At Peace

When my mother asked me where my husband R was going last week, I told her that he went to a clinic in DC to evaluate his TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

My mother said, “He can’t have PTSD.”

What?

“It’s only for women.”

Huh?

“Only after they have a baby.”

After having a good laugh, I gently explained that that was called post-partum depression, something very different than post-traumatic stress disorder although you can probably get PTSD from PPD.

He’s still there now, amazed at the snowfall because he hasn’t lived in snow since he was in high school.

This stay, among the last few years that he has lived apart from us, is doing wonders for him. It is premature for me to share but I think he’s finally at peace with all of his ailments, his complaints, his chronic pain. Doctors are validating his experiences, his anecdotes of daily pain, his anxiety, his everything.

I can hear the sigh of relief from across the country.

I know him. He’s a good man. He has never been one to boast (quite the opposite of his spouse, heh), never been one to complain, and has felt guilty about his injuries because although they cannot be seen, he feels like he has to explain them all the time especially when a new batch of coworkers arrive.

He’s been talking with other soldiers who are going through similar situations.

This is exactly what he needed.

About a year after the accident, R told me he felt like he “owed” another deployment. He needed to go back for himself, for his friends who were injured, for his friends who died. Had he retired early, had he left the Navy early, had he done anything differently, he wouldn’t have arrived at this place right now.

He would have resigned himself to a life of regret.

Later he saw with his own eyes how much his command had changed since he last deployed. It wasn’t the same anymore. Many of his friends moved on or switched to different jobs. Later he realized regarding possibly deploying again, “What the fuck was I thinking?” Although we all hate that he is away, his geobachelor status forced him to find himself by himself without the distraction of a family because even though we may love our partners and families, they aren’t us. We need to know ourselves to be stronger in every element in our lives whether it is in our marriages, our families, or our professions.

How amazing it is for him to have the opportunity to learn more about himself, to know that his chronic pain is not in his head, to have doctors document his ailments both seen and unseen to the naked eye.

This hospital stay gives me hope that when he finally comes home maybe he won’t be as broken as I thought. He won’t ever be the same. None of us will.

But now we’ll at least have a map and a plan.

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Mother’s Day Reloaded

Mother’s Day 2010 was quite memorable but not for the reason you think. Yes, R was in a car accident the month before and we were still living out of suitcases at the Navy Lodge next to National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda but it was also the day I took L to her first Nationals baseball game.

Mother’s Day 2010 was the day after the dinner at the Dutch Embassy.

My, that sounds so fancy schmancy, doesn’t it? “Yes, dahling, I’d love to go but I’ve got to get ready for dinner at the Dutch Embassy.”

It was pretty awesome.

It turns out that the wonderful people at the hospital frequently invite the family of Wounded Warriors to various events around the city. That night happened to be dinner at the embassy.

I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to manage it with three young kids. As a Navy wife, a tiny part of me has been embarassed to be such a stereotype as in look at that young Navy wife with all those kids. Silly, I know. It’s a tiny part.

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Three young kids and only me at a semi-formal event with probably important people and expensive glasses and dishes. L was on the verge of being potty trained before the accident and you can bet your little patootie that she digressed when after the accident. How could I deal with a smelly diaper at a government building? Not only that, my in-laws and brother-in-law left a few days earlier and I was getting used to having all three kids with me all the time at the hospital every moment of the day. My weight dropped so low that there was a digit in the tens place I hadn’t seen since high school. I almost fainted a couple of times in the hospital. Because of all of these things, I almost declined.

I am so glad I didn’t.

Turned out that while we were the largest family there (yay, I won), they were not the only kids. There was a toddler safely harnessed in a kid backpack thing. There was another boy who was about a year older than M.

The kids and I greeted and thanked our hosts and other official officials then I did what any other parent would do.

I herded my lot to the patio and let them run around. They were soon joined by the other boy. His mom told me later that her son said, “I want to go outside and play with all the kids.”

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Yep, I am a walking preschool.

It turns out that the boy’s father was also a Wounded Warrior. His father’s vehicle hit an IED and he lost both of his legs. Our kids talked about their dads.

Our kids talked about their dads who were injured in the war.

I had no idea how powerful that would be to M. There were other kids like him out here, forced to grow up before they had to, forced to accept the mortality of the most powerful man they know, watching their moms cry when they think no one is looking.

Mind you, I am a military spouse and I own it but it’s not my superpower. I don’t expect Oprah to lavish me with expensive gifts just because I’m a military spouse but it would very rude of me to refuse.

On the way back to base, the officer in charge had two extra tickets to the Nationals game the next day. Mother’s Day.

