Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

September 25, 2009

The Unforgettable Tests

What grade did you receive on your first quiz that fall in Algebra?  How many did you get wrong on your Zoology final?  What was that red-inked letter at the top of your third paper in Freshman English in college? 

Do you recall?

There are so many tests we sign up for.  To get your driver’s license.  To determine whether you are a nutball before landing a job.  ACTs and SATs and MCats and LCats and kitty kats…

OK, not kitty kats.

Your first debate.  First oral book report.  First interview.  First piano recital.  First 5K… 

Preparation.  Cramming.  Fear.  Conquering fear or succumbing to it.  The immediate response:  applause, satisfaction, shame, a lettered grade, a pass or fail, a parent’s disappointment or pride.

You blow away the Bar Exam or get blown away at the bar after you fail it.

How many mattered?  You can count the ones that did.  The ones that stuck.  The ones that hurt, wounded, fed or filled you.

I’ve come to believe that we choose the tests that will ultimately define us-determine the grades of our lives.  Maybe unknowingly, unwittingly.  Perhaps.  But we choose them.

We choose.

What are yours?

I’m not sure when the tests I chose became clear to me but they revealed themselves and I drew them close.  Close to my heart.  My success or failure in them would be a telling measure of my life’s accomplishments.  Major ingredients in the stew I call life.

Somewhere along the way I decided that there is no greater responsibility than to the children, pets and people in our lives who need help they cannot provide themselves.  What could loom higher?  Greater?  To me these felt paramount.

I helped take care of my parents for fifteen years, always aware of the inevitable ending.  The final test.  My job was, I imagined, to help deliver them to God, to Heaven, to death…with as much safety, peace of mind, comfort and dignity as I could muster.  I spent many days researching their conditions.   I spent many nights praying for the strength to do the right thing, whatever corner we turned next.  To stand up at the end and be there for them no matter how painful I suspected that moment would prove to be.

I practiced.  Studied.  There were pop quizzes along the way.  I did the Heimlich Maneuver when my dad was choking on Jell-O.  I carried him over my shoulder when he snuck halfway down the stairs in the middle of the night and couldn’t go up or down any more.  I dove between him and the ground when he lost his balance and his head was heading for the corner of the side table.  I cleared his airway with my fingers when he was choking on vomit.  I changed the dressings on bed sores those last days every two hours and moved all of his pressure points every 30 minutes round the clock.  I recognized subtle changes in behavior which indicated dangerous elevations in blood pressure.  I gave him aspirin and cold packs and averted strokes more times than I can count.

Getting ready to pass the test, I thought.  I felt ready.  Prepared. 

And then he died ten minutes after I left the hospital on that Thanksgiving night and I felt that I had failed.  Failed him.

Loved ones tell me that’s how he must have wanted it.  Chose it.  That it often happens exactly that way.  Certainly there are days I choose to believe that instead of the ridiculously-painful alternative.  After all, my mom died within an hour of us leaving her at the hospital on her last day.  Surely I couldn’t have failed them both.  Not after fifteen flippin’ years of preparing for those moments…

Other days I tell myself it really is about the journey and not the destination…Sometimes that helps.  But I can never quite escape the feeling that I didn’t show up for the final exam.  I feel like I climbed Mt. Everest and turned around a hundred yards from the Summit and started walking back down again.  That I ran 24 miles of a marathon and then simply stopped running.

How many moments are lost forever…

I don’t get to retake them.  There are no makeup exams.  I only had two parents.  Some days I’m like, Thank God we only get two because I couldn’t bear to bury another one.  

But it hurts.  Guts me.  Still.  It holds close where tears stay. 

The unforgettable tests.

Kids grow up.  Parents grow older.  Pets begin to slow.  Friendships drift.  Marriages hit rocky patches.  Years fly.

Which are your tests?

To raise children who will, one day, become decent members of society?  To show your kids how to handle adversity, bankruptcy, infidelity, cancer?   To repair a damaged friendship?  To rise to the top of your company or make the most money in your family?  To be the best sprinter, shooter, passer, kicker on your team?  In your league?  In the world?  To be skinnier than her or wealthier than him or more popular than all of them put together?

To survive whatever is your personal diagnosis?  To get the nerve to leave your marriage or get the nerve to try fixing it?  To make it to retirement?  To hold onto your job?  To have the best lawn in the neighborhood?   The loudest voice at church (we know who you are)…

Are the tests you choose as broad as wanting to green the planet and save the polar bears or as intimate as wanting to lose forty pounds or overcome your not-so-secret dependency on pain killers?

Do you know?

There are a lot of things that are difficult to live with.  Bad hair, of course.  U of M losing nine games last season, certainly.  No chocolate in the house when you’re PMSing, most definitely.

Traumatic brain injury?  You betcha.

But, for me, one of my remaining tests doesn’t feel like simply living with brain injury.  The test, in my mind, is to, every day, force my damaged peanut and faulty memory to recall what I’ve deemed more important.

I have friends and loved ones living with cancer, daily chronic pain, crippling MS, debilitating arthritis, slow-stealing dementia…

One of my tests is to remember even when I struggle to remember-that life is not to be wished away.  The end of a hard day, the end of the work week, the end of a seemingly endless sermon, the end of humid August. 

How dare I wish one moment of my life away when I know, too well, how frighteningly close I came to losing it?  Shame on me. 

My test, too, is to find balance when I have no balance.  To tally joy and laughter for every tragic, sad moment life reveals.  To find firm footing in the choices I make and the people I love when my legs are rocking and rolling like they have no bones.  To walk tall and confidently in the better parts of my convictions even when I must use a wheelchair. 

To seek out calm, quiet happiness, pure simple happiness, in my head when it is so often filled with loud pounding pain. 

To know that, of all the things that we can live with or end up having to live with, the worst of these, by far, is regret.

What is your test?

Your unforgettable test?

I love the saying that, “If you’re not coaching it, you’re letting it happen.”  I’m an athlete and a coach still in my head, despite what that snickering bastard of a scale says.

I believe that everyone has tests.  Unforgettable tests.  Tests which will define their lives.  We choose the subject.  We choose the class.  Sometimes even, we choose the teacher.

It’s September.  Football weather.  I raked today.  Nights are cool now.   Summer’s over.  I hear the bell sound.

Class is in session…

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