The Lesson Of Long-Term Marriage: What’s Better Is So Much Better Than What’s Worse

Twenty-three years ago today I got into a car with a very handsome man dressed in blue pants and a white shirt, drove a couple of hours to a courthouse in the very bucolic town of Mt. Vernon, Washington and, during the lunch break of a local judge, and in the presence of the bailiff and court secretary, married the man to whom I am still married today. The bailiff fired off a few snapshots from my then-cheesy 35mm camera (pictures I, years later, Photoshopped to the excellent results below!), we had lunch at a nearby cafe where a bottle of champagne and a slice of pecan pie with a bride & groom atop awaited us, then we drove north to Vancouver to spend three days at the Pan Pacific Hotel as our rainy, wondrous honeymoon. It was perfect… and when people ask if I ever regret not having a wedding, I assure them I still think it was perfect, to this very day.

Wedding day sepia 4 triptych

There is much to be said for weddings done right (I covered a few of those HERE), and certainly the topic of marriage is a deep and many-layered one (in The Warmest Chord my own heartfelt perspective is offered), but on this anniversary, from where I sit many years beyond that glorious Pacific Northwestern day, currently miles away from my stoic, stalwart husband who continues to deal with the ramifications of brain injury, the message of marriage I have to share is a different one than I had 23 years ago.

It’s a stronger one, one built more on wisdom, resilience, commitment and compassion than wild romance and youthful lust. Though, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for romance and lust, revel in it whenever it presents itself (which, as most of us would attest, is never enough!), but life teaches that any long-term relationship survives within an unpredictable mix of emotion and events… and the way we respond to both. And the longer I live the more I realize, while I may not be able to predict events that come flying my way (damn that unpredictable universe), I can do something about how I interpret, respond to, and learn from those unfolding moments.

Love is a funny thing, too. It keeps you attached and aware of that other person; sensitive to their needs and emotions, impacted by the events of their life that can overlap your own. Sometimes those intersections are lovely, sometimes they’re… challenged. As any couple knows who’s dealt with illness, adversity, injury, or any of those kinds of unexpected events that knock us off our feet  – a job lost, a disease diagnosed, a family member’s death; a brain injury – marriage can become about endurance and tenacity, a balance between attachment and detachment, even an ability to let go when needed to allow life to reorganize into some different while you’re away.

As the wife of a husband dealing with brain injury, I’ve learned about that part of being married. I’ve learned (as I wrote years ago in Love In the Age of MTBI) how circumstances can change and impact a marriage, make it more complicated and mercurial, shake it up in ways that can both take your breath away (and not always in a good way) and make you realize how strong your relationship really is, strong enough to endure the dark corners stumbled upon repeatedly and sometimes without warning. When pain episodes strike, when the walls go up and the lights go down and you realize plans will change, warmth will take a holiday, communication will be backburnered in lieu of necessary isolation and silence, it’s then that you face the reality of what you and your chosen one created back on that magical day, years earlier, in a courthouse in Mt. Vernon…

The tether. The bond. The connection. You can pull apart because you have to, because you both need time to regroup and recalibrate, but you never stop feeling the connection. The love. The sense that you are family and you will get through this to a happier time, a better time.

And while away, if you’re smart, you’ll take the opportunity to pursue your own “vision quest.” You’ll pay attention, listen, learn, and remember that thoughts impact reality; you’ll readjust your own view of life to get stronger, more compassionate and loving… to him and to yourself.

And if, during that time, an anniversary pops up, you’ll pay attention to that, too. You’ll look at that person – from wherever you are – with all the love you feel, all the belief you have in what’s good and right, and you’ll … celebrate another anniversary. Another year of marriage. Another worse endured for all that is better.

Because what you find when you step away, when you take that breath, and look at the reality outside of pain and the adversities life throws at you, is that what’s better is so, so much more than what’s worse. Worse, you can overcome; better, is the life you’ve created and will continue to create. That’s the lesson, the true gift of a long-term marriage.

Happy anniversary to us!

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Dog Days Of Healing Bowie…The Unknown Journey Of A Broken Pet

Portrait of a Dog_smMy dog is crippled.

Not even six, healthy, strong, full of life; he woke up Monday morning and couldn’t walk. Blown disc. No trauma had occurred, his disc just gave out for reasons unknown leaving him paralyzed. What a stunning way to start the week.

