ImageWe all crash and burn.  It is a sad fact of life.  We can be making progress on our journey, and then out of nowhere something unexpected can knock everything we know to be true on its butt.  As the rug is pulled out from under us, we are left trying to maintain balance, and figure out how to deal with a new reality.  One of the most intense “crash and burn” experiences of my life didn’t even have to do with me directly.

The shrill of the phone ringing in the early hours of that late October morning only added to the chill in the air.  I knew that whoever was calling at that time of day did not have good news, and my mother’s voice confirmed it.

“Your brother has been in a car accident, ” she said grimly.  “The extent of his injuries is unclear right now, but doctors think he damaged his spinal cord.  He is not moving his legs on his own.  Dad and I are flying out to where he is in a few hours, and we will let you know more information as soon as we know anything.”

The thoughts swirling around in my head made me hang up the phone in a daze.  My brother, paralyzed?  It couldn’t be true.  This could happen in other families, but not to us.  Our family already knew what it was like to have a member who used a wheelchair, so didn’t that make us exempt?  What would be the point otherwise?

My thoughts spiraled downward as the morning wore on.  My brother and I had never gotten along very well.  Since he is only 17 months older than I am, I don’t think he was old enough to understand that when my parents spent time with me in therapy as a young child, the time spent away from him wasn’t personal.  As we got older, he always emptied the dishwasher and fed the dog because I wasn’t capable of doing so.  Resentment ran deeper when he got his learner’s permit.  Since I couldn’t drive, he took me to appointments and sports practices, and along the way, he took his feelings out on me as well.

“I have to everything for you,” he would yell.  “You are so ungrateful, and it’s not fair!”

“Sometimes I wish you could live my life for one day,” I would counter “You have no idea what it is like to live with a disability!”

So as I sat in my dorm room that morning waiting for news, I had to wonder if the universe had granted my wish just to spite me.

“I didn’t really mean it!” I screamed.  But nobody heard.

All I wanted was to pay the fine and go ho and have the world go on just as it was yesterday.  It was not to be.  The paralysis turned out to be permanent, and he would be a wheelchair user just like me.  But was he?

If I was being totally honest about my feelings that day, in the midst of my grief, I was a little lost and resentful myself.  If my brother was going to be a wheelchair user, what did that mean for me? Would I lose my place in my family?  Would his need for more attention mean that they would love me less?  Was that the way he felt throughout our childhood?  The guilt was heavy.  How could I possibly be thinking of myself at a time like this?  How could I not be?

A few days later I was on my bed in tears.  Overwhelmed with all the emotion, the release was a relief.  The phone rang, and when I picked it up, what my brother said caught me totally off guard.

“I just wanted to let you know I’m okay,” he said with raspy confidence.  “Why are you crying?

I hesitated.  He was thousands of miles away in a hospital bed. Was he aware of his condition?  I didn’t know, so I played it safe.  “You’ve been hurt” I whispered slowly.

“I know, and I will use a wheelchair for the rest of my life.  Why are you crying?

I was so stunned I couldn’t find my voice, so I just listened.

“I know that I am going to be okay because you’re okay, “he said.  “I have lived with this disability for 20 years, just through a different person.”

Wow.  Maybe you are can significantly impact somebody else just by being who you are.  Go figure.

When the haze of the morphine wore off for good, my brother denied ever saying any of those things to me.  But I guess I shouldn’t be all that disappointed, he’s a boy.

In the months that followed, he went through rehabilitation and resumed his college career.  Now there are two wheelchair users in the family, but we are definitely NOT the same.

As a result of my brother’s accident, I reevaluated my career goals and decided I wanted to spend my life working with people with disabilities.  I reasoned that I could relate as much as I could learn, and so I advocate, educate, and feel disability pride on many levels.  Because of some unforeseen health issues, I don’t work full time, receive Medicare and Medicaid benefits, get food stamps and bought my accessible home through a low-income housing program in my community.

I am okay with where I am because I like to think I am making a difference, and I have come to the conclusion that, at least for me, work is about much more than earning a paycheck.

And my brother?  He is married with four kids, and he makes a good living working at his own consulting business.  He accepts his disability but seems to see it as a negative.   And from what I gather, for him, the less said about it the better.

Is the way that either one of us responds to our disability wrong?  No.  We are just different.  Do I sometimes wish he would more clearly see my point of view?  Indeed.  But he is entitled to his own.

And the lesson I take away from this experience?  It is pretty simple really.  Life is not just about the crash and burn, but instead how we rise from the ashes.  People do that in different ways.

We all crash and burn.  It is a sad fact of life.

And at the end of the day, when all the smoke clears, what matters most is the rise.