69: A God-Colored Lens

69: A God-Colored Lens

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

A God-Colored Lens

The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

~Winston Churchill

My daughter’s features resembled those in a Picasso painting—catatonic eyes somewhat askew and a face void of expression save for the slight smile that twitched on only one side. She couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk and, at the age of eighteen, was wearing a diaper. How could it be possible that my beautiful girl would ever be the same? The reality was that she wouldn’t. But by the grace of God and a strong will, she would be better than her pre-traumatic brain injury self.

The car accident that landed Nicole in a coma occurred on December 18, 2003. She spent a week in the ICU and awoke on Christmas morning. My prayers were answered, but God never leaves well enough alone. He often has a better plan. For the next seven weeks, she spent her time in rehab learning everything all over again.

The progress was slow—two steps forward, one step back. Journaling helped me keep a healthy perspective. My honor student daughter struggled with the Tupperware Shape-O Ball—a toy she hadn’t played with since she was two. She had memory loss, was unable to identify simple items, and didn’t speak coherently for three weeks.

And yet, my spirited, intelligent daughter was alive and well, even if she was unable to communicate. I made the usual ninety-minute commute one morning to the inpatient rehabilitation hospital and arrived in the aftermath of chaos. Nicole’s occupational therapist was flushed and flustered.

“Nicole’s fine,” Veronica said, before I could even ask. “But I’m afraid she escaped.”

“Escaped?” I stepped around her and made a beeline for Nicole’s room, my heart beating in triple time. There Nicole was, asleep on her bed, curled into a fetal position.

Veronica stepped into the room. “We’re taking precautions.”

“I don’t understand how this could have happened.”

“She wheeled her wheelchair to the back door and out she went.”

“But you assured me that an alarm would sound if she opened the door.”

A smile played over Veronica’s lips. “There is a definite positive here. She removed the monitor from her chair.”

I glanced at Nicole’s wheelchair sitting in the corner of the sterile room. There had been a small monitor strapped to the bottom—which was supposed to sound an alarm if the hospital doors were opened. It was no longer there.

“How is that positive?”

“It took planning,” Veronica said. “Don’t you see? She’s not even talking yet, but she knew the monitor would impede her escape. She figured out how to remove it and then found her way to the back door. It was brilliant.”

Brilliant.

Veronica threw her hands up. “We just have to outsmart her.”

When Nicole left the hospital the first week of February, she was walking and talking. And talking. And talking. Not much different than before the accident. However, we discovered the real work was just beginning.

Focus was an issue. She couldn’t stay with any activity, such as reading or eating; yet if her emotions were involved, she could focus on nothing else. It was like living with Sarah Bernhardt. Friends, who didn’t understand that Nicole had lost her filter system and wasn’t trying to be insulting, abandoned her, leading to more heartache, drama and confusion.

But we retained our sense of humor.

Dressed and ready to head out for an outpatient therapy appointment, Nicole presented herself to me.

“You look very cute,” I told her.

“Yeah.” She patted her slacks-clad thighs. “My shirt matches my balls.”

I must have misheard her. “Excuse me?”

“My shirt.” She plucked at the gauzy top. “It matches my balls.” Again, she patted her thighs.

“Pants, sweetheart. You’re wearing pants.”

Nicole had always wanted to be a writer, and now she struggled with finding simple words. Word-smithing was reduced to elementary vocabulary. Her speech therapist told me that the more intelligent the individual, the harder it was to accept the new “normal.” She would be aware of her limitations, and that would be extremely frustrating for her. Eight months of bi-weekly speech therapy appointments gave her the tools to handle the short-term memory loss. However, breezing through college courses, as she had before the accident, was a thing of the past.

A year after her accident, Nicole moved closer to college. The commute was too strenuous. She was taking a few classes and working as a cashier at a gas station grocery store. She called me in tears one afternoon.

“This guy came in,” she sobbed. “He was really rude. I was trying to figure out how much change he had coming. I messed up yesterday and just wanted to get it right. He told me I was stupid. ‘Why would they hire some imbecile who can’t even count?’ he said,” her voice breaking.

“Oh, Nicole. It’s okay.” But it wasn’t. Tears formed in my own eyes while anger surged through my body.

“No, Mom, it’s not okay. I used to be smart.”

This was the hardest thing for Nicole—to watch her friends fly through college while she struggled with basic math. To know that she had a plan and a purpose in her life that no longer fit.

But God had a new plan—and it started in the form of a guardian angel. Danny is an intelligent young man who was able to see past Nicole’s focus issues, lack of a filtering system and occasional bouts of emotionalism. He encourages her with love and humor to look past what others might deem a disability. She’s come to see it not as a disability, but a challenge God has given her.

They have been married for six years now, and at the end of last year they moved to Louisiana when Danny accepted a job transfer. Nicole, who completed her associate’s degree a few classes at a time, is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English. Last summer, she was hired as a library assistant.

“Miss Judy just told me why I was hired,” Nicole informed me on the phone a few weeks ago. “She said there were a lot of applicants who were more qualified, but she sensed a special spirit in me.”

“I’m not at all surprised.”

A memory flitted through my head—Nicole’s therapists at the hospital telling me how she was different. “Most of the young people we see are victims of car accidents because they’re drinking or doing drugs. They’re angry to start with, and the TBI just exacerbates the situation. But Nicole? She’s always smiling and saying, ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ What a breath of fresh air she is.”

The accident that nearly took my daughter’s life gave her the heart and compassion to see people through a different lens—a God-colored lens. She’s different—not because she lives with traumatic brain injury, but because she’s lived through an experience that has forever changed her.

~Jennifer Sienes

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