66: How I Learned to Walk

66: How I Learned to Walk

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

How I Learned to Walk

Growth is an erratic forward movement: two steps forward, one step back. Remember that and be very gentle with yourself.

~Julia Cameron

I have always been lucky—very lucky. I was twenty-five, I had a great factory job, and I had won back my childhood sweetheart. Linda was beautiful, inside and out, with a quick and curious mind. She also had a great job working for the city. In 1988 we bought a house, got engaged, and had set our wedding date for June 24, 1989.

On January 26th of that same year, I pulled out in front of a semi-truck on my way home from work. I don’t remember this; I don’t really remember most of the 1980’s. Everything I know about that day has been told to me by other people. The volunteer EMTs that responded to the call were all friends of mine from work, and what I know about what happened to me that day I gathered from them. Seeing the crumpled wreckage of my pick-up truck, they at first thought that I must surely be dead. Instead, they found me lying across the seat with barely a pulse. Luckily, the local volunteer rescue squad had received a pneumatic splint less than a month earlier. Without it, they would not have been able to keep my blood pressure sufficiently elevated to keep me alive for the twenty-five minute ambulance ride to the nearest level one trauma center, now called Regions Hospital.

I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury—a severe coup-contra-coup type—the equivalent of putting a delicate stereo component in a paint shaker and turning it on for a few minutes. I spent the next ten days in a coma. My body temperature had spiked to over 108 degrees on a couple of occasions and the doctors said it was likely that I had suffered further severe brain damage from that. They told my family to start looking into long-term care facilities or nursing homes. There really is no way to tell the effects of brain injury with any certainty ahead of time; it would be easier to tell what the weather was going to be like a few months out.

As I drifted out of my coma the collectively held breath of my friends and family was allowed to escape. I actually made pretty good progress over the next few weeks; I was starting to remember people’s names and even regaining my sense of humor. Late in February, Linda asked me if I wanted to go through with the wedding. We were, after all, planning a big affair with 200 guests, and she needed to know if she should keep planning everything and reserving facilities and the caterer and so forth. I couldn’t believe my luck! Here I was in the hospital. I couldn’t walk. I could barely talk. I couldn’t really dress or bathe myself. And yet the most beautiful and amazing woman I had ever known still wanted to marry me! I said, “Yes, of course.”

Well, this was wonderful, but what could I bring to the table? I couldn’t bear the thought of her burdening herself with me. I now felt a huge obligation; what could I do to shore up my end of the bargain? I decided that at the very least, I would walk my new wife up the aisle at the end of our ceremony. I would walk by Linda’s side, as though she had an equal partner. I would learn to walk. She might have to work full-time, take care of a house, take care of me, and plan a wedding for 200 guests, but I was determined to walk side by side with my bride. I wanted to tell Linda how much I loved her, but my speech was so bad I was embarrassed to say it. I inwardly decided that I would express my love for her by walking. Each step was me saying, “I love you.” This was my own resolve, I told no one of my plan.

It may sound simple, but achieving that goal was no small feat. Until that point, I had only taken a few steps, and even then, a nurse was holding me up. On my first day at rehab, a physical therapist wheeled me up to the parallel bars. I stood up and thought, “I love you.” I wobbled, but I held my grip. White-knuckled and taking short rapid breaths, I felt like a ski jumper who had just left the ramp. I was only standing, but I felt like I was flying.

“You’re doing well, Michael. If you need to sit, just let me know,” encouraged the nurse.

I kept going. My legs felt full of water, dull and heavy. Center of balance was a misnomer to me; my balance was anywhere but center. I felt like there was a legion of Lilliputians pulling and tugging at their ropes drawing me to and fro. What I really needed to do was focus, but focus and brain injury are antonyms.

“Okay, shift your balance onto your right leg,” I told myself. Then I began to draw my left foot forward. As soon as I raised it just a smidge, my balance swung wildly and I gripped the bars with both hands. I reset my feet and tried again. Weight to the right foot, lean forward, lift up the left foot. Think, “I love you.” My foot came down heavy about three inches ahead of where it had been. My therapist grinned and congratulated me. People in the rehab room started to notice something happening over at the parallel bars. I smiled internally, but I knew this was only one step, and one step was not walking. Never one to be easy on myself, I had decided that two steps were required for it to be considered walking.

My legs were burning with fatigue, heavy lead exhaustion. I couldn’t plant my feet squarely on the floor. My therapist saw my dilemma and again invited me to sit down but I declined. I swung my weight back and forth and caught the next forward motion and brought my right foot even with my left. “I love you.”

I had walked. Everyone was looking as I leaned on the bar with my hip and raised one arm triumphantly. There was cheering and clapping. Then I collapsed back into my chair exhausted. “You did it, Michael. You walked!” said my physical therapist. I smiled. It wasn’t me, it was Linda. I was only returning her love.

Five months later I did walk up that aisle with my new bride. I did it for Linda. I did it out of love. We have been married twenty-four years now.

My grandparents are ninety-six and have been married seventy-four years; I have coffee and cookies with them every week. Long lives and long marriages are traditions I intend to keep.

~Mike Strand

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