“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.