Sunday, November 15, 2009
What comes after
My dad lost his right hand in a farm accident when he was 24. His right hand was cut off by a corn picker. He was out in the field about a quarter mile from the house, harvesting corn. The engine stalled, he reached in to fiddle with it and the blade -- closer than he realized -- sliced his hand clean off. He somehow staunched the blood, an improvised tourniquet, and ran for home. An ambulance was called, he was rushed to the hospital. Somebody, I forgot who, had the presence of mind, maybe it was even my dad, to bring the severed hand to the emergency room. Attempts to reconnect it were unsuccessful and my dad lived out the rest of his life with only one hand. He learned to write all over again, as a lefty. He went on playing fast pitch softball with his brother Vince, fiercely competitive and formidable, dad catching for his brother, who had one of the strongest and fastest fast balls in the state. My dad learned to catch with one hand AND to throw out baserunners stealing second. He cleared trees and helped to build the camp in the mountains where I spent my summers. He learned to play golf with one hand, he rode a horse with one hand, mowed the lawn, drove thousands of miles on family vacations, put up Christmas lights, whacked a tennis ball around the court, taught me to ice skate and ride a bike, barbequed, changed the oil, and walked me down the aisle when I was married thirty-three years ago. He would have been 88 last Tuesday. He lived to hold two granddaughters and play catch with them, push them on swings, put on his funny red clown nose to make them giggle. He sang in a Keen-Agers choir, served in many public leadership positions in his small city and rode a gorgeous quarterhorse in the Fourth of July parade during his years on the Independence Stampede board. He and friends built a Swedish stuga at the history park and he would give you his last dime. He lived through an horrific, life-altering event and figured out how to come out on the other side. But this is the thing: it changed him forever. He learned new skills, adapted to limiting circumstances. He created new patterns and new habits and found clever ways to work around his disability. His life was never the same. And for everything he figured out, every adaptation, every accomodation, he was keenly aware everyday of what had become impossible. He amazed and inspired me and multitudes with his skill and spirit at making the very most of what had happened and what he had left. But this is the thing: his life was never again the same. He lived every single day with loss, a tangible, physical, obvious and, to some eyes, ugly loss. He felt phantom pain from the nerve endings that were severed and sometimes that pain was excruciating, or the phantom sensations of movement were heartbreaking all over again. Two relevant connections: when Germany was divided into East and West, something was cut off, cut out of each nation and something was lost that even the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country that followed can't repair. In the twenty years since the end of communism, remarkable adjustments and adaptations have been made. But it's not the same, not the same at all, had the German nation remained whole, not severed. Life will never be the same again. The same can be said for Poland and the other countries that were captive behind an Iron Curtain from 1945 until 1989. Even now that the situation is so wondrously changed, now that they are not cut off from Western Europe and the rest of the world, something was lost during those days that can never be fully restored. But, my musing, I confess, is a lot more personal. Even as I adapt and find new ways to move through the world after being attacked and losing more brain cells than have regenerated yet, if ever, even as I get better, I am not the same. It took my breath away again today to realize that I am not only not the same person I was ten years ago, I don't even see that person when I look deep inside or let myself out to play, to interact with the world. There are so many cognitive behavioral exercises I do, I can change the way I act even when I'm in a full-blown crisis. But there are parts of me that are simply gone. And don't seem likely to be put back on. It took my breath away again today to realize that my personality is irrevocably altered. I can't even pretend to be the ebullient, powerfully assertive woman I used to be. She's just gone. I asked my psychiatrist again this week, will I ever get back to what I was? Before the injury? Before the attack? She told me not to count on it. I cannot even begin to tell you how discouraging it is, how frustrating to not be able to reach that strong, take on the world, "I can do it," (meaning anything1) spirit. But. And this is the big butt. I am learning instead to do things differently, to make the most of what is possible. The Germans and the Poles, Czechs and all were cunning and courageous as they have been working to move foward after an amputated history. My dad did. And so am I.