Often how we experience life is just a matter of perspective. A recent family crisis, where my seventy-nine year old uncle was sent to the ICU after a horrendous car accident, reminded me of this lesson.
My uncle had always been a youthful free spirit. He always tried to be outside, near mountains, and having fun. Managing a campground in Eagle's Nest, New Mexico for my father in the 80s. Working on construction projects from Colorado to California in the 90s. Eventually retiring to the mountains of Mexico, where between regular card games, his new medicare-paid knees allowed him to stay out on the dance floor into the wee hours. Barrel chested and strong, his good posture helped him maintain his full 6'5" frame, even as the decades passed by.
Several times per year he nonchalantly drives sixteen hours between Guadalajara and Houston, like he was running errands. But this last trip was anything but routine.
Well... you can imagine how she reacted when, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, she received a call that her almost eighty year old father (my uncle) had flipped his 1998 Jeep Cherokee over several times on Interstate 10 a few hours from the Mexican border. Words like despair, terror, and anger can't fully communicate the extent of such trauma on the human psyche and soul.
When she arrived at the ICU in San Antonio the next day this is what she saw: her unconscious father, covered in bandages head to toe, hooked up to a breathing machine, and a swollen face with stitches where they reattached his left ear. What couldn't be seen but was surely felt: eight broken ribs, four broken vertebrae, and a partially collapsed lung.
What are the doctors doing about it?
Her years of nursing experience both helped and hindered her. She knew all the right questions to ask, but also felt like it was her responsibility to save his life.
When I saw her 48 hours after the wreck, 24 hours after she had arrived at the ICU, she hadn't fully recovered from the shock and anguish of the initial news. Tears of grief were always nearby.
But I saw my uncle's situation differently.
I received the call from my parents, saying my uncle had been in a terrible car accident and was life-flighted to San Antonio. They visited him the next day, and the report I received was similar to what my cousin saw. He's in ICU. He's unconscious. Has a broken back. A machine breathes for him.
Knowing this might be my last chance to see him alive, I made plans to visit a few days later.
On the drive over I had time to ponder the reality of the situation. A seventy-nine year old man living through a major car accident, in a coma, trying to heal all the external and internal damage. Let's be honest, there is little likelihood of a positive outcome.
Thoughts floated to the surface...
How long will he be unconscious?
Will it be like that person in the movie who never wakes up?
What did it feel like to know that my uncle probably wouldn't be alive much longer?
How much longer would it go on? Days? Hours?
What memories would I cling to upon his passing?
Nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered.
As I walked up to his bed, I surveyed the damage. Yes, he looked like what I had heard. Swollen face. Bandages. But honestly, I had imagined far worse, something out of the driver's ed film "Mechanized Death." He looked pretty good considering he rolled four times in a steel box without airbags. Actually, outside of the facial bruising, he looked, dare I say, youthful.
I stood there motionless, not sure what to do or say. His wife said to me, "squeeze his hand, he likes that."
Shocked was I. "I thought he was unconscious!? He can respond?"
When I grabbed his left hand, not only did he squeeze back, but then he opened his eyes!
*Minutes before I had thought he was left for dead. And now, here he was, staring right at me.*
Because of the breathing tube he couldn't communicate with words, so he started using hand squeeze morse code (one for YES, two for NO, three for I LOVE YOU), and gesturing other thoughts with his right hand. And when he wiggled his dancing feet, I understood he was showing me he wasn't paralyzed.
I was relieved, nearly joyous. He was still the same uncle I knew. Banged up, sure, but alive and doing surprisingly well!
Of course, he still had to undergo back surgery, and if he survives that, he has to go through months of grueling physical therapy. But what could have been the alternative?
Here was the same situation, seen from two very different angles. One full of anguish and pain. The other full of relief and elation.
Over lunch I told my cousin what I had expected when I first walked into the ICU. My morbid expectations helped remind her that we have so much to be thankful for, and how much worse her father could have been.
After our conversation she decided to change from a mindset of grief to one of gratitude. Easier said than done, but it is possible, and honestly, more helpful.
Thought Provoking Questions:
- What's a situation in your life that could use a shift in perspective?
- How could you see it a different way?
- What would help you get there?
- What kind of impact might that have?
- What would the change feel like?
My uncle is doing much better, but will be on the road to recovery for months more. Luckily he has a loving wife to help him through the tough process.