I have been meaning to write something for this day for quite some time. I guess for about two years, really. Today was the day that I wanted to self-publish the follow-up book to Guide Her Home (GHH). It is entitled Ignite Your Bones (IYB) and I put together a fundraising campaign to assist with the publication costs last year. Shortly after I launched the campaign, my life hit a major crossroads that immediately required me to reassess where to put my energy. I had to jettison some things completely and put a lot of other things on hold, including publishing IYB.
Things have mostly recovered since the fall, but now we are… *gestures vaguely* Well, you know.
The last six months to two years have been a huge time of growth and integration for me and one of the things I have been reevaluating is my approach to writing, what I want to do with it, and if I am meant to publish IYB at all. I explain this because even though I’d planned to write something, waking up today, I could not connect with where to start.
Then, as I socially distanced with Libby today (I was giving her toilet paper, she was bringing me flowers for our Hurricane Day), it dawned on me: I’ve already written what I need to write for this day.
Whether I am meant to publish Ignite Your Bones or not, a decade after Heaven Sent a Hurricane, I can think of nothing more appropriate to share than this. Please enjoy what was meant to be the Prologue and Epilogue of Ignite Your Bones.
PROLOGUE – March 31, 2017 – Bring Back the Fire in Your Eyes
“You’re early!” Mrs. Ryoppy greets me at the classroom door, keeping it open just enough that I can barely see her entire round face and rainbow hair.
“Well, you’re too early for us,” she turns away and calls to one of the students, “Keep Mrs. Lavine company while we finish up.”
The assigned fifth-grade adult-sitter appears at the door and leads me to the bench in the hall. We sit there and she promptly spills the beans: “We’re working on something for you.”
I laugh lightly, “I figured.” I’m going to miss this class. One of the three I’ve taught Art Discovery classes to this year. That, in and of itself, is quite the achievement, as I am not the artistic one in our family.
“If you had a time machine,” the kiddo asks, taking her company-keeping assignment seriously, “Where would you go?”
My breath catches and I pause to answer her in a level voice, not wanting to unload 7 years of grief and pain on this unsuspecting child. In fact, this question feels reminiscent of the time Kelly asked me if I would trade my life for anyone else’s and, without hesitation, I answered, “in a heartbeat”.
What I can’t say: “On April 29, 2010, my ten-year-old daughter, Jessica, was preparing for a horseback riding lesson. A horse entered the paddock where she was, wanting to be ridden, and attempted to kick Jessica’s horse out of the way. Jessica’s horse moved, leaving her unprotected. She was kicked in the right side of her head and had to be rushed to the hospital. She sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. She was in surgery for five and a half hours, in a coma for 12 days, and in the hospital for 7 weeks. Even after coming home, she didn’t begin to actively communicate until five months post-accident. They put her head back together six months post-accident, at which time she spent another seven weeks in the hospital for rehab. She had two more rehab stays, continues to get out-patient therapy now, and will never live independently. If I had a time machine, I would undo all of that.”
Instead, I steel myself and tell her, “Well, my daughter was injured a few years ago. I would go back and have that not happen.”
My head filled with the PTSD fog that occurs when I’m sent back to the day of Jessica’s accident so I don’t remember the dream location my tween-aged compadre shared with me, but I do remember driving home that day and crying to Jesse on the phone as I recapped the conversation.
Time travel is tricky, though.
Going back in time to undo the damage done to Jessica would also undo all the good that came into our lives because of it. When the dance moms took me to dinner shortly after we’d been released from the hospital the first time, I shared with them that Jessica’s accident was simultaneously the best and worst thing that happened to me. As time marched on, I dropped the “best” part of that assertion.
So short after the accident, and still in a state of shock that would last until six months after her injury, I was not able to fully grasp exactly how much our lives had changed. As days and months and years passed and my grief didn’t ease, the images of her lying in the dirt taking years to fade from the forefront of my mind, I stood by the “worst” characterization of my life events.
I could not deny that there were good things that came to us, however: the support our existing community showed us, as well as the new community that sprouted up around us. Doctors and therapists who grew to know and love our family and vice versa, my relationship with Libby powerfully and symbiotically blossomed once out from under the damaging shadow of our shared trauma, and our family gained a plethora of new friends as we made an interstate move to Washington State. We claimed it was for Jesse’s work and to move closer to his family, but really, I just needed to get the hell out of dodge to escape the triggering memories around every corner and the weight of navigating draining relationships with people who had never heard of Susan Silk and Barry Goldman’s Ring Theory. [TL:DR – Care IN, Dump OUT].
“But I would give it all up,” I sobbed to my husband as I flicked the turn signal, turning onto the road that would lead to our last Washington home. “I would give up everything if it meant Jessica’s accident would never have happened.”
I slowed for a stop sign and paused.
Turning back time meant those draining relationships would be back in my life. The boundaries that are so easily drawn when your mind has more important issues to process than whether you’ve said, done, shown the right thing; all of that would be back in the forefront of our lives, waiting to be navigated again.
I eased the car forward again, holding my breath.