My hand shot up first.

In retrospect, I probably should not have left the older two with R in the hospital for two very important reasons: (1) He was under so much medication that he does not recall most of his time in Bethesda and (2) HE WAS IN THE HOSPITAL.

But I HAD to leave the older two with him. My son M did NOT want to leave R’s side. The older two were potty trained and really independent for their ages. Also, this is what they wanted to do with Daddy the entire time.

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So L and I hopped on the Metro and headed to the game.

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Only we didn’t have regular baseball tickets. We had tickets in the Presidential Lexus suite. I looked around nervously at all of the food and whispered to the waitress if I could at least put the tip and alcohol on my Visa debit card as I didn’t have any cash with me.

She smiled and said, “Oh, honey. Everything is taken care of in here.”

Whoa.

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Yes, that’s prime rib. Yes, that’s a dessert bar behind L. Yes, we sat four rows behind home plate. Home plate is a base, right?

Mother’s Days since then have been very low-key. The kids bring home art projects from school, homemade cards created the morning of in the next room. True, there is no prime rib, no presidential suite.

There’s always next year.

The snitch

When my husband came home from the hospital last August, it was different sleeping next to him.

In all honesty, I was afraid for him. His urethra was completely torn rendering a regular catheter completely useless. Doctors had to use a superpubic catheter, piercing a hole two inches below his naval and into his stomach directly to his bladder. He was prone to infection in that area and needed to be vigilant with cleaning. Naturally he felt every tug of his tube and urine bag. He had to remember to sleep on his back and when his pelvis healed enough, he had to shift to either side very carefully. I was afraid the kids might accidentally pull out the tube or the cats might swipe at the bag.

Also, I was a little afraid of him. Even before the accident, he was a heavy sleeper. Sometimes he’d roll over and elbow me in the middle of the night and wouldn’t even notice. Only when I was already asleep and furious, I would say, “Hey!” He’d murmur an apology and fall right back asleep. I’d be left simmering next to him.

After the accident, he had vivid nightmares that would keep him from going back to sleep. He had random tics in his sleep, sometimes jerking the entire bed and myself from a peaceful slumber.

My husband’s sleep patterns hardly compared to the month he stayed at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He was on so much pain medication, including a morphine drip and an epidural in his left leg, that he repeated himself several times in the same conversation and couldn’t remember who came to visit him in the hospital. He’s always had morbid dreams but the ones he had now had the backdrop of war and suffering. Some of these weren’t even dreams and occurring while he was still awake.

Then the day arrived when they said he was finally going to be released to a rehabilitation hospital. The VA hospital in Palo Alto was only two hours southwest of Sacramento. While it was still quite a commute every weekend, at least we could all go back to California. The kids could sleep in their own beds and go back to some sort of normalcy that moving across the country took away.

That afternoon I asked my husband if he told his doctors about his hallucinations.

“No way,” he said. “I want to get out to California right now.”

I hesitated. “Are you sure? It seems pretty important to mention. You have to tell your doctor.”

“I’ll tell the new doctors as soon as I get there. I have to get out of here. I want to go home as soon as possible. The sooner I get there, the sooner I can continue rehab from our house.”

I looked in his eyes and saw that this man was not my husband but a reasonable facsimile. He was exhausted, dazed, and desperate for normalcy too. He needed me to be there for him. I nodded.

“Oh, alright” I said hastily. “But if you don’t tell anyone in Palo Alto the moment you get there, I’m calling your work.”

Later a group of doctors entered the room to summarize what he’d been through and what his next steps were at the VA in Palo Alto. I couldn’t help but look at him when one of his doctors asked him if he had any concerns.

“Are you having any hallucinations or nightmares?” He shook his head. Satisfied with their interviews, they left and went on to the next wounded warrior.

Then I did what any other spouse would… I told on him. I ran out as quickly as my platforms would take me.

“Doctor!” I yelled, arms flailing, out of breath. Having McDonalds right next to the Navy Lodge will do that to you. “He’s lying,” I continued. “He is having hallucinations but he didn’t want to tell you. He wanted to wait until he got to California but I don’t want him to… I don’t want him to go anywhere until he’s ready.”

Another doctor came out of another room to listen.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m telling on him.” I sighed.

I’m sure the doctors fought hard to suppress their grins, strangely as many people do when they talk to me.

“I appreciate you telling me,” said one of the doctors. He went on to say that all of this is normal and to be expected.

Yes, he trusted me to keep this from his doctors. But I also promised to be there for him no matter what. I will not let him self-destruct, silently suffer, or keep anything from anyone that could potentially harm him or anyone around him. Yes, I am his wife but I am also his advocate, his children’s mother, and his friend.

