Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I anxiously adjusted myself in the seat. I could sit in the car, but could not sit with myself. I tried to be still, and go within, so that I might listen to my heart’s inner wisdom. But the fear was so loud, that it was drowning out everything else. “You are nothing,” it said. “You are a failure,” it said.
There are a lot of titles that I identify with, which I’ve cultivated over three plus decades on the earth. There are the universal ones; human, daughter, sister, friend. There are less generalized titles; millennial, American, Jersey Girl. And then there are the even more specific titles; singer-songwriter, idealist, Christian, adventurer, traveler, explorer, teacher, poet, actress, lover, learner, artist, goal-setter, foodie, writer and musician. Like everyone, these labels give me a sense of security, and a place within my Ego to call home. On Wednesday, I added to that list a title that I just didn’t know how to SIT with; the title of “33-year-old woman.” My birthday was less than 24 hours away, and I couldn’t wrap my head around my age, the ferocity with which time had passed, and the feeling of displacement in my own life.
TBI is like a long, dark, windowless tunnel. Your vision inevitably narrows as a caregiver, because the demands and responsibilities are numbered and great. We are told that life is about the journey not the destination. But when the destination is “Recovery”, and there is no crystal ball to tell you what that will even look like, it can be hard to accept that life is about the journey; i.e. the struggle, and not an unmarked, secret, hideaway place where life will be normal again. We put on blinders like horses that draw carriages in NYC, always moving forward by absolute necessity, and often missing life happening around us in the process.
“Thirty three? Really, though?” I sat in my car pondering the number. Patrick had been injured in 2013 when I had just turned 31 years old. It was hard to accept that my early thirties has been devoured by TBI, and I was now staring at my mid-thirties, almost as if I had awoken from a cryogenic state. At 31, I prided myself in being a goal-driven woman. I had fan-funded my 3rd record, raising $15,000 to create it. I had worked multiple jobs, saved every penny I had, sold all of my belongings, and raised an additional $22,000 to buy a small RV the following year. I felt that I was at the precipice of the life I always wanted: I was going to travel and see the world and make music.
TBI changed all of that in an instant. When I got on a plane and flew to Patrick at the hospital, I had no set plan. All I knew, was that every fiber of my being was being pulled with a gravity so strong to him, that my decision was unchangeable. I got on the plane without looking back, and two years later, through his tremendous hard work and my commitment to stay beside him, he has made a miraculous recovery.
Yet the miracle of his life aside, I could still not shake the tremendously weird feeling of turning 33. The numbers rolled around like soggy clumps of chalky cotton in my mouth, as I tried to say them. I made an ugly face as if they tasted bad.
I pulled the rear view mirror down and stared into my own eyes. I felt old. My skin looked puffy and discolored, but it was my eyes that betrayed me. Truly, this had always been not only his, but our TBI, and it had aged me. I felt like I should be turning 53, not 33. At the same time, however, I had no ownership of my early 30’s. I no longer had career goals, and barely worked beyond my role as Caregiver. I had stopped writing, producing and releasing music. A thousand copies of my record sat in boxes on my shelves. I wanted 31 back. The fear came rushing over me as I squirmed in my seat some more. “It will always be with this way,” it said. “You will fade into the background more and more,” it said.
As I closed my eyes that night, the fears, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness crept into my heart. The next day, I opened my 33-year-old eyes. Patrick turned to me and whispered “Happy Birthday,” handing me two envelopes. The first was a letter to me, in which he wrote the phrase, “you have taught me what it means to be loved, and how to love in return.” Those potent, powerful words penetrated my heart. The second was a gift certificate to a Spa. I knew he would have a gift for me, as his Aunt took him out a few days prior. Little had I known though, that he had picked the gift himself, and it was the exact thing I wanted!
I got up and drove to get my massage, feeling the summer breeze on my face, and trying to center and focus on the goodness surrounding me. The DaySpa even gave me a discount and a glass of champagne as a birthday gift! I can’t say I remember much of the treatment, though, because I passed out within the first 5 minutes. It was glorious.
As soon as I got back into the car to drive home, however, TBI kicked my butt all over again. Patrick and I were going back and forth about an issue that he was playing over and over in his head, like a record stuck on an angry song. He couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t blame him for it, but it was exhausting, and I felt all my mellow dissipating.
As I stepped off the elevators, I remember feeling the sadness and exhaustion creeping into me all over again. But as I turned the corner towards our apartment, I looked up, almost unable to believe my eyes! Patrick was sitting in his wheelchair, with a bouquet of gorgeous summer flowers, and a giant smile on his face.
“Happy Birthday! These are for you.” he said, beaming with pride.
I was stunned.
“Wait, what? How did you get these?” I gasped.
As he began to tell me the story, my eyes grew wider and my mouth dropped open. Eager to show his love, he had put on his own shoes (tied both laces), taken his debit card, and wheeled down to the lobby. There at the security desk, he asked for a key to the back hallways that connect our building to a convenience store. He then wheeled himself to the convenience store and took out money from an ATM. Then he wheeled back to the lobby, and out to the street, in search of a flower shop. When he couldn’t find one, he came back to the lobby, where he was greeted by our favorite life guard who works at our pool. He asked her to take him to buy flowers. And then he placed himself outside our door to surprise me with them.
I mean… holy…. Moses.
If you don’t live with TBI, then you cannot understand how monumentally huge this series of events is for a survivor, or how telling it is about his recovery that he could pull off the planning, organizing, sequencing, problem-solving, initiation and follow through of all of these tasks! It’s basically like he climbed TBI Mount Everest! And then there is the unbelievable sweetness of the gift itself. In that moment, I finally felt awake again to the hope floating and rising around us.
As if he hadn’t already knocked my birthday “out of the park,” Patrick surprised me again by telling me that he had called my favorite restaurant a few days before to make a reservation for dinner for us! (Again, for a severe TBI survivor – this is a gigantic deal).
So needless to say, Patrick gave me some amazing gifts for my birthday. However, his decision to honor me was the real gift, because it taught me to broaden my scope when looking at where I place my self-value. No, I didn’t spend the past two years touring the country making music. No, I didn’t promote my record and few have even heard it. But that’s because two years ago I stood at a fork in the road, and I choose TBI. And if I hadn’t, where would Patrick be now?
The truth is that I have never stopped creating. Patrick is my music now. Patrick is my art. Patrick is my adventure, and I have traveled to some of the ugliest and most beautiful places within a human soul, that a person can go. Our love is what I spent cultivating the past two years. And I am proud of this masterpiece.
As we sat outside, ordering a decadent cheese platter, carrpaccio di vitiello, eating scrumptious bread and homemade italian ice cream cake, I revisited the dark feelings I had preemptively allowed to consume my heart the day before. Patrick sat in front of me, looking unbelievably handsome in his blue striped polo; his hair beginning to grow in and cover the scars from his surgery, his eyes bright, his lip upturned on the right side as his mouth curled into a smile. The normalcy of the moment flooded my senses, and TBI faded into the distance, only making momentary appearances throughout the night. Patrick even made sure they brought a candle out on our cake.
“Make a wish,” the waiter said. I thanked him, knowing that I didn’t want to make any wishes. I just wanted to be there, in that moment, with Patrick. So I kept my eyes open, locked on his, still an army-coat green, and blew out a single candle.