A meaningful life

There was a post I was going to write last week, before my world exploded, when the absent kidney was the biggest thing I was worrying about.

When I’d posted about the missing kidney in a small group of infertility friends, one of them made a comment along the lines of “Hasn’t this group been dealt enough shit already?”

I paused, and thought about that for a time.

Here’s the thing.

When I was in my early twenties, I definitely knew people who had “perfect” lives. People who had never lost a grandparent, let alone a parent. People who had parents who still had intact marriages. People who had never really encountered serious obstacles or problems.

Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I don’t think I know anyone like that anymore. Life and the universe have slowly, inexorably, crept up on all of my friends. And we’ve all lost something or someone.

Grandparents. Parents. Pregnancies. Children. Marriages. Jobs. Health. Security. Hopes. Dreams.

Nobody’s life is “perfect” any longer.

Before Thursday, I would have said that my life was probably normal, average, in terms of tragedy, with maybe a little more bad luck than average in some places and a little more good luck than average in some places.

No longer.

Since my Dad’s accident I feel like we’ve been catapulted into the next level of tragedy, the place where things happen that only ever happen to “other people’s families”, not your own. I read it in the emails I’ve been receiving from friends. I hear it in the voices of those who have called.

And I see it in the eyes of the people I’ve told in person. Especially when I tell them exactly HOW it happened. How my healthy, vibrant, strong father is now paralyzed for life from the neck down and on a ventilator because he was playing in the ocean and was hit by a wave. He wasn’t surfing. He wasn’t diving into shallow water. He was PLAYING IN THE OCEAN. Like my husband and son were doing just over a month ago.

I can see the fear in their eyes when I say that. Because in that instant, the universe steps forward and reminds us that it is random. That anything can happen. That nothing is safe.

There is no deeper meaning to this.

This didn’t happen for a reason.

This happened because an uncountable number of factors combined to put my father in just the wrong place at just the wrong time.

My Australian husband has spent hours in the last week trying to puzzle out how the ocean could do this. He has a theory, but when he explains it, he finishes by just shaking his head in disbelief.

Because it is impossible that this could have happened.

Except, of course, it has.


My Dad crammed so much into the sixty-three years he’s been on this earth.

More than most people do in a lifetime.

But Dad didn’t think for a moment that he was finished.

He often told us that he anticipated having another good twenty years, judging from the health of his father and his own care for his body.

My Dad ate well. He exercised regularly (my maternal aunt’s first response to this situation was “How can this possibly happen to the most physically active person I’ve ever met in my entire life?”). He still fit into the army uniforms he wore as a cadet when he was a teenager. It was a running joke among my sisters and I that wherever Dad went he would run into people he knew, because he has looked the same since he first became an adult. He has more grey hair now and more wrinkles, but he is still instantly recognizable (even if the long-ago university buddies who come rushing up to greet him are not).

I sound like I’m eulogizing my father.

He’s not dead.

But in a way, he is. His life, as he knew it, and as we knew it, ended when he died on that beach.

My Dad is alive, largely because there were doctors on holiday on the beach who jumped up to help and did CPR and brought him back and kept him alive for the FORTY-FIVE minutes it took to get an ambulance.

But he is also alive because he was so fit, so healthy, so strong.

It is a blessing and a curse.

The exact traits that helped to preserve his life when he died on the beach are what make me worry that he will not be able to reconcile himself to this new life, that he will not be able to find meaning and purpose in his existence as he goes forward.

Q. and I were talking about this the other day. If you told me that I had to be paralyzed and ventilated but that my brain would work and I would be able to communicate and I could watch my kids grow up, and the alternative was death, well, put me in that chair.

“Imagine all the reading you’d be able to get done,” said Q., not wistfully, but with a certain acknowledgement of the expanse of time that would become available.

Some people are better suited to a life of the mind than others.

I am not sure my father is one of them.

My father is one of the most physical people I know. He’s tall, which is one thing, and intimidating, which is another. He’s an alpha male. A former military officer. A man used to command. A stubborn man. A proud man. A man who squeezed every last possible action out of every day, who hated to sit still, who filled his first early days of retirement with travel and skiing and golfing and cycling and swimming and visits to family and improvements to the house. My Dad had PLANS. Lots of them.

And I just do not know if he will be able to make the imaginative leap necessary to get past the loss of his body and the loss of his independence to a place where he can see that he can still build a meaningful life because HE IS STILL HERE.

My father’s mind is intact.

But his mind was so very closely interconnected to his body, that I don’t know if, in the end, that will be enough for him.

We love him. We want him here with us, in any form.

But in the end it’s going to be his choice.



Filed under Family, Grief, Loss

9 responses to “A meaningful life

  1. You are incredibly wise to be able to see the difficulties he faces, and to recognize that this is not a life that he may want. So many people in similar circumstances wouldn’t be able to see past their own grief (sadly, I see that kind of situation every, single day at work). I know that doesn’t make it any easier for you, but I really wanted you to know that your head is in the right place, and I really admire you for that. Sending lots of love. xoxo

  2. I’m so sorry this happened. There’s no understanding why something like this happens. What you wrote about this being one of things that happens to other really resonated with me. The past few years has brought a series of events that have left me in shock, scratching my head saying the same thing. Totally different situation, but I know what you mean. It’s sort of a process you go through… A grieving process really. Then there’s a new normal. It’s very tough.

  3. I keep shaking my head over the randomness of it and thinking “that is insane.” You write so eloquently about the accident and the aftermath and what it all means, and I can see how thinking and writing are how you process and deal with things. Your dad raised an amazing person.

  4. Oh, Turia. I am so sorry. (And feel like an imposter arriving to say it, when I have been such a terrible commenter of late, despite thinking of you frequently.) My experience is that the shock of these things is as bad as whatever grief applies, in part because the shock itself is so shocking — I can’t be the only one lulled into believing that sudden, terrible things just don’t happen, that they are somehow too dramatic for ordinary lives.

    I’m glad you’ve been able to see him and that he can communicate. Much love to you.

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  6. Ana

    Here from Mel’s post. This is heartbreaking. I am so so sorry you and your family are going through this. I am amazed by your ability to think through all the ramifications of this so coherently and maturely (and to write about it so eloquently). As much as I KNOW that none of us is immune to such senseless tragedy, I think there is a necessary protective mechanism that does lull us into forgetting about it for the most part (or how could we go on?) until we are affected.

  7. I am so sorry to hear about your dad’s accident. He lives and yet you have suffered a loss much like death, because the accident means the end of life as your dad knew and lived it. I do not have answers and I don’t imagine anybody does right now. I hope time offers some clarity. You are so right that nobody has a “perfect” life as we get older; mortality means all things must end, and sometimes it’s the things we love the best. I can only hope that while there is life there is space and time for another beginning.

  8. I’m here from Mel’s.

    I have some 2nd-hand experience around this, and there is definitely the ability to have a really good life after it. It is a different life, a life that looks nothing like the life that had been planned, but it is still a good one.

    This is a huge thing that has happened, big and overwhelming, and I will not downplay it. But he can go on and have a very decent life.

    There is a lot of work between here and there. There honestly is. And it’s heartbreaking. There is grieving to be done. By everyone. But all of us are more than just one thing, even if that one thing was a huge piece of who we are. I hear what you’re saying, I do. But at the beginning of some journeys, it’s hard to see where the road will lead.

    I’m guessing that you and he are getting lots of advice and resources. But I wanted to offer feeling free to email me if you wish to. I wanted to reach out and let you know there is life beyond this.

    All my best to you & yours.

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