I know he’d do the same for me. We care enough to snitch on each other.

Getting on my nerves

I am a visual person. I am also a silly person. So when you put me in a pre-operation meeting with one of my husband’s friends J, who is equally silly, and a very serious Naval officer who happens to be my husband’s orthopedic surgeon… well, no good could come of it.

My husband R was scheduled to begin surgery to reset his pelvis three days after he landed at NNMC in Bethesda, Maryland. My mother-in-law came to our hotel room at six in the morning so I could see my husband before surgery. R’s parents and his youngest brother were going to watch the kids while his friend J and I waited for news.

The first thing I did when I saw my husband was hold his hand. It was cold and clammy, odd when his hands were usually warm and always held mine firmly like he was never ever going to let go. He was exhausted of course but I could tell in his eyes that he was relieved. Probably because the medication eased the pain, his family was here on the east coast to visit him, and he knew whatever was broken was going to get fixed.

The surgery was going to take nine hours. There was nothing we could do but wait. My husband’s friend J spent all day in the waiting room, continually updating their coworkers about R’s progress and listening to me. He shooed me out when he thought I needed to get out of the building. I think his ears needed a break from listening to me. I would.

I’ve always dressed from the shoes up, meaning I figure out which fabulous pair I’m going to wear and then wear an outfit that coordinates with said shoes. I packed my newish violet Coach platforms that I loved so much because I carried myself with more confidence when I wore them like I didn’t have a care in the world. In short, I felt like a badass.

I so needed a badass moment that day.

So I walked down corridor after corridor, waiting for my phone to vibrate, waiting for good news. I tried three or four different cafes in that huge hospital. I even met our family for lunch.

“Mommy! Grandma and Grandpa let us have ice cream for breakfast!” I smiled because rules go out the window when grandparents are around. I think that may even be a law in some states. During lunch, J called to let me know the doctor was ready to meet with me.

I didn’t have much to eat the whole time we were there. Great for the number on the scale. Not great if I feel like I’m going to fall over every hour. Also not great if some of the case workers are yelling at me to eat.

(Don’t worry. I’ve packed it back on since then plus extra just in case.)

So I’m sitting there with J and the doctor and it’s silent in the room. Too quiet. I get my pen ready to write.

Lots of medical terms. Lots of pauses to restate said terms.

The doctor said they took out some sort of tiny round screen out of his veins that caught a lot of blood clots and that would have killed R had they not put them in.

“Ew.” Oops, did I say that out loud?

“Pardon me?” the doctor asked.

Don’t say anything. Don’t do it. Don’t picture it in your head and–

“So you threw it away?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What did it look like? Oh, wait.” Stop it! Don’t go there! “Like when you wash dishes and you get the gunk out afterwards and you like bang the thingy on the side of the garbage can?” I even did the motion to go with it.

He didn’t even crack a smile although I’m pretty sure J was trying hard to stifle his laughter.

“Gross,” I said to myself. “Okay, I’m sorry. Keep going.”

The doctor talked about how nerves had detached on his left side and best case scenario was that R’s nervous system would somehow reroute these messages to compensate. I had a hard time picturing what this would look like and it probably showed on my face.

“The nerves were cut?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Bundles severed. Cut. Snapped.”

“Like spaghetti when you want them to fit into a pot of boiling water.”

He gave me a Look. I apologized immediately.

Later we found out that nerves were not, in fact, severed. R’s latest doctors said nothing was torn and were probably “asleep” after sustaining so much trauma. The disappearing foot drop in his left leg and ability to walk most days without a cane are testiments to this theory.

The nervous system is an intriguing part of the body. R told me of patients who have lost their limbs who still feel as if they’re still there. R would feel inexplicable sensations along his leg or foot. Sometimes it felt icy. Other times it was like multiple needle pricks. Most times it was extremely sensitive to any touch.

When he was transfered to the VA hospital in Palo Alto, California, nurses noticed his feet were extremely dry. Blood flow to his legs and feet were inconsistent. He wasn’t wearing socks or shoes or even walking to encourage exfoliation. I asked for permission to apply Dream Cream, an awesome all-natural cream from Lush that worked faster on our youngest daughter’s eczema than prescription steroid cream.

R saw what the cream could do and asked for it by name in Bethesda and in Palo Alto. I was given permission back in Bethesda to apply this cream to his chemical burns on his back. Peeling stopped soon after. I put it on his right foot then his left. Then he screamed like I was using a machete to apply the cream.

