Invisibility

The hardship I am most thankful for is the accident that changed my life in 2011. I know that probably seems a little predictable for me to choose that night when discussing hardships, but I’m not thankful for the reasons you might expect.

Sure, I learned that life can change in an instant. I learned just how precious and fleeting life can really be, and I learned how very important it is to always say “I love you” because you may never get another chance. I’m so thankful for the change in perspective I got that night. I mean, it should have been a ten-minute drive to the church and back. I’d done it every Tuesday night for years, and there was no reason to expect that this particular Tuesday night was going to be any different.

I’m not thankful for the four and a half-years of constant pain, or the downward spiral of job loss, divorce, depression, eviction, betrayal, and . . . where was I going with this?

Right. Being thankful for hardship.

I learned that life is too short to keep pushing my dreams to the back burner with the excuse that there will be time later. No, there may not be time later. Time is finite, and life can end with something as simple as driving past a maple tree in a thunderstorm.

If I hadn’t broken my neck that night, I don’t know if I ever would have gotten around to writing anything. My little romance novels may never sell well or make any kind of bestseller list, but they mean the world to me because they represent my lifelong dream of writing. I did it. I made it come true, something I may never have accomplished if not for life hitting me upside the head with a tree.

I wish life had been a bit more subtle, but it is what it is.

Still, none of this is what makes me so very thankful for everything that happened that night. That part is a little harder to explain.

Sometimes in life, I feel invisible. I’ve always been sort of average. I’m the kind of person who tends to blend in with the wallpaper if I’m not careful. In high school, I once missed two weeks of school and discovered that not one of my teachers had even marked me absent. No one noticed that I wasn’t there.

I’ve never felt important. Never been elected into office, never been anyone’s boss, never been much of a leader. Someone’s mom, someone’s wife, someone’s sister, but never the Someone  that is anyone else’s point of reference.

The night of my accident, I saw the look on the fire chief’s face when he recognized me. I watched the color drain out of his face and I heard the emotion in his voice when he kept saying, “Oh, no. Oh, no, no.” I saw the way no one else would look me in the eye.

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At the emergency room, it took a while for the x-rays and CT scan to show that I was beyond anything they could do for me at our little hospital. As they were wheeling me back out to the ambulance, I remember someone saying that there were some people in the hallway who wanted to see me.

I couldn’t see much because I was immobilized by the C-collar and backboard, but I remember faces. Lots of faces, leaning over to speak to me. Some were crying; one of my husband’s friends leaned over to kiss my cheek and I was surprised to feel his tears against my skin.

I thought at first that one of the firefighters had been injured as well. I figured the crowd in the hallway was there for him, and I panicked until my husband assured me that no, there were all there for me.

It’s been four and a half years, and I’ve never forgotten the way I felt at that moment when I realized they were there for me.

Me. Not someone’s wife, someone’s mom, someone’s sister. Me.

In the days and weeks that followed, I was amazed by the flood of cards and phone calls, of people stopping by to bring food and Diet Coke, or just to visit. People who came to clean my refrigerator or drive my silly butt to the Sav-A-Lot because I was going stir-crazy at home with nothing but my neck brace and a whole  lot of self-pity.

It’s been four and a half years now. I have a lot of bad days, especially since I seem to be going through a pretty rocky stretch of bad luck with things like cars, housing, and money. But at the end of the day, no matter how bad it’s been, I can look back on that moment and draw strength from it.

You see, that was the moment I understood that I matter. Sort of my own personal “George Bailey” moment, like in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, when George realizes that he’s really had an impact on the people around him.

I’m thankful for the accident because it showed me that I  am loved. That I matter.  That I’m not invisible.

 

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post. This week’s sentence is “The hardship I’m most thankful for…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, Reta of  Calculated Chaos and Vidya of Collecting Smiles

 

 

The Best Medicine

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The world needs more laughter. Even on the worst of days, even when the future is bleak and the present is worse, even when all hope seems lost . . . we have to look for reasons to laugh.  I know that laughter has never, ever solved a single major problem, but neither have tears. Especially not in my family.

