“A Day I’ll Never Remember”
Changed life – traumatic brain injury
A week prior to Dad’s car accident on July 31, 1988, I was having bad dreams about him. I wasn’t having different dreams, it was always the same dream but it kept repeating itself over and over. The dream proved to be a premonition, but at the time I didn’t know what was going’ on and didn’t even know what premonition meant. When I think back to that day, I think God was preparing me for what was about to happen. I realize that some do not believe in, ESP, and I don’t think I do; but were those dreams just coincidental?
Mom was the petite and pretty housewife and a great cook. Dad the typical hard-working handsome dude who always strived for more and never slowed down even while driving. He was gone as much as he was home. The home we lived in at that time was fit for a doctor, Mom said. It was built in the country, on some acreage. Dad was a painter…a house painter and paperhanger.
I was twelve soon to be thirteen – I’m Anna. My sister, Angela, was thirteen but soon to be fourteen. She is a year and eleven days older than me.
My dad worked all the time, though, a couple years before the wreck Mom talked him into taking a vacation. We drove in Grandpa’s fancy “Roman Wheels” van from our home in Wisconsin to the Ozark Mountains. We spent that first night at a motel with a swimming pool, in Harrison, Arkansas.
We went out to breakfast the next morning and then drove onto Dogpatch. That was an amusement park near Harrison, Arkansas. The buildings were constructed to have a dilapidated look with roofs caving in, faded paint, splintered wood (not really, but built to look that way) and the hillbilly characters of the Li’l Abner comic strip brought to life.
But you know it didn’t matter what we did. I remember pulling weeds in the garden – come to think of it that was not fun, so maybe not that. Though, when Mom and Dad were down there with us even that was enjoyable…what a love they had! They were always joking and fooling around, kissing and hugging constantly.
Then one night after dinner we were all in the living room watching, “Family Ties.” Mom and Dad were on the couch; Angie was doing homework on the carpeted floor and me next to her holding my head up with my hands watching television.
I began crying. Dad who was in his white work clothes yet asked, “What’s the matter Anna?” I sobbed harder.
“Come ‘ere Anna what’re you crying about?”
I couldn’t speak because I couldn’t stop crying. Dad rubbed my back and my head and that soothed me. I finally caught my breath and as I gasped between spurts of sobbing told Dad…
“I’ve been having some really bad dreams about you,” sniff, sniff, sniff.
“Oh yeah?” Dad questioned.
I thought he’d laugh at me but he didn’t.
Instead with interest he asked, “What were the dreams about Anna?”
Whew, I can breathe again. But I was afraid, afraid to tell him because maybe the dreams would come true then. The nightmares were so real.
I just bowed my head and cried even harder; I blustered, “I can’t say Dad.”
Dad assured me by saying, “Don’t worry, they were only dreams. Nothing’s going to happen to me because I’m your Dad! I won’t let it and that’s a promise, okay? Now do you have homework too or just you Angie? After this show I want both of you to do your homework, in your rooms.” Dad hugged me and told me he loved me, I felt better.
“I love you too, Dad,” I uttered.
I was anxious for the show to end ‘cause I was exhausted from the gut-wrenching sobs and, really, I just wanted to sleep. At last the Keaton’s half hour long tragedies and triumphs had come to an end.
“Okay kids, go to your rooms and do your homework – I’m going to watch the ballgame.”
Dad knew that neither one of us liked sports on TV. Mom didn’t either but she would just read; that’s if they could keep their hands off each other.
I put my pajamas on, lie on the bed and nodded off to sleep. That wicked, evil nightmare returned. This time it was real clear: I got off the school bus and walked up the long, brown-and tan, rocky gravel drive, to the house. Something was different; Dad’s truck was in the garage he loved. It was more like a family room than a garage – with vehicles.
The big overhead door was open wide. I called, “Dad – Dad,” but there was neither an answer nor even a sound, hmmm strange.
I continue walking toward the house, alone. Angie isn’t with me for some unknown reason. I get close to the front door but decided to check the garage before going in…his truck is parked strangely at an angle and not pulled all the way inside. I walked around the truck repeating; “Dad” but there was no reply. As I got on the other side of the truck I became chilled so tried getting inside the house through the service door…it was locked. Wondering to myself, “What’s goin’ on?” I walked out of the garage.
