When I think of where I was during the holiday season a year ago, and where I was this year, there is a huge divide. Or more realistically, my emotions covered extremes. Last year at this time, I was hit with an enormity of sorrow for a myriad of reasons. The ever present sadness of missing Wes, to the impending losses of neighbors as I watched their distress from my living room window weighed heavily on me. These emotions sat on me like an elephant and unfortunately, I didn’t have the wherewithal to reason it away. It hit me hard. Really hard.
Dealing with my own emotions in terms of how I viewed my grief was with a tunnel vision-like quality. Owning this distorted view of personal grief didn’t serve me well either. As I witnessed the distress of my neighbors and feeling more grief as it was heaped on me, by sheer empathy for what they were going through, I started to crumble. It rattled me as I began to feel my emotional equilibrium starting to slip.
It has been a tough year for our street. But these occurrences forces me to consider what it takes to move forward and how to move through some of our toughest predicaments, and some of our most emotionally charged challenges. And really, how do we move on and how do we find that inner strength that pushes us to say: Just try. Just take one more step. Fight.
I am intrigued by this phenomenon of inner strength, as I have walked these paths myself. With my own personal plight, dealing with the loss of Wes, that at times almost seemed to take me under, but it didn’t. I am constantly in awe of the inner strength that comes from somewhere down deep when we are at our weakest. This strength isn’t a voice that roars, but rather a quiet resolve that seems to tell us to simply “walk on.” How do we come to this, and where does this strength come from? I have a plaque with a quote on it from Mary Anne Radmacher, that my father gave me when Wes was sick. It says “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow.” I think about that quote a lot. I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted it before on this blog, but I garnered a lot of perspective from that saying, even at my worst and most desperate times. There were many days and hours I didn’t know if I would be able to pick myself up after Wes’ death, and yet I did. Again and again. Not always on my own, but with a huge contingent of children, family and friends that kept us moving and propelling us forward. I am grateful.
This holiday season I am thankful for so much. I am thankful for the host of people in my life that have given me a shoulder or a place at their kitchen counter or their ear to listen. It’s what’s gotten me here. I am thankful for all that I have, which has nothing to do with the material elements in this world but everything to do with the love of one another. I am thankful for inner strength, no matter what that looks like from the outside, because it’s kept me afloat. And I am thankful for my blessings, especially the love of my kids, and their unyielding support and encouragement. Again, so much to be grateful for.
When I think of the quiet voice that has undoubtedly propelled me forward, I think of so many others that are facing hardships from loss, injury, illness, or disillusionment, and I consider what exactly is the force that keeps pushing us through? That force is that voice that keeps telling us to take just one more step. Those little steps lead somewhere, for that I know and understand inherently and unfortunately, all too well. Where they lead isn’t always clear, of course it isn’t, but they lead us forward and often these steps must be taken with absolute blind faith. More times than not, blind faith is all we’ve got. And we take hold because it takes us from one tier of despair, to the next, and with each tier we ascend, there is a little fortitude gained and little snippets of hope revealed. And with each step that we garner emotional fortitude and hope, we also understand gratitude for the incremental changes in our outlook, because we know how hard we’ve fought to obtain it. Life is tough and it teaches us some harsh lessons, but if we’re paying attention, those lessons give us some of the most profound perspectives and deep understanding.
But for those that face life and death and have beat the odds, what is at the center of those circumstances? Sure God plays a role in a lot of it, but if free will is really all of our destinies, then how do some overcome so much even when the odds are stacked against them? My neighbor Tim had a horrific accident this summer and broke his neck. A totally freak accident that could have left him paralyzed for the rest of his life, but it didn’t. Instead, he was paralyzed temporarily.
Forgive me if all of the details are somewhat fuzzy, but the parts that I have extrapolated are the ones that got Tim back home. Which, at the time of his accident, was not a guarantee. As he and his family were down in Richmond for the weekend, Tim and his buddy were out on their boat. As Tim leaned over the side of the boat, his sunglasses fell off and as he leaned over to grab them, he fell into the water. The water, the day before had been about eight feet. But on this particular morning, it was only a few. As Tim started to fall, he decided to just dive in and as he did, he hit his head on the lake floor and knew instantly that he was in trouble – grave trouble.
He tells the story of floating face down and looking at his hands. The hands that were just a shadow but because the sun was shining, he could see them. He knew something bad had happened and he had the presence of mind to know he was going to need air soon. But he kept focusing on his hands, the same hands that he could not move. As he stared down at them, he was trying with all his might to get them to respond, but they wouldn’t. As he continued, he was trying to will them able. But there was a disconnect between mind and mobility. At that point in time, Tim was paralyzed and underwater.
Initially when his buddy saw him, he thought Tim was joking around. But he wasn’t. He quickly realized something was wrong and started yelling for help. He was able to turn Tim over so at least Tim could get air, at which point Tim tells him, “I’m in big trouble.” At that point, Tim’s family got down to the water, as well as other boaters in the area. But it was Zach, Tim’s oldest son, and an Army Vet, that had done two tours in Afghanistan that took the lead. As they got Tim on a surfboard, they secured his head and neck with towels to ensure there was no movement. The paramedics were on their way, but this exact moment was the most crucial, and may very well be the reason Tim is walking. As the discussion was to walk Tim and the surfboard to the house, Zack said an emphatic no. He had done this before. He had experienced this on the battlefield. He knew that one wrong move could make the difference in his father’s outcome, and so they listened to the son that was administering to his father’s situation with a clear and decisive head. Only those that have experienced stressful situations like these can know how to handle them with acuity, and so Zach relied on his instincts based on his training.