I’m not a dog person. Just ask Tina. Oh, I love dogs, I certainly love my dog, but I’m not one of those gushing “I love all dogs!” kind of people. Same with babies. I don’t love all babies either. Babies and dogs to me are just like adults; some you love, some you want to go away and stop licking you.

Truth be told, I’m more of a cat person. Easier to manage and I appreciate their independence. Dogs can remind me of dopey boyfriends; cats are more like those cool girls who’d be your friend but never invite you to the slumber parties. There’s something refreshingly unencumbered about that kind of detachment. It’s also annoying but that’s the trade-off with cats. Of course, my cat, Perry, was less a cool girl and more a pissy old uncle, but that was his way. He was a cat who played fetch, talked vociferously, and was clearly smarter than most – all – of my dopey boyfriends. I miss him to this day.

The whole pet thing has eluded me throughout most of my life. This is due to the fact that I had a pet-less childhood. With a small house and eleven children, my parents were understandably averse to adding more bodies to the mix, particularly hairy, peeing ones (my brothers amply fulfilled that role). But even beyond spatial limitations, my father had a sort of pathological disdain of “pet culture.” He seemed to view it as a money-wasting self-indulgence and, being a bit of an iconoclast, sneered at the compulsion of most to have one. A pet, that is. Damned if he would and damned if his kids would.

He did concede to a turtle, however. Not sure how a turtle passed muster; regardless of its hairless, non-peeing (that we were aware) status, it was a pet. But a turtle was the extent of it and we were happy to have it. For the time we did. While I believe we might’ve had more than one during the tenure of my childhood, I’m aware that I was responsible for losing our first, Turk, while playing in the apparently too-long grass in our front yard. How I managed to lose a very slow-moving turtle in a flat midwestern lawn is beyond me, but I did and I have no subsequent memory of grief from my presumably bereft siblings; which meant either Turk’s disappearance was a non-issue in my pet-neutral family, or everyone was so horrified I went into a dissociative state to escape their wrath. Bottom line, I killed my first pet and that was the canvas upon which my pet-philosophy sprang going into adulthood.

The first dog that came into my life was an adopted 2-year-old Golden named Charlie, who was the same age as my son at the time and immediately became a part of the family in that warm, fuzzy way Goldens do. Being uninitiated in the world of dog ownership, there were times when the noise, hair, peeing, pooping and general neediness between the two of them at their shared and tender age ratcheted up my frazzled quotient in ways that reminded me why I liked cats and only had one child. But I loved that dog; not as much as I loved my boy (and if you know my boy you know he inspires pinnacles of love), but I loved that dog like crazy, even used the dog communicator, and when he grew old and developed kidney failure and had to be put down, it was a true tragedy for our entire family, particularly my husband who is a dog person and who’d suffered a terrible trauma (hit by a car as a pedestrian) and found Charlie a comforting and healing companion. At that painful juncture I wasn’t sure I could ever endure having another dog; not when it came with such a short life-span and an end as agonizing as any loved one’s.

Then came Bowie. I’d never had a puppy and after my husband had the unimaginable misfortune of a second car accident, this one resulting in brain damage, it seemed time to bring another sweet, healing Golden into our midst. I picked him from the litter. We’d gone to the home of a family who home schooled their kids and had made the breeding of their dog a lesson plan of the semester. There were about 11 puppies, as I recall, and after sitting with a few squirmers, I picked up Bowie and he curled into my lap as if he belonged there. And so he did.

Smart, feisty, more courageous and less anxious than Charlie, he became an adored family member and a companion on all adventures, whether weekend beach forays or longer road trips…as my husband would always say, “you made the traveling squad, Bowie.” He tended toward some of his own extremes of bad luck: his first summer he was poisoned both by rat poisoning left at a vacation house and poison mushrooms snuffed on a long forest walk, requiring a sort of Hannibal Lecter face mask until he learned to not eat everything in sight. He was born with a rare skin condition that is not uncomfortable but leaves him uber flakey. He’s had congenital arthritis from birth which limits his ability to run like the crazy dog he wants to be. But despite these misfortunes, he was – is – a most exuberant and playful fellow who is deeply attached to us all. When the ramifications of my husband’s brain injury worsened at some point in early 2010, it was Bowie who kept him company when he took time away to heal and find himself again. From that point on, Bowie was my husband’s talisman; a warm, non-verbal partner (unlike his very verbal wife), a conduit for much-needed stress-release, and a companion for slow walks taken when a lessening of pain allowed it. When they came home it was noticeable how close they’d become and how foreign I and the boy seemed to our dog…which was its own little sorrow.

