30: An In-Between Place

30: An In-Between Place

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

An In-Between Place

There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good.

~Edwin Denby

Ken pulled open the Velcro belt holding him safely in his wheelchair and stood up, shaky yet supporting himself on the parallel bars in the busy rehab gym. I stood in front of him, between the bars. The big windows over our shoulders framed the brilliant blue sky over the Catalina Mountains outside Tucson, their brown flanks dotted with cacti and spindly desert trees. It was a beautiful January day, but I was too preoccupied to enjoy it.

“Sweetie, you know what to do,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure he did. His short-term memory was badly damaged, and he didn’t remember anything from ten minutes ago, let alone yesterday. “You’ve done this plenty of times before. Hold onto the bars and walk forward.”

My husband pointed his face at me and smiled, but his gaze was focused somewhere in the distance, as it had been since a hit-and-run driver left him with a traumatic brain injury a few weeks earlier. Now he was trapped inside his injured brain. The damage was invisible to imaging scans, but his behavior revealed the truth of what had happened to him. Present but not present, Ken existed in some in-between place.

“Okay,” he said and began shuffling forward. He was very wobbly on his feet. The TBI had compromised his balance and his ability to walk in a straight line.

I came to the rehab hospital every morning and stayed until after Ken ate dinner. His therapists knew me by now and allowed me to assist with his treatment. Being of use to my husband helped me, too, temporarily easing the near-constant panic that had welled up as soon as I learned about his accident.

We had been married exactly nine months before what we came to call the “brain wreck.” I tried not to let myself think of what the future might hold for us, now that my husband had been violently altered by the collision caused by the never-identified white sedan. Instead, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, just as Ken was doing between the parallel bars, pushing myself through each grueling day.

In the first days after the accident, when Ken was in the ICU, he was often delirious and agitated, thrashing and calling out words no one could understand. Yet he grew calmer whenever he knew I was there. He seemed to recognize that I was important to him, even if he didn’t know why or who I was. Each week, he improved incrementally, but he existed in some inward place, unable at least for now to overcome the damage to his frontal lobes and elsewhere in his brain. His speech was lively, even though he often made no sense due to fluent aphasia, but he could not connect in any meaningful way with anyone. Not even me.

After being admitted to the rehab hospital, he began calling me “Boo,” from out of nowhere. One day in his room, I asked, “Ken, what’s my name?”

A haunted look came over his face as he struggled to remember. He looked as if he might cry.

“Oh, sweetie! It’s okay,” I reassured him, taking his hand. “My name is Barbara. You just forgot for a while.”

“Barbara,” he repeated. “Good. That’s a good name.”

Curious to see what else he had forgotten, I asked, “Who am I?”

The haunted look returned. “Um, a nurse?” he asked.

I made myself smile. “No, silly. I’m your wife. My name is Barbara and I’m your wife.”

Ken grinned in my direction, looking past my shoulder. “Okay.”

Ten minutes later, he had forgotten again, so his speech therapist hung a sign near his bed that said, “My wife’s name is Barbara.” We weren’t sure he could read or comprehend it.

Not yet understanding what brain injury could do to a person, I grew impatient with his lack of connection. Often I held his hand or stroked his forehead or hugged him, yet he made no move towards me. We were newlyweds, for God’s sake! Couldn’t he at least reach out to me a little bit? According to the nurses, Ken asked every evening where I was and when I would be back. My dear husband could not remember my goodbye kiss and promise to return the next morning—or that I had been there at all. It appeared he wanted me nearby, but even as we stood there in the gym, the chasm between us felt impossible to bridge.

As Ken walked toward me between the parallel bars, I encouraged him to keep going. He reached the end, so we turned around the other way. Several times, we repeated the trip. We faced the big, sun-filled windows and stood side by side, holding on to the bar to do leg lifts, squats, and a few other basic exercises to help Ken regain his strength.

“You’re getting stronger every day,” I told him. “You won’t need that chair much longer, I bet.”

“Yeah. I’m going to get better,” he said. He had uttered these words many times, even though he could not possibly know the effort that would be required of him and how long it would take. Doubtful, I nevertheless prayed he was right.

During those horrible days, I existed in my own in-between place. I was Ken’s wife, but would I now mainly be his caregiver? For how long? Could someone really recover from a brain injury as bad as his? What if he couldn’t go back to work? Would we have a future together? What if I eventually discovered I couldn’t live with him any longer because it was too hard? Would I stay out of guilt? Did I need to sacrifice myself for him? Already, I was exhausted. Terror and panic felt like the only emotions I had ever experienced—secondary traumatic stress, a counselor would later call it. How long could I keep going?

Ken walked out from between the bars. I followed. He turned toward me and held out his arms—the first time since the accident—and pulled me close as he hummed a tune in my ear. We began simply rocking from foot to foot. Tears filled my eyes at this tender gesture. We had often done this at home before the wreck, spontaneously grabbing one another for a few minutes of slow dancing as one of us hummed a made-up tune.

The sounds of the noisy gym receded as Ken’s arms enveloped me. Everyone else in the room seemed to vanish. For the first time, I felt hope rising—for his recovery, for our future.

“Thank you for helping me, Boo,” Ken whispered into my hair. “I’m working hard to get better for you.”

Amazed at his words, I looked into his eyes, which still gazed into the distance, then snuggled back into his shoulder, grateful for this sign of recognition.

Ken eventually remembered my name. Forty long days after the brain wreck, he came home and, slowly, we recovered together. Ten years later, he still calls me “Boo” on purpose, because he knows I love it.

~Barbara Stahura, CJF

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