Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

October 21, 2009

Paying By The Inch

It’s fourth and goal from inside the one.  The safe field goal will tie the game and send it into overtime.  But you’re on the road and the crowd is rocking.  Your quarterback’s pleading during the timeout.  Your offensive line wants you to believe in them.  Begs and demands that you believe they can push forward and gain a few blades of grass and a shocking upset.

You throw off your headphones.  Shake off your coordinators all yelling in your ear.  You take the chance.  You send in the play.  You go for it.

They stuff your quarterback.  They stop you short and you lose the game by inches.  The papers blast you.  The bloggers scream for your head.  The alumni clap-close their checkbooks.  The day after your season ends the Athletic Director announces they won’t be signing you to a new contract.


We pay by the inch.  All of us.  Too many around the waist increases our chances of acquiring this disease and that condition.  Inches dictate whether or not the new couch is going to fit through the door or whether your car is going to fit into the tiny garage at the condo you’re looking to buy.   They reveal whether you are in style or hopelessly out of date.  On target or wide right.

So much of our looks and how self conscious or confident we become depends upon inches.  How long our noses or chins or feet.  By how many inches we boast in strategic places, by how many we suffer in all the wrong places and by how many are missing in places we’d hoped for better…

How much does an inch cost?  Ask any carpet salesman.  He’ll tell you.  Or ask a plastic surgeon.  A butcher.  Ask any freshman boy undressing for the first time before swim class.  Or any girl who hits six feet tall by the time she’s in the eighth grade.  Ask the long jumper or the pole vaulter wearing the silver medal. 

How much do we pay for an inch?

Time and time again we’ll hear stories of injuries, accidents, crashes, tumors, bullets…Doctors saying, “She was lucky.  One inch to the left and she would have been paralyzed.”  Or, “An inch higher and it would have pierced his heart.” 

It’s not just football that’s a game of inches.  Life is.

I’m not sure how many inches it would have taken that day, in the middle of that intersection, to kill me.  Or to spare me completely.  A few to the left; a couple to the right?  How many inches between a close call and a closed casket?

Life continues on or life changes or life ends.  Inches.

But it doesn’t take a ruler to determine what “this close” means.  I consider my stubborn headaches and haphazard balance, the shoddy memory and the occasional ridiculous butchering of the English language simply payment for the inches.  The inches that saved me.  The inches I measure between dying in a crumpled vehicle crash and living a gift every day I’m still here.

And I’m more than happy to pay.

How many inches have changed your life?  Dictated your future?  Did he swing his fist and miss so you stayed?  Did the oncologist tell you that the size of your tumor was still small enough to treat and beat?  Did you turn back to say, “I’m sorry” before they walked out the door for good?  Did you open your eyes after the roadside bomb exploded to find the buddy beside you dead?

How much should the inches cost?

If the chance at a happy life is what we’re buying, what then are those inches worth?  How much are we willing to pay?

As survivors, we can get all tangled up in how life was supposed to be and how much better it was before it was changed and screwed up and turned upside down by some breath-taking, choking, just-plain-stupid diagnosis.  We can cling to before and cast a defiant ear at those screaming to us that it doesn’t change anything.

It’s easy, or maybe easier, to comfort with before.  To elevate and deify before.  To cling desperately to before.  To refuse now.  Or to throw anger at it.  Pills, booze.  Anything.

Something to quiet the hecklers in the mirror taunting, Why me?  Why did my house get leveled by the tornado and nobody else’s?  Why did I get the parents who were absent addicts?  Why did my husband run off with my sister?  Why did I get the uncle with the groping hands?  Why did I get the *%^#ing brain injury, tumor, bad heart, curved spine, brittle bones, missing legs, failing eyes or the million other possibilities in life?

We can deny it, avoid it, run from it, drown it, disguise it.

Or we can pay for our inches. 

We can remind ourselves with each payment that this is for the inch that saved me.  This is for the inch between Stage Two and Stage Four.  This is for the inch between chronic back problems and paralysis.  This is for the inch between brain surgery and brain death.  This is for the extra day, extra week, extra year, extra chance to spend one more moment with the people and pets I love.

Is it worth it then?

It is to me.  I’ll suffer every stupid headache for every moment I can think and speak and write and express.  I’ll walk like an absolute goofball and suffer every stumble and every fall for each step I can take towards a hug, towards someone I love or something I enjoy, or while holding hands walking next to my niece and my nephew.  I’ll lose words and get stuck on words for every chance I still get to say, “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “Good morning.”

How many inches are you willing to pay for?  How are you planning to pay?  No credit cards accepted here. 

Payment’s due.

Every inch that saved us.  Every inch that kept, spared and protected us.  Every inch that measures another day on the calendar.  Every inch between us and the moment we stop measuring.

It takes 72 inches to bury us.  It takes one to move forward. 

One inch to more than yesterday.  To away from rock bottom.  To better.  To OK, maybe. 

One inch to living.  To living again.

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