Her Bittersweet Resignation

When I first heard that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had decided to resign, I didn’t know what to think. But a few hours later, when I heard Cokie Roberts on NPR explain that, “She attended the anniversary [of the shooting that injured her] event and realized how much a public appearance like that would take out of her,” I wanted to cry.

It was the shock of recognition. I know exactly what it feels like to have come so far in your recovery–only to return to something that had been familiar (almost easy) in the past, and be reminded of how hard it is now. You are forced to realize that although you have come far and worked hard at recovery, you are not your pre-injury self, and you might not ever be. Nothing can be assumed; nothing can be taken for granted.

Sometimes I have felt resentment: “I’ve worked hard at getting better, why can’t I have this? Why can’t I do this? I deserve it as a reward for all I’ve been though.”

Other times I am wise enough to say, “First things first. Take care of yourself. Other things will come.”

Representative Giffords choice seems to me the wise one–the brave one. I wonder if she even felt a bit of the resentment that sometimes comes to me. And although I felt sad at her resignation before, now more than ever I feel she is a hero. Her grace is to be admired. Her recovery is a miracle.

And I know few would disagree with that statement. It just took me a bit longer to get over the shock and realize it.

Victims of Theft

The Swimming Lesson
by Mary Oliver

Feeling the icy kick, with the endless waves
Reaching around my life,
I moved my arms
And coughed
and in the end, saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us,
that ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all about swimming,
but only
How to put off,
One by one,
Dreams and pity,
love and grace,
How to survive in any place.

First I’ll tell you about Phyllis. Her stroke dealt her a harsh blow–she cannot walk without assistance and she has lost the use of one hand. She has also lost self-control–she acts petulant, spoiled, and manipulative; she will throw objects in anger at the slightest perceived insult.

She’s one of the patients I meet at rehab whose life has been forever altered by their brain injury–whether it’s a stroke, accident or surgery, like me. Her former self has been stolen.

John was a trial lawyer. I am not why, but after his stoke he has a terrible stutter. I assume he was once articulate; now his primary therapist tells me she hopes to find him an administrative job in a law office. She has him practice by making copies and collating them. When he drops the stack of papers he just sorted, I notice that the long streak of curses he yells is not once interrupted by his stammer.

Kent is sweet, but cannot focus. In the middle of telling me about the college he took his teenage son to visit, he trails off. “What was I saying?” he asks, ashamed.

Larry tells me about the terrible-tasting meatloaf his wife cooked last week. He ate it without complaining–“It’s the least I can do after all she’s done for me.” Like so many rehab patients, Larry may never work again. His vision is now so bad that he cannot read a line of type or calculate a sum of numbers. (“Oh, I didn’t see that 2 there.”)

The second John is an ex-Marine. He was a helicopter pilot who fought in Desert Storm. He once ran his own company, but he had to sell it after the awful elevator accident that caused his brain injury. He isn’t fit for work any longer.

What lives are we suited for now that we have been broken? I ask myself that constantly, or at least I do when I can stop wondering why these things happened to these innocent people.

How does a thief choose his victims? It cannot be because we are weak. These are some of the strongest people I know.

When we are robbed, we feel exposed and violated.

Journals and Healing

Some of the visual journals I've filled over the years.

“Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem like nothing to you in comparison?” Haggai 2:3

I was about two months into what would be six months of physical and occupational therapy after my brain surgery. That’s when I realized that the best way to make progress was to tell my therapists what I wanted and needed.

That was how my work on my visual journals started–really, really, started.  Before, I had created collages and kept art journals off and on, but brain surgery had left my hands so weak and uncoordinated that I could barely write or hold scissors. Creating art seemed out of the question, yet at the same time, it wasn’t a part of my past that I was willing to give up.

So the occupational therapist and I brainstormed a bit. She asked if could I use punches instead of scissors. She suggested exercises I could do to strengthen my hands enough to hold a paintbrush. I was determined to try.

I set myself a goal of creating a collage a week in my art journal, but became so excited that I completed one a night for several nights in  a row. The journal became a tangible way to see progress though out my months of therapy. It was something small that I could keep close, look at, and think, “I made that!”

Were those pages like the artwork I had created before? No, but somehow the restrictions on my creativity slowed me down and forced me to explore new paths–ones I would not have bothered with before because there were so many others to travel, and they all seemed so easy.

When I showed fellow therapy patients my journal, they got it–they understood the pain, frustration, the small triumphs, all without a word said.

One of the pages in the first journal that I worked on while in occupational therapy.