We wish things for our children before they are born. In my case, I wished that my children would be loving, strong in character, and independent. My son and daughter are all these things in very different ways. This love letter, though, is to my son. Often we don’t get to see the full measure of who our children become. As they grow, they live their lives more and more separate from ours. I got the opportunity to see my son for the man he is. It is an opportunity I will always cherish.
On October 13, 2012, our lives changed. Stefan was in Wichita, Kansas visiting me before joining the Navy. He was preparing for boot camp and contemplating signing his final admittance paperwork. I was at my favorite academic conference of the year, the place where I have found both my creative inspiration and my best friends. This year the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender Conference was held in Tacoma, Washington.
That fateful day was perfect. I walked the city streets exploring and shopping for gifts for family and friends. In the late morning and afternoon, I attended research panels and communed with friends and colleagues. At the awards banquet, I was awarded the prestigious Feminist Teacher / Mentor Award based on letters of support from dozens of colleagues, students, and former students. This is the most treasured honor of my academic career. To top it all off, I was selected to host the induction ceremony of Dr. Bren Ortega Murphy into the Wise Women Council. This day was without question, one of the highpoints of my academic life.
Later that evening, following dinner with some of my best friends, the organization sponsored a dance and karaoke party. I love to sing and dance. Could this day get any better? As fate would have it, my best academic day also became the start of one of the most challenging adventures of my life. On the dance floor that evening, one of my best friends spun me around. I reeled backwards, lost my footing and fell, fracturing my right wrist in 3 places, and my left in 2.
I would be fully immobilized for the next 3 months and slowly and painfully thereafter, learn to use my hands again. My convalescence, during which I needed constant around the clock support, was 6 months. Even after that, there were some things I still couldn’t do, open jars, cut meat, negotiate some articles of clothing, etc.
My motto has long been that you can view any situation as a crisis or an adventure and that not very many things rise to the status of a crisis. These events allowed me to put this belief into action, to try to live it under some of the most challenging circumstances I could imagine. My belief has not changed, but I have learned to recognize the critical role others can play in making it a reality. Because of the love and care of my son, breaking both my wrists, being completely helpless, and learning how to use my hands again was not a crisis. It was an adventure. I have written in earlier posts about the trip back to Wichita, about losing my graduate students and making the trip alone, about the scary woman who thought I needed hot coffee, about my seatmate and later a flight attendant who took care of my hair for me, about the young basketball star, traveling with her parents to Wichita State University to check out the school, who fed me and gave me pain medication.
I have not written about my son, about our adventure. Maybe because it was so big, so all encompassing. It wasn’t time bound like 2 plane flights. It was day-to-day for over 6 months. It was emergent with no set ending that we were aware of. During this time, my insurance company told me on multiple occasions that because I could walk, I was considered too mobile for any in-home nursing support. This, despite the fact that I could not use my hands at all and therefore could not accomplish any activities of daily living on my own. My 24/7 care fell to my son. There was never really a conversation about his doing this. He just smoothly moved into the role of my nurse and full-time caregiver.
I remember very little about the early days. To manage my excruciating pain, I was in a drug induced haze much of the time. I do remember my son giving me pain medication, brushing my hair, helping me to the bathroom, feeding me, and a myriad of other little things, none of which I could do for myself. I remember him being there when I needed something, often before I realized I needed it. In those early days, we developed a routine and designed our own ways of managing sensitive issues. Taking care of someone completely requires suspending modesty. It requires an unparalleled level of intimacy. It can be a humiliating experience, an embarrassing experience, an uncomfortable experience. Because of his grace, it was never humiliating or embarrassing. and we developed work arounds for the uncomfortable parts.
There’s something you should know about me. While it is easy for me to help others, it has always been hard for me to ask for help. While I never see those I help and support as burdens, for some reason, I believe (believed) that if I needed help I was an inconvenience, a burden. Through his compassion and care, my son showed me that this was not the case. He made it ok that I needed support. He showed me that I was not a burden, an inconvenience. He showed me that he was glad to help me.
Once the drug haze wore off a bit and my pain became more manageable, I could think for several hours at a time between doses of pain medication, and I wanted to get back to work. I was still teaching a class (fortunately I had 4 weeks of guest lecturers lined up prior to the accident) and running the search for our new director at the Elliott School of Communication. Stefan policed me to make sure I didn’t work too hard. We both learned that if I did too much too fast, I would pay in pain and exhaustion. He limited people’s access to me, determining when and for how long my graduate students and friends could come work with me. We identified what he was willing and comfortable doing and what I needed to ask others to do. He didn’t like emails or any work related phone calls, so my graduate students and friends helped with those.
On Thursdays he would get us Buffalo Wild Wings, mango habanero and Asian zing boneless wings that set my mouth on fire. We would eat them propped up on my bed, him feeding me. For a lot of the early months, I was mostly bedridden. Because of my multiple fractures, and to avoid surgery, I was not permitted to move much as my wrists healed. Eventually I was put in casts and I could move around a bit more. During my immobile time, we watched the entire series of Third Rock from the Sun on Hulu+. Sometimes if my pain was too bad, we would watch episodes over and over until I was alert enough to remember them. As I got more alert, it became clear to me that Stefan needed breaks. With some coaxing, he would take some down time when friends would bring meals and stay to chat and feed me. Eventually, he let friends take me to their home for the weekend so he could get some real time off. He was very protective, but we both knew he needed that time.
What I remember most about this time is my son’s presence. He was just there with me. We had few disagreements. The biggest was over his putting mascara on me. “You don’t need it. You’re beautiful without it”, he’d say. “Yes I do. I’d put it on myself if I could”, I’d reply. “I’ll poke your eye out”, he’d say. “No you won’t”, I’d reply. Then he’d help me with mascara.
I don’t believe that Stefan or I are the same people we were before this experience. To be helpless is not easy. To be completely reliant on someone else for everything is not easy. To be completely responsible for another is not easy. To negotiate this type of situation with love and compassion, with presence and commitment, is an incredible gift. To make it an adventure that we grew through together was the most amazing part of this experience, and our relationship will never be the same.
I think that we are both stronger, better prepared to deal with whatever life sends our way. I am easier, more open to asking for help when I need it. He knows his strength and the depth of his compassion. I am more grateful to my son than I can put into words. He made me safe. He loved me. He nurtured me and he treated me with compassion and respect during my helplessness. I learned firsthand that he is compassionate, thoughtful, intuitive, and very kind. He has a calm, peaceful spirit. Not much seems to faze him. He is an incredible man and his strength of character puts me in awe and fills me with joy. He is the most amazing man I have ever known, and I am blessed that he is my son.