I passed my favorite Evergreen, easily the tallest in our neighborhood, then made the two quick turns that led to the driveway of our corner house.
Yes. I’d still do it. I’d easily deal with all that again if it meant undoing this horrible thing that happened to my sweet baby girl. I simply had to hope that I would have found the strength to draw those boundaries in the easier life we would live in our oft-yearned-for parallel universe.
Give me a flux capacitor and 88 miles per hour. Give me that damn Time-Turner. Give me Gallifreyan and brakes screeching.
That’s where I would go.
In a heartbeat.
Epilogue – June 2019 – A Grace Too Powerful To Name
“There are some lessons you will learn from this,” My therapist reassures me. “This is helping you to change some life-long patterns. This is a growth moment.”
I sigh and refold the Kleenex as small as I can make it. (Some things never change.)
“I know, I just wish it wouldn’t have happened this way.”
“I know.” Her eyes are gentle, and she picks up her schedule to indicate the end of the session. “Same time next week?”
“Yep. See you then.” I’m on autopilot at this point, throwing away my soda cup, putting my phone back in my purse, and slinging it over my shoulder.
I also find myself distracted. Something she said and, more importantly, my response has called a memory to the forefront of my mind. I’m reminded of that conversation on a bench outside of a fifth-grade classroom in Washington state.
All the lessons we’d learned then. The new community we had. I’d told Jesse I would have given it up.
I walk slowly to my car, and drive home in the drained emotional daze my sessions often leave me in. I block Jasper’s puppy attacks, greet Jessica and Jace, and drop my bags on my office chair before kissing Jesse hello. He notices my mood and I realize he probably knows something is up because I didn’t call him after therapy.
“Want to go out back?” He helpfully suggests.
I started smoking cigarettes at 14 and have stopped and started about a hundred times in my life. I’m currently stopped (two months in!), but when I’m in a “start” phase, the kids know that if we’re out back, they are not allowed to come out. When I’m in a “stop” phase, we take advantage of the No Coming Out Back rule to have private conversations while the dog runs around, burning off his puppy energy.
I don’t say a word and instead head out the back door and plop down in one of the patio chairs that swivel and rock back and forth.
“Draining session?” He starts gently.
“Yes, and … interesting at the end. I had a realization.” I rub Jasper’s head and try, in vain, to grab the stick from his mouth. He is proud of his find and won’t let go, instead galloping off into the tall grass. Jesse swivels slower than I and crosses one leg over the other. He’s always so patient with me.
“A thought struck me at the end and I’m trying to determine if it’s accurate or not.”
“What was it?”
I study the fading light of the evening, staring at the large Evergreen in our backyard neighbor’s yard; a pale comparison to my favorite one in Washington. “We were talking about Cameron- “
“Of course, and my therapist was saying how it’s a ‘growth’ opportunity for me. That this will help me change some life-long patterns.”
“And I told her… I just wish it didn’t have to happen this way. Like, this isn’t the relationship I would have picked to change in such a way that would have me learn a life lesson.”
“So, that reminded me of the time travel conversation I had before we moved back to California from Washington.” I don’t need to remind him of the details of this conversation. We talk about it often enough that he knows what I’m referencing. “And I just wonder… I mean, the thought struck me…”
“I don’t know… that I would.” I say the words slowly. Giving each of them their own breath. Allowing me time to consider the gravity and truth of what I’ve been considering since I walked out of my therapist’s office.
“You don’t think you would what?”
He studies my face, understanding slowly creeping across his face. He doesn’t move a muscle except his eyes, which are searching for the truth I’m not sure I’ve landed on.
“If we went back now, we’d lose even more than before. All those relationships are either stronger now or were never meant to be. The therapists who are friends now, Beth Hart’s “My California” inspiring us to move back home, and the co-fam…”
He’s nodding now.
I take a deep breath, close my stinging eyes, and breathe out one word: “Aulton.”
Jesse’s breath catches.
I realize there is no way I would have been lucky enough to have attended Libby’s first ultrasound or have been there for Aulton’s birth if I chose to return to the alternate reality and undo all that had been done in the past ten years. That is one of the more sobering pieces of this entire thought experiment. I open my eyes to find Jesse still looking at me. “Why didn’t I think of him when we were moving?”
“That was…” Jesse starts.
“…the year that made us do drugs.” I finish, then: “Aulton and Jessica’s relationship. Corey and Jace? Yeah, I don’t think I could do it.”
We’re unpaused. We swivel. He’s the first to break the silence, seconds before me.
“Are really, finally, turning a corner?”
I didn’t expect this pitstop on the way to the destination I thought I’d landed on, and fear doesn’t just stir in my heart, it roars, and I protest, “Don’t. I mean, can we not?”
I sigh and hang my head. Faith has been harder to hold than anything else. No matter what the dogma, the beliefs, the tenants, the commandments, the messages… Being told, over and over, about a higher plan or a higher purpose… Being reassured, again and again and again, that this is truly the plan for us and we are where we need to be is extremely difficult when we have to fight so hard to feel it. Or when we don’t see it playing out as we imagine it should, if all of those messages were true.