We were devastated when Aunt Ida died. She was the first one of The Amoeba Squad to go, the first of the four sisters to go somewhere without her siblings. She’d been sick for ages; Aunt Marian often said that that Ida had “one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.” But still, her death rocked us.

Aunt Vernabelle took it especially hard, although I never really knew if that was because Verna was the most sensitive of the four or because she just really never liked Ida very much and felt guilty about that.  Either way, Verna’s grief was overwhelming. She cried non-stop for days; she cried herself sick and then cried some more after being sick. She couldn’t function.

It was during the visitation that Aunt Marian, the Head Aunt, decided that enough was enough. She turned on her sister and issued an ultimatum: Verna had twenty-four hours to get herself under control, or else. Now, no one was ever really clear on what “or else” meant, but the threat was sufficient to get through to Verna. She sniffled and sobbed and wept for the next twenty-four hours, but she also kept a running countdown: “I’ve got eighteen hours left to cry!” she’d wail. “Marian says I can cry for sixteen more hours!”

“The next time someone dies,” Marian grumbled after a while, “she only gets twelve hours.”

And we laughed. God help us, we all laughed, even Verna. That’s just how my family has always dealt with things beyond our control. We try to find the humor in humorless situations.

I’ve heard it said that humor is a defense mechanism, that a human smile is similar to the way a wild animal bares its teeth as a warning. Well, of course it is! I make the worst jokes and laugh the loudest when life is at its worst.

The night of my car accident, I had a wonderful nurse named Nadine. As I lay there in the Emergency Room, strapped to a backboard and immobilized by a C-collar, Nadine came in with a Shop-Vac to vacuum the glass shards off before cutting off my clothes. As I remember, she was quite enthusiastic about the job, very thorough about getting that glass out of every possible nook and cranny. And I do mean every possible nook and cranny. When she aimed the nozzle between my legs, seemingly in search of glass in the lining of my uterus, I let out a whoop and told her I didn’t usually allow such liberties without dinner and a movie first.

Poor Nadine didn’t know what to do. She burst out laughing, apologized, and kept vacuuming, although I’m pretty sure I heard her mutter something about not ordering the lobster.

Later that night, when they had realized the extent of my injuries and started preparing me for the ride to a bigger hospital, Nadine came back to put in a catheter. Let’s just be honest here: having a catheter inserted is not exactly a relaxing experience. It’s a major invasion of one’s private areas, and Nadine was definitely going for frequent flyer miles in my pelvic region that night. She had to keep telling me to relax, but by that point I was well on my way to a complete meltdown. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t cooperating.

“Honey,” Nadine teased, “would you spread your legs for me if I got the Shop-Vac again?”

For the record, no Shop-Vacs were harmed in the course of my recovery. But laughing at that moment gave me the strength I needed to get through the next few hours. It also made the ER doctor pause and peek into the room to make sure I hadn’t completely lost my mind. “I don’t think I want to know what’s going on in here,” he told us.

Here’s a simple truth about life: Sometimes, it really sucks, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can ever do to change that.  People die, people get hurt, and the world just keeps on turning. Our hearts may get broken, but they keep on beating. Sun comes up, sun goes down, life goes on.

We can laugh or we can cry. Or we can build a blanket fort under the kitchen table and curl up in a fetal position and do both, but eventually we’re going to have to come back out into the real world.

Might as well find something to laugh about while we’re at it.

And when I die, you all only get two hours to cry.

This is a Finish The Sentence Friday post: “The world could use more . . . ” hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee,  Shelley Ozand Anna Fitfunner.  Please take a few minutes to check out what some of the other bloggers did with this sentence!

Ice, Ice Baby

One of the most challenging aspects of adapting to life with my new physical limitations has been learning to deal with fear.  Of course, I’ve got the kinds of fear that are to be expected after the type of accident I went through; nobody can blame me for freaking out during thunderstorms or losing control in confined spaces.  People understand when I tell them about the big fears.  It’s the little fears that make folks think I’ve lost my mind.

When the doctor took off that brace, he warned me about all of the activities I would have to avoid for the rest of my life. Horseback riding? Well, the horses of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief on that one. Speedboats? Not a problem, except when the Big Guy got carried away with the fishing boat.  Sledding, bumper cars, carnival rides?  Slight tremor there; I always liked that sort of thing.  Diving? Okay, I’m going to miss that one.

Then came the kicker.  “You’re going to have to be really careful about falling,” he told me.

Oh, Lord.  My then-husband dropped his face in his hands and groaned.

Here’s the problem:  I’m a klutz.  Always have been, always will be.  I have not ounce of physical grace or coordination.  You’ve heard the saying about people having “two left feet”?  Well, I’ve got three of them.  I’m forever stepping into holes or rolling an ankle, stumbling over nonexistent things, tumbling down hills.

I’ve lost count of the times I would fall into holes or down hills while walking with my husband, only to catch up to him as he stood there with a mystified look on his face, muttering “ . . . the hell did she go?”

So my heart sank when the doctor told me to be careful about falling.  Because of the location and sheer amount of damage done to my neck, I have to avoid anything that might have any kind of impact on my spine.  A simple slip on the ice or on stairs, for example, with a hard landing on my derriere, could do irreparable harm.

My first big fall happened about six months later.  I was rushing out the back door for something or other, tripped over the dog, and launched myself face-first into a snowbank.  I lay there on my belly for the longest time doing a mental inventory.

Can I move? Check.

Does my neck hurt? Nope.

Am I dead? Don’t think so.

Then why the hell am I laying in the snow? Umm. . . Dunno.

I got up rather sheepishly and headed back inside, feeling a thousand pounds lighter at the realization that a fall wasn’t going to kill me.  I lost a lot of my fear that day, but I still catch myself walking like I’m constantly on ice.  I stare at the ground and take tiny steps, avoid uneven ground, clutch at handrails as though my life depends upon it.

I move like an old lady.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve made a vow to myself that at least once a week, I am going to do something that scares me.  Something that may seem small to others but represents a huge step for me, like posting a selfie online, or asking a very handsome man to meet me for a drink.  The selfie went well, Mr. Handsome said no, and I survived both.  (For the record, Mr. Handsome was very kind about it, so my feelings weren’t hurt at all.)

So last week, I faced my fear of walking on dangerous surfaces.  I walked to and from work every day.  Granted, it’s only about two blocks, and I should be embarrassed about all the times I was lazy enough to drive that far, but we’re not going to talk about that.  Not right now, anyway.  No, I walked on the slippery ice and uneven ground, through deep snow and bumpy driveways, and it didn’t hurt.  I skidded and stumbled a few times, but no biggie.

I made it over the big hurdle.  It’s the little ones that always seem to get me.

I got up early Saturday morning to make my trademark peanut butter no-bakes for a fundraiser that afternoon.  Of course, I was out of milk, so I bustled outside to shovel out my car, which I hadn’t had to bother with since I’d been walking to and from work.

I had a flat tire.

A quick text message to the ex and an even quicker prayer of thanks that I can still call on him for help, but there was still the matter of the milk for the cookies.  Well, I thought, I’d walked back and forth from the school for five days; why not a quick jaunt to the store?   Temps had climbed from sub-zero to mid-40’s, so it would be safer than it had been all week.

Or so one would assume.

I hit that patch of ice on the way home while stepping around a nasty-looking, slushy drain.  It must have been the only piece of ice that was still fully frozen.  I didn’t even have time to holler; feet went up and butt came down and I hit hard, right on the tailbone.  I felt that impact all the way up into my skull.  Exactly the kind of fall the doctor had warned me about.

Let me tell you, I sat in the middle of that road for a long time.   It hurt, but I was so surprised that I really couldn’t tell how much it hurt.  I just sat there doing the same mental inventory I had done before.

Can I move? Check.

Does my neck hurt? Well, yeah.