“Brrrr that was cold.”
I walked on the covered sidewalk past the two windows to the garage and up the steps to the front door.
I called at least three times. I didn’t get an answer. I took my jacket off and went to hang it up but when I opened the door, I found my dad, pale and pasty looking. Hanged by his neck…I shook him and then screamed – Dadddd! I couldn’t wake him; he wasn’t sleeping.
The dream was so confusing to me. Shaking and crying, ohhhh…..
Reality Setting In
Sirens blaring! Cedar Lake Speedway is just a quarter mile down the road. Must be a pretty bad accident. The sounds though are a familiar noise on Saturday evenings.
That noise (what Mom & Dad call it) — is only heard when the wind is out of the north, (so Dad says.) and today there is no wind. Today it’s just hot, 107° .
Angela and I were in the front yard when Angie gestured to me saying, “Look – here comes Gary!” Angie pointed in his direction. “He looks funny riding that thing!” Our friend, Gary Peterson, came speeding up the driveway. Angie said, “No wonder you looked so funny – you have a flat, haha!”
Gary’s face was sad and heavy looking though. He jumped off the bike, let it roll and ran to us. He started talking from a distance… “I think you two better sit down a minute.”
“Why,” Angie asked?
But I already knew that something happened to my dad.
“Your dad’s been in a bad accident, blood everywhere. He went off the road up there on double C and flew out of the car! His head hit a tree and he’s hurt real bad. The ambulance is up there right now by Goose Lake Road and double C.”
My mind had a weird, busy but blank feeling. Gary kept talking but I was no longer listening, I mean, I was listening, but couldn’t hear anything he was saying. Do you know what I mean? Those first words out of his mouth were all I could hear over and over and over: “Bad accident, bad accident. Hit his head, hit his head.” How bad?
Angela erupted with tears flowing down her face – I began running – I had to get to Dad. Angela ran with me. We had to find our dad. Gary ran behind us, not able to keep up. We got to Dad’s car and many people were standing around whispering and pointing, we couldn’t see him anywhere.
“Your daddy left by ambulance to Holy Family Hospital in New Richmond,” the people said. Our neighbor Pam grabbed onto us and said, “Oh you poor little girls! Let me take you to the hospital, come on.”
By the time we got there Dad was gone again. He had already been taken by helicopter to another hospital, a bigger one. A way-off in Minneapolis somewhere. Pam drove us back home and Mom was there. Pam spoke to Mom first and offered help in any way she could. Mom grabbed onto us both and then she hugged us real hard.
Then the hollering began, “Where have you two been? Your father’s been in a bad accident! Get your things right now! I’m driving you to Grandma’s for the night.”
I was afraid so I hurried as fast as I could. Mom drove me and Angela to Grandma’s in St. Paul. She dropped us off then quickly left to see Dad at the hospital.
Angie lie on Grandma’s couch – screaming and crying. I can see it crystal clear as the scene has replayed itself in my mind year after year.
“Can you help me get Angela calmed down?” Grandma asked our Aunt Peggy. “And poor little Anna must be in shock,” grandma said.
She probably thought I was because I was just watching the T.V. screen, not really knowing what was on and not caring. I think I already went through my deep grieving in those dreams. As I look back on that time I think they all felt the most sorry for me.
“Here Peggy – wet this cloth with cold water again.” She peeled the cloth from Angela’s head and handed it to Peggy, “He’ll be all right Angela. Try to lie still. God is watching over him. Do you want something to drink hon,” she wiped Angela’s forehead with the freshened, cool cloth.
Through the years I’ve seen Dad’s life change in a dramatic way. Prior to the crash – Dad was a daredevil and always pushing things to the max. He had a motorcycle for a brief period of time, partial payment for a paperhanging job he did. I heard him talking to Mom and boasting of how he sped along a straight stretch of road on County C…at 110 M.P.H.
“Nance it felt great, the hot weather, the wind against your body! It’s the first time I felt good riding that thing – I wanted to give it more and more gas — I didn’t want to stop.”
And Dad never wore a helmet. He seemed fearless… Mom would get mad at him for his antics, “You’re going to kill yourself on that thing Steve!”
