everything would work out perfect.  As a young child, we relied on Santa to bring what mom or dad could not buy.  In high school we made friends that we were certain would remain with us through the rest of our lives.  Upon adulthood we moved away and began living what we thought would be a perfect life of unlimited freedom.  Things have worked themselves out since those days, but the decisions we have made and challenges we have encountered have led us down the path to where we are today… a path that often turns out to be quite a bit different from the one we envisioned when we graduated into adulthood and began the journey.

For a long time, Jessica and I had been blessed with a life that was generally baggage free.  We made decisions and managed our lives like most other adults, and we were happy to have healthy children and an active lifestyle.  As we prepared for life with a third child, everything seemed to be falling into place to a greater degree than it had before.  Entering our thirties with stable jobs and growing kids, we looked forward to the next decade as one where we would have the pleasure of focusing on our family watching our kids live through their school years.

Unbeknownst to us, God did not have the same plan for our 30’s that we did.  If you’ve read any of the previous posts, then you know what happened during Jessica’s delivery.  Seeing my wife unconscious and bloated was a moment of dreadful realization.  It was a moment that quashed fairy tale plans of the future and reconditioned my mind to focus on the most basic of all plans: facilitating our survival as a family.

One thought that occurred to me during the first few days in the ICU was whether to document the recovery with pictures.  Photos taken during the first few days would have looked nothing like the Jess we know and love.  They would have been of a person whose face and body were littered with tubes, machines, and breathing aids.  She had never been a vain woman, but I knew in my heart that Jess would never want to see herself like this.  Ten days later she graduated from the breathing mask and began breathing through the trachea.  Most remaining tubes could now be hidden with clothing, blankets, and scarves.  The kids got the green light to see mommy and I snapped the first few pictures.  We still look at those pics from time to time to regain perspective of just how far we’ve come.  Pics of a bloated and unconscious Jessica… they are her least favorite pictures in the whole world.

It is now sixteen months later, and her recovery continues.  A snapshot of a single day demonstrates all he baggage we still carry as a result of the trauma.  Hers consists of pain, inconvenience, and the guilt that results from not being able to complete all of her regular “mom” duties.  Mine comes from adding many of her “mom” duties to my daily routine.  Our new roles have limited what we’re able to do and constrained our family’s ability to get out and do what we desire do do.  Her freedom is limited by unfortunate physical realities and mine by the fact that I am now responsible for all five of us.  Scheduling even a few hours of freedom requires the help of several family members or caretakers.


Rehabilitation and Therapy

The focus of rehabilitation is physical therapy, which consists of walking and regaining strength and balance in getting around.  Larger therapy centers also offer an occupational therapist who concentrates on the fine motor skills of arms and hands.  Both of these essentially focus on improving the physical abilities of the patient after a stroke or other injury.  A third type of therapy is speech therapy, which is a completely separate entity.

The typical rehab patient requires therapy after hip surgery, fall, stroke, or accident.  Patients recovering from any of these injuries may require PT or OT, but a traumatic brain injury often results in the additional need for speech therapy.  Jessica’s rehab needs were quite complicated and satisfactory therapy options limited.  Having a single center within a half hour that was had the capability to deal with severe brain injury removed the anxiety that comes with major medical decisions.  When there is only one good option, the decision becomes very easy.

The nature of recovery (and especially insurance coverage) necessitates continued changes in therapy settings and services.  Each change in setting represented a new chapter of growth for Jess as she recovered enough to control her speech, make use of her hand, improve her walking, and develop the ability to comprehend, assess, and analyze.  Every stop seemed like another step up the stairway of recovery… the feeling of tangible progress another wave of motivation that has helped carry her to the next level.  Critical care, skilled nursing care, and acute inpatient rehab were the first few steps of her journey.  The move home necessitated continued changes in therapy including in-home therapy and finally her (current) outpatient therapy placement.  This most recent placement has helped her attain steady growth, but in the back of our minds we sometimes wonder when it would be a good time for another change.


Changes in Speech Therapy

One area that she has struggled with is the ability to read.  Jess can read many sight words, but has a difficult time stringing those words together into whole sentences.  A page of text is as intimidating for her as a French menu is for me.  The convenience of having a therapy center that offered speech as a package with OT and PT made life simple and convenient.  This convenience resulted in a resistance to pursue other options in speech therapy.  For someone who loves to read, the fact that she cannot is a daily frustration for Jessica.  She would trade many of the abilities she has been able to reacquire in exchange for reading proficiency.  Her desire to read so strong that she would immediately trade her physical freedom for the ability to delve into a book and escape from this life for awhile.

Continued frustration in speech prompted us to look into other options.  There is no other all-in-one therapy center within a convenient driving distance, so the only logical option was to sever speech services and look for an independent speech therapist.  Several phone calls later, Jess was scheduled for her first speech session in a new setting.  After just the first few sessions, we are thrilled that we pursued the change.  Her new therapist does some innovative activities during the session and gives a lot more homework.  Jess has attained the heightened level of motivation that we sought, and we are anxious to see the gains she can make during the next few months.

Right now the world feels unfair.  Despite all the progress Jessica has made, meeting the expectations of holiday activity while managing our everyday life remains a huge challenge.  In many ways, the holidays are a magnifying glass that highlights all of the changes our family has made during the past sixteen months.  The family traditions that we have become accustomed to must now be reassessed and altered to suit the new limits of our capability.

The holidays also magnify how our family has grown and changed.  The kids have met the challenge of being independent and their mom has hidden her frustration and sadness in order to allow them to continue moving forward with their own lives.  Our family’s view of the meaning of life and the importance of the family contain a lot more nuance than they have in the past.  Each member has helped out in their own way to allow the whole family to continue moving forward.

Sure, our Thanksgiving guests may notice that our house appears more “lived in” than it has in years gone by.  Our possessions may not be in perfect order, but what is important to us is whether our hearts are in the right place.  We have been given a life that we would not have chosen.  It is a life of challenges that require us to push our limits and constantly assess what is important.  When Jess and I look at our kids, we can see that they are proud of themselves for rising to the challenges inherent in our lives.  Our imperfect life has improved us as people, which is one of many reasons for us to be thankful.


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