The other day I got a surprise. My mother has been going through old pictures and early childhood notes she kept, and she’s been sending them around to all the kids. Mine came in the mail — I wasn’t expecting it at all — and what a surprise… and a mixed one at that. It was also revealing, in what was said and what was not said.
When I was very young, my mother paid a lot of attention to me and my development. I was ahead of my peers in terms of development and speaking, as well as energy and activity. My mother has often said that she was a little dismayed when I was very young, because I was up and around and walking and talking well ahead of the others my age, and while other infants were just lying there and looking around (if that), I was up and around, talking and interacting.
There are a number of notes about things I said when I was 2, and my activity level, and the friends I made early on. Apparently I was a gregarious, outgoing kid who loved to talk and explore and stir things up. Then the notes slowed to a trickle and at the end of the notebook, there’s a fair amount of reports of me being disciplined, complaining about being punished, complaining about my parents giving me a hard time, and generally getting in trouble.
I’m not exactly sure what precipitated the change… I had another sibling born 2 years after me, which could explain why the notes slowed, aside from reports of having trouble with me. I also am pretty sure that I got hurt when I was in child care when I was around 3-4 years old — I fell and there was a lot of commotion, and then people watched me very carefully. I may have gotten hurt even earlier than that, because I was in the care of a woman who had a young son who was “special” and big for his age, and who (so I’m told) loved to play with me. Who knows if he played a little too rough and I got knocked around a bit? I had a fall down some stairs when I was 7 years old, and when I was 8 I got hit on the head with a rock, and even as a kid, I noticed a dramatic (and uncontrollable) change in my behavior.
And it didn’t stop there. I kept having accidents and mild TBIs throughout my childhood, each one taking a slightly different toll, each one making my life (and the lives of others around me) that much more complex and confusing. I went from being a lively, gregarious, happy kid to being withdrawn, angry, sullen, temperamental, and violent. Some change. Who I was by the time I was 11 was completely different than when I was 2.
After I looked through the notes last night, I went from being excited and intrigued and entertained, to being a little dismayed… then a lot dismayed. I had started out so well, had so much going for me. I was ahead of the curve, I was making great progress. Then what happened? It really upset me, and I felt a keen and painful sense of loss, wondering what might have been, had I been able to stay that lively, gregarious, outgoing kid through the years.
The more I thought about it, the more crushing it felt. I had been such a bright light, at the start. And it didn’t last. I went from being a real source of joy and wonder, to being a source of pain, frustration, embarrassment, and anger. And it didn’t stop for decades. When I think of everything my parents and friends and teachers went through… What a difference. What a loss.
Eventually the tears came. Bitter, bitter tears. Anguish. And no escape from it. That was my past — the hope of my first few years dashed like so much pottery thrown from a cupboard during an earthquake. Broken, shattered, some of it impossible to retrieve or repair. The past was the past… and the thing that made it all the more bitter was that I had not started out in bad shape — I had started out ahead of the curve, with some great advantages. But they were lost, soon enough. Too soon.
But such is life. And with TBI (and so many other kinds of injuries) so it goes. Things are lost. Things are shattered. And some of them can never be put back together. They’re gone, and in some ways it seems like it would be easier, if they’d never even existed, so you don’t have a memory of how things once were… and dreams of how things might have been.
In some ways, it seems like it would be better, if there were no memory of how things once were — if my injuries had resulted in amnesia about how things were once upon a time, so I didn’t know what I was missing.
But I do know what I was missing. I have notes. And there it is. Now I have to walk through the day ahead of me, remembering what was lost, remembering what my parents had to go through with me. I am quite sure that my parents didn’t help in certain ways — nor did the doctors who had no clue about TBI, nor did the teachers who just beat up on me because I didn’t understand. I got punishment, not compassion. I got judgment and strict discipline, not attempts to understand. I got yelled at and yanked around by my mother, and put down and called names by my father, not guidance and examples I could follow.
All in all, it was the perfect storm of ignorance and injury, and here I sit now, looking at the tough row that I hoed all through my childhood… increasingly amazed that I turned out as well as I did. I got hurt. I got hurt early and a lot after that. Each injury added on the previous one, and it’s only by the grace of God (or whoever else is looking out for me) that I actually ever got help, long after so much damage had been done.
Last night, as I lay in bed all torn up over this, the thought came to me… I am certainly not alone. I am not the only person who has every been injured and not gotten good help. I am certainly not the first or the last to struggle with these things. We all, in some way, have been broken, shattered, lost. And we all in some way have had to battle back against seemingly impossible odds to make of ourselves and our lives what we can. And in the end, it’s not so much about grieving the things that are gone for good — though that’s part of it. It’s more about taking what you can from the experience, building back your life, connecting with other people who have been shattered in their own ways, and helping one another pick up the pieces and go on.
Each of us knows what it is to struggle. Each of us knows what it is to lose. I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, triumphantly super-smart… or now and then dumb as a rock (I’m raising my hand here It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you belong to a certain race or nationality. The fact is, we’re human. And we all have things to overcome — things that are all but impossible, some that sometimes take us down (now and then for good) — and if we lose sight of that fact that we all share, then the world becomes colder and harder and it feels more like a rock spinning through space than a green, living planet that keeps us all alive.
In the end, I have to wonder… if I had stayed super-smart and stayed ahead of all my peers, would I be the person I am today? Definitely not. There is a very good chance I would have no compassion for others, have no patience, have precious little understanding, and I might sail through life with riches and power and influence, but never have the kind of life that is worth living to the fullest. We appreciate so much more, when we lose something we value.
I lost the hope of my childhood, the promise of my early years. But in the end, I still have the present, and I still have my future, and I have a deep and intimate understanding of what it is to lose much that is important. — I understand that on a profoundly personal level. Knowing this makes all the difference. For myself, for my family, and for every person I meet and come in contact with. It’s the kind of knowledge I probably never could have gained, had I stayed in one intact piece.
And for that, I am (somewhat) grateful. It almost seems worth the price.