I am Stuck…a broken neck, a diagnosis, and a story in limbo

I have been stuck.  Conflicted as it were.  I am at that point in my run, say mile three, where I either stop, call it good, and congratulate myself for giving it a try, or I push on and commit for the long term.  I started this blog at the beginning of the summer, and from the first post I have strove to be honest.  To be truthful.  I have shared the dark place that I was in last January…I have tried to write about my path out of that darkness.  I have also tried to communicate that the path to that place was not the result of one moment, one incident, but rather a culmination of trauma spread over nearly two decades.  Indeed, any one single event would have not been enough to lead me to that place in a January morning where I told my wife: “If I could only will myself into having a heart attack right now, then I could simply relax quietly in a hospital bed.”  It was that statement that pushed my wife to reach out to both of our parents, which eventually led me to a phone conversation with my mom, which later that afternoon led me to my Pastor’s house, and eventually into the space that allowed me to seek support and healing that was a long time coming.  And I caught it in time before it affected my roles as husband, father, and teacher.  I was lucky.

But, as I said, I have been stuck.  Conflicted as it were.  There is a gaping hole in my narrative.  And I am not sure that I can (or should) go there.

How far do I go in exposing my insecurities?  How far do I go in relating what Toni Morrison may call the “unspeakable thoughts unspoken”?  How much of my story do I put out for all to read?  And if I am not willing to tell the whole story, but only parts, then what is the point of continuing to write?  Can I be satisfied with my run so far and call it good?

These are the questions that have been on my mind since my last post.

Let me begin with a room.  There are chairs.  Yellow lighting.  A receptionist.  A large woman in orange plays with a little girl and her Barbie.  An old man, hat pulled low, sleeps sitting up in a chair.  A young couple dressed in expensive business wear whisper.  I am alone.  Up until that point, I have spent the day pacing, talking on the phone, preparing myself for a completely different life.  The room had music, I think, but I cannot hear it.  There were old magazines that I did not read, and a TV that I wanted to turn off.  Indeed, I would turn off every TV in every waiting room from here until eternity if I could.  I tried the cafeteria.  Too empty and the food service had ended.  I tried the chapel.  And even tried the sidewalk (but it was too cold – at least I think it was).  Mothers and fathers were in their vehicles racing to Illinois (I cannot imagine the drive, and I have never asked them).  My boys were at neighbors and family.  It was my first year at RU (then RC), and while I let my colleagues know about the situation, I was alone.

It was this room that I kept coming back to during therapy (maybe a part of me lived there) for so long.  As I began re-processing myriad traumatic events with my therapist, it was this room where my subconscious took me again and again.  My mind had kept that moment, that day, in the forefront of my mind.  It was as if it were happening every day.  My body was producing the chemicals needed to deal with the event.  As far as my mind was telling my body, it was still happening.  I had never moved it to long term memory.  Along with, as I soon discovered, many other events.  Every emotion from that day was still at the forefront of my mind.

As I said earlier, had this been the only event, I probably would have dealt with it sooner.  But it was one of many.

I used to know the exact date, but it was early spring/late winter of 2009.  Karen left the house with Caleb, who was attending second grade at Rockford Lutheran.  I left a short time later with Julian.  He was attending pre-school at the time.  I would drop him off and head to campus to teach.  It was a Friday.  The sun was bright that morning; I remember that. I pulled the visor down on the Elantra and squinted as I drove East.  On my way, I received a call from Karen.  There was an accident.  She sounded confused but OK.  I mean, she was calling me.  How bad could it have been?  She and Caleb were being taken to the hospital to be checked out.  I was relieved that they were okay.  I proceeded to drop off Julian, then I called Caleb’s school to let them know he would be late.  Then I called campus to let them know I would probably have to cancel class.

As I drove down Auburn, I approached the Rockton Road stoplight.  Police cars were there.  I stopped to inquire about my wife.  Then I saw the Van.  At that point, I became much more concerned.  They pointed me in the direction of the ER.  As I walked into the “room,” I saw Karen laying down in bed and Caleb sitting up eating hospital food and watching cartoons.  The TV was loud.  They always are.  He had a minor scrape on his forehead.  Karen did not have any visible marks.  I was relieved.  Then I heard the doctors approaching, so I pushed aside the curtain and walked out toward them.  I overheard “broken neck.”  My knees buckled.

