to live

“Not you. I can’t believe this happened to you.”

For some reason I never fully understood I wasn’t surprised by what had happened to me. When a friend sat by my hospital bed and slowly shook his head in disbelief ‘why not me’ ran through my mind and I was startled at my openness, my acceptance. It wasn’t that I went through life with a dark cloud hanging over me expecting calamity. Not at all. I would call myself a realist with optimistic tendencies. Maybe it was that I knew it didn’t help to fight it, to resist what happened. It happened. And there was so much to do. If I could accept, maybe it would help speed up my recovery. However, my acceptance didn’t mean that I liked my situation.

My body was not mine anymore. Air where ankles and feet should be. My body was thick raised scars, slashes of purple and red, thin rice paper skin that broke easily, open wounds stubbornly refusing to heal. I wasn’t repulsed exactly – I just didn’t like what I had become. I made sure to avert my eyes when I passed a mirror. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore.

Before the car crash I was 5’6″ and 120 pounds with muscular legs and strong arms. I had a toned, flat tummy which was now puckered sewn skin, divided by a long line made by a scalpel that began at my belly button. I had a 23 year old body, in good shape, skin hard and soft in all the right places. I ran. I walked. I rarely stopped moving. And I had suddenly aged, my skin sagging where it hadn’t hardened with surgery. I joked that my butt had burnt off. It was true. It was mostly grafted, the skin so thin it was difficult to sit for any real length of time. I could handle maybe an hour of sitting, even with a specially designed cushion, but I often excused myself to go lie down and take the pressure off my bony bum. I wasn’t comfortable in my new skin. I didn’t know how to be.

“You’re still you,” well-meaning friends, social workers, family said. Yes, and. That was my response. Yes, I was still me and I’d lost a body that carried me, housed me for twenty three years. To have it change so swiftly, to have pieces of me taken wasn’t something I could simply get over. I wished I could separate my body from my soul, that the damage done to me was only to my body. But when you don’t recognize yourself in your reflection and you can’t stand to see your eyes because you know the damage is deeper than you can comprehend, you realize that body and soul are entwined, impossible to sever. ‘This will grow your character’ was advice I heard more than once, given to comfort me, but there was little comfort in the promise of character growth. The loss took my breath away and left me terrifyingly empty.

I had good days and bad days. Some days it was too much work to turn around a bad day, to search for the silver lining. It was best to make peace with it and hope the next day would be better.

I allowed myself to mourn. I needed to honor what was and not worry about how to do grief. There was no proper way, no right way. I was unable to make this nice, to dress it up. Grief isn’t polite. It is raw, messy and everywhere. I was content to take my life a piece at a time, a day at a time, and go through it. Through. Not around. That meant I was angry, sad, lost and, once in a while, I laughed. Because there was much to cry about, developing a dark sense of humor came with the territory and my sarcastic streak grew. I feared if I didn’t grieve it would stick around finding a place to hide. Then, when I was least expecting it grief would attack me with its ferocity and largeness. I believed it would grow if I didn’t tend to it. With my eyes wide open and summoning all the strength I had I lived through the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

11 thoughts on “to live

  1. christy

    You sure did live through it! As always, I’m so impressed with your telling of your tale. The part about body and soul being intertwined really resonates with me – I totally believe that. And what an amazing way to deal with grief. A sarcastic sense of humor, eh? You and my husband would get along famously! Half the time I don’t ‘get’ it. I’m too literal, I suppose.

  2. Kim

    I think in a way getting used to something so life changing, is like grief. You go through the 7 stages of grief without even realizing it. At the time, it seems like there is now end in sight, but then one day you look back and see the difference.
    I like your writing, it continually moves me, I relate to a lot of it, but where you faced it head on, I hid in the shadows of denial. You were stronger, and I can see how well you have done for that. Keep up the battle. 🙂

  3. Toriz

    Acceptance is the key factor in moving forward to recovery. Once you can accept the way things are, then – and only then – you can move forward. I’m glad you were able to learn that quickly. I’m sure it helped you greatly during your recovery. Sometimes acceptance of your situation isn’t easy. I understand that from my own experiences.

    Your writing skills are excellent, by the way. And I admire your courage in sharing your story with others. I hope you do manage to get your book published, and that it helps others in similar situations to be as strong as you were through it all.

  4. linda sue

    People just don’t know what to say – I think that I might scream at them- a whole lot of effing idiot! Don’t tell me this builds character crap bs…You are SO NICE!!! People really do not know what to say…when things really suck they become uncomfortable with it, I guess and have a need to make it rosy…a need to distance themselves from the pain…distance from being uncomfortable…Frightened of their own inability.
    I told my son Erik about you and your amazing courage, your remarkable shattering injuries- makes his paralysis a walk in the park- thank you for giving us perspective, dear Heidi. Sending you gobs of love and a gigantic dose of effing sucks!!!

    1. heidi

      I wanted to respond to this a while ago, but I never seem to have enough time these days. I think you’re right – people often don’t know what to say and most people are so well-intentioned. It’s awkward…they’re awkward…and everything comes out all wrong. I’ve always thought an ‘I’m so sorry’ would suffice. And then you get the odd person that feels the need to get all philosophical or dole out bad advice. Who can understand it?

      I hope Erik is getting better. And I hope that you have some answers. Know that I’m thinking of you both and send you much love and hope.

  5. Kate Coveny Hood

    I think it would be hard to separate body and soul now, at 38. I can’t even imagine going about that when you are so young. When you haven’t yet felt the betrayal of aging skin and post pregnancy changes. We ease into the changes that age brings and while your body didn’t “age” with your accident, it was transformed all at once. It’s a shock – and no matter how much you “know” that your body isn’t even the smallest percentage of what makes you “you”, you have to feel the shock, the loss and the greif. I know I would. But I doubt I would weather it quite as courageously as you have.

  6. Jessica

    Grieving is so important. To this day, I sometimes am so sad that my kid will never grow up with both parents around. And you are right. some days you just have to give in to it and walk through b/c if you walk around it,it will reappear when you least expect it.

    big hugs

  7. IntenseGuy

    I’ve been away on a short break and only now catching up with my reading – I think I’ve saved the best and most inspirational reading for last.

    Its a shame that people have such a hard time saying what they want to express – I guess what they want to express is … so tangled and complicated and heartfelt that the tongue gets in the way – perhaps the unsaid words are the best, expressed by a tight hug and in the loving warmth found in a special person’s eyes – I hope your loss… hasn’t led to a “fear of losing” other things and people… I know being afraid to lose something often prevents me from taking a chance on having something.

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