The Little Gatewood That Could

There are lots of things that I don’t do anymore, things I used to do without hesitation, but now I just don’t do them. One of those things is talking.

Everyday conversation can be extremely difficult for me. It does not come naturally anymore. When I was in rehab, my cognitive therapist spent hours role-playing with me. We would pretend to see each other across the aisle in the grocery store and practice casual encounter conversation. She would say “Well, Hi Gatewood, how are you?” And, I would freeze, not knowing how to answer this simple question. At my worst, I could not even find the words to answer this question that we throw around multiple times every day. Usually I would just smile, nod and keep moving. On a good day I might have answered “Fine” but I would not have known to follow it up with “and how are you?” Instead there would just be awkward silence because I didn’t follow up my response with the expected question. So, in that awkward moment of silence I would think….nothing….I was thinking absolutely nothing. My mind was blank. I wanted to call the person by name but I couldn’t match the face with the name. Johnny constantly reminds me that he can’t remember anyone’s name and it’s ok. Actually, he says that my brain injury just caused me to have a man’s brain, but he has had 39 years to adjust to life with a man’s mind, so I’ve still got some years of adjustment ahead. But here’s the thing that causes me endless frustration, before my noggin got knocked, when I saw someone I knew their name, the names and ages of their kids and the schools they attended, the names of their parents, their spouse, sometimes even their address or their phone number. I realize this is a lot of unnecessary information, nonetheless, I knew it, I could recall it quickly and use it frequently in conversation. Post noggin knock, I recognized the faces but I was never sure that I would call them by the correct name, so instead of a personal conversation, my response was a nod in their general direction and then as if I had picked up the “Pass Go and collect $200” card I would dart off in search an aisle without a shopper that I may have to make eye contact with. At my worst, I would do my shopping very late at night when hardly anyone shops. This allowed me the necessary quiet to focus on my list and the peace of knowing I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone….and I really loved the self checkout line. Now that was sheer bliss, I could even get through the checkout without speaking to a soul! Loved that!

I’m much better now. Not where I once was, but definitely leaps and bounds from where I have been. For those of you who get me to talk, you must know that you have touched some part of me that few people reach. You give me that peaceful place, that peaceful acceptance, that peaceful space that allows me to speak slowly. I need time to think through my thoughts, assign the correct words to each specific thought and them string those words together in the right order so that a solid message can be conveyed. If I’m really comfortable then I might even talk a little bit faster and not feel like a deer in Johnny’s crosshairs when my speech abruptly stops because I have mixed up my words, lost my words or started my sentence with the end of the thought instead of the beginning of the thought.

This leads me to “The Little Gatewood that Could”. There are a lot of things that I can do. I can take care of my family, I can take care of old ladies, and I can run 26.2 miles. But I don’t do conversation well and I certainly do not want to speak to more than about four people at any given time. I hardly want two eyes peering at me waiting for me to speak, much less a dozen or more eyes waiting, watching and listening. At this point, most people would say they would rather run a marathon than whatever else, but since I’m clearly not like most people, and I would rather run the marathon than talk I can’t say that here, but you get my drift. I don’t do speaking. A couple of months ago, after my Mom announced her retirement, a group of her close friends and colleagues began planning the retirement party to end all parties. This was no small “thanks for the memories” event. Michael Scott’s party planning committee had nothing on this group of folks and they had big plans for Mom’s special day. So I get this call from Mom’s dear friend Kathy and she mentions the people who are going to speak at Mom’s party…and she says “and of course you”. I think I may have checked the volume on my phone to be sure I heard her correctly and that the phone line was actually still connected. I was sure I had not heard that I was going to speak in front of a group of people…and about a topic as emotional as my mother! Oh dear Lord, come quickly, more specifically before 4pm on June 27th, because I can not figure out how to pull this off. After we finished talking and I realized that I was no longer interested in that great bargain find at Habitat that had caught my eye, I got back in my car and thought it through. Obviously my 95 year old Grandmother was not going to speak, my brother was in Colorado and I couldn’t see propping a 12 year old and a 7 year old on stage either. So, yes, I was the obvious choice, and indeed it was appropriate that a family member speak to Mom, about Mom, for Mom, but seriously, did they really want me to talk….to actual people? So like everything I do, I talked it out on a Tuesday night run, with my running buddy Mari. She had read some of my writing and told me I could definitely do it, I just needed to start writing down my thoughts and my speech would piece itself together. Well duh, it have never occurred to me that I could write something down, rehearse it and use that as my guide to speak.

