The Healing TreeArts
“The most dangerous point in a newly-paralyzed person’s life is not when they realize how badly they’ve been hurt; it’s when they start to make real progress in their recovery. That’s when they begin to appreciate just how long it’s going to take, how hard it’s going to be, and how limited their ultimate potential probably is. It’s at that point they’re most likely to become discouraged and depressed. I keep a very close eye on my patients at precisely the point where it seems like the worst is behind them. We’ve all worked too hard through a long and painful night only to lose everything just as the sun is coming up.”
Amanda’s words came back to me full-force as I read the poem that Bryan Hammerman had written as his latest poetry workshop assignment. He’d been paralyzed in a motorcycle accident almost a year ago, and had indeed made great progress. He’d recovered full use of his arms and hands. But he was increasingly discouraged that his progress had run into a brick wall at the beltline. I never knew which Bryan would show up at our poetry workshop – the one showing off the barbed wire tattoo on his bicep or the one drowning in self-pity because his legs couldn’t tread water. The last lines of his latest poem froze my heart:
I can still move my finger.
I can still pull a trigger.
It was 6:30 on Tuesday evening. I was in the conference room where the Para-Quad Support Group would be gathering at 7:00. Bryan had agreed to meet me there at 6:00. He hadn’t shown up. Nobody was answering the phone at his apartment. I was on the narrow cusp that separates merely worried from truly frantic. Bryan perfectly fit Amanda’s profile of a high suicide risk: a young man who one minute has the world at his fingertips and an unlimited future at his feet, and a minute later – after flying over the handlebars of a motorcycle, diving from the top of a bridge, or tackling another football player – faces the prospect of life in a wheelchair.
At 6:37 Bryan wheeled himself into the room. “Sorry I’m late. I had to check something out.”
“No problem,” I replied, trying my best not to sound like a distraught mom whose boy had come home hours after his curfew. “What were you checking out?”
The chairs had been removed from around the conference table for our group. Bryan parked his wheelchair on the other side and laid a folder on the table. “My homework,” he said as he slid it over to me.
“Thank you. What were you checking out?”
Bryan closed his eyes and puckered his face. Then he said, “When the radiologist showed me the x-rays, he said there was no way I’d ever walk again, that I was paralyzed and would just have to deal with it.” He shifted his weight in the wheelchair, looked down at his feet, then back at me. “Today...” He smiled like a kid who’d just stepped through the gates to Disneyland. “Today I wiggled my big toe. So I guess I’m dealing with it, huh?”
You know, there just aren’t enough different words in the English language to describe the act of crying. I cry at weddings and I cry at funerals. And I cry when a young man whose hope had been taken away from him wiggles his big toe.
Caleb Johnson, the hospital social worker who specializes in working with people who have spinal cord injuries, facilitated our group. “Is everything okay?” he asked when he came into the room and saw me in tears. I nodded, but before Caleb could question me, other members began filing in.
As always, we began the meeting by going around the room, with each group member having the opportunity to share something, or to take a pass. The way seating was arranged, it happened that Bryan would go first and I would go last. Caleb gave Bryan a nod. “Last week, you expressed your anger at people who have legs but don’t use them. Any new thoughts you’d like to share this evening?”
At the previous meeting, Bryan had gone off on a rant about obese people who drive around shopping mall parking lots trying to find a space closest to the front door, waddle to the nearest escalator, then go in and stuff their fat faces with the all the fast food they can eat (Bryan’s words, not mine). “People who abuse their bodies like that don’t deserve to have legs,” he’d said, “when I would give anything to be able to run up a flight of stairs or pick an apple from a tree.” Most of that meeting had been focused on trying to help Bryan (and through him, the rest of us) transform his anger at the outer world into energy to tame the inner world. Caleb obviously wanted us to pick up tonight where we’d left off last week.
Bryan just smiled and shrugged. “I wiggled my big toe.”
For a moment there was a stunned sort of silence in the room. Did he say he juggled his yo-yo? He jiggled in deep snow? Then the room was filled with clapping and a round of the awkward sort of hugs that people in wheelchairs give one another. It took Caleb ten minutes to get things back on track. When he finally did, he asked Bryan to say more about his feelings, and about what this meant to him, now that he could wiggle his big toe.
“I really haven’t sorted it all out yet,” Bryan replied. “At first I was really excited – I’d have done back flips if I still could. But then...” He closed his eyes and bit his lower lip. Part of Caleb’s genius as a group facilitator was knowing when to press the conversation and when to keep his mouth shut. He kept his mouth shut. We all filled the silence in our own ways – watching Bryan, watching anything but Bryan – but in our own ways we were sending him the power of our prayers.
“This is going to be really hard,” he finally said. “You all know me. I’m not a patient guy – I can’t even stand to wait in line at McDonald’s!” Everyone laughed; you didn’t have to know Bryan for more than about five minutes to appreciate that he didn’t just have attention deficit disorder – he had what he called the RBADD version – Really Bad!
“Well,” he continued, “last week I didn’t have anything to wait for because I didn’t have any hope of something worth waiting for. I was going to spend my life in a wheelchair. Period. End of story. But now, I can wiggle my big toe.” He pushed his wheelchair away from the table and looked down at his feet, then pulled himself back in. “Does that mean that someday I’ll walk again? Or does it just mean that today I can wiggle my big toe? It’s going to be a long time before I know, and the uncertainty is killing me.”
I must have frowned at Bryan without meaning to, because he immediately smiled and said, “Okay, Carrie Anne keeps telling us to be careful about the words we choose. The uncertainty really isn’t killing me, it just feels like it. I want to know right now – will I walk again? I want to know if I’ll ever stroll along the beach, feeling the sand between my toes and holding hands with my girlfriend. The uncertainty is torture.”
“The problem with instant gratification is that it takes too long,” Greta Faber interjected. She’d been a member of the group more than ten years, and could always be counted upon to inject a little note of humor at just the right moment.
We continued around the room, with each member sharing their thoughts on the torture of doubt and the power of hope. I tried to listen with half an ear, but mostly I concentrated on what I was writing in the pink journal. When it was finally my turn, Caleb said, “Carrie Anne, you’ve been awful busy over there. Have you created something to share with the rest of us?”
I nodded. I’d long since stopped being shy or apologetic about reading unpolished poems that were written straight from the heart. “I’ve been thinking about the paradox that the miracle of healing often requires an incredible sense of urgency, and at the same time unbelievable patience.” I turned toward Bryan and spoke directly to him. “You need to work on strengthening that big toe, and getting the toe next to it to wiggle, with the urgency of putting out a fire. But you also need to leave walking on the beach with your girlfriend in the hands of God, and trust that whatever happens will be for the best. That’s what this poem is about.” I took a slow breath and said my prayer. Then I read:
I am patient
As nighttime peering toward the eastern sky
As an acorn sensing the fertile ground
As low tide feeling for the pull of the moon
Silence answers: not now but soon
I am patient
As an eaglet knocking on the door of her shell
As a sleeping bear on a thawing day
As a lioness brooding over unfed cubs
Silence answers: it’s on the way
I am patient
As ocean surf pounding sandy shore
As a mountain stream racing down bouldered slopes
As an August fire roaring through prairie grass
Silence answers: just a bit more
I am patient
As lightning on a summer night
As a funnel cloud dropping from a low black sky
As a hole dug six feet in the ground
Silence answers: you better slow down
“There’s only one real finish line in life,” I said after I’d closed the pink journal, “and you want to make lots of detours before you reach it. That six-foot hole is waiting for all of us, Bryan. Don’t be in too big a hurry to get there.”
- The Healing Tree
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Questions for discussion
- About the Author