I’ve been writing this piece in my mind for a few months now. For reasons unknown, the words just haven’t been coming. I write when the fire’s hot and when it’s not I have a habit of leaving it unattended, hence why this post is 3 months in the making. I’ve come to accept that this post, like the experiences associated with it, is never-ending. So for the purpose of documenting this story it’s important for me to share it as I remember it, while I remember it.
In the Fall of last year “The Incident” happened. That’s the name Tommy and I use when we talk about it. On September 25th, 2016 Tommy – a healthy 30 year old male who’s active in sports and who has no prior heart-related issues in his family history – went into sudden cardiac arrest which led to him being in a coma for 5 days. Instantaneously my world was turned upside down. Probably the most disturbing and unsettling factor about the entire thing is that The Incident happened with no tell-tale signs or warnings. Doctors told us there was basically no way we could have prevented this from happening. I’m 28 years old. I haven’t had much exposure to loss or grief, but it’s safe to say The Incident made up for 7 lifetimes of it. What happened following The Incident was a string of heartbreak and lessons learned. This is my attempt to document those lessons.
Trauma is not the same for any two people. The first day Tommy woke up from his coma, he was terrified. He had no recollection of The Incident and was extremely confused about what was going on around him. When I spoke with the nurse I asked “Do I have to tell him what happened, if he asks me?” When she said “yes,” I immediately began crying. “But I don’t want to scare him. He’s already so scared and it’s going to make things so much worse!” I sobbed. “You have to,” she replied. “I know it’s hard but he needs to know what’s going on so he can cooperate with us and he can trust that what we’re doing is to help him”. Her words brought me little comfort but I knew she was right.
In the beginning I was very selective in the things I shared about The Incident with others. Over time my inability to be transparent about The Incident harnessed anger and resentment toward both Tommy and other people because I was fixated on the thought that no one could possibly understand how draining this plight was for me; how I was drowning in my sorrows trying to protect Tommy from any negativity meanwhile feeling so alone in my sadness.
Blinded by my own abjection I was barren to the reality which was that seeing someone you love on a hospital bed and not knowing when or if he/she will ever wake up is the most unbearable pain one could fathom, but waking up as that person knowing you’ve caused your friends and family immeasurable sadness is another burden to bear. These are two completely different traumas Tommy and I carry and I’ve come to accept that it’s not fair to weigh them against each other. What we both went through was devastating and we will never fully understand what it felt like to go through each other’s pain. One of the most important things I learned from The Incident is that Tommy and I experienced two very different traumas that very much exist but are not mutually exclusive.
People grieve differently. Following The Incident I would get angry at the sight of people carrying on with their normal lives while my world was at a standstill. It took a long time for me to recognize that this fragile situation had changed every person who loved Tommy. During those weeks of his sickness and recovery I saw the human in every one of his friends and family members. I realized that people grieve differently and people recover differently. Just because someone wasn’t as emotional as I was didn’t mean they loved him any less or had any less compassion for our situation.
In order to begin healing, you must first embrace your grief. I was mute on social media during our time in the hospital because I obviously didn’t care to keep up with food pics and #wanderlust photos but I also wasn’t ready to read messages from people. After being home for a few days during our recovery, I asked Tommy if it would be okay for me to write a response on my Facebook addressing the outpour of support we had received. He told me that whatever I felt was appropriate to do in order to deal with my grief was okay with him and that I didn’t need to ask for his permission. I cried when he said that to me (tbh, I sorta just cried at everything during this period). For a majority of my experience through out The Incident I felt forlorn in my grief and I knew I was ready to let people see my pain. When I finally responded and thanked people for their uplifting messages, I received an endless amount of continued support. Every single message breathed life back into my broken soul and gave me a comfort I had gone too long without.
It’s okay to let people heal you. For a while I was nonvocal about the struggles of my emotional recovery because I had a hard time entrusting my feelings with others. People came from the ends of the earth to offer their love and compassion even after the worst had passed. People I hadn’t spoken to since childhood reached out to me. At my lowest point I finally told myself that I didn’t just deserve their support, I needed it. The best thing I did for my grief was to share it with friends and family. I truly believe with every ounce of my being that their prayers moved mountains to heal Tommy and I. I have continued to trust family and friends, old and new, to take care of us. They haven’t let us fall. Nor will they ever.
Writing helps. You know how smells bring you right back to a moment in time? Every sensation is like that too. It can be recalled if encoded. Writing helped me capture feelings I had that I didn’t want to forget. I say feelings because that’s where I store my memories and even the most painful memories throughout this entire experience were important for me to remember. When Tommy was in his coma I had everyone who visited him at the hospital write to him in a journal. I would write in it daily and tell him about his progress, but I’d also write about the highs and lows of being there beside him alone. When I go back and read those entries, it’s incredibly painful but it brings me a sense of humility I don’t have without remembering that sorrow.
Tragedy breeds purpose. A few weeks after we were home from the hospital we went to a house warming where we ran into my friend Tony. Eager to know how we’d been doing I ended up sharing the story of The Incident and realized it was the first time I had ever sat down and really told someone from beginning to end what had happened. When I was finished, Tony had goosebumps. He said there were people he saw and hung out with every day in a social setting and yet this situation made him only think of all the people he truly loved but didn’t spend enough time with. It had changed his entire perspective on how he valued relationships and despite of all of the heartache we had endured, Tony’s testament was proof that there was so much good in Tommy’s story. Following Tommy’s recovery, so many people reached out and shared their own personal stories of grief with me and it made me realize that while I had faith my story would reach the right people for the right reasons, that this grief of mine yielded dividends. It heartened me to know that people noticed; that they processed their own feelings and experiences through my words and whatever I might say might also frame the turmoil within in a way that makes the burden of grief tolerable yet another day.
The secret I keep is this: I’m not always strong. I still wake up in the middle of the night and make sure Tommy’s breathing. I still panic if he goes anywhere without me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch a scene of someone having a heart attack on TV and not get emotional. Grief is a process. It can last months. Even years. And sometimes learning to accept the part of you that is forever broken is part of your healing.
A coworker once asked me when I knew Tommy was “the one” and without hesitation I responded “I’ve never actually thought he was ‘The One’ for me.” I went on to explain that I wasn’t saying this because I was unsure we should be together, but because I’ve always felt like Tommy was just too good of a person for someone of this world to be deserving of. And I’m not kidding you, he’s so so good. He’s the kind of person who comes into your life and makes you reevaluate your humaneness because his benevolence is that flamboyant. I mean my goodness, this is a man who doesn’t even leave the toilet seat up. And in the 6 years of being in a relationship with him he’s never so much as cursed or raised his voice at me (and Lord knows I’ve deserved it at times). His virtue radiates and everyone who meets him has a hard time understanding how someone like him coexists in a world of people that fall so short. I don’t really know how else to explain it but I’ve always felt like Tommy wasn’t meant to be claimed. He was put on this earth so his spirit could touch and belong to everyone, and I have no doubt in my mind that’s why he’s here.