But it all came back. Even in the midst of their growing connection, Bowie and I found our own (as did my son). My regular power walks kept him on his toes and though he might have preferred the slower, tree sniffing meanders with my husband, he kept pace – most of the time – and built his stamina as I did mine. The day before that strange morning, we’d done some ball throwing, a good neighborhood run, and a crazy little game of tag in the front yard.

Then he stopped walking. Perfectly mobile on Sunday, Monday brought total paralysis. X-rays were clear, the myleogram was inconclusive, but an MRI revealed the blown disc. We got a full debrief of possibilities: he might walk again, he might not. If he does it might take a while – weeks, months; or, as they repeated, he might not walk again…ever. But whatever the result, the only possible fix was surgery. Big, messy, very expensive surgery.

If money is no issue, the prospect of surgery for a a relatively young dog in otherwise good health is a given. If money is an issue, as it is with us, there are other questions to consider: can we afford to spend thousands on a dog when we have a son in college, a wife who’s a freelance writer, and a husband who’s a private practicing attorney suffering with recurring symptoms of a brain injury? Can we afford money for a surgery that might not even result in a functioning dog? And what happens if we do end up with a non-functioning dog? Could we consign him to a life of immobility? Are we willing to take that on? Or would we make the decision after such an ordeal to put a crippled dog down? If so, how would that be reconcilable after the fact?

I was overwhelmed and questioning, but my husband was adamant. “I want to give him every possible chance,” and the decision was made to move forward. After immediate surgery and four days of post-op recovery, Bowie is now home.

He cannot walk but he’s beginning to move his legs. Getting him wrangled into proper position to do his business is a challenge; he’s a big dog and his legs don’t work…I guess that’s something we’ll have to sort out…quickly. He’s laying in a comfortable area created at the foot of our bed in a room where he and my husband will, once again, spend time together healing.

Me? I’ve retreated to my son’s room for the time-being, willing to give them their space and companionship. After years of my husband’s journey with brain injury this drill is a familiar one. I’ve learned to accept my solitude, keep my own counsel. I enjoy the work I do (even if the “virtual office” would be loads more fun with an office kitchen, hot coffee and Costco muffins!), so that is a boon. I have good, strong friends and family nearby who are there when I need them but don’t expect attention when there’s no mental energy to engage. I live near the beach and get to look out at the glorious ocean every day, and my own health is solid. I walk fast and often and though I miss my walking companion, I’m holding out hope he’ll rejoin me soon.

Bowie

And how does someone who’s not a dog person feel about all this? Two nights before Bowie came home I went to the hospital by myself and found him laying quietly in the crate where he was kept. He brightened immediately when I approached, enjoyed the biscuit I brought, and licked my hand so many times I’m sure his mouth tasted like Euphoria. I even allowed him to lick my chin – which I never do – but just once, ’cause I’m not a dog person who likes dogs licking my face. But when I got up to leave, assuring him he’d be home soon and we’d be back to visit the next day, he did something I’d never heard him do. He cried. He made sounds that were pained and full of anguish and even as I stepped out of his view and stood with tears running down my face, he continued, crying and crying. The doctor assured me “it’s just because you’re leaving and he wants to go with you. Go, he’ll be OK.” So while Bowie cried, laying there with legs that couldn’t walk, I walked out and felt my heart breaking in all the ways you’d expect from a… huh, I guess maybe I am just a little bit of a dog person.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Cowboy Strong and Poetry Sweet…Love In the Age of MTBI

MTBI: Mild Traumatic Brain Injury — Most traumatic brain injuries result in damage to the brain because the brain ricochets inside the skull during the impact of an accident. Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, also called closed head injury or post-concussion syndrome, is a condition where an individual suffers a mild concussion, whiplash, or blow to the head and subsequently develops symptoms such as recurring head pain, cognitive difficulties, emotional and personality changes, hypersensitivity to light or sound, nerve damage, memory difficulties….

pete 2You meet someone and there’s a thought: “He seems like a nice guy.” Not much else, not yet. Tall, handsome, in a Charlie Brown tee and cuffed jeans – yes, we laughed about that later – but the eyes were blue, the smile warm, the first impression amiable. No particular fireworks, no spiritual recognition, no sense of destiny, just a nice guy. Eight months later we were married and today we celebrate our 20th anniversary. That first impression? We’ve gotten beyond cuffed jeans and the tees have been replaced by Tommy Bahamas. The guy? Still so very nice.

