Following a brief conversation earlier this week with a woman I’d known only peripherally during my corporate days, I continued to feel off balance, as if something from my past kept tugging at me, but my mind refused to acknowledge it.
She shared with me that one of her teenage sons had been seriously injured in a car accident several months ago. Thankfully he’d recovered, but she hadn’t yet recovered from the trauma her son had endured.
She kept reliving the fear, the uncertainty, the anger and helplessness that a parent experiences when her child is suffering. It’s a primal feeling, a desperate need to change places with our loved one; to dive into the line of fire if it will spare them further pain.
As I walked into my office this morning, hot cup of Chai tea in hand, I realized what had been pulling at me so doggedly.
It was a memory.
A memory brought back into being by her story. And an awareness that sometimes in life we’re given a wound that never heals. Suddenly the bone in the center of my chest ached. My knees buckled and I dropped heavily into my chair as I flashed back to what I felt when a loved one lay close to death after a motorcycle accident.
In this moment of remembering I found it difficult to breathe. But I did breathe. I allowed the sorrow to break my heart again, and let the joy make it whole again. Knowing how to do this – finding the courage to take another breath and not close my heart to myself or the world with its pain – is what I’m committed to learning.
It’s hard to sit with another’s pain if we can’t be with our own. Even as a child I felt a deep sense of responsibility for easing the pain of others, yet I wasn’t able to offer myself that same compassion. I learned so much about how to sit with my own pain as a result of that motorcycle accident.
It was the first warm Saturday in May, and my (now ex-)husband was enjoying his inaugural motorcycle ride of the season when a dog ran across the road and forced a car into his lane. The impact sent him hurtling through the air, striking a row of mailboxes and crashing into the ground some 8 feet away.
Remembering, I see the scenes in slow motion – without sound, but in vivid color.
I see myself stepping off the elevator into the intensive care unit and being led by a nurse to his room where he lay motionless. He looked smaller somehow, this hulk of a man who had always seemed invincible, indestructible. He was swallowed up and lost amid the tubes and wires and monitors keeping him alive.
I see myself focusing on the respirator, watching as it rises and falls in perfectly timed increments. I hear the doctor recite a litany of injuries: shattered right hip, broken pelvis, severe head injury, bleeding in the brain, but his voice sounds muffled and disjointed like he’s talking through a tin can.
I hang on.
Alone at his bedside after everyone leaves, I hold his hand and will him to wake up. One day turns into two. Then three. Then four. Then five. On the sixth day the respirator tube comes out and he regains his voice, but can only say “Mama” and “No.” He knows how to use a fork and a toothbrush, but he doesn’t know who I am. He holds the hands of his son and daughter, though he can’t remember their names.
Over the next nine months, bits and pieces are found and woven back into the fabric of memory and daily functioning. Four surgeries and a hip replacement allow him to walk again.
Today he’s fully recovered and riding his motorcycle. He’s fishing; going to the gym; practicing law. He’s the same as he was before that fateful Saturday afternoon in May, and yet he is forever changed. As am I. As are his children. His family. His friends.
When he had his accident I wanted to save him; to restore him to what he was. What incredible arrogance! What amazing innocence! I’d wrapped myself in the comforting illusion that I could make things better when it really mattered if I simply tried hard enough.
And if all my effort couldn’t ensure some basic immunity from tragedy for those I loved, then what was the point of it all? In order to continue, I had to live differently. I had to find a way to live with the enormity of what I don’t know and what I can’t control.
Standing in the fire with him changed me. I developed an unflinching need for honesty and an almost physical aversion to the small daily lies we sometimes tell ourselves.
The truth is, I couldn’t save him. All I could do was refuse to close my eyes and my heart as the fire surrounded us both; refuse to soften the edges with comforting platitudes – whether of God’s plan or karmic lessons – I couldn’t know to be true.
Maybe this is the only choice we have: to refuse – or to choose – to stay present as we’re broken open by what’s beyond our control.
And I discovered that I can do it, if I choose to – I can remain present and let the sorrows of the world break me apart, and allow the joys to put me back together again, different from before, but whole nonetheless.
I discovered that if I’m strong enough to be weak enough, I’m given a wound that never heals. It’s this gift that keeps my heart open.
I discovered that joy – real joy that doesn’t deny what’s difficult in our lives – is a choice. Joy finds us when we’re willing to acknowledge that we belong – to ourselves; to another; to the world; to the mystery that is so much larger than ourselves.
Is there a wound in your life that’s never healed, yet you see it’s been a gift in some way? If you feel comfortable, I invite you to share it here. I promise you it’s sacred space.