Lessons of My Daughter
Drained and depleted after a tortuous workweek – and facing still one final, late-evening deadline – I loaded Andrea into the van last Friday morning. She had aqua-blue sunglasses on her blonde head, Bob Marley on her iPod, and two cups of coffee surging through her body. I had three cups in me.
She was headed to tackle her third therapy day of the week – a stretch that included her first in-home session (three hours) with a visiting therapist. My week had included one MSNBC deadline, reporting a second MSNBC story, reporting and finishing a story for MSN.com (via SwitchYard media) and a day-and-half long-job interview at a local media outlet that included prepping, reporting and producing one piece for air. In between, I spent four of those seven days and nights caring for the kid. One night I worked until 2 a.m., two other nights I called it quits at 10, another ended at 9 and one was finished at 8. When Andrea and I spoke to my dad this past weekend, dad said I sounded somewhere between exhausted and dead. I instantly thought of a M*A*S*H line uttered by Hawkeye: “What’s beyond dead? Whatever that is, now you’re getting warmer.”
Adding to the collective exhaustion of father and daughter: On Thursday night and into Friday morning, Andrea could not fall asleep. And in a chipper voice, she’d decided to awaken me in my room down the hall every 30 minutes – until 2:30 a.m. – just to let me know this fact. After the last wakeup call, I told her I was donning my headphones and shutting my bedroom door and that we would talk again when – and if – we both managed to wake up for good.
By 8 a.m. Friday, behind bleary eyes, her first raspy words to me: “Can I have some coffee, dad?” We both needed a cement mixer full of java. Energy-wise, I was nearing the stage we all know as “fumes.” The needle on her gas tank was right at about the same mark.
Then, in the gym at Craig Hospital, I watched Andrea promptly go to work.
On a blue mat, she practiced holding herself up in a sitting position – feet on the floor, left hand on the mat with occupational therapist Michelle behind her, giving support. When Andrea was asked to do so, she scooted her butt along the mat– using her own muscles, pushing herself back into her wheelchair with a little help. Michelle called it a big leap forward. You have to sit before you can stand. She’s getting closer.
After a lunch of cheese burger and chicken wings (we’re still working on the diet thing), she headed back to the far side of the gym for physical therapy with Denise and a student trainee, Leah
Shaking off the usual post-lunch energy crash (thanks again, coffee) and trying to nail her last therapy session of the week, Andrea initially pushed herself from a seated position at the edge of the mat up to standing position in front of the walking track. She used her left hand, her butt and her two legs.
In finding her balance and steadying her body, she had to engage her quads, hamstrings, feet, calves and a lot of core and back muscles as well as her chest and shoulders. That is: her brain had to tell all those body parts what to do simultaneously – a precise neurologic orchestration that you don’t even consider unless you’ve had a traumatic brain injury.
Her stand went on for five-plus minutes as Denise (seated beneath Andrea) worked hard to keep Andrea’s left foot flat and pointed forward. Leah did some holding as well at Andrea’s right hip. But for the first time, Andrea did much of the balancing work herself, using her left hand to grab a standing bar. I watched her adjust her hand multiple times to re-balance herself.
Then Denise tossed her a couple of curve balls: lifting that hand and waving to me.
Andrea wobbled only a little. She smirked a lot.
Near the end of the stand, as her muscles began to quiver from fatigue, I asked Andrea how she was feeling. I expected “I’m tired” or “It hurts.” Instead I got: “I feel great!”
Lesson One: No whining, just do the work.
So I stopped thinking about my massive workload and looming deadline. As I gave her a congratulatory pat on the back, I felt how Andrea’s Denver Nuggets T-shirt had become sweaty. But her jobs and tasks for the week were complete. To me, it felt like she had matched my entire work output in those five minutes of intense focus, squeezing, pushing and balancing. Much of it done with a smile. Afterward, she even gave a “thank you” to her therapists.
We’ve been practicing standing at home. I sit in front of Andrea in a kitchen chair that has metal arms. I ask her to pull herself forward into a ball and grab the right chair arm with her working left hand – then pull herself forward and lift as much as she can with her legs and her butt. I do some of the lifting, using gravity as I tip backward. Once up, she pivots 90 degrees (with guidances) and sits into her wheelchair, onto her bed, or in her gold lounge chair in the living room. We are moving away from the hoist quickly. She even stood up and out of a dentist’s chair recently.
She does all this despite a left foot that still wants to curl inward based on the signals from her brain – messages left over from her initial trauma. The foot is more relaxed and far straighter after an Achilles tendon-lengthening operation in late January and six weeks of casting. But it still takes a bit of time and work to force the sole and toes into a flat, straight position. (This makes wearing shoes still a hard task, though she’s had them on here and there). We will get that foot flatter in time, hopefully without more surgery. For starters, her doctor will turn up the dosage on her Baclofen pump to see if we can force that foot to relax. Increasing the pump is done via a remote control. She’ll need the pump until she is walking again – and perhaps for many years after.
Often, when she stands, that left foot (and her right foot) both bark painfully. She hasn’t used those muscles in almost eight months. She tells us immediately: “Ow! My feet!!”
This leads to the next bit of wisdom from Andrea:
Lesson Two: Forgiveness. Or – no grudge holding.
