Thursday, December 8, 2011

Life Changes in An Instant

It happened in an instant: carrying bags of groceries in both hands, John had started up the stairs to the townhouse when his left knee buckled and he fell backward so quickly he had no time to drop the groceries and grab the railing to stop his fall. The back of his head smacked the pavement and he lost consciousness.

What followed was a frantic attempt to save his life: the screaming siren of the ambulance, immediate brain surgery, a prayer vigil as his wife Mary and their three children Matt, Liz and Katie waited. He survived the night and the subsequent weeks, finally regaining consciousness and, little by little, the ability to recognize loved ones, to speak and to read.

But some aspects of the life of this smart and sophisticated man who once headed the international division of a major food corporation and traveled the world are gone forever. He can no longer drive. He walks with great difficulty. He has major cognitive deficits: he can no longer multi-task nor does he always process what is said to him. He has no reflexes that prompt him to notice or catch something falling from his lap nor does he realize that anything is the matter with him. He can't understand why Mary won't let him drive or buy a bicycle. He scoffs at his physical therapist's alternative suggestion of a three-wheeler. He alternately tells Mary, a gifted psychotherapist who retired from her practice to care for him full-time, how much he loves her and how angry he is with her, saying that he doesn't understand why she won't let him drive.

And their days together flow on, determined by the rhythm of his life: getting up mid-day, fixing his favorite meals, caring for their two devoted little dogs, sitting together in the sun on their ocean-view balcony, performing tasks of daily living once easy, now hard. Neither complains. They're united in love and in faith.

                                                    John and Mary Breiner

Having just spent several days visiting with Mary, one of my closest friends over the past 40 years, and John, her husband of 26 years, I have come away with a sense of awe of the difficulty and devotion of their shared lives.

And being with them has reminded me both of the blessings of long friendships and of how life can change so profoundly in a minute. A stumble, a missed step, an unstable knee. That's all it takes to change life forever.

And sometimes that life-changing moment can even be an exuberant moment gone wrong or an impulsive, if disastrous, gesture of love.

I just got a call tonight from my cousin Caron Roudebush, who lives in suburban Kansas City. She told me that a grandchild's loving and exuberant leap into her arms has led to a life-limiting back injury and then, additionally, life-changing respiratory distress, requiring oxygen, became part of Caron's daily life. She has suffered greatly and her life has changed from that of an eternally young, gently aging woman who loved to care for her family to a woman who now needs the constant daily care of her husband and family. Her husband Bud, her sweetheart since they were 14 years old and her spouse for nearly 53 years, retired to take care of her and even learned to cook all their favorite foods. "He has saved my life. Everything has changed with this injury," she said without a trace of bitterness. "But I am surrounded with so much love. How can I complain? Besides, I still feel incredibly young inside."

                                  Bud and Caron Roudebush       

And I wonder: would I be so loving, so accepting, so optimistic, so embracing of life were I the one injured or if I were a full-time caregiver? Watching the love and devotion of Mary and John and Caron and Bud, I'm both incredibly sad that bad things have happened to such good people and deeply moved by their mutual devotion.

It also reminds me that we have no guarantees in life. Each healthy moment, each opportunity to do for others, each day of independence is a blessing. Every day that we can walk or run or breathe easily is to be treasured. And every moment with a loved one is very special.

So let's embrace these moments and these loved ones today, this minute.

In just a moment, so much can change.


  1. So true. I have some similar stories within my circle of friends and family. The other instant that I think about is the thin line between life and death. All the mysteries of life give me a lot to think about!

  2. It's so easy to think things will always go on as they are -- to take our lives for granted and then to be unable to cope with the suddenness of catastrophe. How fortunate your friends are to have such love and understanding for each other -- when we marry we say 'for better or for worse' but most of the time we are a lot better with the 'better' than the 'worse'. Very moving post -- especially those last two sentences.

  3. Exactly true! That is why it is my goal to wring every ounce out of each moment I can. No sense in living life half heartedly. I do hope better health comes to both of your friends.

  4. All I could hear going through my head as I was reading this was, "oh my God...". It is so true, isn't it? I had a friend who was madly in love with a fellow she called "Bear". She chased after him until he caught her, and they got married. :-) He was very tall and was a long-distance runner, and had low blood pressure. One night shortly after they were married, he got up to pay a visit to the 'loo, and fell and hit his head on the bathtub. My friend could hear her husband struggling to breathe. He ended up as a permanent quadraplegic, and spent several years in a hospital bed until he succumbed to kidney failure. He was 36 and my friend was 35. She was so grateful for the short time she had with her "Bear". Life can turn on a dime.

  5. So very true, Kathy. I too can think of couples and families whose lives have been changed forever by accident and sudden illness. It's then that we see just what people are made of and I'm always awestruck by the devotion I so often encounter.

  6. As soon as I read this post, it inspired me to get up off my couch and do some yoga stretches. It's the only thing that keeps my body youngish and moving. Then I took my daily vitamins. They're the only things that make me feel better.

    Ugh. This is my worst fear: falling or hurting my already fragile back. When ever I go up and down the stairs, if I am home alone, I always take my cell phone with me. I try not to carry too much in or out of the house. I'm super careful not to overuse my back. And if all of this means shopping, laundry or housework doesn't get done as much, then so be it.

    I also MUST take a super hot bath daily, summer and winter regardless. It's the only thing I think, sometimes, that keeps my back working.

    Each day is a gift. Each day I can take a walk or do my yoga stretches, I's a gift!

    A few weeks ago, I fell while walking my dog. She got off the leash, a car was coming and to my utter amazement, I got up off the street and started running after my dog and stopped the traffic by putting myself in front of the oncoming car. Later, I was flabbergasted that I was able to run so well and take matters into my own hands.

    Who knew I was still so agile?

    Good article. Thanks for posting.

  7. Timely post. I've thought how much our lives could have changed in an instant with my husband's heart event earlier this week. Thankfully we got him help in time. Now we have to implement major lifestyle changes.

  8. Thank you for those beautiful stories and comments. Unfortunately, I'm reminded of the comment that came from the GOP debate audience, from someone who yelled out when asked about someone becoming paralyzed from an accident, "Let him die!" Fortunately, we do have some compassionate people in political offices who recognize the need for social safety nets to catch these wonderful people.

  9. This resonates fiercely with me because of my own family's experience. Thank you for writing about this topic so beautifully.

  10. Every day is a gift. I forget sometimes. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. My nephew-27- collapsed with congestive heart failure. He regained life- but it will be very different than anything he thought. In an instant, life changes.

  12. Dear Kathy,
    This posting touched that deep-down place in me that is aware that life is fleeting. Health as well. And so, we must cherish this moment. The Buddhist concept of mindfulness. The Catholic concept of sacramentalizing. Making holy this moment spent with this loved one. Treasuring it. Holding it close as we hold our hands close to the bonfire on a wintry night. Thank you for this reminder.


  13. So true that life can completely change in a heartbreaking instant. Gary & I have had a couple of close calls which turned out to not be as life-changing as Bud and Caron and John and Mary but enough to make us really think and appreciate each other and our life.
    Prayers for all of them.

  14. Yes, it can happen in a minute. My story is not so major, but nonetheless, I am so very grateful for all Rick did tohelp me get through my most recent health scare. When I would waver, he'd remind me he was in it for the long haul. That meant more than anything to me!

  15. This post is so inspiring. I have seen similar cases, and I thank the Lord every day for my health and well-being, and that of my family. I don't take anything for granted--anymore.