Every couple has their “how’d you meet?” story and ours is particularly useful because it offers both the story and a casual reminder that I actually did get  a film made at one point in my illustrious career, convenient two-birding at a time when blowing one’s horn just seems crass. There was this film, from a screenplay I wrote with the inimitable Patricia Royce called To Cross the Rubicon, which was being produced by the Seattle film group — of which Patricia was a partner — called The Lensman Company. All very exciting and imminently life-changing (though perhaps not in quite the ways I imagined!). At some point early on in the process I went to the company office housed in a beautiful old building near the Pike Street Market and was greeted at the door by company partner and Rubicon director, Barry Caillier, standing in conversation with company attorney, Pete Wilke, Esq. We got on with the aforementioned first meeting and I got on with my day. Not long after, Mr. Wilke, Esq. negotiated my contract for the film, I flew back to LA to record a song for the soundtrack, he came to LA for various business reasons, we inexplicably ended up at Disneyland and somewhere between spinning nausea on Star Tours, sparking lust on the Log Ride and the realization that this man was the kindest, most patient human being on earth (who, on a first date, sits for an hour with his hand on the forehead of a queasy blonde chick without one word of complaint?!), I fell in love. It seems he did, too.

young Pete w:catBeing married is an interesting journey. You start off with a powerful cache of feeling, an idealized sense of this person you’re latching  yourself to, and yet a firm grip on the point and purpose of your commitment. At least that was my experience. But learning about your mate is really the adventure, isn’t it? Pete was unlike any man I’d ever known. Quiet and laconic, like a lawyerly Gary Cooper, he was born in the Scandinavian-rich state of Minnesota (Norwegian and Swedish on respective sides of family), spent the wonder years in Southern California, Montana for that very impressionable high school era, then bounced between Washington and California for college. A major sports booster, he vacillates between team colors for UCLA and the Montana Grizzlies and will even make note of Gonzaga on a good day.

Pete_senior picIt seems Montana is where he found a most inherent part of his identity; the rough and tumble cowboy spirit with a love for sports and the great outdoors and all that big sky appreciation of nature and its regal beauty. Regardless of where life took him after that period, Montana was in his blood and it remains an archetype of sorts; a mystical ideal of the balance between man and nature. In fact, when it came time for his most recent high school reunion, he took himself into a Nashville studio and recorded an entire original album of “brown grass” country music as a gift to his classmates called Down From Montana. What started as a sort of reunion party favor ended up bringing him some stellar reviews (Country Stars Online) and a very loyal following of country music fans and Montana radio. Who knew? I didn’t.cover

In fact, I had no idea Pete had the heart of an artist. He was a highly respected attorney (Pete Wilke, Attorney for Independent Filmmakers), a former political activist, a tribal lawyer, and a beloved friend to many. But an artist? That I didn’t know. I also didn’t know he was funny. In fact, when a friend who’d heard I was getting married so soon after meeting Pete expressed some concerns about my hasty decision by asking, “But does he make you laugh?,” I remembered seriously mulling the question — after all, that had been a standard prerequisite for most of my life. “No,” I answered honestly, “I can’t say he’s particularly funny.”  But, I made very clear, he was KIND. And given my life history, kindness had surpassed humor as an essential mate trait somewhere around my mid-30’s. Deep, authentic, uncompromising kindness. Gold. And Pete had kindness down.

And as a delightful bonus discovered not long into the relationship, it turns out he actually was funny. An alter-ego named “Stevie” whose take on life was simple and inanely satirical provided mirth during long car trips and late night conversations. Somewhere between music and mirth, I was discovering a whole new man behind the husband I was to marry.

