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Giving Thanks for a Brain Injury?!

November 26, 2010

When I was a senior at the University of Georgia in 1984, I needed a bunch of P.E. credits in order to graduate. Probably I had been doing a little too much partying at the downtown Athens scene and not enough attending of classes. Nonetheless, I eagerly registered for a class called Fitness for Life; an intensive, multi-sport approach to physical fitness that would fulfill my P.E. requirement. I made a trip home to borrow my little brother’s ten-speed bike, got back to campus, laced up my Pumas, and prepared to get my body in top shape. Boy, did I have a surprise around the bend.

My class was biking down S. Milledge Avenue, sans helmets, when an elderly gentleman’s car slammed into me from behind. I don’t know if I flew up into the air and then hit the pavement, or just got struck, went limp, and lay motionless on the road waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I’ve got no memory until some sketchy images weeks later in a hospital room, and then mostly snippets of what my Mother and my best friend have shared with me. I do have a few hazy memories which take place later on in the physical therapy room of the hospital; learning to walk again between parallel bars, of squeezing sponges of water from one bowl to another. I can see bottles of phenobarbitol and hear admonitions to “Be careful, take things easy.”

When the hospital sent a brain-injury specialist to prepare my family for their new reality, I was oblivious to it all. One thing I really hate to ponder is my folks going over to the dorm to clearing out my room when they were finally allowed to take me home from the hospital. No telling what they found! Apparently my mother dwells only on the good things because she said so often as I mended, (and still says so much I get tired of hearing it), “Julie, you are a walking miracle! You should be dead, or at the best, a vegetable. God’s been good to you.”

Well, at first I was not so sure about all the ‘God’s been good to you’ talk. I was covered in scars; a long pink-white puckered one down my inner thigh, one along my spine, and a big shiny one on the back of my head (hairdressers wonder about it). My wrists would let me down when I tried to hold something heavy, like a skillet (which makes me think I must’ve landed on my hands). Trips to the neurologist, who hooked me up to various machinery, revealed a “spark” from the right front temporal lobe of my brain. I certainly wasn’t feeling the need to say thanks or even talk to Someone who would let all this happen.

Though I’d been raised by very devout, God-fearing parents who taught me the Golden Rule and carried me to church every time the doors were open, I had never had the time, nor the desire for any of that spiritual stuff. I did not want anything that got in the way of what I wanted to do. Life was all about me.

Months and months passed, years, and as I journeyed along in my recovery (particularly as I saw the drooling folks in wheelchairs in the neurologist’s waiting room) I began to see that I had indeed been spared, and that there was a greater power at work in me.

Now, I don’t believe God made that accident happen to get my attention. He didn’t say, “I think it’s time for Julie to appreciate her every breath, and love her neighbor as herself.” But I do think He allowed it, held me all the way through it, and taught me a lot because of it.

That experience taught me about cherishing the small things. I try not to take a lot for granted. I know life as we know it can be gone in one split-second. It gave me compassion for other people. Going through that valley, which turned out to be a fairly long, dark one, made me at last (I’m very, very stubborn) seek a relationship, a peace with God that I would not trade for anything in this world.

Sometimes it still hits me right between the eyes; I realize what a miracle it is that I still possess the mental clarity to tell the stories I’ve always loved to tell, that I’ve been given three children (and a husband), and the ability to walk through and enjoy this world, this life!

The bike wreck, the brain injury and my subsequent journey to recovery has to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. But as many challenges as I faced, still face, it was worth it all. In an odd way, I’m even thankful for what became the pivotal moment in my life. I would not erase it even if I could. What it taught me is of immeasurable value. It literally changed my life.

A brain injury is a funny thing. If things are calm, I’m good. But when I am stressed, or tired, I am prone to what are called ‘spells.’ This is a spacey disconnect with reality, preceded by an unusual aura. Sometimes while I’m sleeping, I’ll even have seizures, and I absolutely HATE hearing about these, because most of the time I’m unaware of them. They are why I do not drive.

The Bible says to give thanks in everything (not for everything), which to me means to live with gratitude. So, I try to slow down and not stress, to take delight in the small joys of life. I covet the peace that comes from a grateful heart, and I’m very passionate about giving thanks, about trying to live with a spirit of gratitude.

I am a storyteller and I like what Donald Maass has to say about conveying our passionate opinions: “They are always stronger in the mouths of characters than in the prose of the author.”

One of the characters in my latest novel, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” is Mr. Tyronious Byrd, an aging black gentleman who’s caretaker of a tree farm in 1944 Georgia. Tyronious Byrd has gone through a valley of utter darkness, a time when his inner fortitude and all of his convictions were tested. It became one of those inward turning points for him, and now Mr. Byrd has things to say to a young man named William who struggles with polio and cannot serve alongside his peers in WWII:

“Now don’t go pityin’ yo’self, son. Seem ever’ day I hear about some mama or daddy getting’ a telegram say their baby ain’t coming home. Don’t be gettin’ jealous of nobody over there fightin’. Besides yo’ limp and a hand what gives you trouble, you an able-bodied man. Got this nice family business just waitin’ for you to take it over someday.”

Tyronious Byrd is an impassioned advocate of looking at the silver lining of every cloud. His faith in God’s plan is the force that drives him. He cleaves to the belief that giving thanks in spite of circumstances is a sure way to have peace. William complains to him that this is not an easy thing to do:

“Naw. It ain’t easy, that for sho’. But then ain’t nothin’ worth havin’ ever easy.” Mr. Byrd cleared his throat. “You recall me tellin’ you God ain’t never goin’ let you down? That whatever happen, He goin’ use it in His perfect plan?”

Even though William is doubtful, Tyronious Byrd cleaves to his convictions. He does not mince words. He speaks the truth as he sees it:

“Sometime when life give a person a hard blow, the Lord don’t reach down and deliver ‘em out of all they troubles. Sometime He give ‘em the strength to endure and overcome. Now I ain’t gonna lie t’ you, son. Sometime the nights still be lonely, and some days seem t’ go on forever, ‘specially in December, but even then I been able t’ find a peace and joy I ain’t never experience before my valley – on account I feel Jesus, the Presence, walkin’ beside me.”

Funny, but Mr. Tyronious Byrd, a minor character, became my favorite character. His story, in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” is about finding things to give thanks for even in the dark valleys of life. Finding joy and peace and a spirit of thanksgiving despite our ‘momentary afflictions.’ This is what I hope and pray this book brings into the hearts of readers this holiday season.


P.S. Last week I got an email from Teresa Weaver, editor of Atlanta Magazine. She was in Haiti with Habitat for Humanity. As I write this, Haiti is still reeling from a blow by Hurricane Tomas. This impoverished country was already fighting a deadly outbreak of cholera, and now torrential rains and heavy winds have displaced many from their homes. Teresa’s gift of time and labor, and the Haitians plight remind me to ask everyone to please lift up a prayer for the folks in Haiti while you’re feasting with family and friends today.

Truly, Julie

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