As far as I knew, a broken neck meant only two things: death or paralysis.  Karen was alive, so I assumed the latter.  The doctor delivered the news.  Officially at least.  The next six hours or so were a blur of activity: pestering doctors, clamoring for answers, contacting family, contacting work, making arrangements for kids, and pestering doctors.  For the longest time, I could get no answers, and no one was willing to confirm or deny anything.  In the space of that time, while engaged in the above flurry of activity, my mind took on a simultaneous task: planning for a whole new future; I will need to sell the house, as it is completely non-handicapped accessible; depending on the level of paralysis, I may be looking at feed tubes and full-time care; I may have to move back home, so I could have parents to help.  Or, maybe she will be in traction for the next six months here in at the hospital.  What does she look like on the inside?  Will we ever be intimate again?  Am I now a single parent of two and a care taker?  How dare I think these selfish thoughts?  This moment is not about me.  Cowboy up and take care of this.  Fix it.  Fix it. Fix it.

I believe it was around 4:00 that the Spinal Specialist finally arrived and we were faced with a decision.  6-9 months of traction, or surgery.  The surgery, of course, came with a risk.  Up until that point, she had been lucky – the slightest movement would mean paralysis.  My wife had suffered what is called a Hangman’s fracture.  After phoning my then brother-in-law, a chiropractor who adjusted us regularly while we lived in AZ, and putting him on the phone with the surgeon, my brother-in-law said to me: this guy knows his stuff.  If he says surgery, then I would do it.  This is from someone who was very anti-medicine, anti-surgery, and uber-natural.  So we said yes, let’s go with the surgery.

I walked alongside Karen as long as they would have me – all the way to the anesthesiologist.  They wheeled her one way, and I went the other.  I called a close friend of mine who lived in MN.  Throughout the day I had called a few select people and entrusted them with the task of spreading the word of what was happening.  Each call was grueling – and I lost it every time.

And this led me to the room.  And waiting.  As those of you who know me are aware – it all turned out okay.  She made a full recovery.  A year later we were backpacking in the Northwoods in the Boundary Waters.  Karen even carried a canoe (briefly) balanced on her shoulders.  The picture that rests above this blog comes from that trip.

And here is the kicker: while that was the room I returned to, again and again; while that was the room that came to represent so much unprocessed trauma built up over years – the room and the event itself is not what I have left out of my story.  It is not the difficult thing that I am unsure how or if to write about.

Maybe I will get there.  Betsy Lerner writes (and I paraphrase) that in order to tell the truth writers need to be willing to risk their place at the table.  I understand that and appreciate the sentiment.  Indeed, only by accepting that have I been able to write this blog up until now.  But the problem with risking one’s place at the table comes when the risk is shared by others who have not made that choice for themselves.

 

Each time before I publish a blog, when it deals with my wife, I have her read it first.  When she is part of the narrative, I believe that she should have a say in whether or not she is comfortable with my sharing the story.  And as she has noted, this is my version, my take, my perspective on events.  Hers may differ.  We all know how complicated and at times unreliable memory can be.

 

As such, when the narrative involves one of your children, it becomes even more difficult.  There is a story here worth telling, worth sharing.  It involves struggle and heartache and love.  It involves years and years of varying diagnosis ending in the umbrella diagnosis: Autism – sensory integration spectrum.  But as far as I can tell, it is not really my story to tell.  And it is still happening.  However, the challenges and struggles that have accompanied this journey have been a huge part of my own story as well.

 

So I am stuck.  But I still have so much to say.  How do I tell my story and do so honestly while leaving out a gaping hole that I am constantly walking around?  A piece of the story that informs and shapes all other parts.  How, then, do I tell my story?

4 thoughts on “I am Stuck…a broken neck, a diagnosis, and a story in limbo

  1. Smartly, wisely, and humanly put. Any step at all is brave, and you can go as fast or slow as you want.

    Let me strongly suggest Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which my creative nonfiction students read today. She helps you think through some of these issues of truth-telling, sharing with real people, and so on.

    Like

  2. Isn’t it your story to tell? Someday that other person can tell his or her own version of the story, and will have your thoughts and true feelings, raw though they may be, here to reflect on…

    Like

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