Every now and then I slip a particularly poignant note or card I’ve been given under my mattress. The “keepers” are the ones that inspire me, remind me that I’m loved and deserve great things. Maybe I tuck them out of sight because I can’t stand clutter – no vision boards for me – but the truth is that a part of me believes that having these cards under my mattress holds the sentiment closer to my heart. What determines what I keep is the semantics, the meaning that someone had when they thought of me and put pen to paper. It’s my brother counseling me on a difficult relationship, “I say this with love and compassion,” my sister sharing, “you have always been the lift in my sails,” or a special person simply signing a card, “with all my love.” I deeply believe that what they write is true and I’m meant to hold those words carefully.
But sometimes, the “keepers” I hold close to my heart don’t come in the form of cards but in conversation or text. There’s two recent ones that I’ll share.
The first comes from my dad. Even though he lives over a thousand miles away, he’s been part of my recovery through our phone calls. What had been a weekly call on my drive home from church has turned into evening calls throughout the week. The Sunday routine was simple – dad would ask about the sermon and that would trigger conversation about life or something that happened earlier in the week and occasionally, he might share a story about his childhood. During football season, his part of the conversation moves to a detailed, occasionally outraged recap of the latest Cornhuskers game.
But now, instead of calling him from the car, we talk in the evenings while I’m walking. And our conversations now veer to the latest from my doctors or how I’m feeling that day. My regular walks – not every night but most – are part of my rehab. They’re helping me build stamina and coordination. In the aftermath of a brain injury, a common side effect is extreme fatigue and in my case, I also experienced ataxia so I have had unbelievable vertigo with a stilted gait and balance problems to boot.
One of my first goals became to walk to the park a few blocks from my house by myself. It’s not far – maybe a five or six-minute walk when I was healthy – but even so, the first few times I went I had explicit instructions to text or call when I got there, text when I was leaving and when I got home. I didn’t mind that the rules hearkened back to check-ins with my parents when I was a teen and out after dark. I needed people looking out for me – especially with my memory and judgment far more impaired than your normal sixteen year old’s.
By the time I’d get to the park, I’d be exhausted and need to rest. I’d find a place to sit and call my mom or dad while I watched the sun go down. I’d munch grapes or a handful of nuts, my compulsive snacking driven by an odd, new fear that low blood sugar might further damage my brain. I’d explain that I was sorry I was chewing in their ears but I had to get some energy for that walk home.
As my walks continued, I got confident that my right foot would lift the way I wanted it to and I wouldn’t trip, or at least, I wouldn’t fall on my face if I took my favorite route. I’d been avoiding this, the prettiest street with an elegant curve and giant trees lining it, because the sidewalk buckles, its cement ceding to century-old tree roots. I decided to walk it. My ankle buckled but I didn’t fall. The next time I took it, it got easier. I still had problems stepping off curbs but that seemed to be the vertigo more than my coordination. A sign of real progress was when I started calling my mom or my dad on my way to the park. They patiently listened to my incoherent patter as I literally re-learned to walk and talk at the same time. I never forget that I have amazing parents.
And then one day, I’m walking and legitimately holding up my side of a conversation with my dad when he says,
“Baby girl, you’re doing great. You’re getting stronger. You’re not breathing as hard as you used to.”
All I could say was, “Am I really, Dad?” I was thrilled. My dad tells it like it is.
I’m too close to always see the changes in me, or more accurately, I’m too busy judging what I “should be like” than noticing the incremental improvements. But every few weeks, my dad has told me that I’m getting stronger. His only thing to go on is my voice and my words over the phone but that is enough for him to know that his daughter is coming back. He tells me my lungs are getting stronger, that my vocabulary is returning and that I’m talking more quickly and less deliberately, that I sound more like me. I need his words, they strengthen me.
The second “keeper” came by text from my recently retired pastor. I adore him and appreciate his wisdom and his spiritual and life counsel. His sermons moved me and taught me. An absolute lover of people, he spent decades surrounded by parishioners and yet like the good shepherd he will always be, he cares for me in a way that always makes me feel special. And so by text, he checks in on me and one day, he writes,
“You are a warrior.”
Something about those words stick with me. I know he’s guided untold numbers of people through deaths and all classes of sorrows and that through those, he’s probably seen the entire spectrum of the human spirit – our fragility, our sadness, our courage. So I’m pretty sure he’s got a sense of what nudges different people. And boy, I needed those words, “You are a warrior.” It reminds me that even if my body is temporarily diminished, I’m still strong in spirit.
I might not be the next Ronda Rousey but I did take one heck of a knockout punch in the ring of life and I’m still standing. And tonight, I talked to my dad and he said those words again, “Baby girl, you’re doing great.”