“Aw Nance I know what I’m doing, but not to worry ‘cause I’m gettin’ rid of it. I don’t know how or why people like them so much. A car is more my style. Riding that bike is like smoking in the bathroom at school; it’s not relaxing at all. I don’t understand the fascination with them. They’re uncomfortable. I’ll be selling the bike soon.” Then my dad just laughed. He took one too many chances though.
And one time when his friend, Nick, was over he told Dad the same thing, only about the car not the motorcycle because the car was sporty-looking too. Was Nick prophetic because he told Dad in front of me and Angie, “You’re gonna kill yourself in that thing.”
Dad’s temper was scary… I remember Dad teaching me to ride my bike. His patience ran out and he said, “I think I’ll give this bike to a kid who isn’t afraid to learn Anna! You’re going to take a few spills! I did, everybody does! You have to get back on and try again. It’s all a part of learning to ride.”
I rode the bike home from the church parking lot a block away, Mom and Angie behind me. A whole block without falling! Dad was a little way from our house walking on the sidewalk.
I was riding proudly behind him on the street, “Hey Dad,” I yelled!
“That’s great Anna keep going, but be careful…you’re really doing good! Slow it down,” he shouted as I rode in front of the neighbor’s house.
I could sense his feeling of pride but I yelled back, “I don’t know how!” I fell off the bike and crashed in our front yard.
Nowadays Dad leads a more careful life. Every time he goes for a ride in his car his seat-belt is always fastened and when I’m with him I have to wear one before he drives off.
“Since the accident I’m aware of the difference the belt makes,” Dad would tell me.
Mike, Dad’s friend who was in the passenger seat when the accident happened had his belt fastened and went to work the next day. Years later and my dad still can’t work just because he wasn’t strapped in. When the car flipped end over end, Dad not being strapped in flew out the top of the car because the t-tops were off.
Dad’s always been a hard worker, but now, he also has patience. Dad can and does sit at the computer for hours writing his story. I’m so proud of him; when he first told me that he was going to write a book about what happened I said, “Sure Dad” but he did it – he stuck with it! Many people say they’re going to write a book but my dad accomplished his boast. I tell him how proud I am of him, but it seems that he cannot accept praise, no matter how small.
Dad has come a long way since that hot summer day in 1988. He and I have grown closer since the accident; we can now have meaningful conversations, but prior to the wreck I was afraid to even ask him a question. I am not saying Dad was abusive in any way, no – far from that! I just didn’t feel as close to him as I did my mother. My sister Angela had a better relationship with Dad than I did. Maybe the reason I had a fear of him was because he was the disciplinarian.
There’s something about his life now that’s almost incredible…He’s lost family, friends, possessions, and even some physical abilities; most would have given up but not my dad! I never would have thought that we’d be sitting here together writing a story, Dad’s story…he is amazing!
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Grief and Loss
The control center…
A traumatic brain injury is a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain. Not all blows or jolts to the head result in a TBI. The severity of such an injury may range from “mild,” i.e., a brief change in mental status or consciousness to “severe,” i.e., an extended period of unconsciousness or amnesia after the injury. A TBI can result in short or long-term problems with independent function.
The loss of self is often the real tragedy of traumatic brain injury. It is seldom addressed by the medical profession yet it is a loss so profound that many never recover from it. Brain injury strips away a lifetime of learning, of personal identity, and personal power. The loss is a soul shattering experience, intense and intimate. It is so intimate that society as a whole averts its eyes and closes its ears to the pain and despair of such a naked soul. It is a soul bedeviled by infantile demons, the very stuff from which neurosis and psychoses is made.
Grief over the loss of self is something every brain-injured person goes through. However, grieving often is not recognized for what it is because the resulting distractions, anger, fatigue, and other signs can be masked by or confused with the symptoms of post concussive syndrome or post traumatic stress disorder. Also, lack of insight, which may make you unable to correctly evaluate the impact the symptoms are having on your life, are typical aftereffects of traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, the recognition of grief as a possible cause of post injury behavior has eluded many physicians and mental health workers, as well as STBI survivors themselves. Many doctors tend to attribute symptoms of grief following an STBI to the physical consequences of the injury.
