Saturday, May 17, 2014

Angels Are Everywhere

The ironic truth about living with a brain injury is that independence means learning to ask for help. I've learned that toughing it out in an airport and trying to get myself to the gate, never yields a good result. So I was waiting for the wheelchair attendant and hugging my mom goodbye at the curb when emotions came pouring out in a torrential river of tears.

I had been living with my parents for five months this winter, and now I was going home. Being surrounded by family is like having a safety net beneath us as we swing on this crazy trapeze of life. With family around, when I had a vision therapy appointment, and the paratransit vans didn’t show up, I had a ride. When my morning brain-exercise puzzles left me stumped, dad was there to patiently help me figure them out. When my daily 5pm exhaustion hit, and I was too tired to eat dinner, mom's cooking saved me. But now I was leaving the safety net, plunging back out into the world on my own. TBI has been turned my life into a dangerous high trapeze, and living on my own, I fly without a safety net. 

I had been a Daughter for five months, now I had to go home to be a Mother. I wasn’t sure how, and I was up all night wondering. So when the mess of tears met me at the curb, I gave myself permission to loose it. I didn’t care who was looking. I left shame behind. This was too big to suppress, too big to care, and I had had too little sleep. I’ve learned that by letting feelings move through me, they do not last. When I let embarrassment stop that process, I am still dealing with the feelings for a long time. It works much better to feel your feelings and it that area, disinhibition (life without filters) is quite helpful.

When I say I've learned to ask for help, I mean not only from the human world, but from the spiritual world as well. I prayed with all my heart, as I sat waiting, “Please watch over me. I don’t know how to do this and I am scared. Please send me help.Send me lots of help. Send me some angels.Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

A moment later, a tiny Filipina woman, arrived with my wheelchair. Her badge told me her name. Angel. I did a double take. She smiled as she helped me with my bags, not at all fazed by my tears. “Crazy day we are having! 627 wheelchair requests, even my boss is pushing wheelchairs today!” she laughed.

She zipped me through the whirling, swirling hustle and bustle of the airport that amplifies the whirling and and swirling always in my head, making me completely disoriented and nauseous. I closed my eyes behind my dark glasses and worked to stay calm. Angel unhooked the ropes of the security line and started singing “I Did It My Way!” loudly. This was getting more surreal. She hollered at a passenger in the security line leaning on a cane. “Hey, you! You come with me. You don't have to wait. I’ll get you past this line.” Then someone with crutches, and then another cane. Belting out in song “I've lived a life that's full. I traveled each and every highway, and more, much more than this, I DID IT MY WAY!”, Angel pushed my wheelchair, with a gaggle of handicapped people following us to the security agent. She was the Pied-Piper of SFO's disabled. What a sight we must have been!

She delivered me, eyes shut, to he TSA agent, Angel Number Two. “I can do the pat down right in the chair sweetheart. You don’t have to stand up. Does it bother you to lift your legs?” “No.” “Does it bother you to lift your arms?” “No.” “Does it bother you to tilt your head?” “Yes.” “It hurts to tilt your head?” I opened my eyes to look at her. “No, it doesn’t hurt. It makes me more dizzy and disoriented and seasick. I don’t move my eyes or my head.” She looked confused. She had never heard that one. “I have a brain injury” I explained.

She got silent and STILL, the way people often do when you say “brain injury”. They are jolted out of their business-as-usual mode. I can hear their minds grow dead quiet to match mine. She started patting down my legs. “You know, I see these young kids come through here everyday, and they are amazing. They have the best attitude. They inspire me….. Now I am going to use the backs of my hands to pat down sensitive areas….. You are just like them. You are going to kick this thing.” She stopped and looked at me. “You are going to come skipping through this machine next year, yes you are!…. Now let me run my gloves through the scanner." With both of her hands, she held my hand, lowered her face a few inches from mine, and looked right into my eyes. "You are going to beat this! I can just feel it! I just know you are. I believe in you! You are my hero!”.

The TSA agent of all people, had just pierced my heart. Any composure I had regained was completely lost. The floodgates re-opened and there was no stopping them. How did a TSA agent become a therapist and cheerleader for every stranger going through her line? Who are these amazing people?

