Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

March 11, 2010

I Can’t Think Of A Good Title

I love the Olympics.  Aside from the fact that my favorite shows are all reruns for two weeks, I really look forward to The Games.   Two weeks of different sports and different stars, memorable and touching stories of the athletes and what propelled them to this often once-in-a-lifetime moment. 

I get all misty-eyed and patriotic watching the American flag being raised and our anthem played.  I love watching the Detroit Red Wings who are playing for my Mother and Fatherland, Sweden. 

The Olympics are a delicious escape.  A chance to marvel over jaw-dropping snowboard flips and elegant male skaters tossing spinning-top sequined women through the night only to land impossibly on whisper-thin blades.  Ski jumpers literally flying through the air like super heroes in children’s fantasies.  Adrenaline-charged blurs racing down icy slopes on skis and boards clocking mind-boggling miles per hour.

It’s breathless.  Exhilarating.  Like watching magic.  It’s two weeks of escaping some of the doldrums of February in Michigan when the Pistons are awful and the Wings are struggling to make the playoffs and the snow is black, plowed high in supermarket parking lots…

And then the equipment on the torch at the Opening Ceremony didn’t work.   The coach of a Dutch speedskater committed an awful gaffe which cost his athlete the gold medal.  The mother of a Canadian figure skater died of a massive heart attack three nights before her daughter was set to chase her lifelong dream.  And a hopeful kid from the country of Georgia flew smack-dab into a concrete pillar at 90 mph and died of a traumatic brain injury. 

The livers of  lives cannot escape the living of lives.


I was thinking of those athletes tonight.  All of them.  Won and lost.  Known and unknown.  Celebrated and chastised.  The smiling men and women on Wheaties boxes and the never-acclaimed obscure athlete from whoknowswhereville carrying the flag as his nation’s only representative.  Two weeks later, a month…

What happens when the TV cameras leave and the venues are dismantled and the torch moves on to the next host city? What happens when the lights go out on what they probably consider the most defining moment of their lives?

Life, that’s what.  Life happens.  Life wakes up and scratches its head and puts both feet on the floor once again. 

More often than not, we are remembered for and we remember most those events in our lives and other people’s that were never planned or dreamed of.   Both good and bad, our paths, our journeys, take wayward turns and crazy hops right through the wickets.

That Dutch skater thought he was heading to the Olympics to accept the gift of gold.  Instead he is being asked to give the gift of gold-forgiveness.  That Canadian skater thought she was going to the Olympics to measure her best effort in a bright, shiny medal amidst screaming cheers of countrymen.  Instead she was going to measure her personal mettle in whispered hues of grace.  That young luger from Georgia likely dreamed of being carried on his countrymen’s shoulders in victory.  Instead they carried him on their shoulders in a modest pine box.

I love Tonya Harding.  You may laugh at that and part of me can’t believe I just typed it but bear with me here for a moment.  And no, I haven’t been drinking…

Tonya, you’ll recall, was embroiled in that huge Olympic scandal when her bodyguard/boyfriend took out rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 games with a steel pipe to the knee.  Tonya was immediately branded, “Evil’s Rot In Hell You Dark Villain Mistress” and Nancy became, “All American Toothy Smile We Love You Win The Gold Nancy You Sweetheart”.

Tonya Harding is like all the rest of us, really.  We all have no one else to blame for most of the deepest holes we find ourselves in during a lifetime.   He lost his wife and his reputation because he got caught cheating.  She lost her husband, her house and her reputation because she couldn’t step away from the blackjack table.  He decided to drive drunk and got arrested.  She took a bribe and is headed for federal prison.  He ran up 80 grand worth of credit card bills and  lost his house.   They didn’t communicate for ten years and ended up in divorce court. 

What happens when a smoker gets lung cancer?  When a morbidly obese person who doesn’t manage his/her diabetes has a stroke?   When a lifelong alcoholic needs a liver transplant?  When someone acquires a brain injury because s/he was driving drunk or speeding or not paying attention or taking too many drugs or not wearing safety equipment?

What do we do when the toughest moments in our lives are inescapably our own fault?

I’ve seen regret puff up as anger and steal as depression.  I’ve seen self loathing brittle the very vibrancy of life.  Shame strip the every color from eyes. 

