“Hello?” I cautiously answered the phone.
“Liz? Bill’s been in an accident,” my husband’s friend replied frantically.
And then my immediate response… “Is he alive?”
“Um.....yes, but you have to come quickly … ”
Bill had collided with another skier head on and made the nearly fatal mistake of not wearing his helmet that day. My husband had literally grown up skiing. It was in his blood. He was an all-collegiate skier on the East coast, won national championships and was proud of the fact 2014 was his 50th year on the slopes. Ever the cautious expert, it never occurred to me that there was an ounce of danger for him.
“What’s the appropriate reaction when this call comes?” I wondered to myself. I tried crying and the shock was so potent, so numbing, I couldn’t even drip tears. I felt like I was floating over my physical body.
Bill suffered a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and lay in a coma for the next three days. He spent the next three months in acute care and rehabilitation, and over time, he was able to open his eyes, understand basic commands and give short responses. Finally, he was “well enough” to come home. The only problem was, the man I had been married to for eight years didn’t come home. Bill was a different person.
My husband before the accident was gentle, serene and extraordinarily clever. He was able to ask compelling questions and listen patiently for the answer. Bill was a compassionate husband who would collaborate with me as a partner. But the man who came out of a coma was anxious, insensitive, egotistical, oblivious and angry. This was a man who went from being a top executive to someone that couldn’t string a sentence together and would often forget the names for simple household objects.
It was like someone reached in and had rebooted his brain. Like an infant, he struggled through every developmental hurdle as if it was the first time: sitting up, standing, walking a few steps, speaking appropriately, managing to care for himself and understanding social cues.
As his caretaker, I had a front row seat to this scary, confounding show. Many of us have had a front row seat when we didn’t know we were in line to buy the ticket. We are thrust into caring for loved ones. For me, the care-taking phase ended, but many are caretakers for years or for their entire lives. I do not begin to understand anyone else’s journey but my own, but I believe there’s some similarities in caretaking no matter the situation. Unfortunately, the holidays can exacerbate the caretaker’s role at times.
I’ll be real: there were times of happiness and hope, but there were also times of deep despair, sorrow, pain and suffering. After my shock wore off, there were tears. There were tears that ran so fast and for so long, I didn’t know if they would ever stop. I mourned what our life had been before the accident; I mourned my husband’s precious brain; I was angry at the constant choice I had to make between caring for my husband and caring for my 3-year-old-daughter. I felt as though I was pushed out of an airplane without a parachute, free falling into a blue sea, hitting the cold, icy water at a million miles an hour, pushed down into a dark abyss, and then slowly trying to bubble to the surface all the while holding my breath until my lungs ached.
But this is a story of hope. Slowly but surely, I rose to the top of the water for that first breath of fresh oxygen again. Life does move on, and that means I moved on whether I wanted to or not. Bill has improved tremendously over the last two and a half years. His mental focus, regained physical strength and overall dogged determination has been a wonder to watch. I have learned first-hand that people are designed to be resilient. Not only those who are cared for, but caretakers as well.
For those of you who have been in the caretaker position, I’m sure you have been told “to take care of yourself first.” Taking care of yourself is so much easier said than done. There’s a million things to do, plan for, and think about. The exhaustion gets the better of you: you do and say things you don’t intend to. You make mistakes. I know I made a million. But isn’t that what being human is all about? Forgive yourself and then once you have a little time for yourself, hopefully you do take advantage of it. Undoubtedly this will have to be a daily choice and some days are better than others.
As the holiday season comes upon us, take a walk or run, sip a cup of tea, pray, meditate, read a book, seek out counseling and support groups, practice yoga. These small acts of caring for yourself will allow you to begin to heal your heart and make it whole. In turn, you are better able to take care of those around you and isn’t that what your end goal is to begin with? As you may know, yoga is one of the many blessings I have been able to take advantage of during my journey with Bill. One of my favorite yoga sayings is “Hands to heart … now rise.” Make the choice to care for yourself, giving yourself grace, hands to your heart.
You got this.