On October 1, 1990, shortly after Pete got his Grandfather to and from the clinic for his annual flu shot and before my 3-day migraine kicked in, we drove to the courthouse in Mount Vernon, Washington, where Judge Gerald Mullen postponed his lunch to solemnly don a long black robe and in the company of our two witnesses, court secretary Pam Green, and jovial bailiff, Harold Johnson, we took our vows. I remembered wondering ahead of time if the whole court-house/elopement scenario would feel generic and unemotional but when Judge Mullen said the line, “the union into which you two are now about to enter is the closest and tenderest into which human being can come,” I was a goner. Something about that word “tenderest,” about the respect with which the judge was conducting this ceremony, just got me. I grabbed the back loop of Pete’s dress pants and held on for dear life, overcome by the gravity of what we were doing and suffused with the sense that something sacred had just happened, bad lighting be damned. Bailiff Johnson took our only wedding photos with my crappy 35 mm camera…most were out of focus and none were truly worthy of the moment, but the wonder of Photoshop in later years allowed me to bring them to at least some measure their inescapable value as the only photographic evidence of our momentous day. Here are three of my favorites:

Wedding triptych

And life went on. We moved from Seattle into my LA apartment. I got pregnant. We moved into a bigger house. He passed the California Bar. We had our son. We shared time with his daughter. We struggled with our careers, wrestled with money, had good times and bad. Life. Marriage. Parenthood. It was at some point in here I became more clearly aware of his musical talent. He had written me a song when we first got together called “I’ve Just Got To Take This Chance With You” and I remembered being surprised at how warm his voice was and the passion he put into his poetic writing. But it was over time that I was introduced to his rather deep repertoire of heartfelt country/rock songs written over the years, songs he’d sing as he sat in the living room banging on his battered left-handed guitar with our son, Dillon, looking on in awe. Pete might not have known what chords he was playing but he sure made it sound good! I was a fan and encouraged him to explore it further and before long he found himself concocting a country musical built around his best songs: Country Rules (originally called Country! The Musical). It was a fantastic concept and we literally leaped into it with a “my Dad has a barn, I’ve got some curtains” kind of production frenzy.

This was an amazing period of creative collaboration for us and he was a killer producer. With no background, no real experience in the realm of musical theater production, this guy put together a show with some of the most talented people in Los Angeles (Lauri Johnson, Gary Clark, Rod Weber; Ronna Jones, to name a few) and was invited to put it up at what was then the premiere country music venue in Orange County, The Crazy Horse Saloon. Through sheer determination and indefatigable effort, Pete made it happen like no one I’d ever seen and it was spectacular. The style was “environmental theater,” which meant we — the actors and singers — “worked” or played customers with the actual club as our set, singing, dancing and emoting our way around the real customers and bona fide waitresses, with a very hot live band led by the exuberant Jeff Brown up on stage accompanying us. People were delighted and good reviews followed, most notably one that appeared on the front page of the LA Times Calendar section: (LA Times/John Roos: “Barbecue Theater”). It was sheer triumph for Pete.

A few years later we attempted to get the show on film, shooting an expanded, opened-up version at Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. But while the cast was again stellar (Dean Fortunato and Jennie Wilke Willens joining the group), the additional songs great, and all intentions good, the lack of budget and creative differences within the production team led to a disappointing result and the film was never completed.  But Pete’s music transcended even that and when his Montana CD came out years later, there were many who also requested the show’s soundtrack, which he hadn’t yet put into the marketplace. He was working on getting that done, with plans to also get back into the studio with his Nashville team to do another record…

Five years ago Pete was crossing a street in El Segundo, CA, and a young man on a cellphone, looking the opposite direction as he pulled into traffic, hit him. There were broken bones, torn shoulders, damaged vertebrae, excruciating pain. There was surgery and physical therapy and so much fear and frustration at the impact on his life but he worked hard to heal and two and a half years later he was almost at a clean bill of health. Then, in an inexplicable twist of repeated fate, there was another accident. Pete was in his car, stopped at a crosswalk waiting for a couple of pedestrians to make their way across Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach, when a car being driven by a distracted driver smashed into him from behind at about 25 to 30 miles an hour with no attempt to brake. Pete’s head was turned slightly to the right, the impact was stunning, and amongst other injuries, his right frontal lobe sustained damage. MTBI they call it…mild traumatic brain injury. Mild because he can still walk and talk. The impact on his life, however, was anything but mild. In fact, nothing has been the same since.