Am I dead? Don’t think so.

Hot damn.

I finally crawled over to the curb and hauled my slushy self upright so I could walk home.  I made my cookies, called in a few apologies to the people who were expecting me to work the fundraiser, and sat down to wait for the pain to kick in.  Which it did.

So today has been a slow day involving lots of ibuprofen and hot tea.  I ache in ways I can’t even describe; everything from the waist up is on fire.  But . . .

I fell.

I fell in the worst way possible.

And I’m still here.

Those little fears?  Getting smaller every day.

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Obviously I’ve never been afraid to accessorize.

Daily Prompt: All Right

Daily Prompt:  Tell us about a time when everything seemed to be going wrong – and then, suddenly, you knew it would be all right.

I thought my world was ending the night of my car accident.  After a stranger hauled my kids out of the wreck, I couldn’t see or hear them anywhere.  I kept begging the EMS workers to tell me where my kids were, but all they would tell me was “they’re fine.”  But where are they? “They’re fine.”  Are you lying to me?  “They’re fine.”

The guys wouldn’t look me in the eye.  Now I understand that it was because I had no idea just how bad the situation was, and that most of them thought I wouldn’t survive the night.  But at the time, I assumed they were covering up some dire information about my babies.

The youngest was okay; he’d been home with his father at the time of the accident.  My daughter was shaken up but unharmed.  But my oldest son had some minor injuries – lots of glass in his left shin and hand, and a small gash on his right shoulder that needed a few stitches.  I never got to see him at the hospital, and I just couldn’t get rid of the nagging suspicion that they were lying to me about him.  I couldn’t convince myself that he was okay.

Then the doctor came back in with the results of my CT scan and dropped the bomb:  My neck was broken.  It was bad.  He couldn’t help me at our very small hospital.  “I have never seen an injury like this on someone who was still alive,” he told us.

They had to send me to a bigger hospital, but my son was already being treated at the local one.  They had to separate us, and there was just no way for my husband to be with both of us.

My boy was twelve years old.   He needed his father more than I needed my husband at that moment, and I had to go alone.

I was afraid to be alone.  Afraid to leave my kids.  Afraid of dying.  Afraid of being paralyzed.

When they wheeled me into that tiny room at Bronson Hospital and I couldn’t see anything other than the ceiling above me, I felt like I was hanging on by my fingertips.  I wanted to be unconscious.  If I hadn’t been strapped down and restrained at every extremity, I would have leaped from that bed and run screaming through the halls.

They kept asking, “Is anyone coming to be with you?  Is there anyone I can call?”  and I would tell them no.  Husband couldn’t be there.  There was no one else.  I’d tell them it was okay, not to worry.  But it wasn’t okay.

Then I heard my sister’s voice.

Now, I have to digress here for a moment. My oldest sister is only four years older than I am, and she has set the rule that I am not to refer to her as big sister, older sister, oldest sister, or any variation of those terms.  Once I hit thirty, she made it very clear that we are all three the same age from here on out.  We are all three adults, and she will not tolerate any comments that make reference to the fact that she is older than I am.

I don’t usually think of her in terms of age.  We are equals, and she has become one of my best friends.  But when I heard her voice in the hospital room that night, she wasn’t my equal.  She was my Big Sister, and everything was going to be okay.

I could break it down and point out all the reasons why her presence made everything better.   But it came down to one important fact:  She is my Big Sister.

And I knew everything was going to be okay.

There were so many people who stepped in; I couldn’t have gotten through all of it without my Mother-in-Law, Brother-in-Law and his wife, the neighbors and friends  who brought food and helped carpool the kids around, etc.  But that one single moment that turned it all around, that let me know things were going to get better, was the moment when my big sister showed up to take care of me.

Now, if only she’ll forgive me for telling the world which one of us is older.

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http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/daily-prompt-safety/

Two

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This is what’s left of the tree that fell on me in my van two years ago today.

The flowers are the daylilies my daughter used to decorate the trunk for the little prayer service we held at the spot one year ago today.

