Last week, on June 29th, my brother celebrated his fifth survive-iversary. That day five years ago was the hardest day of my life and yet, I am committed to celebrating it every June.
I thought this year, I would go into that celebration quietly. And then I interviewed and wrote profiles on four people in treatment for or recovery from cancer. I got so invested in the emotion of their stories, I could barely write anything else last week. And then I read that WhyMommy at Toddler Planet would be giving away her registration to BlogHer because she will need to give her time, attention, energy and body to chemo. She asked to hear some survivor stories and I felt compelled to share my family's story of just getting through. It is a replay, published last year on another blog, but new here.
So here is to the spirit within and the forces much greater than us -- kindness, God, good people, love, hope, some little moment in the future, the inexplicable, prayer, determination -- that get us through somehow, that make all of us who've been at that tough point in the journey survive.
Read on for Survive-iversary, 2006.
Four years ago today, we didn't know for sure if he would survive but we did know that the doctors, nurses, prayers and great hope were already at work so that Seth would see many more days.
At the time, we all operated minute by minute, painstaking hour by hour. It was heart-wrenching to think beyond those small circles of time. In the moment, we couldn't envision what the next procedure might hold, let alone four years down the line. And yet, by the grace of God, here we are. Here we all are.
Survive-iversary flowers, 2005
It still feels a bit awkward to celebrate Seth's survive-iversary. Every year, we place flowers on the altar at our church in honor of his life and all the miraculous moments on his journey. And every year as I arrange the bright pink or yellow or sunny orange roses that I hope will express our gratefulness and joyfulness, I get teary and I feel a little of that familiar fear ball up in my belly.
June 29, 2002 was the hardest day of my life. I will never forget the frantic, scared-as-hell, consuming feeling as Bruce and I raced to the airport, sat silent on a flight that felt like forever, and then raced to the hospital with only one thought in my head: Get there, just get there.
My parents were out of town and had to drive in to Richmond on dark roads through the middle of the night. We tried to keep in touch by cell phone but connections and all that emotion made it hard to say more than a few words about how long it would be until they were there, too.
Today in Chicago, it is bright and warm and there is a slight breeze. It is one of those perfect summer days that calls you to be outside, to feel the sun on your face. It was the same kind of day four years ago in as I sat at the computer at my parents' house, writing a long-overdue paper. Nearly a thousand miles away, Seth was heading out on the open road outside of Richmond, for a weekend ride with his friends.
A few hours of typing and researching and typing some more, I decided to take a break, release the internet connection from the telephone line and sit out on the patio. It was Sunday and I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather. Moments later, I got the phone call. It came for my parents, and I brushed off the call thinking it was a telemarketer. And then another ring and this time, the caller revealed herself as a chaplain. All that beauty and sunshine came to a screeching halt as she explained slowly that Seth had been in an accident and we needed to be there. Soon.
It still amazes me how something so simple can go so wrong so quickly. After talking to a witness and hearing from his friends, we think that Seth just over-corrected slightly, sending him off the side of the road and over the handlebars of his motorcycle.
Strangers stopped to help him and to call for more help. He was calmed, momentarily stabilized and then airlifted away. Seth had a traumatic brain injury, a fracture of the skull, and a missing tooth among other injuries. He had terrible road rash, was bloodied and swollen and bruised and filthy from all the dirt and dust he and his bike kicked up. But when we finally arrived at the hospital, wound our way through the ICU and got to him, laying there all hooked up to tubes and machines, he was just Seth. My baby brother.
Seth was in a coma for nine long
and uncertain days. We did a lot of praying, crying, singing, listening, and
taking turns falling apart. We barely ate. We rarely slept. We learned more
about brain injuries than one person ever needs to know, and we learned that
there is still too much unknown about the brain to know for sure what would
happen to Seth. We went on faith. We had no choice.
Four years later, that time that seemed to drip slowly by now seems like a miraculous rush. Seth woke up little by little, moved on to in-patient rehabilitation, then out-patient rehabilitation here in Chicago, and eventually, returned to Richmond.
Within six months of his accident, Seth was back in school in engineering classes. Neuropsychologists, speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists challenged my brother, re-taught him to walk, read, write, and do math. As they helped him rebuild the bridges in his brain, they warned us it might take a year for him to return to his life. He was adamant about proving them wrong.
And he did. Of course, once a person a family has been through an accident of that extreme or a trauma that defining, there really is no return to a former life.
Once Seth went off the side of the road, we all took a detour to some degree. Over these four years, we have built a new normal. We each have some fear, some anxiety that hangs over. And we have all learned how fragile this life is and how to be grateful for every chance there is to live it.
Since that day four years ago, Bruce and I got married and as my Maid of Honor (yes, Maid of Honor), Seth quoted Willa Cather, one of my favorite writers: Where there is great love, there are always miracles. And for us, it couldn't have been more true.
We've since had a beautiful baby boy who gives us a little taste of love's miracles every single day. And just weeks ago, Seth earned his degree in engineering, proudly accepting his diploma with a huge grin, as well as a full scholarship and research fellowship for graduate school.
And yet, my cousin is on his own journey to a new normal. It
has been hard and it will probably get harder. But the Thank God moment I take
from this very sad, very tough time is knowing that it is surviveable. And
knowing what is possible on the other side.
And yet, my cousin is on his own journey to a new normal. It has been hard and it will probably get harder. But the Thank God moment I take from this very sad, very tough time is knowing that it is surviveable. And knowing what is possible on the other side.As we celebrate all we have endured as a family over the last four years, we are also holding a new story of survival heavy and hopeful in our hearts. Three weeks ago, during one of those beautiful, crisp summer celebrations this city is so proud of, our cousin fell down a short but steep flight of stairs, suffering a brain injury, fracture and bleeding. As he has steadily progressed from the ICU into recovery, we've had some hauntingly familiar moments standing by his bed, holding his hands.
I called to ask my brother
this as I drove home through downtown Chicago.
I called to ask my brother
this as I drove home through downtown Chicago.
I don't know, he said, It just is.
His response made me think of a question I asked him on the first survive-iversary we celebrated. I asked him how he was handling being different than he was before the accident.
Jessica, he said sagely, I've started my life over before. I know I can do it again. This is just a new chapter. I'm alive.
The story that began four years ago is not over. There are still many chapters to write. For now, we are all here. We can't change any detail of what happened back then.
The tears and the joy are the same. The hardest part and the greatest blessing are the same. And all of it just is.
I believe Seth survived his accident by the grace of God and because he was wearing a helmet. Seth advocates to maintain the helmet law in the Commonwealth of and to pass a mandatory helmet law in Illinois. Read his position paper on why helmet laws are imperative to community safety here.
An update: Seth got married last month and is an electrical engineer pursuing his master's degree in Virginia. Our cousin is living and working in sales in Chicago.