Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fear, and Not Fear

I’m sitting in the lobby of the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics at Sinai Hospital. Gabe is getting x-rays as his first step in transferring to this practice from the trauma team at Christiana Care.

An 80th birthday party, cake and candles waiting.
A quiet country road, curving between trees and open sunlight.

A curve.
Gravel, invisible in the shade.

Life changes in the littlest of moments.

If he had left seconds earlier or later, the little moment may not have happened.
If they had gone back for a forgotten purse, the little intersection might not have taken place.

But it did. He took the curve, not seeing the gravel all over the road on his side as the road transitioned from sunlight to shade, and immediately his life became a set of impossible options. Sliding, hoping to regain control, his motorcycle went across two yellow lines, and met the girl and her mom and their new car...via the windshield.

He remembers thinking, well, I’m going to hit hard. I’m going to be hurt. Let’s see how it goes.

A friend told me that he fell from a collapsing scaffold, dropping forty feet before he hit the ground, and he remembers seeing every building component he passed on the way down, remembers seeing fine details in the paint as he fell. He remembers things hitting him, scaffolding falling on him, after he hit. But he doesn’t remember the impact.

What does our mind do in that heartbeat, that one-two seconds of awareness, before the trauma? How does our mind see and record in super speed? Or is it that our eyes and senses always record at that speed, our mind always process at that speed…but when we blinder-out irrelevant details, we are for that tiny interval aware of our lightning-fast processing of visual information?

And oddly, why are all sounds blocked out? Why is vision critical then, when we cannot begin to use the information being fed so precisely to us?

And why don't we remember the most painful part?

Gabe doesn’t remember the impact. He remembers less than half-a-second before, and half-a-second later. His motorcycle hit the car head-on, he hit the car, and then he rolled off the hood of the car and fell to the ground.

He does not know that he bounced. He was lying several feet away from the car, in terrible pain but calmly assessing his injuries when we arrived on the scene seconds later, following him to the birthday party.

Now, here at the Rubin Center, I find myself thinking about the small mechanics of what hit what, and in what order. I have not been able to do that in the ten days since the accident. My mind has gotten close to it, and has shied away, not willing and not able to go to the terrible moment and details of what happened.

It does not really matter; but the breaks to his leg, pinned together, will need to be undone and reset again, and the breaks to his wrist are extremely bad and complicated. We are learning about the differences between regular breaks and high-speed trauma breaks, and how your body heals differently. The mechanics of the accident do matter, in terms of healing.

And so, that has given me permission almost, to think about what nauseated me earlier. In slow motion, I am starting to picture what I have not been able to picture before: the bike approaching the car, the front tire blistering through the bumper straight through to the frame of the car, hitting it so hard that the motorcycle tire rim buckled in two places so deeply you could cradle a whole grapefruit in the curve, and then broke.

And then the bike twisting slightly sideways, crumpling against the car. His body lifting off the bike, following the line of motion, while the two terrified occupants saw a royal blue helmet carve a crater in their windshield.

Where did his leg hit, and how? What precise mechanical angle and speed and pressure of bone against metal caused it to break? What did his arm hit, and how?

Looking at it will not change anything. Thankfully, he has insurance and we live close to world-class treatment centers. The people here are going to put it back together. But it gives me some little peace to finally look the thing in the eye, and stop avoiding it.

The mind of the person in the accident records nearly all of it in great detail, immediately.
The minds of the people who love them cannot bear to think of the details, for a long while.

But our minds must explore, eventually. We have to go there. For some reason, we human beings must look for peace in the most awful of places.

What does this have to do with HMH-463 in Afghanistan? Well, two things.

One: I’ve written about fear already, the fear of death or injury to someone we love over there. It’s a big deal. I’m going to write about it again and again, I’m going to step up and do the dance with fear and face it and call it by name and tango with it until I know I can outdance it again.

One: I have said more than one time to myself and other people that I am sometimes more afraid of what can happen to Zach’s two younger brothers than I am of him. Zach is well-trained, and works with a great team in a fabulous squadron with amazing equipment. Odd as it may sound to say it, realistically and statistically, he is a very safe young man.

But here at home, Ben crosses that double-yellow center line pretty often. Not on a motorcycle…but in choices, choices about staying out late and partying with friends versus working, choices that blur the line between right and wrong, and do nothing to move that amazing mind of his towards accomplishments of which it is capable. Some kids pull out, and are fine. Some kids don’t. We all worry about slippery slope on which he and his friends travel, and worry about how taking chances with freedom can limit your freedoms in life.

With Gabe, it’s different worries. Worries about attractions of a different kind, fascinations with technology and games, and how time wasted on them can reduce options in life as a person gets older, because as parents, we see that opportunity comes to those who make it. Worries that he goes too fast internally, that it makes him go too fast externally sometimes, in large things and small. It makes him impatient and angry at times, makes him push the envelope…and it puts him at risk.

And of course, that motorcycle. I’ve pushed back awful imaginings of what could happen. The whole first two years we fought, about following-interval distances and speed and on which roads I was too nervous for him to drive (the beltway). Five years after he got it, I was just finally relaxing about him riding it. Almost.

This accident was not his fault in any way. Nothing he did contributed to it. But now, with two world-class doctors assessing his leg and arm, it looks as if he is going to have a long time to learn to go slow.

So the first thing this has to do with HMH-463 is that maybe we don’t need to worry so much. Things at home can be just as dangerous for us; and we need to take care of ourselves for them so we don’t cause them worry, and we’re in good shape to hug them when they get back.

Gabe will be right when all is said and done, several months from now. But there will be lots of time for reflection, for thinking back…for looking ahead and deciding the new path. Maybe even for going to the moment of the accident over and over, cursing himself for small choices…if I’d done this or that, if I’d slept later today, if I’d left for the party earlier.. We humans have to do that: go back again and again to the bad place, looking for acceptance and peace.

And that takes me to the second thing this has to with Afghanistan: humans finding peace, within and without, in the worst of places.

I heard once that the men who fought one another long and bitterly in Iwo Jima for months, Japanese men and the American Marines reunited years later, rushed at one another, embracing, crying. Only they knew the horror of what they had inflicted on one another, of what each side had lived through. In the need to heal, they looked in the darkest of places, and it helped them find peace and acceptance.

Each of us, having someone they love in a war zone, has her or his own limit of how far we can look into the place of fear. Each of us has a personal limit, like me looking at Gabe’s moment of impact: I can go no further, not any further, just now.

But eventually, we do. Our minds get stronger, little by little. We inch forward in our thoughts and peek towards those things that could scare us: ugly possibilities. Moments of truth.

We look at the difficult parts because we are human, because we must, because we want nothing to limit us…and especially not fear, the most powerful limiter of all.

In the end, understanding what could happen or has happened will change nothing. But somehow, in the process of gathering courage to look, we grow in strength.

The good grace that blessed our lives the day of Gabe’s accident is holding steady. Amazing surgeons are putting his leg and arm bones and his possibilities back together. Exactly what happened, and how, is only of tangential interest to them.

But to me, peeking at it, I find little bits of strength in garnering the courage to look, even just a peek, at the difficult what-ifs and what-dids.

Life requires stretching and strength. I thank all my children – Zach, Gabe and Ben – for the opportunities they have given me to grow. They have made me a strong mother, a woman with a deep, deep sense of humor, a more patient and compassionate person. And they have helped me look fear straight in the eyes a couple of times, and not back down. I don’t want many more of those times…but they have made me a better person than I would have been.

For all three of them, and for our service people and their loved ones, especially HMH-463, I hope for the same stretching-and-strength to happen.

Thanks for checking in,

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