Tears streaming down my cheeks now, I was being wheeled through the airport by the tiny woman with a huge heart singing songs, and yelling out “Magandang araw!” (Beautiful day!) as she passed her co-workers. 

My daily life is surreal. I started laughing at how my prayers were already being answered. The world was full of angels. I never knew it like I do now.

Angel delivered me to the plane, handing me off to the flight attendant, Angel Number Three. “Do you have any seats closer to the front?” I asked. “I forgot to ask earlier and I don’t tolerate motion well.” The difference between the front and the back of the plane was the difference between a day on the couch recovering or a week on the couch recovering. “Sorry, the flight is full.” My heart sunk. I knew I was buckling myself into Hell. I gulped.

"Can I ask for your help then?" I continued, "I have a brain injury. If there is any turbulence, my brain does not know where my body is space or which way is up. I will be completely out of my body and disoriented.” Now, she slipped into that Quiet Still Place and stopped in her tracks. 

“I only have a half hour layover and when we arrive, I will not know where my body is or how to move it. I will likely not be able to move or talk. Can you please take me by the arm and get me to the wheelchair and tell the wheelchair attendant that I am connecting to Burlington?”. “I will keep my eye on you,” she promised.

I am so grateful that after almost four years, I am learning this new body. I know the drill. I know what I am capable of and what I am not capable of. I am learning how to ask for help and how to work with the new operating system. 

Most of all, I am grateful that I now know I will recover to baseline after the really bad moments, and that makes all the difference between peaceful acceptance and unspeakable terror. 

Being able to first, understand my body; second, understand what it needed; third, not be embarrassed; fourth, ask for help; fifth, not be an anxiety attack about all of it; that conversation spelled major V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!

The plane shook and bounced across the country. I must have been gripping the armrest pretty hard because the man next to me said “I get nervous too.” I couldn’t talk to respond. “You have no idea!” I wished I could say.

I used to get nervous in turbulence, but this was a different kind of fear. This was not anxiety based upon a thought about what might happen. This was the sheer terror of what was happening, like free-falling on a roller coaster you can’t get off of. Like my life depended on it, I stared unblinking at a spot in front of me for my only sense of physical orientation. I didn’t have time to think or care about the plane falling out of the sky anymore, I was too busy surviving each second of this 5 1/2 hour flight. 

This brain injured experience puts me in the present moment all the time. While everyone else is calming reading magazines and watching movies, it takes tremendous focus and concentration, just being in my body.

The flight attendant guided me off the plane as promised, saying “You are going to be just fine!”, before giving me a huge hug. Who gets a hug good-bye from the flight attendant? I did twice this winter.... and an offer to be a free flying companion.

Everywhere I go, there is an amazing display of kindness from strangers. What makes human beings reach out with so much kindness and compassion to people do not know and will never see again? I am so moved by them. They have blown the ceiling off my reality about what is possible in human kindness. They teach me to be as kind as they are. I want to be the strangers I meet. I want to be like that TSA agent.

It is this kindness that makes the world so beautiful and lifts us up when we are down. We don’t hear about it on the news, in fact, we don’t hear about it at all. We pay little attention to it. Yet is there any greater purpose to life?

I am privileged to see a side of humanity that I have never seen before. Never did I think I would be pushed through airports in a wheelchair. That position puts me on the receiving end of random acts of compassion on a regular basis. Back when I was busy racing around on my hamster wheel, priding myself on my independence, I didn’t know this kindness existed; not in the deep profound way I know it now. So I am here to tell you.

Like a Special Ambassador from some foreign place outside of human culture, I am here to report back to you, that people are really beautiful. That life is beautiful, and I am so lucky to be given this vantage point. 

It comes to all of us when we slow down and find the courage to show vulnerability and our humanness. As Brene Brown says, "Perhaps vulnerability is the truest measure of courage".

There is some profound power found in living life in the raw, in not hiding our weaknesses out of shame. It is the place that connects us, human heart to human heart. 

The New Safety Net is here.

It lies in those random members of our human family that show up.


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