To the person who changed our lives:
I don’t know you. And you don’t know me. I can make guesses about who you are, based on our brief texts and your panicked phone call to me as I was waiting to see my husband at the ER. You seem to be sincerely devastated by the accident and genuinely concerned for Patrick. I can only imagine that feeling you must have inside, knowing that you very nearly ended a life. I could hear it in your voice – that need to know that Patrick was okay and that he would recover. The need to hear me absolve you and pass on words of soothing care. I hope you understand that I don’t have any to spare for you right now. My life is filled with people who need my attention and compassion, and although you are certainly on that list, please understand that you are closer to the bottom for the moment.
I want to tell you a little about who we are, those of us who love Patrick and are giving everything we have to help him recover who he was, to give you perspective to understand how much our lives have been changed forever by your actions.
I am a wife and mother before all else. The remainder of who I am is always in flux as I grow and learn and find passions and joy in so many things in life: a writer, a teacher, a musician, a vegan, a swimmer, a geek, a gamer, a beer lover, a science fiction connoisseur, a nomad. Our family has only been in the Bay Area for a year and a half, and I have felt so at home here in this temperate, beautiful part of the world. Our family has thrived and we cannot tell each other enough how perfectly we fit here, among the Redwoods and Ocean, the fog and sun.
Our children are our greatest loves. Sean, our eldest, has grown into his long and lanky six year old limbs with boundless energy and infinite curiosity. He is still my sweet guy, reserved at times, introverted, with a strong need to be home with his family, curled up in a chair with a book and Bear Bear. He has been going through a Dad phase these last few months and his afternoons are spent drawing gaming maps to use during their table top sessions on the weekends, or planning strategies for Super Mario Brothers Wii marathons with Dad. Bedtimes are always with Dad – a bath, brush teeth, a book and a rock-a-bye.
Our youngest, Wyatt (nicknamed the Riot), will be two in March and is a loving and joyous kid. He is always on the move, whether singing and dancing to Twinkle Twinkle, or learning to fling spaghetti at the ceiling, or climbing to the highest tower on the playground. He adores his brother and would gladly spend every minute of his day following Sean around. And, as amazing as this sounds, Sean feels the same way. The boys cuddle together reading books in their couch-cushion forts or take turns throwing the football in our tiny back yard. They love each other with a simplicity of brotherhood and companionship that I can barely believe. My sweet guys.
Patrick is an extraordinary man. A husband who is in equal measures sensitive and brilliant, loving and stable, attuned to me and our family in all things. My partner and love. He got the recruitment call from Apple three days after Wyatt was born and we couldn’t have been more excited or proud. He is a talented software architect who loves riding his bike to and from work. Those 100+ miles a week have kept him in the best shape of his life. We celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary this summer although we have been inseparable for almost 15 years.
I was pulling out spinach and roasted butternut squash with quinoa and cranberries for dinner when my phone rang with a Sunnyvale number. I didn’t reach it in time to answer. I’ve had many chances over the past few weeks to replay every moment in excruciating detail from the second that I picked up the next call, made from Patrick’s cell phone, from a bystander.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Do you know that near higher consciousness sensation of awareness that something occurring does not match the normal order of the world? I heard this woman’s voice and everything around me stopped.
“Patrick has been in an accident. He’s with me and is talking. He wanted to tell you that the paramedics are taking him to Kaiser.” Her voice was slow and calm, and my heart rate spiked high enough for me to see spots. We didn’t know then – we had no idea how bad it was.
My son won’t talk to me about the events of that Tuesday. About how I yelled at him to get his socks and shoes, Bear Bear, his toothbrush and his iPad and get in the car. About what must have gone through his mind as I held his shoulders, looking in his eyes, and said, “Daddy’s been in an accident and I need to go to the hospital.” He cried silently all the way to our friend’s house. I know that this fear, this first taste of the brutal unfairness of the world, are memories that he will carry with him all his life.