I chose to interview a 51-year-old man named, Steve, who suffered a TBI 17 years ago as a result of a car crash. At the time of the accident, this man was 34 years old, married with 2 daughters, ages 12 and 13, had a home in the country, and was enrolled in school for blueprint reading to help his father run his business. Everything was great. Loneliness was not an issue.
The evening of the 31st of July, 1988 – that day lives on for him as the day he died – Steve and a friend were driving fast on a road close to his home on their way to Steve’s for a bar-b-q with Steve’s family. They were riding in a Dodge Daytona with tops off. Steve had no seat-belt on, but his friend did and was able to go to work the next day. Steve lost control of the car and was thrown out, smashing into the ground unconscious. From there he was transported to a nearby hospital and then airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center with swelling in the brain and life support started. He was never able to work physically again so he writes continuously and constantly with the aid of a computer.
His mother had not wanted the life support as she considered his life was over and predicted a poor outcome should he survive. His oldest daughter would cry and plead over him to wake up, telling him how much she loved him. Almost as if she could will it to happen. His wife encouraged the life support and stated she would never leave him. His father blamed himself for the accident and dealt with the grief by listening to Steve’s voice on an answering machine.
Steve’s coma lasted two months, after which he spent time at a few different hospitals and nursing homes, for various long-term therapies that lasted more than a year. During this time his wife, after being named his guardian did leave him and all that they had achieved during his sixteen year marriage had been taken. He lost his family, home, and his sense of self. Because of one night that he will never remember, he lost it all, except for his life, and even that wasn’t familiar anymore.
Steve’s biggest struggle was the loss of self. He has stated that if he hadn’t changed so much his family wouldn’t have left. He struggles with attempting to get people to listen to him and respond to him as a normal person. Because he has speech impairment people will talk down to him and sometimes ignore him. But at the same time, people who have known him will criticize him for not having a job without realizing that a lot of his disabilities are invisible. He struggles with fatigue, memory loss, double vision and right-sided weakness.
He sometimes has no control of his right arm, especially when he is fatigued. He’s attempted to return to college but had to stop because of visual disturbances. He cannot read a line all the way to the end. Peripheral vision is affected. All these things contribute to the loss of self, depression and loneliness.
He had tremendous difficulty letting go of the past, even after 17 years, and would drive out to his house many times. He would attempt to physically help people with things like moving, cleaning, etc., which would frustrate his mother, anger his father, and elicit pity from others. He was left without friends, a family that was too busy to give him the time he needed, and no one who really understood what he was going through.
In attempts to pursue full recovery and at the same time combat his loneliness he traveled to the Philippines, and did eventually marry a young woman there. They have a child together who, because of poor maternal care, was born prematurely
and suffers from autism. His current family is now in the States and Steve has devoted his life to his 3-year old daughter, who is doing well with the attention he has given her. His TBI has allowed him to work with her in some of the same ways he has been helped.
He is now too busy to feel lonely. He still mourns the loss of his children,
who are now grown with children of their own, but he feels he has a second chance and is grateful for that.
Never forget that life doesn’t follow the plans we make just because we make them. We have to allow for change, prepare for it, and seek positive results from it. We have to understand that tragedy, sadness and unexpected challenge may wreak havoc at any time, and leave us facing hard work to recover a life.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed with closed head-injuries. Many more go undiagnosed. And the frequency of the injury is rising.
Because closed head injury often reveals few, if any signs of injury, survivors and those around them-family, friends and co-workers may doubt the validity of the injury. This increases the risk that survivors will not receive proper treatment and adds to the devastating life disruption that head trauma delivers. Often the survivor must relearn the easiest tasks and devise new strategies to execute daily responsibilities.
Doubt and misunderstanding complicate the recovery, making it even more difficult for the survivor to accept, address and attack the challenges. When doubts and misunderstandings come from close family and friends, a crushing burden is added to the recovery process. I definitely see grief, loss of self, and depression as enormous issues for people who have suffered a head injury.
After speaking with Steve, and hearing the amount of losses suffered because of his injury: his family, his home, and very personally, his loss of self, it’s obvious that his losses are similar to what the professionals have stated as grief and loss in their journals, as well as those stated in personal stories of people who have suffered a brain injury, and the families that help care for the victims of those suffering from brain injury. Steve, as well as others who have suffered this type of injury experience, denial, grief, depression, and the struggle to regain a sense of self.