You just never know when life might change completely.
For me, it was a few years ago, when I stepped off the pavement to cross the road.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have crossed by that van. Perhaps I should’ve looked again. Perhaps I should have just stayed home that day, and never tried to get out to run errands. Or just stayed in bed and never have gotten up.
Because now I may never get up again.
The motorbike which hit me was going pretty fast – the accident reports and legal documents all say that “witnesses reported they saw a black and yellow motorcycle travelling at approximately 35mph down the street, where it struck the victim as she stepped from between two parked vehicles, throwing her into the air, whereupon she landed in the path of an oncoming car on the other side of the road.”
So dispassionate; the way they recorded the day my life changed forever.
I shudder to think of the next paragraphs, and am so, so glad I can’t remember the reality of them. The medical reports are harrowing enough to read:
“…sustained extensive injuries, including a crushed pelvis, C4 spinal fracture, fractured left femur, fractured right metatarsals, fractures to skull around left temple, lacerations to face, arms, torso and legs. This has resulted in brain damage and incomplete quadriplegia.”
I can’t remember the first six weeks after the accident. Not properly, anyway. I can sort of remember snippets – bright lights, extremes of temperature. The occasional voice or conversation going on around me. Lots of darkness. Lots of pain. So, so much pain, in every single part of myself.
But gradually I woke up. And I think waking up was harder still than all the confusion of the preceding weeks. I remember looking up at the ceiling and watching as the patterns of the awful grey tiles came slowly into focus. The pain came into focus too, like a softly buzzing, static station on the radio skipping and jumping into sharp, agonising clarity. And then that terror – I was stuck.
Absolutely and completely stuck. Could. Not. Move.
And there was a tube in my throat, and it was choking me, and I couldn’t breathe – couldn’t scream – couldn’t call for help – just laid there, while the tears of frustration and panic poured out of my eyes, itching and tickling as they collected on my cheeks and pooled in my ears.
My heart beat faster and faster, and I could feel it strangely, just in the top of my chest, and stars began dancing in front of my eyes as the terror grew too great and the pain rose to a crescendo, and finally, thankfully, a machine let out a shrieking, electronic alarm, which sent a set of nurses hurrying over to help me.
They reassured me and wiped my face, pressing heard-but-unseen buttons on the machine to make it stop wailing. The tube was unblocked and I gulped down great breaths of oxygen, the fuzzy blackness at the edges of my vision receding as the panic abated and my heart-rate slowed. I tried to speak, but nothing happened, and I pleaded with my eyes to the nurse to give me any kind of clue as to what had happened to me – where I was – why I was here.
She told me she was giving me something to help me sleep again, and leaned over my body, fiddling with something to one side. I tried to catch her eye, but this time a white cloud swam up over my vision and I was lost.
The subsequent times I woke up were less traumatic.
I gradually learned, almost by osmosis, that I was going to be here a long time, and after that, in need of round-the-clock care. In a home, at first, until a carer could be arranged for me.
Those horrifying words ‘paralysis’, ‘brain damage’, ‘non-verbal’ were broken down, fed in subtly, until I felt that I’d never really ‘heard’ them – they’d just become part of my new person.
I couldn’t move. Nor talk. Nor think straight. I wonder if the muddle that was my brain at the time, helped with my acceptance of the messages I was receiving.
Gradually I healed over the next year or so. The connections in my brain which had been battered, bruised and torn apart, began to re-form. My understanding improved, and I had a clearer idea of what was going on. I began to remember things – often disjointed, glaring things, which were utterly out of context, and appeared intrusively upon the blank screen of my history – and the pieces of the puzzle gradually began falling into place, revealing the new me.
The new me is silent, apart from my eyes, which have learned to express everything from pain, to fear, to hunger, to “please wipe the drool off my face – it itches”. The face no longer moves properly, and it is the eyes alone which must take on all the communication.
The new me has no dignity – she is stripped and washed by agency strangers, who reach their soapy (and I assume, warm) flannels into what used to be her most intimate, tender parts, and which are now public property; like a municipal park which has people to clear the pathways. She has a permanent catheter and colostomy bag, both of which stink when full, and the stench has to be borne until someone comes to change them. She is fed blended food from a spoon, because the flavour of baby food is too foul, and chewing is too hard. She is ‘fed’ at night by a supplemental bag of nutrituous fluid, which goes straight into a ‘peg’ in her stomach.
She can no longer sing or dance or hug or chat.
Her friends have left, or they come and sit by her side, talking brightly, fearfully, because when they stop, there will always be silence, and only the flickering of those eyes.
Oh the pain in those eyes as they watch so many friends stumble over their words, falter, fail to meet the gaze, promise they’ll be back, and then disappear, never to return.
This new me is lonely.
This new me is a guinea pig for doctors and nurses and physical therapists and occupational therapists and speech therapists and all manner of other professionals.
This new me is someone I barely recognise.
And yet, I have learned (slowly, frustratedly, with many inward rants and rages) to accept her.
Her mum still comes and sits by her, and chats (without the panic and terror of the friends who don’t know what to say), and sometimes just sits in companionable silence.
Her physical therapist is wonderful, and has worked so hard over the years to restore some, any movement. Mandy – my angel, has been with me from the beginning, and is just the most patient and kind person I now know.
And recently, a few weeks ago – that most important breakthrough since still being alive after the accident.
The connections in nerves and brain and hand made a small zap, a tiny realignment, and the fingers of the right hand moved.
On purpose moved.
The eyes went so, SO wide in utter amazement, and flicked urgently to Mandy, who looked astonished, and demanded that I do it again.
And gradually, like the sun coming out, her face exploded into joy and she quite literally leaped out of her seat, punching the air, dancing, shouting and whooping, tears pouring out down her face as she grabbed me and hugged my numb body, apologising for her unprofessionalism, then doing it again.
She ran from the room, screaming that she’d be back, and returned ten minutes later with her laptop.
She booted it up, hands shaking, still laughing and jabbering away with excitement.
She lifted my hand and placed it on the keypad, and those two, weak fingers were able to *just* reach the right buttons.
The first thing I had been able to say in nearly three years.
We both completely lost it – she in a hugging, weeping, giggling mess, and me…well, sat still and quiet, with all the conversation in the world waiting to be unleashed – my eyes finally relieved of the burden of communication, and able to just cry and cry and cry.
Once we’d composed ourselves, she left me, promising to return later. I don’t know how she did it, or where she found the money, but she came back with a laptop for me to keep.
I’ve not stopped typing since – at last, I can speak freely.