Fast forward through days of jotting down thoughts, a lot of miles run while thinking about what to say, random notes on my computer….and a couple of hours pacing in the backyard under the 97 degree sunshine while I rehearsed reading aloud the final copy of my speech. I needed to convey the words of my speech without my legs wobbling out from beneath me, without the paper shaking violently in my nervous hands, without my neck turning red from fear and without sobbing uncontrollably and irrationally as I spoke personal heartfelt words about the woman who raised me. Again, dear Lord, I’m really serious, Please come before 4pm this afternoon, you have about 1 hour left to arrive and save me from this! No dice, the appointed hour arrived. The kids and I arrived with my Grandmother in tow, well actually I was in tow I guess, since I was pushing her in the wheelchair. The room was packed with Mom’s friends from as far back as her days in Elementary School. People had flown in from all over the country to be here for Mom. This was certainly not the local grocery store aisle, but somehow I needed to pretend that it was and that I could do this. As the show unfolded and Mom was seated on stage a couple of heavy hitters opened up with their thoughts on Mom. I reached into my purse and pulled out my speech, slid it onto my lap and fitted my glasses firmly on my face. (I’m 37, give me a break, of course I need glasses now). I knew I was about to be introduced…and then…there it was…the words I had feared for so many weeks…Dr. Barton said “Now Wookie’s daughter is going to come up and share a few words about her Mom” at which point I thought my mother was going to fall off the stage. Her eyes bugged out of her face and her mouth dropped when I stood up. I think she thought it was a joke, but, speech in hand I walked on stage. Ok Lord, you didn’t come, so I’m counting on you to give me the strength. So, I looked at Mom, I looked at a gazillion eyes staring at me, listening to me, anxious to hear what I had to say. Many faces looked at me with love and pride, as if channeling their own strength to me, knowing me well enough to know that this was a big, a bigger than big step for me to speak in front of this group. My legs didn’t give out, my shaking hands were hidden by the podium which held my papers, and I had a nice suntan to hide any red that might have popped up on my neck. Yes I cried, but I think I contained it enough that people could understand what I was saying, and my eyes weren’t so blurred with tears that I couldn’t read my words. And then, it was done. I had conquered about 6 years of demons in about 6.5 minutes flat! I was supposed to keep my speech to 3 minutes, but I am my Mother’s child so I wasn’t really so concerned about a time limit. I figured since I was the daughter of the star of the show I could get away with breaking the rules anyway. I’m not sure if it was the words that I spoke or the fact that Mom knew just how far I reached outside of my comfort zone that meant so much to her. Maybe it was a combination of both. For me, I really didn’t think I had it in me to pull this one off, but I did. Just like Kathy told me weeks ago, it would be worth it. And it was, in many, many ways.

© Gatewood Campbell, June 2011

Reflections from Mother’s Day 2011

This was a special Mother’s Day for our family. This year I celebrated with my Mom and my Grandmother….three generations with a combined age of  200 years! Now that’s a lot of life! Last year was hard on the women in my family. 2010 gave each of us our own challenges and as mothers and daughters do, we shared each other’s burdens and struggles. My Mom’s cancer reared it’s head in January and she was in various chemotherapy treatments through August. We were overjoyed when the doctor ended her treatment ahead of schedule given the successful results of the chemo. Just as we were ready to breathe a sigh of relief and greet the end of chemo, my Grandmother’s health began to decline. As she became weaker we realized it was time to make the tough decision for her to move out of her independent living apartment which had been her home for 23 years. We began the physically challenging and emotionally grueling task of emptying out her apartment and settling her into a small room in the health care wing of her retirement community. Last year I began to experience some new side effects from my brain injury as well as my epilepsy. I had to make adjustments to my medication to find the perfect concoction that is just enough to stop seizures while limiting the annoying side effects of the medication. Extensive neurological testing determined the permanent extent of my brain injury and I had to accept the harsh reality of change. That was hard…that was very, very hard.

