“Every circumstance—no matter how painful—is a gauntlet thrown down by the universe, challenging us to become who we are capable of being.” ~ Marianne Williamson
I have been told it takes a man less than five seconds to fall 13 feet.
It’s a blink. Yet in five seconds, the universe expands by 46 miles, 375 McDonald’s hamburgers are sold, 23,000 tweets are tweeted, and 21 babies are born.
For me, five seconds is all it took to turn my life inside out.
Six months before I was set to marry, my heart broke open. He fell 13 feet, and all we once knew, no longer was.
Then, he was in surgery, unconscious and unaware of the new reality he would awaken to. His neck and back fractured from the fall. We were clueless as to the extent of his injuries, or the long road ahead of us. As the doctors made their steady approach, I felt a knot tightening in my throat. I could sense something was terribly wrong from the pace of their strides. The impermanence of life came knocking.
Clearing his throat, the doctor closest to me asked a question which will be forever imprinted on my soul: “Something happened during his surgery; he aspirated on the table. As a result, he’s paralyzed. If we go back in too soon, he could die, and if we wait too long, he could remain paralyzed. What would you like us to do?”
Choosing whether someone lives or dies, answering a question about the possibility of remaining paralyzed or walking, is something outside the realm of reason. It catapults you into another dimension. A neutral sounding male voice broke through my moment of disbelief: “We will be back shortly to check on your answer.”
As I watched the white coat, sh*tty news parade march away, I felt like they had taken a piece of me with them. What was left standing there was just a shell of someone I once knew.
I certainly didn’t wake up that day having any idea the difference five seconds can make, or the weight of some of the questions that would greet me. I sat fear on my lap and asked it to tell me what I needed to know. My mind flooded with questions:
Who am I to make this decision?
How will we make it back from this?
What will the future look like?
Will we ever have sex again?
Will we still be able to have children?
Who will he become after this?
Who will I be?
Do I have it in me to stay?
Will he hate me if I make the wrong choice?
Will I hate myself for the decision?
The discomfort I sat with percolated from the inside out, my bones starting to ache. I desperately wanted to find comfort, yet there are times in life when you need to accept you cannot be comfortably uncomfortable. Truth is, sometimes nothing makes sense and everything feels like a dream. When I began to imagine life with him paralyzed or life without him, I knew my answer. My heart made it clear. I prayed the choice I made was one we both could live with.
I told the doctors to wait, and hoped it was the same decision he would make, if he could.
Several days later, he made it out of his second surgery having regained his mobility. After spending several weeks in the hospital, he was released. As planned, we were married that summer. The worst of it was not behind us but in front of us—we just didn’t know it at the time.
Our lives became long hospital visits, surgeries, appointments, and recoveries. I became a caretaker longer than I could tolerate and he became a patient, which he hadn’t asked for. With each surgery we faced, we felt a distance shake us. We knew we loved each other very much. What we didn’t know was how to come back to one another after all that we had been through.
How does a husband ask his wife to help him tie his shoe, take a shower, or get out bed without feeling a tug to his manhood? How do I still see him as the strong, vibrant man I knew? The truth is, you can’t, you don’t. It changes, and as you become further acquainted with the fragility of life, you are humbled by how short it all really is. The things you took for granted, like being able to pull up your own sock or take a bike ride with your spouse, are now the gifts you would give anything to have back.
His health crisis became our greatest teacher. Experiencing how at any moment death can knock, illness can land, and all can be lost, taught us what it means to be human.
I’m not going to lie. It was work, a lot of work, to choose us. I often felt as if we were 24 going on 70. I found myself saying to the reflection in the mirror, “This is it—our lives will be a pile of his complaining about every ache and pain. Over in the corner, you will find me seething with resentment for things outside of his control.” He didn’t ask to fall, and I didn’t know how to forgive myself for all that I was feeling.
We fought, cried, felt our fears, and uncovered our blessings. Learning how to communicate—honestly, transparently, vulnerably—took practice and guts. There wasn’t a stone we didn’t lift, as we went to counseling week after week. Instead of saying, “pass the salt,” we chose to have the hard conversations. Every time the pink elephant wanted to appear, I remembered one of my father’s favorite lines, “Do you know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Bite by bite we continued communicating without all the bullsh*t and unnecessary sugar coating. It saved our marriage. We both chose to stay—with it, with us, with the truth and pains, with the grief and loss, the fears and, at times, terror. The bridge back to each other came in the form of truly listening to one another.
It wasn’t the life we had planned but it was the life we had. We decided to focus on what was rather than staring at all that wasn’t. Every day we made the decision to be all in, and to forgive each other for our humanity. Life is messy. It doesn’t come with guarantees. And we were about to see just how messy it could get.
Nine years after the first surgery, with seven total surgeries under our belts and two beautiful children, he was back in the hospital, having to undergo several surgeries this time to help straighten his spine so his organs were no longer being crushed and to take away some of the pain. The road ahead was going to be long, and his time in the hospital would require a two-month stay.
As I pulled my chair close, feeling my husband’s sorrow and fear, I was reminded of what life was about. It was time for my heart to do the speaking again, and for the crowd in my head to disburse. I could tell he was ready to give up the fight, to not come back from going under again. All it took was less than five seconds to look in his eyes and see he was at a crossroads between living and dying. It was here again—the impermanence of life.
I took his hand and softly said, “Please fight; make it out of surgery. Come home from this place. I know you’re exhausted and feel like you can’t do this anymore. I don’t blame you.”
He looked over at me. “Are you sure? Aren’t I a burden for you and the kids? I feel like you’ve been gypped by staying with me. You should’ve left when you had the chance.”
“You are not a burden and I am not gypped. If I could choose again, I’d still choose you. I’d still make the decision I made all those years ago. I don’t care what shape you are in, I just want us.” The rest of the night we sat in his room, not saying a word but speaking volumes to each other.
When morning came, the orderlies arrived to wheel him away. As he began his journey down the hallway toward the operating room, my husband looked my way and said, “One more time. I’ll fight one more time.”
5-4-3-2-1—that’s all it takes for love to become bigger than fear.
Relephant bonus: What to do when our Relationships get Tough.
Author: Annmarie Devlin
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman