By Michelle Gunnin
The phone on the wall rang. I picked it up as I was going about my morning in the kitchen.
“Is this Mrs. Gunnin?”
I stilled. “Yes, it is.”
“Married to Ray?”
A knot formed in my stomach. A feeling of dread that seemed silly with no information as to the caller’s identity, yet it was there, a foreboding creeping into my gut. I somehow knew this call was for me even though my husband goes by his middle name, not his first. On a typical day, I would’ve given the caller the name and number of my father-in-law, Ray. But this was no typical day.
“Ma’am there’s been an accident.”
In my 22-year-old innocence, I asked, “What is his condition?” I realized later that if a hospital calls you about a loved one, it means your family cannot call you themselves.
With that one word a fog descended over me that would last for several years. With my back against the wall, I slid to the floor and wept. I had no idea what I was about to face, only that my husband of just over one year was fighting for his life.
I arrived at the hospital after battling traffic, rain, and my own tears. A helicopter sat at the ready, rotors turning, a blue stripe with a medical symbol on its side. It is etched in my mind, as is every detail of the day. Blue tile floors. Tan chairs with wooden arms. White curtains. Glass walls. A fog of incredible detail and clarity. Odd, I know not to remember some things – like how I even got to the hospital, to be acutely aware of others, and the small windowless room they took me to for “privacy.” This wasn’t going to be good, and I knew it when the police officer handed me my husband’s belongings: a wallet and his wedding ring. That ring shone like the sun as he dropped it into my hand. I learned that his clothes had to be cut off to remove him from the vehicle. After that, my mind shut out the rest of the conversation. He apologized when he handed me the “following-too-close” traffic citation. I looked up and tried to grasp the situation. A ticket was the least of my worries.
Next came the nurse, she was almost 5 feet tall, and probably just as wide. She talked to me as if I was a small child. As a nurse in the trauma hospital’s ER, she knew the look on my face well. She knew my state of mind required simplification and slow, gentle words. She explained my husband had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and that the neurosurgeon had arrived just in time for my husband to avoid being air-flighted to a different hospital. Timing is everything when dealing with a brain injury. She explained that it would take time to see if he would survive or not, and that the first 24 hours was critical. I asked to see him, and she said they were still working on him, and that she would come get me when they were ready.
Sitting in the waiting room by myself, my head had cleared enough to make some phone calls. The phone in the corner of the room had a line, so I waited. I only got through to two people. All the rest were not home. As I waited, I began hearing screams from the ER. I knew my husband’s voice, and it crushed me to hear the agony. I did not know that there are different definitions of what ‘unresponsive’ means. I imagined them hurting him, but I learned, once I was allowed into the room, that that was not the case at all. My mind had expected a quiet comatose body with machines doing the work. In reality, he was semi-conscious and lashing out at anyone and everyone. Fight or flight. He screamed gibberish that was unrecognizable. He was ‘unresponsive’ to his environment in that he couldn’t answer questions, or even open his eyes. He fought the restraints at his wrists and ankles as if he was a wild animal who had been caged. His blood-covered face was smashed, both black eyes were swollen shut, and there was a starburst on his forehead where his skin was peeled back. I understood then, why they had given me instructions to lie on the floor so they could get me out if I felt I was going to faint or be sick. It was a shock to my system, yet, even with all that, I could not comprehend his true condition – I knew that he knew me. I knew he was in there somewhere, trying to come to me, and THAT is what kept me upright.
Our lives were forever changed that day. The man that I had known was gone. The next several months were a blur of hospital rooms, therapy, doctors, surgeries, and rehab facilities. Even after he was released, he was a long way from “normal.” It took YEARS for us to learn to cope with the losses we suffered that day. Now, 29 years later, we look back in amazement at what we endured so early in our marriage.
People ask me, “How did you do it? How did you survive?”
I respond, “God.” It is all I know to say. He covered me. He held me up. He became my husband.
Beyond my faith becoming more real than the air I breathe, I attribute the survival of our marriage to our commitment to the vows we took. Till death do us part. My husband was not dead. Did I mean the words I had said or not? I realized the man I married wasn’t alive anymore, and that realization gave me pause on the hard days. The days when he was far away from me and a monster was in his place. However, on other days, a frightened child looked back at me begging me not to leave. My heart couldn’t abandon him, despite the toll it was taking on me. We went on with our lives and found the new normal…a decidedly different normal.
I often think of others who have lost those they love to one kind of brain trauma or another. I know the pain of staying. I also know there is great pain in leaving, I have watched the wrestling and the rock-and-a-hard-place decisions of fellow TBI families. Each of us navigates, in our own way, through this place we were thrust into. I am blessed that my husband has had a near full recovery and is functional. He was aware enough to want to come back to me, and he tried everything within his power to do so. In the end, our love bonded us and bonds us still. The years it took, the trauma endured on both sides, the WORK it has been to find our way, the growth together while having a family – none of it has been easy or for the faint of heart. The deficits are real. The acceptance of them difficult. The adjustments required challenging; yet, the rewards of such a long journey are great. The depth of connection, the knowing of one another, the sense of belonging are powerful benefits of an unfortunate circumstance. The faith that sustains us can never be taken. It is our bedrock.
The life lessons through trials are hard fought, and hard won. Hope is born in such places and hashed out in all its messy beauty. It matters not what trial you go through, everybody has their own path, it is how you respond to the hard realities of life that will either crush you or carry you…or perhaps both.
Photo: Carlisle Wall (The Lovers, 1853) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Wikimedia (2016).
Michelle Gunnin an everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at michellesmosaic.wordpress.com