Life is unpredictable. I don’t know when my Mom’s cancer may come back. I don’t know how much longer I have with my Grandmother. I don’t know when I will have another seizure. This Mother’s Day we had a table for three. Will our table next year be different? Thoughts of the unknown can permeate my mind…if I allow it. I choose not to allow it. I choose to focus my attention on what I can do and what I can change, for myself and for those that I love.

Last year was hard. This is a new year. I’m going to make every day count. I’m going to run. I’m going to celebrate. I’m going to run one step at a time towards a cure for cancer….because I can.

© Gatewood Campbell, June 2011

The Decision to Walk Away Comes Full Circle

After my accident and Epilepsy diagnosis I tried to continue working. I put every ounce of energy I had into my job. I worked in a church and I had been there 12 years. I had seen tremendous growth over those years. It was a place and a community of people that had captured a huge part of my heart and my life.  My job was people driven. My ministry was about helping people feel welcome and comfortable. It was my responsibility to guide them into the church and help them find their niche. Ironic, given that I was working so hard to make people feel comfortable, yet I felt so incredibly uncomfortable. Post injury, I was different and I knew it. My brain functioned differently. Before the injury I could look at point A, envision point Z and immediately get to work on the plan to get there, no matter how complicated the task. Post injury, I could look at point A, envision point Z, but everything in the middle was blank. I had no idea how to do it, I mean I had absolutely no clue where to begin and I didn’t have anyone to help me. The expectations and demands placed on me did not change, but my ability did. I would stare at memos listing things I was supposed to work on, and the words blurred from the tears falling off my face. I didn’t know how to accomplish what needed to be done and I had no where to turn for help. Behind my blank stares, what people didn’t know was that I was afraid to even answer the phone. Many times I didn’t understand the questions people asked me and if it required my short term memory to form an answer I couldn’t do it. I relied on voicemail to take messages so I could replay the messages multiple times before attempting to devise a plan to answer the needs of the caller before calling them back. I rarely returned emails in the same day, because I was overwhelmed everytime the dumb computer dinged that I had a new message. I wanted to scream “I’m doing the best that I can!”  The stress of not being able to perform at work was detrimental to my recovery. I started having seizures in my office. Sometimes I could sense them coming and had enough time to call Johnny and manage to speak enough words that let him know I needed help. More than once he had to leave his job and come sit with me until the seizure passed.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to call Johnny or my Mom for help, so I would sit in my office, all alone, hoping that I had taken my anti-seizure meds soon enough to limit the seizure. As this routine became more frequent…work, stress, seizure…work, stress, seizure…my neurologist encouraged me to take a hard look at my life. She said it was no longer in the best interest of my health to try to work. This memo I understood…Point A was seizures…Point Z was seizure free. The path to get there meant eliminating unnecessary stressors in my life. The unnecessary stress was my job. I tried to make sense of her advice. Yes, it made logical sense, but it didn’t make heart sense. How could it be right to walk away from ministry? How could walking away from people who needed help be right?  For months my doctor and I would have the same discussion….”you need to quit your job”….”yeah, but it’s ministry and I can’t just walk away from ministry. How can it be God’s plan to walk away from ministry?”  This mental back and forth conversation was getting very old…and so were the seizures.

On a Thursday afternoon in January 2007, just shy of two years from the accident that caused the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, I was again overwhelmed by the demands at work. I ate lunch at my desk and decided I needed a breather. I went for a drive and ended up at the cemetery in Davidson. I walked over to my Grandfather’s plot and plopped onto the grass in front of his grave marker. Slowly and deliberately I traced every single letter in his name with my fingers.              W I L L I A M  G A T E W O O D  W O R K M A N. One by one I pulled the blades of grass from the ground so that every edge of the marble slab was visible. I looked at the marker that will one day cover my Grandmother’s grave. I brushed my hand across the cold smoothe surface of the gray slab. I began to pray and then I began to cry. This was not a quiet gentle cry, this was the ugly kind of crying when your whole body gasps for air. I was so lost and confused and I began to tell my Grandfather all about it. I was talking out loud about my frustration with the accident, the injury, the diagnosis, my job and the constant criticism I faced  …blah blah blah. I remember uttering that no matter how hard I tried at work it was never enough, and that I just didn’t know what to do. I just needed someone to help me. And then…. I was interrupted. I froze, there were no more tears and the peace within and around me was palpable.  I heard a voice. I looked at the ground expecting to see a shadow cast in front of me. Nope, no shadow. I looked up to my right, expecting to see someone standing there. Nope, no one. But the voice remained. The voice, God? My Grandfather? I don’t know, but the direction given by the voice was unmistakably clear. The voice spoke to my head and to my heart. Very clearly, this is what I heard “Well done. Your ministry at the church is done. You have accomplished my plan for you and I am pleased. Your time there is over. Your family is your ministry and you must go to them.” Loud and clear…Yep, I heard this loud and clear. I hopped up from the ground, walked back to my car, drove back to my office and started drafting my letter of resignation. Sure, this didn’t really make logical sense, but I knew this was not a plan that I was going to argue with. Loud and clear…one door had just been closed. The following Monday I turned in my notice.