We have coped with this tragedy in ways that many people have disagreed with and haven’t hesitated to share those thoughts with us. When Jesse and I feel that judgment heavy on our shoulders, we work to talk one another down.
We remind each other that we cannot regret our decisions. There is no handbook on how to deal with something as big and as unexpected as a Traumatic Brain Injury. I remember thinking Jessica would come out of the emergency room, bandaged up but all smiles. As many resources as we received from the medical community that supported us and as much information as we gleaned through our own internet searches and reading, we continually found that our situation – each situation – is entirely unique. There are as many different types of Traumatic Brain Injury as there are individuals with a Traumatic Brain Injury. We’ve had to make our own way, figuring out what works for us as we go.
There is no guide to grief and the correct way to handle losing a child, but not losing a child. When the signposts for crumbling relationships are lost in the marshes along the highways and when the sky is so cloudy any stars to guide the way are obscured, we fight to keep faith by doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves and one another. This sometimes means a lot of retail therapy or big life changes that are inexplicable to others. We made those big changes and often sacrificed more things than we wanted to.
We lost so much, yet still fought to believe in every single message/sign/prayer/guidance shown to us:
“You are where you are meant to be.”
“All is in alignment with the Universe.”
“Your dreams are fulfilled!”
“Hard work leads to success!”
“Take a leap of Faith!”
“God has a plan.”
“You are an inspiration.”
We struggled to keep our faith because it often doesn’t feel like this is meant to be. The grief. The sadness. The frustration and anger. The loneliness and isolation.
How can this be meant to be?
Despite my fears of any certainty Jesse is offering, he gently continues, “I know we’ve been let down so many times before, but this feels different.”
He’s not wrong. The recent work we’ve been doing on our relationship, winning the IHSS appeal which allowed me to quit my job and resume caring for Jessica full-time, as well as writing, being able to be home for some of the most important years for Jace (they’re all the most important years, really), as well as the increased demands of Jesse’s job. All of this having occurred so recently. Maybe I can hear this.
“All those signs, all the messages, I feel like we’ve been expecting so much for so long- “
“Because we were shown it almost like it was a guarantee to happen at any time.” I say bitterly before catching myself and taking a deep breath. “Sorry.”
“That’s my point.” He nods and continues, “It feels like everything is clicking into place at the same time. Like this is all that we’ve been waiting for.”
I consider this and realize the thought that started this conversation is more solid than I originally suspected.
“Are you there?” he asks.
“Where?” I challenge. Wanting to know, before I speak the words, that we’re on the same page. We search one another’s faces again and I think I’m going to have to be the one to say it.
“Is this what acceptance feels like?” I ask softly.
“I think it might be.”
I break eye contact first. I thought I would be relieved, but that’s not accurate. This feels big, but unexpected, still. “I wanted it to feel like more. This just feels like a different layer of sad.”
“It feels big, though.” He voices my thoughts from seconds ago and the pieces continue to click.
“It does. And we can’t forget the most important part.”
For the first time since I walked out of my therapist’s office, my thoughts are unfurling and untwisting, making them easier to manage.
“For ten years, we’ve been waiting for the NEXT thing to be the big thing. The next hospital stay, the next therapy program, the next medication… we’ve been waiting for them to be the thing that fixes her. So, I thought if we were to ever speak of acceptance that it would be on our terms. She’d be recovered, we’d get back everything we lost, and we’d have a normal life again, but that’s… not possible.”
Dusk is descending quickly now, and I light the citronella candles to keep the bugs at bay before continuing.
“We will continue to heal from this ‘worst thing that has ever happened to us’ for the rest of our lives. Our relationships will continue to change, and I’m proud of myself for allowing the distractions I’ve clung to as coping mechanisms fall away. I’m more capable of creating priorities that help to improve our lives, rather than engaging in thoughts, actions, and fantasies that simply distract me from what needs to be done. Yet most of that is irrelevant to the reason we started this conversation in the first place.”
“Time travel is not real.”
His laughter is soft again and he nods his head in agreement.
“Whether I would return to the barn on April 29, 2010 at 1:45 pm or not. Whether I would change the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to our family is irrelevant. It can’t be done. So, whether acceptance is accompanied by fireworks and big changes, or simply resignation and a different layer of sad, this is where we are.”
He takes my hand and we swivel as the setting sun sets the sky on fire.
Today – April 29, 2020 – We Will Not Give Up on Love Today
I once tried to keep track of the individuals who came in and out of our lives since Jessica’s accident. I wrote down every nurse, every doctor, every therapist she ever came in contact with, as well as the people in our lives who were there from the day of the accident, those who have come into our lives after, those who have gone and those who remain. I could never hope to list all of you now. Some of you loom large and constant in our hearts while the memory of some people can cause a pang of sadness, anger, bewilderment or love, but know this:
I am eternally grateful for each and every person who has been a match, a spark, or the flame for our precious Ember. Your presence in our lives, no matter what it is now, has enriched us for the better. We would not be where we are now without all of you and I will never ever stop sending it up. Gratitude Rising.
Thank you and Viva La Jessica.