As the paramedics came, they rushed Tim to the hospital. Since they were out of town, they were also out of their element. Tim had broken his neck. His vertebrae hosted six broken bones that now resembled a jigsaw puzzle, as it was described to me. As we all said prayers and worried, we got updates when we could. Tim had surgery immediately, where a whole host of rods and screws were inserted trying to keep his neck aligned and making sure no nerve damage had occurred.
As Tim was released from the hospital after weeks that started in surgery and ICU, he was brought home. As I watched numerous trucks and vans go up and down our street, I knew it was hospital equipment being delivered in order to make his transition easy for when he got home.
It was my understanding that Tim was still completely bed-ridden. As I went down to visit him, I was only partially prepared to see him in the hospital bed that had now been placed in the epicenter of their home: the family room and kitchen combo. When I walked in, I was rigid from the emotions that were on the surface as I was worried about Tim. Another hardship occurring on our street. But I wasn’t prepared for what I actually did see. What I walked into was a man in his family room, fully dressed, standing up, and walking while housing a massive brace from his neck to his waist. I was only sort of prepared to see him in the hospital bed. I was not at all prepared to see him up and walking. I was amazed, thankful, and very emotional.
The visceral impact was intense. The reality is – there was luck on his side. But Zach may very well have saved his life – life as it is right now. Sure, he’s in a brace, sure he’s in pain, but he’s walking. And as Tim sat at my kitchen island in his brace, his sweats and his ear buds as he was coming back from his daily walk, he got emotional. We both did. It was a heart to heart about our lives, and how they’ve intersected over the last 25 years we’ve lived on this street together. We talked about love, loss and challenges. When Tim explains his pain, he simply says: “Who cares, I’m here and I’m walking. The pain at this point is inconsequential. I am grateful.” The presence of physical pain can actually act as a reminder of all that is precious in our lives. It teaches us to be thankful for the days without pain, or even the hour. Emotional and physical pain can teach us a lot about what to be thankful for. We, as humans, typically have so much more to be thankful for on a day-to-day basis than we ever take into account. In truth – we take so much for granted. But given a hardship, a challenge, the travails that go along with living a fully engaged existence, we have to expect the hardships that come as well. We have to walk through them with a determination to come out on the other side and hopefully sense a brighter future that may await us. Look, I’m no poster child for this obviously. It has taken me years to get to the point of having hope again after losing Wes. It has devastated me, on every level. And as I know Wes would, he would not be happy that I have not moved on faster, but easier said than done. But I know that if he was here and I was going through a tough time, he would have comforted me and held my hand as I walked through it, which is exactly what I think he has done all these years from places I can’t see, but I can feel. He has been with me, for that I am certain, and for that – I am also grateful.
But nonetheless, we do have to go on, and we do have to fight to get through. It weighs me down to think that I won’t ever know that kind of happiness and contentment again that I had with Wes. It’s what I suspect anyway. That part is really hard to assimilate and navigate quite frankly, but my outlook has changed a lot since last Thanksgiving.
Hope is a foundational emotion that I latch onto no matter what is happening in my life. When I lost all hope after Wes passed, I was left with nothing to buoy me up – except my kids and the collective agents of love that held me up. That all has been amazing. But hope is a hard thing to crush and when it is, it’s hard to find the light – anywhere actually. But eventually, we rely on that little voice inside us – deep down, that doesn’t always reveal itself until tragedy strikes, but it is there and it tells us to keep trying, to keep pushing, to keep taking those steps – those proverbial steps. Those steps that actually are the meaning and the impetus to our recovery, and it’s more recovery of spirit than anything. But those steps fueled by that internal voice get us from our immediate crisis and travails, as it gently pulls us forward to find the meaning in our current situation and how it will parlay into our future.
Often when our big picture is too difficult to assimilate and it looks like it is too big to tackle, that is when we need to break it down into little pieces and find the meaning in the small things first and then build up to understanding and giving thanks for the bigger things. Travails are a process to understanding, and nothing to be solved over night, or in my case, even years. But as long as we continue to decipher the big picture and the little bits and pieces, then we continue to garner strength, understanding, and a perspective that others may not have.
For Tim, he seems to be breaking down the big picture of his experience and putting the little pieces of moments, hours, days and now months since his accident into perspective. He is grateful for the host of people and expertise that was captured in those crucial moments. Tim is grateful for it all. I am grateful for Tim. My neighbor, who sits at my kitchen island and tells me again – “Move forward Sharon, life is tough, but there is so much to be thankful for.” We cry together for the inspiration we get from each other.
And this Thanksgiving, as I consider my emotional state last holiday season, for reasons that were not necessarily in my own personal control, but still part of my existence, I acknowledge the toll it took. I absorbed it all and it was difficult to compartmentalize and so I crumbled, maybe not so much on the outside, but definitely on the inside. But this year is different. Although it has been a difficult year around me as well, I am more appreciative of what really matters. I am trying to understand that the things I cannot control, I need to practice mindfulness, and those things that I can control – I need to practice appreciation and understanding, and have gratitude for the lessons it teaches me.
This holiday season, I am reminded again to be grateful for family and friends and for all the love that is projected in my little corner of the world and that which I am eating up. I am thankful for the lessons in my life that propel me each day to try harder. I am eternally grateful for that little voice inside me, that continuously reminds me – to try again tomorrow.