I‘ve been a bit lax in posting to the site, the past month or so. So apologies for that. But it’s because I’ve been busy getting a serious, multi-level, first-hand refresher course in the gifts and challenges of what I call “unplanned adventure.”
As anyone who’s read anything on this blog knows by now, I’m a huge advocate of adventure, even when it isn’t comfortable. I also believe that adventure can be worthwhile, even when it isn’t planned. But while planned and unplanned adventure may both entail uncharted terrain, unplanned adventure is generally tougher to navigate, because you aren’t a willing participant in it. There you are, heading to the store for a quart of milk, and WHAM! Life blindsides you with a whallop that transports you, unprepared and against your will, into the middle of a harsh and foreign wilderness, with no suggestions as to how to navigate through it, or even what to do next.
Generally speaking, unplanned adventure also tends to be caused by … well … something bad. Rarely do you start out for work and find yourself suddenly rich and famous, unsure how to navigate your new celebrity status. Usually, unplanned adventure involves some kind of sudden, unexpected, and painful turn of events: a death or accident in the family, a life-altering illness or injury, the loss of a job, the discovery of a cheating spouse, the end of a marriage, economic collapse, or some other event that crumbles the foundations of something really important in our lives, casting us–at least temporarily–adrift, in one way or another. The way back is blocked, and we have to find a new way home, or forward.
So it was, a little over a month ago, that I walked in the house with fresh fish to make a special dinner and picked up the ringing phone to hear my husband Ed tell me that his older son, who’d just finished a degree at the Culinary Institute of America and had gotten a job as a chef in Louisville, Kentucky, had been hit by a car while riding his bike to work. The hospital hadn’t been specific about how bad the injuries were, just that he was about to go into surgery, they were projecting a 5-6 week hospital stay, and that Ed might want to think about getting down there.
So quickly, life turns. And so much worse, if it involves the life of your child.
There is no manual to tell you how to help a spouse deal with that kind of traumatic event. Or how to navigate the uncharted terrain and minefields that follow. And yes, I recognize the irony of that statement, given that I’ve actually written a bit of a manual on navigating uncharted landscapes: my Surviving Uncertainty book (Now available in paperback through this website, soon to be available in electronic formats, as well).
Of course, even in that book, I note that nobody else can really tell you how to navigate your own challenging hero’s journey. Others (like me) can offer some general advice and the benefit of whatever lessons and insights we’ve gained from our own crossings. But each hero’s journey is unique. What’s more, the rewards of the journey come from figuring the way out yourself. But Surviving Uncertainty also focuses on coping more effectively with planned or unplanned uncertainty when the primary adventure is happening to you. Being the supporter on the sidelines while other family members bear the primary burden of navigating those waters is, in some ways, tougher than doing it yourself. And it requires a lot more finesse.
Looking back on the last five weeks, however, I would say that in many ways, the way forward is still the same. Bereft of a guide as to how to proceed, you experiment. You take a step forward; offer what you think will be helpful advice or feedback. If that backfires, you step back and reconsider another approach. From that, you evaluate: what does this tell me that my spouse really needs from me? That’s a tricky one, because you find that it changes day by day and minute by minute, sometimes without warning. You try to remember to breathe. To keep panic at bay by focusing on what tangible things you can do “right now,” instead of worrying about all the future possibilities and problems –because fear exists in the future. In the moment, we cope far better than we think we will. You look for kindred spirits; people to turn to for your own support. You try to get enough sleep. You prioritize the most essential tasks you need to do with your limited energy and ruthlessly loadshed everything else.
You look for information and you research options–and you learn (often the hard way) that you need to be judicious about when and how much of that information you share. Sometimes, people are too emotionally agonized to hear logic or data, no matter how good that information might be. There’s a time for providing information, and a time for providing simple comfort. And there are times when everything you do will be wrong, because all the other person can hear or see or feel is the pain.
So you stumble your way forward. And, just as when I had to make my way across that glacier in shorts and tennis shoes (the opening story in Surviving Uncertainty), you try your best not to get overwhelmed at the distance you have to cross, but to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, one difficult step at a time.