Pete on a hill

This is a man who rarely took an aspirin, whose life was filled with athletics and running and one team sport or another. A man who hiked down the Grand Canyon almost every year and trekked through the Montana wilderness pheasant hunting every fall. A man for whom music and theater and singing and the whole gamut of sensual, creative and aural pleasures was deeply appreciated. A man who longboarded down the Strand with his teenage son. That kind of man. But in the two and half years since that inattentive driver looked away for too long and changed life as we knew it, Pete’s world has been about hospital visits, neurology treatments, pain management intervention, ear/hearing care, and pharmaceutical assistance for a myriad of injuries and symptoms including painful ear nerve damage, hearing loss, 24/7 tinnitus, excruciating and persistent head pain, cognitive challenges, persistent startle reflex, loss of certain elements of his emotional palette, etc.

Though the cognitive struggles have improved significantly, allowing him to continue and rebuild his law practice (which suffered in the first year after the injury) and the extreme nature of the head pain has subsided enough on a day-to-day basis to allow him to again enjoy many aspects of his life, the landscape of his existence — and ours as a couple, a family — has changed significantly. He has to wear hearing aids now and cannot hear well enough inside his head to sing or play guitar, yet he can no longer go to clubs to listen to music because the volume is intolerable; the same with movies. The Grand Canyon is out, hunting is a thing of the past, and he had to quit his softball team not only because the potential of further impact to his head would be devastating but also because running and vigorous exercise ratchets up the tinnitus and head pain to excruciating levels. A planned hiking trip to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana was canceled because altitude does the same, a trip to Europe with all its planes, boats and automobiles became too taxing, a rafting trip with our son proved over-ambitious and even the volume at a small dinner party can push him to a tipping point that sends him home. Sometimes he can barely tolerate talking and silence has become a big part of our lives now. Anyone who knows me knows how hard that is!

quoteThe pain level got so extreme earlier this year that he hit a full-blown crisis that resulted in him leaving home to live by himself for a couple of months in an attempt to quell the pain and noise inside his head and heart. It was a brutal experience for him, for me, for our family; one that has shaken us all to the core. In his absence I not only had to deal with my grief and the potential loss of the marriage and husband I’d known, but to confront my fears and inadequacies as “the wife of a brain damaged man.”

One thing that is very much missing from the treatment protocol of brain injury – traumatic or mild – is guidance and assistance not only to the injured party but to their families as well. It is virtually impossible, as a neophyte to the injury and its many enigmatic results, to have any notion of what you’re getting into, to understand the full spectrum of imminent impact on the family system, the marriage, the personality of the injured; to know the best treatments, the most advantageous way to handle stress, the sense of isolation, etc. Whatever you think you know about it, you don’t know squat.

And yet there is no social worker to take your family’s hands after a diagnosis, no instructional program to attend, no support whatsoever for how to deal with this monolithic event. I was given no advice or information that would have alerted me to many of the unexpected ramifications of not only how a brain injured person might act, but how best to respond, how best to be a partner, a family member, a caretaker to that brain injured person. I discovered that in the entire city of Los Angeles there is not one support group specifically for families of the brain injured or the brain injured himself.  This is a shocking deficit, particularly in this era of so many brain-injured athletes and returning vets dealing with the short and long-term consequences of this most confounding injury. Luckily I was referred by Pete’s neurologist to a brain injury survivor who’d previously been in a support group at Cedars Sinai that was no longer in existence. She proved to be a desperately needed and deeply appreciated source of insight and perspective that only a person who’d gone through the injury could have. In a way, she saved us from total familial implosion.

After talking to her, it was abundantly clear that I needed to better educate myself on the injury, to learn what Pete actually needed from me versus what I thought I should be giving him. They call it the “invisible injury” for good reason: unlike with TBI (traumatic brain injury), where the injury and resultant symptoms are so obvious, MTBI patients can seem normal. They walk and talk and do many of the same things they used to. What is not readily understood is the “brain storm” (as one writer put it) that is going on inside their head. And the cause doesn’t have to be severe;  my support group mentor was 10 years into her recovery and her brain damage had been caused by standing up too quickly under a cabinet and smashing the back of her head against the bottom edge. It’s not hard to imagine how a stationary brain at a dead stop would react to being hit by a car moving 25 mph!

