101. The Gift

101. The Gift

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

The Gift

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.

~Voltaire

In the quiet of the car, I studied his profile. My teenage son had the promise of manhood shining in his face while, if I looked carefully enough, I could still see the last flickers of the beautiful child Matthew once was. His father, Steven, had wept silent tears the night before as we watched that face under the cold compress covering his eyes. The headache had been especially brutal. Even with the lights out, the room silent, and the damp cloth in place, we’d watched as our child soundlessly writhed on the bed.

And the guilt was just too much.

Steven “knew” it wasn’t his fault. He’d been told so a thousand times. But, his son had fallen on his watch. Literally. Steven had turned from the phone just in time to look in horror as his baby reached out to wave to him from the second story landing . . . and fell head first onto the stair below. The impact shattered his skull as the thirteen-month-old began to scream out the agony of his injury.

Across town at the time, I’d been called to come and say goodbye to my baby, as he appeared to be losing his fight for life in the hospital. When he began to improve, we’d been warned that he would never walk or talk or use his right side.

And, yet, he did. Matthew’s life has been a series of little miracles. He survived two incredibly difficult, experimental, brain surgeries. He learned to walk. He stopped dragging his right side and began to do the impossible. He ran. He laughed. He talked up a storm.

But life was also hard. Too much reading or writing or thinking and he’d be struck by major migraines. At that moment, he’d lose all ability to tolerate print . . . or even, light. And, he was often stricken every day.

At four, he ran away from preschool and headed home with his scissors. He was so embarrassed that he couldn’t cut when all the other kids could that he stole the supplies and brought them home so I could teach him. And we tried. And tried. But, despite all our efforts for all those years, he would be in seventh grade before he’d really get the hang of scissors.

He’d learned to read in kindergarten, then lost the letter “F” in second grade. He forgot how to write it, or say it, or decode it. And so it went.

Testing for learning disabilities, we discovered a seizure disorder that clocked as many as two hundred seizures in twenty minutes. Because the emotional centers of his brain were also destroyed, Matthew suffered from terrible anxiety. Night terrors would send him racing around the house, tearing away from some unseen danger. For years he slept between his sisters. And, when one particularly insensitive teacher yelled at him, my son threw a blanket over his head and slammed his body into the wall for an hour.

And yet, here he sat next to me, confident, competent and caring. Each small miracle feeding into the next until here he was; he could have been any teen on the edge of adulthood.

“How are you?” I asked

“Fine. Why?” he replied.

“That was a pretty awful headache last night.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Your dad was feeling really bad that you had to suffer like that.”

“What do you mean?” asked my son, turning to me in utter surprise.

“Well, you know, sometimes he feels very guilty for letting you fall. Last night was a bad one for him, too.”

“You’re kidding.” Matt was incredulous. Steven’s shame over Matt’s accident made “the blame” a topic that was seldom discussed.

“No, I’m not. Your dad really suffers about your injury.”

“But, Mom,” began my boy. “I like my brain injury.”

“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “You know, I’m really smart. I know I’m smart. But, if I were just smart, I could turn into a real arrogant jerk thinking everything was easy and I deserved it to be easy. But, instead, I struggle because of my brain injury. I can be really smart on one hand, but then things can be incredibly hard on the other.” Then Matthew flashed that smile that told me the punch line was coming. “My brain injury keeps me humble about my magnificence!” He stopped for a moment and thought, before quietly adding, “It’s a gift.” That night, Matthew sat down with his dad and told him what he’d told me and I watched as Steven collapsed into his son’s embrace.

Today, Matt is a teacher. He works with severely autistic and developmentally disabled young men. He takes on the most difficult students at school because, as he says, he really understands their struggles and somehow, instinctively, knows how to get through to them and help them reach their full potential. My son, too, has reached his full potential: so much more than I’d feared on that fateful day in the hospital—yet, even more than I’d dreamed on the day he was born. He’s found his calling—a calling that embraces both his “smartness” and his disability as real attributes. And, “his boys” are the recipients of both.

He says it’s his gift.

~Susan Traugh

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