We look at others’ tragic circumstances and whisper, I’m sorry for them, but never let that happen to me. We say that we can’t. It’s not possible. We say I don’t know how they do it. They do it because they have to.
When you are stripped of what you know, when you are down to the bare bones of yourself it is remarkable what we can be capable of.
When people said everything happens for a reason I wanted to laugh. What possible reasons could there be for mothers and fathers to lose their sons or daughters? What reason was there when a limb was taken, a life turned inside out? I looked everywhere, examined my life and couldn’t come up with a reason. I let it go. I didn’t want to waste time on cliches. I didn’t search for deeper truths others had found. I couldn’t live someone else’s journey. I would find my own truths, make my own way.
I met a young man in rehab that had injuries stemming from a drunken night where he tried to cross the train tracks as a train was hurtling towards him. He was run over and his legs were amputated as a result. He had shut down and lost the will to live. He did what he was supposed to, he did the minimum to get by. He existed. I saw that around me a lot. People consumed by the tragedy and not by the fight. Your identity becomes wrapped up in what happened to you rather than who you are. Overnight, you’re a different person. This wasn’t the plan for your life and it’s more than you can handle.
For a long time I was Heidi, the girl from the car accident. I acquired labels and titles I didn’t want. Amputee and burn survivor weren’t titles I wore proudly. I should have been proud. I was encouraged to be proud. But, I wanted to simply be known as Heidi. It would be years before I came to understand that I didn’t have to be one or the other. The Heidi before or the Heidi after. I was both.
When I became a mom this was something that was discussed widely among mothers – women feeling like they had lost their identities after giving birth to their children. Who were they now? That was the question that met me at every corner, everywhere I went. Who was I now? Was I proud burn survivor and amputee? Could I be myself? Without reminders, without labels of loss? I wanted no attachments to my name. I wanted to be unencumbered, free of trauma. I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want this to be my ‘new normal’ as people were so fond of saying. I didn’t want to be defined by what had happened.
But, it did happen and I couldn’t wish it away.
My recovery dominated my life. Each day became about getting through. My legs, my skin were in front of me demanding my attention. I was told it gets better. I was told that one day it wouldn’t be like this. I wound that promise around my heart and held it up when I needed it. In the meantime my plight wasn’t changing. My recovery was slow. Physically, I was at the mercy of my body. But, emotionally, my questions and the answers I was coming up with were vital to where I would end up.
Somewhere along the way – in the middle of rehab and during a journey that spanned years I decided it was up to me. Who and what I wanted to be belonged to me. I could place as much or as little emphasis as I wanted to on being a survivor and amputee. The crash changed me. There was no getting around that. In a split second it claimed me and began to shape me, but it wasn’t all of me. I was never going to stick out my hand when I met someone new and introduce myself as a burn survivor. But, I was a survivor. I was an amputee. I was a woman, a friend, a girl who will do just about anything for a particular food she’s craving. I was opinionated and stubborn and still longed for more for my life.
Fire hadn’t destroyed who I was. I would rise above not as a glorious phoenix from the ashes, but living one day at a time. I was going to put myself back together one piece at a time, peacemaking. I would emerge scathed and scarred and as my definition of whole.