Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stories That Don't Come Easy

We can't help ourselves. We humans love our heroes and happy endings. Dramatic tension is fine when it's limited and measured, but soon enough we're jumping ahead, desperate for the tidy feel-good moment of knowing all is well in storyland.

Years ago, when the news became "infotainment," we bore witness to the struggle. "Law and Order" can investigate and resolve a case in one hour. So why do we wait weeks, even months (and some would say we're still waiting) for justice to be leveled on O.J.? We saw the chase! Now tell us the bad guy gets what he deserves! Right?!

Decades haven't pushed us much closer to coming to terms with our need for instant gratification on justice issues. I was reminded of that today when I read an update on Congresswoman Giffords' status after surviving a gunshot to the head months ago.

She's in rehab here in Houston so we hear tidbits now and then. And, of course, we all strained to see her as she traveled to see her husband Mark take off on his shuttle ride.

The deal is ... the news is good and it's not yet good enough.

From the story ... "Although Giffords continues to improve, Caursone said, 'She's alive. But if she were to plateau today, and this was as far as she gets, it would not be nearly the quality of life she had before. There's no comparison. All that we can hope for is that she won't plateau today and that she'll keep going and that when she does plateau, it will be at a place far away from here.'"

If you've ever dealt with someone who has experienced an injury to the brain -- stroke, accident, whatever -- the phrase "far away from here" carries the weight of the world.

I've seen it, felt it, and cringed at the realization of how superficial I can sometimes be.

Once, after heroic attempts to rally the troops and come to the aid of a colleague and friend who had a stroke when she was in her early 40s, I wanted to be more than I wound up being for her. But I didn't want it bad enough. The first days of her ordeal were triumphs for those of us coming to her aid, taking care of her family, reaping kudos from all who witnessed our all-night vigils and efforts to maneuver the medical system to ensure the best of care. Weeks later, she was in rehab, and some were there by her side. Without an immediate fire to put out, my attention waned. Months later, she became a visit I "should make this weekend" or a "call I've got to get to" but didn't.

A couple of years later, she was back at work. But if you're holding your breath for the happily-ever-after part, you better breathe. Because she wasn't back in her same leadership capacity. She was in a position that had been created for what her level of expertise now was. The stroke didn't just take away the full use of her arm and leg, it took the woman I had known. This new manifestation had similar memories and her desire to be all that she could be, but conversations weren't just slurred, they were missing the wit and wisdom that only totally firing synapses can bring.

At one point, in a workshop I was doing on change, I used a video of Tigger losing his stripes. Winnie the Pooh and the gang were doing all they could to give him a new identity since Tigger without his stripes just couldn't be Tigger. After several failed attempts, Eeyore finally points out that "just because you don't look like Tigger on the outside, doesn't mean you're not Tigger on the outside. It's all in the stuffin'." My friend approached me afterwards and haltingly reminded me that she was still the friend I'd cherished on the inside. I nodded in agreement and said, "I know."

But I didn't.

She simply wasn't my happy ending. She didn't turn out "all right in the end." She was alive, yes. She had new relationships, new dreams, new opportunities. But they weren't the ones I'd shared with her. And many emotional miles had been traveled in opposite directions for us to ever reclaim what had been.

I think about her when I see articles like the one I read today about Giffords. The media are clamoring for a that tidy end to the story. They thrust the mic at whoever is available and demand a date for when she'll be back on the House floor or racing down the campaign trail. In each line between the lines of today's piece, I heard a familiar tone, a resignation still tinged with hope but also a need to redirect expectations.

The staffer quoted is all too aware of the post-celebratory reality of most survival stories -- healing is not a return to what was. The characters have changed. The story is new.

May grace be given to all who have ears to hear.

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