Magazine article The Christian Century

Holding Each Other Loosely: After My Wife's Brain Aneurysm

Magazine article The Christian Century

Holding Each Other Loosely: After My Wife's Brain Aneurysm

Article excerpt

THE NEUROSURGEON who operated on my wife's brain told us to anticipate an 18-month window of healing. "After 18 months," he said, "there's a plateau. What you have by way of recovery at that point is pretty much the function you can expect for the rest of your life."

Susan marked the end of her 18-month recovery period with a visit to the radiology lab. The new MRI results were what the neurosurgeon happily termed "uneventful." The tiny platinum coil, half the thickness of a human hair, which he had inserted in a small blood vessel the night of the ruptured aneurysm, was holding strong. "We'll see you in two years," he said with a smile. "Go and enjoy life." My 56-year-old Susan was thrilled to hear this pronouncement of freedom.

I don't mean to use the word my as if Susan is mine in the possessive sense of that pronoun. Actually, I use "my Susan," a phrase of affection, with great reservation these days. I love her dearly and count 31 years of marriage as my stroke of luck. But our journey together through this traumatic brain injury taught me some powerful lessons of nonpossessive living. Before she collapsed on the kitchen floor in 2013,1 knew that life was a gift to be shared, not a possession to safeguard. But that was mostly knowledge in the abstract. These days I live far more intentionally in the gift-to-be- shared zone.

Susan's 50-day stay at the University of Iowa Hospital would be a blur of indistinct recollection were it not for my diary notes, cell phone photographs, and the faces of gifted and caring practitioners emulsified on the photographic plates inside my head. She remembers nothing of those seven weeks--not a single nurse, CT scan, or strawberry yogurt parfait. We now conclude that this long, blank stretch of time in her otherwise striking return of memory is a blessing.

It all began with two hours in the emergency unit of our local hospital. One nurse grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off Susan's new tennis outfit. Another went to work getting her hooked up to some high-tech monitors. Someone drew two vials of blood. Once the lead physician managed to stabilize Susan, two techs rushed her off to the radiology lab. Five minutes later I stood behind a cluster of white coats huddled around screen images of a massive subarachnoid hemorrhage. Two of the physicians didn't say a word. Their silence signaled gravity.

The ER doctor determined that life support was critical, ordering intubation for a ventilator before the airlift to Iowa City. Within minutes, three air medics in blue shirts were wheeling Susan's gurney out to the helipad. I followed behind, carrying my plastic bag of clothing scraps.

As I watched the helicopter fly farther and farther away, I pinned my eyes to the sky as if that slender mechanical bird was supposed to circle back. What I was really staring at was a challenge as old as Abraham standing over Isaac atop a woodpile, but as new to me as the emergency developments of the last three hours--the challenge of relinquishment. Would I be able to let go of Susan as a daily fixture in my life? Permanently? No one was around to advise me on this question, though I had a hunch an answer might be required of me this night.

Relinquishment became the question I contemplated during my hour-long drive westward. When you are behind the wheel on a highway and your only passenger happens to be the Lord, you can cover a lot of spiritual ground. I went to work practicing relinquishment, at least as an idea in my head. The Lord listened patiently.

My hands kept the car steady on the road, but my mind wandered. I wondered if I was addressing the question of "losing Susan" from the wrong perspective. She wasn't mine to lose. She was never mine to own. Jews seem to get this straight, or at least Jewish theologians do. They know the difference between guardianship and ownership. As far as they're concerned, we merely hold things in trust for God. …

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