One year ago tonight, a few minutes before 7, Andrea entered the intersection of East Bayaud Avenue and South Steele Street. Her life seemingly had fallen, finally, into perfect order.
The dean’s list at college. A part-time job at her favorite mall. Her own apartment. Independent at age 20. One European trip under her belt. Other global adventures surely to follow.
She left that intersection in the back of an ambulance. Her body shattered, her brain bleeding, and her life sustained by the breathing tube in her throat. Her world was about to shrink from boundless horizons to an ICU bed.
If you have visited here, you know all that has followed. If you are new, welcome to a tale of recovery and love, of redemption and sweat – of hilarious political rants, endless Facebooking, afternoons of “Sponge Bob” watching, nights of occasional pain – of hope … piled on top of even more hope.
A few days ago, Andrea requested a favor.
“On the night of the anniversary of my accident, can I to go to that intersection? I want to go there and say a prayer.”
The photo above shows the white board on Andrea’s dresser in her bedroom, where we list the upcoming events of each day to help orient her and organize her mind as soon as she wakes. Her short-term memory is building back but it is not fully restored. The white board gives her an instant reminder as to what’s ahead or — at the day’s end — all she has accomplished. Today’s board spoke of Andrea’s mindset around this anniverary.
So tonight we went to that terrible spot – an intersection through which I often drive, next to the tennis courts where Nancy and I take lessons on Saturdays. I hate that piece of pavement and what it has come to represent. I avoid it whenever possible. We arrived roughly at the same hour of the crash that momentarily took Andrea’s mobility and forever stole some precious and important parts of her long-term memory. Like her 4.0 semester. Like living in her own apartment. Like the sudden passing of a best friend six weeks before Andrea’s own near-death experience.
We drove there in Andrea’s Jetta with Andrea riding in the passenger seat and her wheelchair folded and lying in the trunk. In the back seat were Jenny and Emily, school friends and best friends, steadfast girls who have never given up on Andrea. Emily has been helping Andrea four or five days a week at Craig and at her apartment, even sleeping over once in a while so allow us a break. Her nickname is “Gold” because those letters are part of her last name. I know this will embarrass her, but Emily is gold. At a parking lot next to the intersection, Nancy met us. Four of us walked over as I pushed Andrea in her chair, answering her pointed questions on exactly where she was struck on that street, on the brief sequence of events that altered her life so immediately. We gathered on the northwest corner.
In time, Andrea said her piece: “Thank you, God, or whoever is up there. Thank you for letting me still be alive. Thank you for getting me through this year and, hopefully, all the years to come.”
What happened next left all five of us momentarily shaken and stunned.
One year after the crash, there is much work still to be done. Andrea cannot walk on her own, live on her own, drive, shower herself, fully use her right hand, fully straighten her right arm, or roll over in her bed.
But thanks to her own healing, toughness and sunny spirit, the talents of her therapists and doctors, and 11 months of laborious work – first from the edge of a hospital bed, where she initially couldn’t breathe independently or hold her chin up for more than a second, and later in gyms where she sweats, swears and winces four days each week – this is what she can do: Stand herself up from a sitting position – and heck, just being able to sit at the edge of her bed without help is nice – stand alone without any support for several seconds, use a walker to maneuver from one room to another (with a bit of hands-on stabilizing and moral support), ride in the front seat of a car, carry on long, deep conversations, fold her laundry, play strategic board games, fill out a budget, write beautiful cards to friends and family (with her left hand), keep close tabs on the electoral vote projections this November, stay abreast of local news, shop on line, laugh instantly at the most subtle humor, detect and react instantly to the most subtle changes in body language or tone in her family members, and offer head kisses to all those she loves. We are using the chair less and less – especially when she goes to the gym. The hoist with which we came home from the hospital was shelved months ago. She goes to the mall. She goes to restaurants. She goes to the movies. She goes on semi-nightly rolls with her dog, Jessie. She plays with our new puppy, Wilson, in our backyard.
The work at Craig and at Andrea’s apartment continues to help bolster her mind and her body. Physically, she and her Craig team are focused on loosening and reviving her core muscles, her back muscles, the tendons in her right hip, right knee, right shoulder, right arm and right hand. That work is done while she is standing, lying on mats, kneeling on mats, walking a treadmill or soaking in a heated pool. Splints are worn daily on her right hand, right arm and both feet. She will have to grind out 10,000 more practice steps until she notches those first gorgeous strides taken on her own, without help.
