59: The Problem with a Miracle

59: The Problem with a Miracle

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

The Problem with a Miracle

War does not determine who is right—only who is left.

~Bertrand Russell

The problem with a miracle is that you want to be grateful all the time but sometimes that can be hard. On April 28, 1970, Allen walked away from a devastating plane crash in Vietnam, injured but alive. It was a miracle. But miracles can be challenging, especially those that involve a burning plane and the man you love.

Of course it’s easy to be grateful when we’re with our children celebrating the great and small moments of family life and I remember his six crewmates who didn’t survive, or when we settle on the sofa to watch a movie, or when the engine warning light comes on in the car and I hand it off to him to handle, and especially when he wraps his arms around me and just breathes.

But then, it’s harder to be grateful when he gets depressed and sleeps for days, or clings to me when I want some time to myself, and especially, when he becomes someone I don’t know, when anger takes over a piece of him.

After the crash, his skin healed, with a few visible scars, and I thought he was fine. But there was internal injury. We didn’t know about that, or how it would change him in unexpected ways at unexpected times for unexplainable reasons. Now we know he has a traumatic brain injury. He escaped the flames, but they kept consuming him. As he’s gotten older, the brain trauma is fueled by post-war demons, and sometimes I feel like I am losing him to that burning plane after all.

Before the crash Allen was an easygoing, cheerful, kind, gentle guy who told silly jokes and thought they were hilarious. After the crash, he was just the same. It was amazing! No nightmares. No fears. He even flew on planes when our trips to visit family were too far away to drive. He talked about the crash if someone was interested, but otherwise didn’t dwell on it too much. Clearly, the psychologists who treated him after the crash had done a great job.

I eased into life with Allen like a pair of jeans that gets more comfortable over time, until they become your favorites. Really, comfy well-worn jeans you can depend on to feel right every time you put them on—now that’s a long-term relationship.

The thing is, those favorite jeans can get worn in places, and eventually a hole appears. A marriage is like that. Over time, some places get too comfortable and the next thing you know, they’re worn through. Then there’s a decision to make. I can throw out the jeans or I can patch the hole. I think it’s better to patch the hole, but I know the jeans won’t be the same. They’ll feel different and I’ll have to get used to them, get comfortable in a different way, and once I do, they’ll be my favorites again. Being married to someone with traumatic brain injury has meant applying a lot of patches and fixing a lot of holes to find our comfortable place again.

For the first thirty-five years of our marriage, patching the holes worked just fine. But then, the fabric of our relationship started to fray and tear and I just couldn’t keep up with all the patching and fixing. Allen tried too, but even together, we just couldn’t do it. There were more and more instances when he lost his temper over small things. It was never about us—his family. It was always something related to someone not doing their job right—the waiter getting the order wrong, or the salesman not waiting on the next person in line, and when he got on the phone with the cable TV people, I had to leave the room. It was irrational, embarrassing and even a little frightening. When I tried to talk to him about it, he was annoyed and cut me off.

“It’s not about you,” he’d snap.

“But it affects me,” I’d implore.

“I don’t want to discuss it.”

Eventually, even Allen recognized that something was breaking down inside him. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, the worst moment happened at the airport. We were flying home from Las Vegas to Chicago with our nine-year-old granddaughter. As we went through the security line, she spotted the sign about removing shoes and said, “They don’t have any of those slipper things and I don’t have socks on. I don’t want to walk through there barefoot.” In Chicago’s O’Hare airport, there were paper booties to slip on when you took off your shoes, but Las Vegas didn’t offer that amenity.

“Sorry, sweetie,” I replied. “We’ll walk really fast.” She was clearly distressed.

Allen stopped a TSA agent, and pointing to our granddaughter’s sandals asked, “Does she have to take those off?”

“No, she can leave them on,” was the reply. Our granddaughter was happy and we all moved forward. As we got to the front though, a different TSA agent told us to remove our shoes, including our granddaughter, and when we explained that the other agent said she could keep them on, we were told that no, she would have to remove her shoes.

Allen blew up. He started yelling about how people should know their jobs and know what they were telling people and I don’t even know what else he was hollering. I tried to get him to calm down, worried he’d be arrested. He shrugged me off. I was horrified for him, for me, and for our granddaughter, who by then had gone through security barefoot and was on the other side. I quickly joined her, tried once again to get Allen’s attention, and when he yelled at me to leave him alone, I told him we’d see him at the gate and I took her off to the airport shops. We didn’t see him again until just before we boarded the plane. We didn’t speak during the entire flight home.

When we got home, he agreed to go to the local Veterans Administration Hospital and get some help. That was the best decision we could have made. From that point forward, things steadily improved. After a few years of individual and group therapy, and some medication, he got better. It was slow and there were some moments of serious reflection as we came to terms with the reality of an eighty percent disability diagnosis. In fact, he reached a point where the VA sessions were setting him back, actually rekindling some of the anger. He saw other veterans struggling and it was hard for him to be there. So now he sees a private therapist and that has been a helpful transition.

It’s still not perfect, but what relationship is? We’re still patching holes, finding our comfortable place. Some days it’s harder to be grateful than others. But the important thing is, Allen is enjoying life again, we’re looking ahead to our retirement years together, and he’s much more like the man I fell in love with—an easygoing, cheerful, kind, gentle guy who tells silly jokes and thinks they’re hilarious.

~Barbara Chandler

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