It was once a beautiful old maple, more than four feet in diameter at the point that landed on me.   The tree that stood beside it also fell in the big storm last week, and although that one had the decency to fall away from traffic, it still shook me up to see it lying there.  As my friend put it, “Your sister-tree fell last night!”

It’s been a long two years.  I’ve learned that I’m tougher than I thought, that I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of good people, and that I can survive just about anything as long as I keep my sense of humor intact.

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I wanted to write something moving and deeply meaningful today.  I found a bunch of gory, shocking pictures that I was going to include with my post, and I tried to think of the right spin to put on the story.  I planned on using real names and really digging into every tiny detail of that night.

And then I saw my daughter’s Facebook post today:

On this day 2 years ago, my entire family’s life changed. June 21, 2011 is a date that will always be sketched into our memories, but now is a time to let go. Now is a time to reflect on the positive, rather than dwell on the negative of this day. For everything that happens, there is a reason and God would never give us anything that we couldn’t handle. If anything, we are stronger now in both life and our faith and I am thankful for that. I love my family, and although sometimes we fight and have disagreements, I couldn’t imagine my life any different.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

So let me close here with a couple of pictures and a word of thanks to all of the people who saved my life that night, and to the people who have saved my sanity in the two years since.  They brought food and Diet Coke, cleaned my kitchen, drove my sorry butt to appointments and just listened to me piss and moan on the bad days.  Most of all, they reminded me of the strength in friendship and laughter.

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The New “Normal”

Sometimes it seems like I’ve spent most of my life walking that fine line between wanting to be “normal” and wanting to be “unique”.

As a kid, I wanted to be normal and fit in with the other girls.  I wanted to be slim and wear the right clothes.  I wanted to have two parents and a home in a neighborhood that didn’t inspire contempt.  I wanted the cute “normal” boys to like me.   I wanted to have more than one page number after my name in the yearbook index.

At the same time, I was a theater student who loved being different.  I reveled in “borrowing” clothes from the costume department, or junk-shopping at the local Goodwill for outrageous accessories and one-of-a-kind fashion buys.  I made no secret of my involvement with the Repertory Theater, and was known to spout lines of Shakespearean dialogue at odd moments.

For the record, moaning “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt” during gym class is grounds for detention.  Apparently Ms. Longjohn was not a fan of Hamlet.

Later in life, “normal” came to have a lot of different meanings, and I’m still not sure if “normal” is a good thing or a bad thing.

For my gay friend who lost his family because he couldn’t be “normal” for them, it was a bad thing.  They turned their backs on a funny, smart, loving guy because their version of “normal” meant “straight”.

Their loss.

For my niece, with her tattoos and piercings, “normal” means “boring”.  She is the single most creative human being I have ever met; she is quietly fearless about trying new things, and for her to be “normal” would be a tragic loss for the world.

But sometimes, normal is a good thing.  I have spent the past two years struggling to look and feel “normal” again.  I’d give anything to be able to stand with my head straight up instead of stuck in mid-nod; I would love to have just one day of looking “normal” enough to walk into a room without people giving me odd looks or asking, “do you have a stiff neck?”

“Normal” for me would be waking up in the morning after a full night of painless sleep, followed by a day of working at the job I loved.  On a “normal” day, I would come home with tired, aching feet and an occasional scissor-nip between the first two fingers on my left hand.  I might have a curling iron burn here or there, and sometimes my hands might be stiff from manipulating the marcelle iron.  I’d be tasting hairspray and my skin would reek of perm solution and peroxide, but I’d be content.

I had a purpose.  I’d accomplished something during the day.

The pocket full of tips wasn’t bad, either.

My “normal” day would have continued with supper with my family, griping because the kids didn’t help with the dishes, and probably panicking because somebody had forgotten to mention needing four dozen cookies for school tomorrow.  There would have been homework arguments, a bedtime battle with the five year-old, and quite possibly a little bit of closed-door time in the bedroom with the Big Guy if we both had the energy for it.

That will never be my “normal” again.