You might think this trait would surround her accident, the reason for the upheaval in her life and ours. So far, though, she hasn’t voiced any anger toward the two drivers involved in the crash. At this stage, she just wants to know the facts – merely an explanation as to why she can’t walk, why her memory is still so foggy, why she can’t yet go back to college or return home. I think she finally has those awful details of the crash committed to memory – the details, not the actual collision. She’ll never remember that, thankfully. But the conversations about the accident never seem to include any commentary from Andrea. Just listening.
When I inevitably inflict pain during our quick stands at home, or sometimes when I’m putting on her right arm splint, she loudly blurts out a word or two to express what she’s feeling.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” I will say. “Standing is just going to hurt for a while until your feet get used to it. You’re just going to have to learn how to push through. But I’m really sorry. The last thing I want do to is hurt you.”
“That’s OK,” she almost always responds. “I’m alright, dad.”
Then that particular moment of pain – whatever its cause – is never mentioned again.
She just moves on. She forgives.
Pain comes in many forms amid this recovery. Headaches are routine, unfortunately. Sometimes, we can knock them out with a few Advil. Sometimes, we have to use stronger stuff.
Last week, she had at least three than I can recall. Twice, after the onset of symptoms, she asked to go to her bed and have all the lights turned off. Once she threw up. Those were migraines: something she has suffered with all her life. They are not tied to the injury.
Another night, she was battling still more thumping in her head. She told me it was a “5” out of “10” on the pain scale. Instead of wallowing or focusing on what hurt, she opted that evening to stay in the living room with me and watch an episode of her favorite show, “Family Guy.” One particular clip absolutely connected with Andrea. In it, a female student approaches a male student, who is standing at his locker, asking if he is going to algebra class. He says that he is. The girl inexplicably then has a meltdown, sobs, runs away with arms flailing and hurls herself through a window. Her girlfriend immediately turns to the guy and screams: “You’re awful!!” The guy stares ahead, appropriately clueless. (This clip is on my Facebook page if you want to see it). Then a voiceover comes on: “The following joke was brought to you by … men.” Then a jingle: “Men … we don’t know what we did.” I had seen this episode before and immediately had loved that bit of satire. After watching it, Andrea burst into laughter – despite her aching head.
Then she came up with two verses of her own in response, singing each one:
“Women … we’re too nice for guys.”
I was sitting at the dining room table, typing on my laptop. I was so happy that she understood the subtle humor.
Then she sang another of her own lines: “Andrea … she’s too cute for her brain.”
I swear I nearly spit a mouthful of beer onto my laptop.
Pain and all, she was cracking wise. And she was teaching me again.
Lesson Three: Live in the moment.
The workweek mercifully came to an end when I filed my last article – way past deadline – at exactly 9:07 p.m. Friday. We chatted for a bit. Then Andrea and I headed off to give her a shower and brush her teeth. We finished the cleanup, put on her pajamas and re-applied her splints right around midnight.
On Saturday morning, we awoke and took Jessie for a walk around her apartment complex, soaking in the beautiful sun and warm breezes. Along the way, Andrea met a dog, Olive. Later, she ate Lucky Charms (St. Patty’s Day, you know) and listened to her iPod. Then Nancy, Andrea and I headed toward the house that Nancy and I have owned since early 2010. Andrea has been thinking we still live in another house that we sold in 2008. She just could not remember or picture our current place – normal for the amnesia that comes with this injury. I thought a visit would help spur her memory.
Getting there meant we had to drive through the intersection in which she was hurt. Before doing that, I asked Andrea is she was OK with the route. She said she was. I narrated the scene as we neared those cross streets. “This is the direction in which the other driver – the driver that hit you guys – was coming.” She looked out the window.
The light was red when we pulled up to the intersection. I hate that intersection. I have to go through it all the time. The red light gave me time to offer more explanation. To our left was the big Macy’s sign on the east side of the Cherry Creek Shopping Center.
“So you guys were turning left right here. And the guy hit you and you were hurt in this very intersection,” I pointed. “The paramedics worked on you right around that spot.”
Then a question.
“So I almost died right there?”
“Yes almost … But you didn’t … Is it a little creepy for you, coming through here?”
“I’m glad. I do not like coming through here … Why doesn’t it bother you?”
“Because we’re right next to the mall.”
“So being near the mall supersedes all the creepiness of this intersection?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because I LOVE to shop!!”
Lesson Four: Don’t let a little thing like a near-death experience change who you are.
A few minutes later, we made it to our house. Andrea instantly said she remembered the place. Nancy and I had to lift her chair up our front steps. Once inside, we wheeled through, room by room. We watched her memory rekindle as she traversed each doorway.
Then, back in the living room, I helped her stand, pivot and sit in a lounge chair. She ate some lunch that Nancy had fetched for her. She looked entirely content.
With an easy grin, Andrea said she felt finally at home. I only wish she was. For good.
The next lesson she can teach me: patience.
A quick P.S.: Some incredible friends have arranged for a benefit concert on April 4 at the Merc in Denver to offset some of the costs of Andrea’s continuing recovery. Please check out the concert page on this site. We hope you can attend. I’m going to have Andrea there for a little while – barring any illness or headaches. Thank you.