The progress is nagginly slow. But it can be measured. The finish line is out there. We wish it would approach us so much faster. She wants it here now.
We also have started hard work to shore up Andrea’s resolve. She tires easily. A common symptom of traumatic brain injury. She complains about feeling fatigued. Sometimes, these complaints seem to sap what little energy she has left, slowing therapy sessions to a crawl. Her therapists and her family and Emily have some sympathy, but it is limited, and should be. So pep talks are in. Whining is discouraged.
These sorts of chats also are venturing into a new area: Andrea’s confidence in her own body. Why should she trust her body? It hasn’t really been there for her since the injury. And while it is coming back, gaining fresh strength, better agility and more balance, the mental fogginess of her early recovery makes those landmarks so hard for her to view in context. She has no memory of not being able to breathe on her own, or swallow, blink on command, or sit. So when the time comes for Andrea try to use the walker or to stand in the kitchen, she has doubts. Deep, vocalized doubts. We try to talk her through them.
A conversation from last night about attempting another short stand in the kitchen:
“But I don’t want to fall on my face! What about my face, dad? ” She points at it. “This is the money maker, honey!!”
“What,” I ask with a laugh, “is that from?”
“That,” she responds with a smirk, “is from my own brain.”
The girl makes it fun. That, alone, is beautiful.
Tonight, as were we still standing at one corner of that intersection, one year – to the hour – after Andrea was critically injured there, two cars violently collided.
It seemed like a cruel joke to us. I’m sure it was far more terrifying for the people in the cars.
My back was turned to the crash. I only heard the sharp smack of metal on metal and felt hot air from the impact rush past my neck. It was that close. As I turned, I saw one car with a mangled front end, already leaking fluids onto the pavement, smoke rising from the hood. It also was rolling in our direction. It slowed then stopped maybe 20 feet away. All five of us looked at each other with giant eyes. “Did that really just happen? Really?” Then a few choice expletives. We all quickly checked on one another. We were OK. Andrea, now with a look of confusion and sadness on her face, was OK, she said. I walked to the closest of the two cars and helped a sobbing woman out of her front seat. Her airbags had deployed. I had my hand on her shoulder. She was quivering. I told her she was alright and suggested we walk out of that intersection to the sidewalk. She had been alone in her car. Others were checking on the two people in the second car. They were rattled but not hurt, we were told.
Surreal. Miles beyond surreal – whatever that may be. We went to dinner at Cherry Creek Mall – as planned. But some of our appetites had vanished. Nancy ordered nothing. We had a great meal, nonetheless, talked and laughed about some little things but also tried to make sense out of what we had just witnessed, especially – ESPECIALLY – given the somber reason we had gone there.
Denver, I think you have an intersection problem.
I wasn’t initially sure what to make of tonight’s accident – so loud and violent and frighteningly close to us — too damn close to us — a mirror image, really, of Andrea’s crash: one car turning left in front of another. But the more I thought about it – having seen the familiar physical damage to the two vehicles, but then having seen all the parties thankfully stand up and get out of their wrecked cars – I guess I was momentarily angry that Andrea didn’t enjoy the same good fortune.
I then thought about one of the healthiest lessons I’ve learned this year: You cannot change the past. You simply have to accept the facts, deal with them on your own terms, and move along.
We did exactly that tonight. And so we will again tomorrow.
I’m taking the day off to accompany Andrea on a Craig-wide event at Cherry Creek Reservoir. There she will practice standing out of her chair and getting into a boat. We will float and enjoy the Colorado sun.
Year One was about mere survival then steady recovery, about patience and love and hope. We’re are glad to have that mile marker in our rear view. Year Two will offer Andrea a return to walking without any help and countless other gains, equally thrilling. Year Two will, of course, be about more love and more laughter, about a young women’s profound strength and spirit – and, most importantly, about living.
We are ready to begin that next mile. I like that it begins in a boat.
Thank you for joining us, for your generous help and support and, most importantly, for sticking by our side during this remarkable journey.