If I only had or hadn’t.  If I had only done this or that. 

Although not in any manuals I’ve ever read, drinking, drugs, and becoming a blaming, bitter betty have all been tried and tested as salves for guilt and regret.  Although I am fortunate that I didn’t cause my injury, I have a handful of regrets just like everyone else.  Even Frank Sinatra had a few, although too few to mention.

Regret is harder to live with than any symptom my injury ever caused.  By far.

Why do I love Tonya Harding?  Because she became a professional boxer and a country singer and, who knows, half a dozen other things after she blew her skating career. 

She took the hit.  She accepted her truth.  She realized the path she preferred and the one she had loved was no longer accessible.  She changed direction.  She reinvented.  She emerged.

Marion Jones, too.  You remember Marion.  She of the Olympic scandal which cost her her medals for doping.  She of the prison sentence for passing bad checks.

Today Marion Jones signed a contract to play for the WNBA Shock.   She took the hit.  She accepted her truth.  She realized the path she preferred and the one she had loved was no longer accessible.  She changed direction.  She reinvented.  She emerged.

My personal philosophy about regret is that, when you have a page that will forever stain your life’s accounting, hurry up and start writing.  Make the rest of the story so fabulous and wonderful that, by the end of the book, that one page counts mercifully little.  Make that dark moment the catalyst to something so much brighter that you might even, eventually, be grateful for it. 

For Heaven’s sake, don’t stop after it.  Don’t allow that to be the final word, the final page, the final memory of you.  When you make your whole life about one moment, that dark moment, nothing better can replace it.  Nothing better can become of you.  When you keep an umbrella up all the time, you can’t even see when it’s no longer raining. 

Thankfully, most of us don’t have to admit and accept our shortcomings in front of billions of people.  Just ask Tiger Woods what that is like.  Most of us don’t get but one chance every four years to better an underachievement, to best a disappointment.

Most of us get another chance every day.

For those of us fumbling and bumbling and stumbling thankfully out of the glare of public opinion, there is but a handful of people even keeping score and no one is harder to gain a pass from than that bugger in the mirror.

When people ask me at my appearances or online, how can they forgive themselves for causing their injury?  How can they move on from it, get past it, when it’s their fault?   When they “deserve” what they got?

I tell them no speeder ever meant to kill that family.  No kid playing with matches ever meant to burn the house down.  No parent who looked away for just a minute ever meant for her child to drown in the bathtub.  And no one ever got through an entire lifetime without something they wish to Hell or Heaven they could take back and do over again.   Intent is the difference between parole and a life sentence without it.

We have all failed.  We have all screwed up.  We all have things that we must accept as our own doing.   We all suffer our imperfection.  Our bad decisions.  Poor choices.  If our lives were all perfect and this world was all perfect, we’d already be in Heaven.

I tell them, just love.  Simply love.  Love something.  Something about yourself.  About someone.  Anything so that there is love in your life.  In your heart.  Something warm within you that calls to the better parts of you.  Wakes the good rest of you.  Reminds you of what it looks like so you don’t cast it off forever as a stranger.

Speak of the future.  Say the word “tomorrow.”  Say it out loud.  Every day.  Make a list of goals.  Even one goal.  Any goal, even the smallest.  Dream, even a modest dream.  Plan.  Something.  Anything so that you have a foot in tomorrow, in the future,  and not everything about you is locked in yesterday. 

The worst thing we can do with yesterday’s regret is to allow it to become tomorrow’s regret.  Or next year’s.  Or the one after that.  We quiet regret when we put laughter and good and better between ourselves and it.   We make it smaller when we put it in the rearview mirror and dare drive away from it.  Head for something we believe can be better.

Nobody knows how the next run is going to go.  We might miss a flag, hit a rut, wipe out, veer out of bounds, lose a ski…But just having the guts to climb that mountain again and again and to get in that starter’s gate….Knowing how badly it could go and how badly, perhaps, it has already gone…

Getting in that starter’s gate invites a future.  It closes the book on that last run and invites the next one to be better.  It affords the possibility that you won’t be remembered solely for that one lousy mark, low score, awful time.

On your mark.  Get set….

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