The baby hadn’t eaten dinner or nursed at all during the afternoon and the rush hour traffic was interminable. The paramedics called twice to let me know that they’d assessed Patrick as qualifying for trauma treatment and were heading to the closest level one trauma center. The extraordinary EMT even put Patrick on the phone in the back of the ambulance and we exchanged shaky and disbelieving “I love you”s to the sound of the baby screaming from the back seat.
Can you feel the rising determination and panic I must have felt as I circled the ER desperate for parking only to find out that Patrick hadn’t been checked in yet? When you called me and tried to explain what had happened, I still hadn’t seen him. My mind was playing through every scenario of what was going on and if he was okay.
The next few hours played out horribly – Patrick’s injuries as they were discovered on the X-rays and CT and MRI and angiography were near unbelievable. The damage to his spine, his tissues, his arteries, his ligaments, his systems, his extremities, his skin. A dislocated cervical vertebra, three other fractured cervical vertebrae, a dissection of the vertebral artery, nerve damage, contusions, and so much more. The likelihood that any of the next choices we would have to make could lead to his death was so high that I felt near to fainting each time the phone rang that night from the spinal surgeon with updates about the emergency surgery and next steps.
But I wasn’t there with him – we made the choice together while I held his hand in the ER that whatever happened that night, it was important that I be home with the boys. To give them a consistency of a somewhat normal night with Mom. To know that even if our world fell apart and Daddy was not there, I would be and they would be okay.
I do not have the energy now or the need to blame or vilify or feel angry at you. But if there was one thing that I would like you to feel remorse for, it is the fact that you forced me to make a decision between Patrick and our children. My husband, in that moment of great and terrifying fear, not knowing if he would live through the night, wondering if he would become a vegetable, or whether he would ever see his children again. And my children, scared and unsure of the world they knew, not comprehending the magnitude of what might be taken away from them, how their lives had changed in that instant. My heart still agonizes over that impossible choice.
We are so lucky in our lives to be surrounded by people who have stepped forward to support us. People like my in-laws who came down immediately from SFO mere hours before their flight overseas was due to leave for a six month sabbatical. They stayed overnight with Patrick in the hospital every night for a week so that someone would be with him to push the pain pump every 15 minutes to keep him from screaming and sobbing when he woke up. Who fed him vegetable broth and ice chips and counted the seconds until his next dose of anti-nausea medications.
People like my mother who bought a plane ticket the moment she heard from me on Tuesday night and stayed for nearly three weeks as a surrogate mother to my children while I was in the hospital with Patrick. My mother who endured countless tantrums from scared and tired children, who wiped noses and kissed bonks and made lunches and brushed teeth because neither Patrick nor I could be with our kids for weeks. People like my step-father who stoically refused to let me know that my Mom was skipping her once a year beach vacation with her love and her puppies to stay here with my kids and who sent an entire year’s worth of crossword puzzles and heapings of chocolate.
People like my father and step-mother who sent me a check immediately to help with expenses and arrived on the day my Mom left in order to provide child care and medical assistance to us after Patrick’s surgery. Who helped us consult intelligently with doctors and provided comfort and advice no matter what hour of the night. For the countless loads of laundry, meals made, story books read, playground trips made, dishes washed on our behalf by people who know how scared and overwhelmed we all are.
People like the parents from my son’s new school who have brought me meals every other day for the whole month and helped to get my jobs at school covered without any stress or issue. People like my Mom’s work colleagues who immediately took everything over at her job to help her be able to be here for me without worrying if she had a job to go back to. People like my friends who have gone on errands and grocery runs, moved furniture, brought cookies and snacks, picked up take out, and never stopped asking what they can do to help. The people Patrick works with who have brought fruit and gifts and sent notes of encouragement, robots, Legos and support. Who have unerringly stepped forward to support Patrick and cover his work until he can return. If he can return.
Every one of these people has been affected by that single moment where your car slammed into Patrick. That instant has changed everyone’s lives. I am certain it must have changed yours. Do you see bicyclists everywhere now? Do you pass by that intersection and feel a deep sorrowful fear in your heart? Do you look at the faces of your loved ones and hope they never have to go though this?
