Lessons Learned After My Son's Traumatic Brain Injury
As a little girl, I loved to watch the television show “My Three Sons.” When I grew up, got married and had three sons of my own, I was elated. In full disclosure, I was also overwhelmed, but becoming a mother was my greatest joy. By 2013 two of my sons had graduated high school, and the youngest was well on his way. I was preparing for the next chapter of their lives to unfold, while also looking forward to the new chapter in my own story.
For my son’s the next few years meant college, meeting future partners, deciding on careers and capturing dreams. I anticipated life for them would unfold with the normal detours we’d come to expect. The sweet little boys who filled my days with boyhood adventures and my nights with endless bedtime stories were becoming men, right before my eyes. I was deeply proud of them. I never envisioned perfection, but I did expect they would be happy, healthy and whole.
Without warning a series of lessons entered our lives after we were struck with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Lessons I wish we never had to learn. Lessons that would test the true depths of our family’s love and reveal the fierce determination that forced us to forge ahead in the most challenging of moments.
I became a student in the classroom of TBI when Taylor, my then 21-year-old son, fell down a flight of stairs. The fall left Taylor in a comatose state for several weeks, with multiple significant injuries to his brain. The cracks in the armor of his skull were the small hurdles. When Taylor finally emerged from his coma, much of the person we were familiar with seemed absent. After weeks in the intensive care unit and months of initial rehab, Taylor learned to walk, speak, and eat again; but he was forever changed, along with the rest of our family. The fall did not only happen to Taylor. It also happened to those who loved him.
How does a mother pick up the pieces when it seems as if life has shattered like shards of broken glass all around her? How does she function when those she loves most are suffering and sorting through emotions she feels she should have been able to protect them from? How does she not fall apart, despite knowing the threads that have always held her soul together, are unraveling with each passing moment? She does it one day at a time, like she has been doing since day one.
The lessons have meant gaining the knowledge that no matter how much I want to change certain things for my kids, I can’t. There are times of extreme discomfort and even agony our children must live through, endure and process. This scenario has also meant allowing my (not quite) adult sons to learn that life can be cruel and unfair. Horrible things can happen to good people; there doesn’t have to be a reason or an explanation… and just because something tragic takes place does not mean we did something to deserve it. As humans, we demand an answer for so much of our journey, but sometimes the answers are ambiguous at best. My family has experienced what life looks like, not on television, not in the movies and not in a book. We know real life, where you are in the moment… skin, bone, mind, body and soul. All of you is there and you can’t escape it. Surviving emotional trauma is about finding a deeper part of your strength.
Society pushes for everyone and everything to be OK. Yet countless individuals are standing up and saying, “I am not OK, but I am making it.” Balancing the battle of reality versus hope is challenging, but they can co-exist. There can be light at the end of the tunnel, while still feeling afraid of the dark. We press on and move forward because that is what humans do.
Five years ago when I heard the words “traumatic brain injury,” I could not comprehend the weight those words would come to carry. My new knowledge has taken me places I never wanted to go and allowed me to see things that I wish I could erase from my mind’s eye. Countless survivors are unable to do the simple things that Taylor is once again capable of, and yet he would give anything to have his former life back. But when life brings us to our knees and takes our breath away in a most painful series of circumstances, we still get to choose how to journey through it. I choose to journey with love and intention. I choose to believe that within each of us there is someone extraordinary. I chose to find the grace, grit and determination to press on because perhaps the most profound lesson of all is discovered when we don’t give up.
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