My re-education was all encompassing. I ordered books and read everything I could find online. I talked to doctors and therapists and alternative med practitioners. I sought the comfort and counsel of friends and family members. I gathered around me people I trusted – my brother, sisters, my dearest friends, my son and stepdaughter, all of whom were profoundly supportive throughout – and got through the days. I made adjustments in my thinking, my reactions, my expectations. I dealt with the fear that neither my husband, nor my life, would ever be the same. It was gut-wrenching and terrifying but mostly my heart ached for the anguish Pete was experiencing and….I missed my sweet, good man.

Pete & kidsAs difficult as it was, the time away proved restorative for Pete and ultimately he came home. It was sometimes confusing and often a very challenging transition but little by little life got back to some kind of normal. He reconnected with his kids, he was able to effectively move his practice forward, particularly as his client base once again resurged; the tinnitus, head and ear pain were still ever-present but definitely more manageable, and the rage and confusion he’d felt about this confounding injury evolved to a more tolerable level of acceptance. In fact, he’s so stoic about it that sometimes I forget he’s got buzzing and whirring going on in his ears every minute of every day or that so many of the things he loved most in life – music, sports, activity – can no longer be experienced. His identity as a person, a man, a husband and father, has been compromised by this injury and that’s got to just get to him. I know when I really think about all I just want to cry.

But he doesn’t cry; he just gets on with his life. He needs to rest more often during the day, take breaks from activities when the pain in his head gets too intense, and often by Friday night a long conversation with his wife is not doable. He doesn’t laugh as often, “Stevie” rarely makes an appearance these days (when he does, it’s precious), but he’s doing the best he can. He’s taking care of his family, his work, the legal actions related to the accident. He’ll drive out to Norco to bring candy to an 80 year friend, he’ll stay in weekly touch with his God-son, he’ll check in with his extended family and bring me Pinkberry when I’m not expecting it.  He’s living his life. He even picked up his guitar the other day and tried. It didn’t sound good to him, it didn’t feel good, but he tried. I hope he’ll try again.

As for us…we’re a “work in progress,” as he says. He still struggles with accessing his higher band emotions (empathy, compassion, love), a common result of frontal lobe damage and a particular consequence I struggle with. Some days are better than others. Sometimes I do a commendable job of dealing with it, others I’m a mess. Sometimes he seems fully engaged, other times he’s as cold and distant as a stranger.  It’s hard for us both to realize that someone who loved and felt with such depth and intensity cannot fully get to those feelings at will…his neurologist says they’re there, somewhere in there, he just isn’t able to get to them…yet. There’s hope. But brain injury is a complex and really mystifying event, this I’ve learned, so I can’t help but wonder how long it will take for him to once again look at me with the full range of his feelings. I’ve learned from experience, and I’ve been ably taught by my support group mentor, that time is not to be predicted, watched, gauged. It’s the worn but wise cliche of “one day at a time.” And it takes time…lots of time…to heal a brain.

But he’s here. He may be different in some ways from the man he was but the man who is here, who is smiling at me from across the room, who loves me however he can love me and works so hard to find solutions and compensations for where he’s lacking, is still the man I love. The concept of “for better or worse” was never so poignantly felt as it has been for both of us this year and this is when you realize what stuff your marriage is made of. Not whether he makes you laugh or has a big enough career or can still write you musical poetry. None of that ultimately matters. What matters is resilience, loyalty, commitment, empathy, compassion. What matters is remembering and re-educating. Holding on and letting go as needed.  Understanding that this “tenderest union” is tough as well. Tough enough to endure and remain grounded even in the worst of situations.

And so we celebrate our 20 years. Older, less dreamy-eyed, battered and sometimes weary of it all, but oh so certain of who we are and who we are to each other. After 20 years it’s sometimes hard to think of new and inspiring things to write in an anniversary card but I saw this quote and it touched me. As sappy as it may seem, it’s what I want to put inside my anniversary card because it so resonates with my thoughts about marriage at this juncture:  “We need a witness to our lives.  There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything.  The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day.  You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.  Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness’.”

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I will be your witness, Pete. I might not do it perfectly, I might not always get it right, but I will be your witness, if you’ll let me, for another 20 years. And maybe another 20 after that. We’ll see how it goes…we know how tricky time and life can be but I’m holding a good thought. Thank you for your never-ending effort to get better, to survive this. It does mean everything.  Happy Anniversary…My Good Good Man

Down From Montana CD cover by Dillon Wilke

All other photographs courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.