Each day I look into my husband’s eyes and I see so many things. Determination, anxiety, love, fear, grit, loneliness, resignation, drive, fatigue and pain. Life. He is alive. We can say it an infinite number of ways: he made it, he is alive, he is still with us. He is Patrick, through and through. In the hospital we couldn’t see a new doctor or nurse without hearing how lucky he was to be alive, to be able to walk. Karma, blessings, miracles, luck. Whatever their brand of higher belief, we heard it all frequently enough to hammer the message home. He shouldn’t have been alive after he hit the ground. But he is.
Patrick will be changed by this forever. You’ve left us with scars and baggage to carry that will alter every decision we make in our lives. From whether or not to let our son ride his bike on the sidewalk outside our home, to whether we will be able to go skiing as a family. And Patrick will not be able to look at a bicycle the same way as before. It will be a long time before he is able to find peace in his own head about the crash – you have taken away the order and surety of logic in his mind about the simplest part of his life: his health and fitness.
Your actions have changed the fundamental nature of my world. Though I dream of the day where our lives return to some concept of normality, I have become a mother to three dependents who need me very much. My independent, self-motivated husband is living his greatest fear, one that he often confessed to me in our quietest moments of introspection: being a burden on his family. He is only just now able to partially care for himself. The moments we cheer are the simplest ones; taking a shower without my hands to help him stand, getting a cup of coffee by himself, playing Legos with Sean, cuddling with Wyatt before bed. But in so many things, he has become another person that needs care and attention. I tell him that not many people are lucky enough to live down their greatest fears and be able to say they triumphed over them with love and confidence.
In my darker moments, when I am ill and overwhelmed and the baby is screaming from teething pain and Sean can’t stop coughing as his asthma flares up, and Patrick begins to snap and ache and frown and hold his pain in, I look at this enormous mess around us and I wonder how to even make it through that moment, much the less that day or week. When withdrawal from the medications changes Patrick’s personality and he struggles with chronic pain, how do we find our way back to who we were? What will our lives, our goals, our dreams even look like after this?
We may not know our path forward, but I am certain that there is nothing in this life that will stand in our way now. No manner of complications or resulting injuries and their ongoing effects are going to keep us from healing and tending to our collective wounds and hearts and minds. It takes a particular kind of insistence and resilience to make it to the other side of this kind of life changing trauma. We have it and I won’t accept anything except love in our lives. No defeatism, no settling for less than what we are capable of, no dead ends. We are reminded every day of the love and support around us and that there are always hands to catch us and set us aright.
I can see the day coming where we are able to move forward with the same purpose and joy as we had before the crash. Some days, I wish I could just skip the here and now and go right to the carefree and well. Days like watching Patrick’s face distort in pain as he struggles to massage the cramping ligaments under the collar as they spasm while trying to rebuild and adhere where they were shredded off the spine. Moments like looking at the stoop of his shoulders and the circles under his eyes as he confesses to terrible dreams and nearly no sleep for weeks. The times when his throat spasms shut just as he’s swallowing. Or when he pees blood for the seventh day in a row. Or when he goes to bed without me because his damaged larynx is keeping the baby and I awake at night. Or when I have to hold his hand and wipe his eyes as the ER nurse puts in another IV over the bruises from the previous three. Or when my son realizes that he hasn’t seen Dad in days. Or when the baby just wants to climb into Daddy’s lap, but can’t.
Some days, I don’t want to do this anymore. I can cry myself to sleep quietly as much as I need to let out that rush of emotions that I just can’t control at how hard it all is. And I know Patrick’s probably doing the same in his small dark room next to mine, but there is a nursing baby who just woke up and a six year old who needs some water and I just have to breath, and know that this will all pass. And when I have a quiet moment and I can look into his eyes without bursting into tears, I can tell Patrick I love him. And that’s all that matters.
To the person who changed our lives: I don’t know who you are. But you should know this about us. I hope it provides you some measure of lesson or hope or acceptance:
We are surrounded by love.