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   They reveal whether you are in style or hopelessly out of date.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.


  1. My Heart is Smiling!

    Comment by Koch — October 21, 2009 @ 9:45 am | Reply

  2. And to see your message here, my heart is smiling too. 🙂

    Comment by karaswanson — October 21, 2009 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

  3. Good stuff as always Kara!

    Comment by John Hetzler — October 26, 2009 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, John!

      Comment by karaswanson — October 29, 2009 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  4. As always your writing is both thought provoking and prodding.

    I have sat at the place of ” But I don’t Want To!” for a long time. ANOTHER hurdle? Geez!!! But for every time we fall, and get up, no matter in what condition, we are proving our strength and our willingness to learn.

    What a wonderful friend you are. A blessing.


    Comment by Barb G — October 28, 2009 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

    • The good news is that, every time we fall, we can look around and see that it’s not just the other survivors stumbling, bumbling and mumbling along. Everyone falls. Everyone hits rough patches. To me we’re not labeled because we do any worse than anyone else. For me it’s just so we can find each other and slap high fives and say, “Yes! Good to see you. Glad you’ve made it!” 🙂

      Comment by karaswanson — October 29, 2009 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  5. Kara,

    I read your book after my husband sustained a TBI at the end of 2003. It was very helpful. Thank you so much for continuing to write about life post-TBI–writing about how life has changed, but goes on. About the tough decisions survivors and their families have to make. About how to keep putting one foot in front of the other. You’re a courageous woman, and an inspiration! While my husband and I are very fortunate that he was able to make a good recovery after a rocky start, I’ll recommend your blog to other families dealing with brain injury.


    Comment by Barbara Stahura — October 29, 2009 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

    • I’m so glad you and your husband are doing so much better after a “rocky start”. Cheers to you both.

      Comment by karaswanson — November 1, 2009 @ 4:08 am | Reply

  6. I’m a Brit and must confess the beginning of this post was a bit confusing – I figured out it was sport of some kind and just kept reading till I hit a bit that made sense…as I knew it would. Please note, I blame my confusion on my Britishness rather than my brain injury…the first is a great excuse for all manner of things, the second is cause for me to search for a workaround.

    As usual you have provided food for thought. I am so glad our paths crossed.
    Take care Kara


    Comment by Christa — October 31, 2009 @ 11:30 am | Reply

    • Hey Christa: Sorry about the football references. 🙂 Nice of you to “skip across the pond.” Good to see you. K

      Comment by karaswanson — November 1, 2009 @ 4:08 am | Reply

      • Never need to apologise for writing about things that are important to you…

        I used to love sports – football (soccer) in particular (and once upon a time I was a qualified referee) but now I find it hard to follow the game…that doesn’t mean I don’t like to soak up the atmosphere or enjoy through someone else’s enthusiam…

        Possibly one of the important things I have learnt post injury is that I don’t always have to understand everything in order to be able to enjoy…

        Take care


        Comment by Christa — November 5, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  7. My dear, dear, old friend Kara Bear!

    Do you remember surprising a boy with an unexpected kiss in your doorway? Where was it, 1020 Fuller? I don’t think you lived at 525 or 503 Hill where TC and whomever else lived. I’m afraid you won’t remember me or won’t remember me fondly, as I do you.

    I saw a photo of a girl that reminded me of you so I searched your name and found out about your accident and started to cry. Now I just read a bunch of your entries here and have laughed and cried more. What a great and incredible person you are! So smart and thoughtful too! I’m so proud of you for everything you’ve done and how you’ve handled everything and for what you do for people!

    I’m sorry I lost touch with the old gang of all you amazing girls so long ago, you and J-Bird, Connie (I sometimes called her “Dotty” Doutt because of that cute little black dot on her nose, do you remember that?) TC, Amy, Sandy, Lorea, and Wendy & the rest. I miss you all, I miss those days!

    I’m sending you a big hug!

    Do you know who I am? 🙂

    Comment by Old Friend — November 2, 2009 @ 11:51 am | Reply

    • Aaron? Is that you?

      Comment by karaswanson — November 2, 2009 @ 12:27 pm | Reply

      • omg, you remember! haha. wow! Yup, it’s me! Please send me an email if you have it now, or does only WordPress see it?

        Comment by Old Friend — November 2, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

  8. Kara,

    I feel like I just woke up after sleeping away most of my life. You have shown me that there can be a life after TBI, and that my wife may someday recover her self-worth and a reason to continue to live.

    She was a professional journalist, working as a copy editor at one of the nation’s top newspapers when she fell, injured her brain, and has been out of work the past three years. She lost her job, her driver’s license, her premium health insrance coverage, and of course, any reason to try to lead a different life with physical, mental and emotional limitations.

    Why can’t she take up stamp collecting, or blogging or any of the thousands of activities to keep you interested in a life?

    I don’t have any answers. We will be attending a workshop on dealing with TBI at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia on Saturday. It’s sponsored by the Moss Rehab Center which my wife blames for not permitting her to go back to work when she was treated there over a six or seven week in-patient program.

    Maybe we can get some suggestions to turn the corner on this problem. Maybe she will hear of something that might ignite her to take action. Maybe I can find some answers to simply get me through another week, another month, another year if none or very little change takes place.

    Thanks for your insight.

    I only wish that I could get my wife to read you.

    She is at wendycontos@gmail.com.

    Michael J

    Comment by contoveros — November 5, 2009 @ 11:45 pm | Reply

    • MIchael, you sound mentally and physically drained. Even in your words I can feel it. I’m going to send you an email from my personal account. Check your spam if you don’t see it there soon, OK? Kara

      Comment by karaswanson — November 6, 2009 @ 1:07 am | Reply

  9. Kara,
    Your words warm my heart immensley. One thing I can be thankful for is my own injury lead me to you. What a blessing and a gift. You are such a special person.


    Comment by June — November 18, 2009 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

    • What a sweet, sweet woman you are, June. Thank you.

      Comment by karaswanson — November 18, 2009 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  10. I wish I could write like you, then maybe I’d be somewhat understood. I am slowly reading all your blogs.
    It is nanometers with me….. Thanks to your writing, I finally really see what I can offer to people, I don’t need a job to be functional in society. I want a job, I want to feel needed, but I am. Without me, life would not be the same for many people. I’ve felt like a monkey on the back of society for so long, but I positively influence lives…….anyway I ramble, and I forget what I want to say, but I don’t think it matters because you know how I feel. You’ve opened my eyes Kara. Thanks for writing these blogs.

    Comment by Mike Altman — November 13, 2010 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

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