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