11/29/14

Seeing through her eyes

     The letter from camp was two full hand-written pages (including a mini-route map she'd drawn) about their 42 day, 1100 mile canoe trip to Hudson Bay. Anna talked about bone-chilling cold and rain and the sunny see-forever days; the moose, bears, eagles... and clouds of mosquitoes; she described running big rapids, portaging canoes over boulders and through mud, and playing softball in the native Ojibway communities where they made friends. They fished, sang Grateful Dead songs, and slept hard every night. Bob and I drank in her stories with the thirst born of her long absence.
     Then came this paragraph:
     "Lastly, thank you for sending me here. I'm so incredibly lucky to see what I see and to do what I do. I wish you could see my views sometimes, and feel what I feel. It is an experience like no other, and I know that for my entire life I will value what my years at Wabun have given me."
     I sucked in my breath.
     "I wish you could see my views sometimes, and feel what I feel..."
*               *               *               *               *               *
     The girl that came home was strong and radiant. Anna had everything she needed to move confidently ahead with her life. And this fall, that would be dominated by changing schools as a high school junior.
      Like a canoe at the top of a set of rapids, she was lined up perfectly to shoot the Vs: pre-season soccer was the first chute she would enter, followed by four days camping with a small group in the school's “Outdoor Experience” program, and then finally the first academic day and the first soccer game. It started off well. She made the varsity team, came home talking about the girls she was meeting, and was eager to use her camping skills among new classmates.
      It was when she came back from visiting a friend over Labor Day weekend that it all blew up.
      “Mom, I had searing headaches on the drive. They were so bad I almost had to stop.”
      In hindsight, her concussion likely came from several impacts the preceding week during soccer: a header, a ball kicked at short range into her head, maybe others. Bob and I were blindsided; Anna hadn't even seen it herself.
     Concussion is not a measurable thing. No thermometer or x-ray or even color of mucus can report its status. No cough or limp betrays the inner illness. Even self-perception is unreliable, since it's asking the injured brain to assess itself.
      And then in Anna's case, add the unacceptable barrier a concussion would be for her smooth entry into a new school. It became nearly impossible for any of us to perceive her level of injury.
      While Anna's new friends were on the soccer field jelling as a team and her Outdoor Experience group was kayaking on Casco Bay, I sat by her bed and read to her from the book she needed to finish for summer reading. She was determined to heal, and her drive to get better worked – until after returning to school we realized that she couldn't remember what classes she'd gone to, and couldn't complete her homework.
      I felt like I was trying to see inside her head. What was her pain level? Was she dizzy at all? Did the light bother her? Was she just adjusting to low levels of these symptoms, or was she hiding them from us? I was also trying to see her world through her eyes. Did she have any friends to eat lunch with? Was she getting too far behind in Physics? And especially I tried to see the future: was there any way to return to soccer without a risk to her head? 
      Ultimately I just had to see it all clearly through my own eyes, and be honest about my filters of both empathy and fear that battled for the upper hand.
      Bob, the best partner in the world, was doing the same thing. Together we chose a path through the concussive fog. No more soccer. Go to bed early even if your homework isn't finished. After school come home and rest. Stay home if you're tired.
      Six weeks later, after she had been declared “healed”, Anna wrote about her concussion in an essay called “Hard Headed” for English class. Like her letter from Wabun, she shared with us her view of it all through her eyes. In it she wrote:
      "I was indeed healed, but I was vulnerable — too vulnerable. To my parents and the doctor, playing soccer for the rest of the season would not be worth the risk of missing a junior year of high school. Crushed, my narrow mindedness had lead me to blindly believe that my fragile cranium was ready to take on anything, yet in an attempt to convince myself that I was better, I had only made the truth more devastating.
      "As school progressed, I found the ambiguity and uncertainty of my present situation nearly as frustrating as the concussion itself. My role on the team had changed for good, and I was faced with the choice of determining how I could approach the school individually, team-less. To suffer or discover? I asked myself frequently. Refusing the former, I took an internal deep breath and began searching for ways to compromise my setback."

     And now, through my eyes:
      Anna, you are still the girl who has seen deep beauty, and you have a strength derived from overcoming challenges in the wilderness. That is in you. Your ability to look back on the wilderness of your concussion and see it honestly comes from that same core. It takes courage to see what is, instead of what you want to see. There will be other rivers, other rapids, and other wildernesses ahead. You'll make it through, like you made it to Hudson Bay. See the rapids you are in with clarity for what they are, and hold on to who you are, the girl of the northern rivers, the one who chooses to discover, instead of suffer.

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