“Oh my God!” I cried. “I’m sorry! What’s wrong?”

He explained that it felt I was using a cheese grater on his foot.

Don’t worry. I learned how to apply it better.

I also learned how to reign in my sense of humor and to show tact at all times. We were in and out of hospitals for over a year. We met dozens of patients and their families and most of these interactions were solemn and quiet. After all, there is nothing funny about pain, suffering, or war.

My sense of humor helps me process information and acts as a defense mechanism, obviously. It allows me to get to know people quickly. I don’t use it all the time but enough. Any more than that would get on anyone’s nerves.

Dinner at the embassy and glimmers of hope

Second day in Bethesda. Going to see Daddy.

I am my own traveling preschool. I have found that walking around with three kids tends to attract a lot of attention… from other kids. I can’t tell you the number of times random toddlers have been caught up in our family parade, the number of times preschoolers have wandered around with us for a few seconds before we realize that I’m not their mommy, and the number of times parents have been frustrated while trying to persuade their kids NOT to follow us.

It happened when we were in Bethesda last April.

"I wanted to press the button!" Only heard this several DOZEN times a day.

The Warrior Family Coordination Cell was a godsend. They organized events that got families of Wounded Warriors off base that gave them the tiniest break from worrying.

When we received an invitation to go to dinner at the Royal Dutch Embassy, I can honestly say I didn’t want to go. My husband’s parents and brother had already left for home. It had been a couple weeks that I’d been out with all three kids by myself since the accident. While our kids are very well-behaved, they were still kids and I was mortified at all the possible things that could go wrong.

Most importantly, what would I wear?

Welcome to the embassy. We will be running around in circles in the driveway while mummy drinks the free wine.

I was relieved to know that it was not a sit down affair and children were welcome. Phew.

We arrived by bus and marveled at the architecture and landscaping of the embassy. The kids and I took a few pictures. I had a lot a glass of wine.

I saw a couple of babies at the dinner, both securely fastened by Baby Bjorns to their parental units. This wasn’t children, I thought. Babies weren’t children! Children run, pull table cloths, and say inappropriate things at the wrong times. My three were getting antsy inside and I could tell they needed to run so we went outside and found a table for us.

I let them chase each other in the large front lot of the embassy because why not? Better out there than inside with glass bottles and people to knock over, right? They were soon joined by a boy about M’s age. And the chasing continued.

I later caught up with the boy’s mother. She said that her son saw my kids from upstairs and wanted to come out to play “with all the kids”. They’d moved to DC area about a year ago from the midwest. His father lost both legs when his vehicle ran over an IED in Iraq. She had to pull her son out of school mid-year and start over in DC so they could be together while her husband continued his rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

I had to swallow because the lump in my throat was hard to ignore. I asked her, “How is your son coping?” I apologized immpediately after I asked. I felt stupid for wondering, for prying, and for thinking that I had any right to any information not offered.

If she was offended, she didn’t show it. In fact, she said it was okay and went on, “My son does remember a time when Daddy had legs and I’m thankful for that. He [her son] is going to a new school and he’s doing well there.” I admired their courage, openness, and honesty. I felt a glimmer of hope when I talked to her and when I watched all four kids run in circles.

VIPS in the pic above. I'm sure the people behind them were pretty important too.

Later that night after the girls fell asleep, I asked my son M what he thought of the embassy. He talked about his new friend and how his dad got hurt in Iraq too. He talked about how his new friend’s dad’s legs had to be cut off. Then we sat in silence. He was able to fall asleep quickly that night.

The week before he cried himself to sleep every night. He wanted to go home and to go back to school. He hated sharing a room, let alone a bed, with anyone. He tried to make deals with me like promising he’d clean his room for a month if we went home.

I didn’t blame him. I wanted to go back to normal too. If I recall correctly, I was making trying to make deals too. Just let my husband live and I’ll stop being a Christmas Catholic. Just let my husband’s pelvis heal and I’ll read the Bible more and to the kids, even the boring parts. Just let my husband keep his left leg and I will do whatever you want.

I didn’t exchange phone numbers or email addresses with that family. My husband’s accident had happened only a couple of weeks before so I was still numb. Looking back I realize now that so many reached out to me and while I heard it, I didn’t listen. I couldn’t listen. It was hard to hear anything over the echoing, neverending worry in my head.

All I remember is being thankful that the kids and I met another family who, while their circumstances were far different from ours, faced an extremely difficult situation and who were now trying to move forward in their lives. I had hope that no matter what was happening, recovery for my husband was not only a possibility but a real goal. No matter what, we could face this accident and we would move forward like that brave little boy.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do.