Four and a half years have passed since then. My days are indeed filled with ministering to my family. I could never have known what was to come or why it was vital that my time and energy be available for my family in the years after I walked away from my job. Of course, my time is full with my boys, playing Mom to various neighborhood kids when school lets out, chauffeuring back and forth between schools, sports and other activities. I knew my days would be filled with these things. I didn’t know that my Grandmother would come to depend on me so much. I didn’t know that my own brain injury would equip me to better help her and to better understand her needs. I didn’t know that right there, sitting in front of my Grandfather’s grave, God spoke to me because God knew that in a couple of short years, the love of my Grandfather’s life was going to need me to ensure that her life, however long it may be, is lived to the greatest extent possible.

Several months ago I was getting ready to leave my Grandmother’s room. I had finished her laundry and put everything away. I went through our routine of helping her put on her knee high pantyhose and shoes, filing and painting her fingernails, and her toenails (yes I even do toenails) opening and sorting her mail and clearing off all the voicemails on her answering machine, etc etc. We reviewed her plans for the rest of the day and talked about what she had planned. We made arrangements for her meals and even laid out clothes for the next day. I did a quick mental checklist and thought she was all set and I was ready to go. I gathered up my bags and told her we had taken care of everything and I was going to leave. She glanced at me and slowly lowered her chin towards her chest. She let out a long sigh and her chin started to tremble and I realized she was fighting back tears. She said “it’s just so hard getting old, being confused and trying to live on your own.” If ever there was an “ah ha” moment in my life, this was it for sure! In the blink of her eyes, the previous six years zoomed through my mind in picture pages. Her eyes reflected my own image. I recognized the blank stare looking back at me. I knew all too well the confusion and desperation she felt. I realized that my January visit to the cemetery four years ago was all about this moment. God had indeed planned my journey, accident, injury and all. He had equipped me to understand what others can’t. He had equipped me to care for my Grandmother and make her quality of life better. There, in 2007, at the foot of my Grandfather’s grave, though he had died 12 years earlier, he and God pointed me in the direction of my family, because they knew what the future held. So I looked back at my Grandmother, put my bags down and pulled my chair right up beside her. I took her calendar from her hand and said “I understand, now tell me what is confusing you and I will help you through this, one step at a time.”

© Gatewood Campbell, June 2011

Just When I Least Expected It

This is a copy of my first post on Facebook in March.  It was, for many, the very first time they had heard this story. Even for those that knew, they didn’t know the depths nor the details. I have never felt such love as I did when I began to read the comments that people shared with me having read my post.  Today, I share it on my blog, not within the safety of my FB friends list, but open on the web, for anyone to read. This is a big leap for me.

The seizure took me by surprise. It had been six months since my accident that left me with a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. I was finally beginning to learn how to face the world again. Brain injury is a curious thing. On the outside I looked the same. Beneath the surface, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING was completely different. Nothing was routine anymore and I could not remember anything. I had to keep notes in order to recall my birthday, my children’s birthdates and even my own home phone number. I would wake up each morning and put a sticky note on the phone with the current date and where my kids were that day. Justin was in Elementary School so usually I knew where he was. Hunter was almost two and naturally I wanted him to be with me as much as possible. The problem was that I couldn’t remember when he was with me or when he was at daycare.  I remember being downstairs and being frightened by his sudden appearance in the room because I had forgotten he was at home. If he was at daycare I would run frantically to his room multiple times each day looking for him. We decided it was safest for him to go to daycare everyday, at least until I had learned to cope with my new world. If I became confused during the day I learned to go to the phone and everything I needed to know was listed there. I remember the first time I went to the grocery store and I stood in the produce section with an empty cart and I had no idea how to go about filling the cart. I left the store empty handed with my head hung low and tears streaming down my face. I didn’t feel like I even knew who I was anymore. My body was the same, but my brain, my very own brain that I had always known, was suddenly foreign territory.

