When I heard the news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was coming home, it brought back memories. Like Gabby, I was released to my home nearly five months after the day I entered the hospital, much of it spent in rehabilitation for a brain injury. (Hers was caused by a bullet; mine cancer.) She was released on June 15, 2011. I was released on June 14, 2006.
I know what she is going through and can relate to the struggles that await her. But I also know the indescribable joy that comes from seeing your home for the first time after months of being away in a hospital environment.
There’s no better feeling.
We have faced similar challenges. I know all of America has been with her through her trauma and recovery, but I have especially felt for her because my experiences have paralleled hers.
First, as a former resident of Tucson, I was particularly affected when I heard the news about Gabby. An alumna of the University of Arizona and the Tucson Citizen, I used to live about a mile from the grocery store where she was attacked. I used to work with one of her aides who avoided the bullets when he ducked into the store to get a coffee. As an education beat reporter, I had covered the community college where her assailant went to school. Also, I love Tucson and the fact that it was home to such a horrific tragedy hurt.
As details emerged about her recovery, I related deeply. When I read about her physical therapy, my heart ached.
In the beginning, her therapy consisted of sitting up and dangling her legs down the bed. Mine started with the exact same exercise. Paraplegic as a result of brain tumors, I couldn’t begin therapy unless two people could be found to assist me. Without a spotter in front of and behind me, I would crumple. I remember counting to 20 while dangling my legs, then, exhausted, being helped back to a prone position.
The pain was immense.
There is nothing more humbling than trying to do the most basic things that most people don’t give a thought to. I became known as a chronic crier. The minute the physical therapist entered my room or I entered the gym, the tears would start and wouldn’t end until it was over, regardless if it was a 10 minute or 60 minute session.
“It’s not you,” I would tell the therapists when they looked puzzled.
Sometimes it was the humiliation of it all. Sometimes it was to celebrate a teeny, tiny thing. Sometimes it was just because I felt so miserable.
The therapists learned to not take it personally and come armed with tissue boxes.
So when I finally was released from rehab on a summer’s day, like Gabby, I had made great strides. And like her, I had far to go. I still couldn’t walk and had to be lifted into a wheelchair or commode.
Still, I was overwhelmed with joy as my husband turned the car up the street toward our house. My eyes filled with tears. The street looked so good, the trees so green. Our house, so lovely.
And when I entered the door, I remember being almost bowled over by the beauty. Such wonderful colors (after months of hospital white). Such gorgeous flowers out the window in our backyard. And I specifically remember the musical sound of birds chirping. Most folks don’t take note of that, it’s background noise. But when you haven’t heard a bird for nearly five months, there is nothing sweeter.
I hope Gabby takes from this experience what I have. I make a concerted effort to continue to notice and appreciate things every day that others take for granted. I don’t want to forget the gratitude that I felt the mid-June day five years ago when I entered my home.