I haven’t posted in this blog for a while, but we’re in the middle of physical distancing with COVID-19 right now. We are supposed to focus on connecting with others while we stay far away from them physically. I find a good way for me to connect is to have someone understand or relate to something I write. So here’s something I wrote, and I’m posting it:
It is Thursday, April 2, 2020. I sit down to try and write about this day. It is one on which I should have profound insight and clear direction about the meaning of life and all of its significant moments. I’ve had 22 years to reflect back on a single day, so you’d think I’d have at least pieced together a coherent story by now. But I haven’t.
When I try to write about the event, I want to capture the whole event in a single package, wrapped and taped, and tied up. It seems like I should start at the beginning, and I try to. But I don’t know where that is. It might be the morning of Thursday, April 2, 1998, or it might be when we left town the Friday before or it might go back to who and what I was as a 14 year old kid, or it might start all the way back when my parents were 14 year old children. All of those starting points would help you better understand the moments that live in my memory by giving you context. But when I try writing from all of those places, I get lost in stories I think I’m supposed to tell, but somehow don’t feel right.
And I want to put the memories together into a chronological series of events, because I think that will make the most sense to you. But the events do not exist in chronological order inside of me. I simultaneously feel the weight of two little girls as I give them piggy back rides around the streets of Santa Fe, and the groggy mixture of a voice I recognize and the sensation of being put in the back of a vehicle… when we arrived back in Denver. I don’t know why those two points in time, separated by a few days, have become interlaced, but they have.
If I stop trying to tell the story chronologically though, I can see that the effort to place my memories into a coherent narrative keeps me from seeing that my life is not a single unbroken line from point A to point B. On Thursday, April 22, 1998, the line that was my life stopped, and I started again on a completely separate point. One moment, I was in a car traveling north on I-25, and the next I was in a formless realm, waiting to see where I would start living my life again.
I could not tell you anything about those first couple weeks after the car accident. Even the fact that there was a car accident is only something I know as a result of other people telling me whatever details they remember or could obtain from other sources. Sure, I’ll tell you that version of history, because it’s the easiest to understand. But someone else could have told me that I had suddenly become very ill and I could tell you that I was kidnapped by drug traffickers, and we’d probably both believe it.
If I told you what I remember from that time, I’d tell you that my mom and I were driving north on I-25, through the sage brush covered terrain of New Mexico, headed home after a camping trip. Then I was on a stretcher, and it was World War II and we were in these mines with a train made up of cattle cars running through it. They would put me into one cattle car one spot and then pull me off again in another place. Then they would put me back on. Or I’d tell you about being a grandmother with my family in these fields of sunflowers in Mexico. We had left our home, each of us with five seeds, to start a new life in a place far away. Our vegetables grow well in this new place, but my children and grandchildren put me in a hospital bed out in the middle of this field and tied my hands and feet to the bed, accusing me of pulling up the vegetable plants. I couldn’t speak to tell them I hadn’t. I do have memories from the moment of the accident to when I finally became aware enough to understand I was a patient at Children’s Hospital, being treated for injuries to my eyes, face, and brain. It’s Just that what other people tell me happens to answer more of the questions other people have, and my version does not provide a meaningful storyline.
Much of my reflecting on the anniversary winds up being about filling the space between the car accident and where I am now. People like to hear that I’ve overcome my injuries and disability. But I know that I live with my disability in everything I do, because it is part of who I am, and I hate having to pretend that I have somehow erased an important part of who I am. It makes other people more comfortable to think that disability can shrink or even disappear with a bit of determination and talent, but no matter what I do or don’t do, people in the world see me as a blind person, so I can’t escape that identity.
There are several stories I could tell you to connect, explain how the 14 year old teenager became the 36 year old adult I am. There is the story of overcoming great adversity that I already touched on. There is also the story of an individual who is uniquely strong and determined, enduring remarkably hard situations. There is the precautionary tale of loss and appreciation and life. Or, there is the version where a significant loss is balanced with an equally valuable gain.
At the root of all of these stories is the assumption that this is a zero sum situation– there was an enormous loss, so we must find a gain to equal it. I have spent much of the past 22 years trying to live in a way that does not acknowledge the loss and devastation the car accident brought into my life. I add and compare and try to make it so I am equal to or better than I would have been as a 36 year old to whom the accident didn’t happen.
But if I start to question the mathematics that surround tragedy, if I refuse to compare and contrast, if I refuse to try and calculate the weights of one event over the next, then I move into a world that is irrational, where tragedy happens and I don’t have to explain or justify it. A car accident happened, it made me blind, and that is it. The event and my subsequent life doesn’t say anything about my character or wisdom or spiritual insight. I am who I am now, blind for 22 years, with all my strengths and weaknesses. If I am only the blind person I am here and now, I don’t have to pick and choose between everything that is true about me, because I’m not trying to tell a story to get me from then to here.
Needing to fit into an archetypal story about disability/tragedy has prevented me from doing some of what I still need to figure out what to do. I hate to make mistakes or to not know something, , and that has interfered with me being humble enough to learn in some situations. I pretty much just regained consciousness and went back to “normal” life, never giving myself the time and space to actually look at the trauma of severe injuries that do not heal in the end. When I feel anger or fear or confusion or dislocation, I tend to assume there is something fundamentally wrong with me, versus understanding those are universal feelings around life changes.When I reflect on the past 22 years, they do not come back to me in an organized narrative, so I probably brush over my experience by presenting it that way.
My life as a disabled person more appears as points, sometimes arranged by chronology, sometimes by importance, sometimes by clarity of memory, sometimes by relevance to my current life, and sometimes by other rules. Some points connect to just one other point, some to multiple other points, and some to no other points. Themes of redemption, gratitude, strength, etc. do appear, but the attempt to select one and to narrow my life down to a single narrative obscures the truth.
Without a clear narrative, I’m lost and uncertain about my purpose. I have to deal with demons and monsters in the present tense, not only in a single point in time in the past. I am constantly deciding and living my life in new ways. There were approximately two weeks out of my life where I lived in a world partially shaped by sensations from the world around and partially by drugs and partially by a mind wandering through dreams, before I woke up in a world with rules different from what they’d been when I could still see. I have been a multitude of people: very strong and very weak, creative and stuck in a rut, determined and defeated, intelligent and stupid, wise and foolish. The fact that I’m blind leads other people to assume I’m a certain kind of person, but that’s because they need to fill the gap between 22 years ago and now. I’m learning to embrace the freedom in leaving the gap wide open.