My new “normal” involves fighting off pain and self-pity at every turn.  A “normal” day for me now might be spent on the couch, popping Norco and applying heat to whatever part of me is hurting the most on that particular day.    Or it might be a day when the physical pain is a little less but the depression keeps me on the couch with a whole different kind of pain.

Sometimes, I have a day when I bake cookies and build a pan of lasagna and write two chapters of my novel, and I tell myself that the new “normal” isn’t all that bad.  Those are the days that make the other ones tolerable.

I want my kids to have a “normal” life, with a “normal’ mom.  One who can run around in the back yard with them and ride roller coasters at the fair.  One who doesn’t hold them back when we go places.  I hate the fact that people ask them “How is your Mom doing since the accident?”

But the one thing that is finally getting back to “normal” around here is my determination.    I have never been a quitter, and I have no intention of being one now.  That tree broke my spine; it didn’t break my spirit.  Bruised it, hurt it, knocked it out of commission for a while, but nothing permanent.

Last week, my daughter asked me if I want to have a gathering at The Tree to mark the anniversary of our accident, like we did last year.   “I don’t think so,” I told her.  “I’m ready to put it behind me.”

I’m ready to start getting back to normal.

 

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/daily-prompt-normal/

Worth More than a Thousand Words

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As a rule, I don’t like pictures of myself.   I always think I look fat and my smile looks forced.   I am not now, nor have I ever been a photogenic person.

So it may seem odd that I would choose a picture of myself to write about.

This is one of the few pictures of me that I actually like, because of the smile I’m wearing.  For once, my smile doesn’t look forced and camera-fake; I look genuinely, eye-sparkling, on-the-brink-of-joyous-tears happy.

Of course, there’s a story.

With me, there’s always a story.

When I came home from the hospital after my car accident, my hair was red.  Not by choice; it had been an over-processed, porous blonde that became stained by blood from my head injury.  The ER nurse shaved an inch-wide swath across the top so the doctor could stitch my scalp, and someone else shaved from the nape up to my occipital so the surgeon had room to rebuild my shattered neck.  Three other round spots were shaved to make room for what we later referred to as “corncob holders” – metal pieces attached to my skull to keep me from moving during the surgery.

Afterward, they strapped me into a metal and plastic contraption that immobilized everything from the waist up.  It pushed my double chins up into my eyeballs; I think it forced cleavage into my earlobes and backfat up my nose.  Then they stood me up with a walker and sent me on my way.

It was not a good look for me.

Yikes!  Tina, of course, is beautiful as always
Yikes! Tina, of course, is beautiful as always

I am not a vain person, but I like to do my hair and make-up.  As a cosmetologist, it was always important for me to look finished: hair styled, make-up applied, jewelry in all of the appropriate orifices.  But in those first weeks, I couldn’t do any of those things.   No contact lenses, no make-up.  I couldn’t shower, and those “dry shampoos” didn’t do anything about the oil and caked blood in what was left of my poor, tufty hair.  I wore wrinkled hospital gowns or baggy clothes that fit around the brace, going barefoot or in worn flip flops.  Jewelry was out of the question; even my wedding ring had been removed at the hospital, and there was no suggestion of trying to force it back onto my numb left hand.

For seven weeks, I had to look at that.  I had to smell that.  In the face of people telling me how lucky I was to be alive, I had to deal with the guilt of feeling like an ungrateful brat for being depressed about my appearance.  I hated myself, my pain-wracked body, my lost career, the hot weather.  Everything.  Especially that damned brace.

I felt shallow and ugly and stupid.

When the brace came off, my former co-workers at DGist Salon took care of me.  They cut and colored my hair, shaped my brows, applied my make-up.   They pampered me and made me human again.

And they took that picture with my phone.

What was I thinking?  I’m pretty!  I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay.   There’s more than joy in my eyes in that picture; I see hope, gratitude, love. . . and a little spark that I thought I had lost somewhere in the twisted metal and broken glass.

What happened next?  Good days, bad days, everything in between.

Recovery.

Life.