I took a leave from work and worked hard to recover from my brain trauma and go through extensive cognitive rehabilitation. In six months I was finally making positive steps in recovery. I was learning to accept the changes and I was learning to incorporate strategies to compensate for my deficiencies. And then, just when I thought I could manage to face a day without as many sticky notes and reminders….the seizure that brought another new diagnosis.

I remember looking across the rack of clothes in Gymboree at my two year old and thinking to myself “I’m in trouble and I need help. I need someone to help me. I need someone to help my son!” I tried to speak but nothing would come out of my mouth. I desperately wanted to get the attention of the people in the store, but I couldn’t. Then, I remember staring up into the lights in the ceiling and crying out for my baby boy. The Gymboree manager was staring deep into my eyes with a calm spirit and a gentle voice. She repeatedly told me that he was ok. From the corner of my eye I could see his stroller and he was surrounded by women who had come to our aid and distracted him from the scene that had just unfolded. There must have been four or five women smiling at him, singing to him, covering him head to toe in stickers and batting balloons back and forth with him. He was fine. I was not, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to get up but my head was pounding, my shoulder was hurt and I could barely speak because my tongue hurt so much(I had chomped down on it very hard during the seizure).  There was chaos and confusion. I could hear people talking on two-way radios and cell phones. I was scared and confused. I tried to stay focused on the young store manager with the gentle voice. She kept telling me to stay still and help was on the way. The EMT arrived quickly and started asking me as well as everyone in the store a gazillion questions. If you are going to have an emergency, evidently it is helpful to do so in a new mall with state of the art security and a complete emergency response plan in place. I thought to myself “Ok, you have got to be kidding me! Am I on candid camera? Is this a dream….or maybe a nightmare? I finally got up the nerve to venture outside of my safety zone and go try going somewhere new, on my own…and THIS is what happens? I just wanted to check the clearance rack in Gymboree!” I heard a familiar voice and arched my neck back towards the front of the store. I wanted to be sure the face matched the voice. Yes, it was Johnny!  After my accident, I programmed his phone number as the “In Case of Emergency” contact in my cell phone and I had put his contact information directly underneath my driver’s license in my wallet. Someone in the store called him right away. He rushed to the mall and flagged down security in the parking lot and told them he had received a call from Gymboree. Security said they knew about the situation and escorted him right to my side. He was with me within minutes of my seizure. I remember Johnny’s calm demeanor and easy, but controlled voice telling me that I had a seizure and that everything was going to be ok. Ah yes, another escort in the ambulance for me while Johnny was off and running to farm out our kids to our relatives and then meet me at the hospital. Here we go…again. I was tired of this becoming the new normal in our life.

 Somehow, given the events of the previous six months, the current circumstances probably should not have been a surprise. Regardless, I was surprised by the seizure and even more surprised that a slip and fall would lead to Epilepsy. Now I had a chronic condition that would require medicine for the rest of my life. To say the seizure was a setback in my recovery from the initial brain injury is an understatement. This was only the beginning of a journey I did not choose, but one which God chose for me. It’s only now that I’m beginning to understand why He has taken me on this long road and how I can still flourish, even within my own safe world.

 Why am I telling this story now?  In the last six years few people had a room with a view my world. I’ve spent years paddling through muddy water and I’m finally beginning to see clear beautiful water ahead. A dear friend suggested I start putting my thoughts on paper and sharing my experience. It may only help me to digest my life, or maybe it will help someone else. Perhaps it is simply that for several years I functioned under the false belief that I should keep my injury and my diagnosis a secret. That false belief delayed my ability to recover and it’s time to make some changes. I am not damaged goods. In fact I am a better person having been through these experiences. I still have lots to learn, lots of positive things to share and beautiful family and friends to walk this road with me.

© Gatewood Campbell, June 2011