There is always a strange mix of emotions whenever I happen to make my way back here. Like walking the digital side streets in a virtual ghost town of what was once my very own relatively bustling corner of cyberspace, there is a nostalgic familiarity that comes with any trip down memory lane, but so much has changed in the 3+ years since I’ve been around, it’s almost unrecognizable. Gone are the albums of outdated pictures, links to friends’ websites and the list of things I miss most. Also noticeably absent is the steady stream of visitors. The eclectic hodgepodge of lurkers, stalkers, well-wishers and shit-talkers whose web hits came in waves reaching into the tens of thousands per week when the site briefly went viral has all but disappeared, save for a trickle of former readers passing through to see what’s new — only to leave disappointed, I’m sure. Hell, the web address isn’t even the same anymore.
The words are still here, but even they seem oddly flat. My initial thought was that it might be the dull font or maybe the lame default theme causing everything I read here to ring somewhat hollow upon review, but there was a sense that it was something a bit deeper. On further inspection, or perhaps a little introspection, the difference became obvious: it’s not so much that the blog has changed, I have.
It’s true. The man in front of this computer screen today bears little resemblance to the guy who last posted on this blog a few years back. Rendered a veritable shut-in by an unrelenting cycle of medical issues and depression, tethered to a laptop as the only means of contact with the outside world and living vicariously through whatever sporting event, reality programming or political spectacle happened to be on TV, life as I knew it had ground to a mortifying halt. Fast forward to the present and you’ll find a man more or less unplugged from the matrix. I am back out in the real world and living life in a way I never could have imagined for myself when I got hurt. I recently bought a house and am living independently with the help of a team of caregivers and an annoyingly adorable service puppy-in-training named Hank. I have quite a few more scars with insane stories to match, but also a couple of tattoos with crazy stories themselves. Most importantly, I am healthier than ever and have a better grasp of who I am and what I want to do than I have had at any point in my life.
As you can probably imagine, a dramatic change like that doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye. Like the tornado that swept Dorothy up from the black-and-white fields of Kansas and dropped her into the Technicolor dream world of Oz, it took a dizzying whirlwind of life experiences to lift me out of the toxic fog I was mired in. And while it goes without saying that I would not be anywhere close to where I am right now without the help of one of the most amazing networks of family and friends a man could ask for — many of whom have been highlighted on this very website — the catalyst is someone you have not yet read about; a woman I’ve been trying to write about since this blog’s inception, but was never able to find words that could quite do her justice. Her name was Kristen. She was my wife.
Our story is an epic one about two people that grew up in adjacent towns, went to rival high schools and ran in similar circles yet never crossed paths until a snow skiing accident lands him in the rehab unit where she works as a nurse. She becomes his saving grace in the hospital and a friendship quickly forms, but they part ways not long after he is discharged, maintaining only sporadic contact over the years. It’s not until she wanders back into his life six years later to help him heal a wound that kept him in bed for 2 ½ years that they both realize that their bond is far deeper . She helps him see that he’s not as broken as he thought, he shows her what it means to be truly loved and adored and, together, they embark on a roller coaster ride of life with all its magical highs but also its tragic lows. She watches him flatline in the emergency room after a series of infections make it to his bloodstream causing cardiac arrest and he watches her struggle with the cunning, baffling and powerful disease of addiction, but they never give up on one another. Instead they take the challenges head-on, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against them, living the words “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health” in a way few seldom do. As much as I would like to end the fairytale above with the standard “… and they lived happily ever after,” that isn’t what happened. I’m sorry to say that while I survived my illness, she was not so lucky, succumbing suddenly and tragically to an accidental overdose last November, less than 2 1/2 months after our wedding.
One of the unfortunate things about life, and even more so in death, is that people often come to be defined by their mistakes and character flaws, especially when the wildly misunderstood disease of addiction is involved. That won’t be the case for Kristen. Yes, she struggled with an ugly disease that ultimately took her life, but she was also a beacon of light and love to all those lucky enough to come in contact with her, no matter how briefly. Since her passing I have heard countless stories of her impact on her patients and their families. Parents of medically fragile children she cared for as a pediatric intensive homecare nurse talk about how much easier life was when she was working; how she helped them, in her words, “do life” despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges they saw in front of them and how, if only for a single shift, their family experienced a level of normalcy they’d long since given up hope for. I know that story well, because I have lived it and then some.
The nurse that literally took me off the ventilator almost 9 years ago became the soulmate who taught me how to look past my fears and insecurities surrounding my disability and showed me that a wheelchair doesn’t mean I have to be merely a spectator in this game I call life. She reignited the fire inside me, the intensity I once wrote about so many years ago but had long since lost touch with. She taught me how to love and be loved without condition or expectation, and showed me that the only way to do life is on life’s terms, not my own.
She took that list of things I miss most that people found so poignant and effectively dumped it on its head. Her hands replaced mine, whether we were playing boardgames with friends and family or chasing an elusive booger in my nose. She proved that I could still have spontaneity by developing an organized system that made packing for impromptu road trips a snap. And 15 minutes of her lead footed road rage cured me of any nostalgia I may have harbored for sitting in traffic, that’s for damn sure.
Now I have a whole new list of things I miss most that all revolve around her. There’s her breathtaking smile, sick sense of humor and contagious laugh; the way she fit perfectly in my lap and would high-five me on the forehead as we shared a plate of food while people-watching at our favorite restaurant; her insistence on wrapping my Christmas presents even though I couldn’t open them; her irrational fear of spiders and equally confounding (at least to me) celebrity crush on Kid Rock. I could go on and on but, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying my best to focus on how profoundly grateful I am for having her as long as I did.
It’s been exactly one year since I lost Kristen and the gaping hole in my heart is just as big as the day she died. And though the pain is immense, I know that that hole is only there because I was loved by a truly remarkable woman whose impact as a nurse, daughter, sister and friend will be felt for lifetimes to come. That she chose to focus such a large part of her light and love on yours truly in her final two years makes me the luckiest man on the planet. When I was in the hospital all those years ago, she always joked that she was saving my life. Little did we know, that’s exactly what she would do…