Four years ago yesterday, my family and I stood in an Arkansas ICU hospital room where my brother fought for his life. On the way back from burying my mother in a Tennessee graveyard, my brother and his wife were rear-ended by two semis while sitting in traffic behind another semi on I-40 east of Little Rock. She died instantly. It happened around noon, though we didn’t hear until that evening, turning back south and east from Kansas City, speeding to my brother’s side.
Sunday, four years after I hugged them both goodbye at breakfast, one week and four years after my mom’s death, I rode in a car headed north on I-25 to go see The Nutcracker for the first time. My friends probably didn’t notice as I held my breath when semis were around us. I still can’t abide them. I almost always think of my brother, sending love and prayers to him and his family as I quickly pass them.
They pried my brother out of the wreck with the Jaws of Life and almost didn’t sew up his face because they could see no way for him to live. But he did. As they prepped and wheeled him to a tracheotomy, the surgeon asked him to squeeze her hand if he heard her, a precaution. To her shock, he did! She cancelled the tracheotomy and decided to give him a shot at breathing on his own. He soon did. We gathered around him, knowing how to read every twitch or movement so we could meet his needs (my other brother and sister-in-law were heroic in their care of him)—propping his head better, ice chips, blankets—because it was what we had been doing for my mom for weeks of hospice home care.
Though he sustained lifelong damage, they think he lived and recovered relatively quickly because he had spent the last 15 years as a semi-pro cyclist, training his body through round after round of deprivation and healing. He had taught his body how to heal itself. He was strong at the cellular level. He wasn’t consciously trying to heal because he wasn’t conscious and wasn’t even capable of thought. But he healed anyway.
From Halloween through New Year’s, this time of year is fraught with pain and grief. Infinite little things, specific dates, places and people…they are all connected to the loss of my mom, then of my sister-in-law, then of the wounding of my brother. Reminders happen all the time, embedded in everyday life, but this time of year—both the death anniversaries and the holidays—is more intense. Every reminder has felt like a blow, like someone poking a sharp stick into tender wounds.
On anniversary day this week, I heard a song from an album that helped me get through the years after doing The Oat Project project—mom’s cancer, end of my marriage, heartbreak, transformation (Gregory Alan Isakov’s That Sea the Gambler). That same day, I sat in a doctor’s office for a let’s-make-sure-you’re-not-on-the-same-cancer-path-as-your-mom check-up, and as I tried to breathe deeply, shivering in my paper clothes, I thought about my mom, my brother, and the song. And suddenly, a realization broke over my pain like the sun over the horizon.
These reminders would always bring some pain, but rather than ONLY memories of wounds, trauma, and need, they are also evidence of my strength and growth. As lovers use “our song” to recall their first passion, these songs, places, and sights recall how I made it through that really hard experience and time. I have scars, yes, but my mind and entire body suddenly shifted from knowing reminders as triggers to knowing them as TALISMANS.
Talismans of my survival. Talismans of gratitude for those who helped me live. Talismans for how I was strong. No longer arrows or hammers or swords of pain. Beautiful, powerful TALISMANS.
And just as my brother’s body had learned how to heal itself through cycles of stress and pain, the cells of my bodymindspirit have been learning and growing stronger through these years. It has happened at the deepest cellular level, underneath and beyond all logic or intention. The shift to talisman felt sudden, but it has been happening for a long time without my knowledge. All I’ve felt is the pain. Now, I’ve begun to feel the power.
For those of you going through grief and trauma, this isn’t a how-to or sermon or instructions. I know we can help the process by working emotion through our bodies, yes. But I can’t pinpoint things I did or thought or learned, or numbers of months or years endured, or tears cried in how it all shifted this week. The most essential hope I can give you is that you are not alone and that if moving from trigger to talisman can happen for me, it can and will happen for you. In the meantime, may you keep breathing, may you keep surfacing from the deep dark waters of pain, may you live.