The first couple of weeks were the hardest, because it was so new, so raw, and so much was uncertain. In the end, however, we have been relatively lucky. The only big question that remains, two surgeries and five weeks later, is whether Ed’s son will regain use of his right arm and hand again. Not to minimize–that is no small question for a young, right-handed chef. And the road ahead–for him, and for all of us–remains both forever different and, for at least the next year, uncertain. But it could have been so, so, so much worse.
I knew that anyway. But if I needed any reinforcement for that, I got it soon after the accident, when I was sent to Reno, Nevada to cover the National Air Races. You know … the Reno Air Races. As in, the event last year where a race plane went out of control and plunged into the spectator stands, killing or injuring 85 people.
I wrote a full article on the comeback of the races, which will be in the November issue of Sport Aviation. But through a series of chance encounters and moments, I ended up being invited to join the survivors of the accident last year–the people whose boxes were closest to the place the plane hit and who had been most impacted by the accident–to watch the races on Saturday and Sunday. Some were family members of those killed. Others were literal survivors–people who’d lost or seriously injured limbs, eyes, or other body parts, and had scars they would carry for the rest of their lives.
Looking at the walkers, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and scars, it was very clear just how much worse our own situation could have been. I was also acutely aware that behind the cheerful faces the survivors had on for the public–and the very real joy they clearly felt at being back, and being as healthy as they were–was a year’s worth of painful steps and struggles to adapt to a body, life and future forever changed. And that ahead lay more of the same.
I also knew, having survived a near-fatal car accident myself at the age of 20 that left its own share of internal and external scars, that it would probably be some time before any of those people would be able to say that the adventure and journey forward from the tragedy had given them any positive gifts or wisdom. At first, all you can see is what it has taken away. You’re grateful to be alive, of course, but unplanned adventure generally has a bitter taste in its initial stages, even if it leaves an unexpected gift of richness once it’s fully processed and digested. And there’s no guarantee, even, of that.
A couple of days ago, I heard a number of people interviewed on NPR who’d survived, or who were family members of victims, of the October 2002 terrorist bombing in a Bali nightclub that killed over 200 people Ten years later, one survivor said he wouldn’t be the person he is today if he hadn’t experienced the unplanned adventure of surviving, and recovering from, that attack. But he also said that he thought some people had come to some level of peace or acceptance with what had happened, and others hadn’t. Some, he thought, never would.
It made me think, again, that adventure–and especially unplanned adventure–does not guarantee any particular results. Unplanned adventure, in particular, asks us to find strength inside of us. It asks us to adapt and learn from that adaptation. But there’s no rule or guarantee that any particular person will actually find that strength, learning, wisdom, or growth. Unplanned adventure guarantees challenge. It presents only the possibility of growth and opportunity.
Once upon a time, I used to think that crisis made people strong. In truth, crisis more often simply reveals what we are able to find at the core. For some, that’s strength and emotional, mental, or insightful gifts we never dreamed we had. Sadly, not everyone is able to find those things.
But life happens. And when it throws unplanned and unwanted adventure our way, we fare better if we do our best to meet the challenges it presents: first, to survive as best we can. And second, to at least look for what we can learn, or gain, from having to summon such strength and resources to cope with both the immediate challenges and also the “new normal” that life-altering events requires us to adapt to.
In that sense, it humbled me to see what some of the Reno survivors have been able to see, even through their tears. One guy, who lost one arm below the elbow, had nerve damage in the other, had both legs crushed and a head injury, was intensely positive in the encouragement he had for my stepson. “Hey, ” he said. “Being a chef is in your taste buds, your nose, and your head. And he’s got all that! And that training! I envy him, man. I couldn’t be a chef even if I had two good arms. I mean, you can always get someone else to chop the onions, if you need to.” He paused for a moment. “You can make it okay,” he concluded fiercely. “You just have to decide you’re going to.”
Then there was the family who’d sustained a breathtaking amount of loss from the crash. The mother had been killed. The father had lost a leg. Two of the sons had each lost a leg, and one of their wives had lost a leg. And yet, one of the sons told me, “we just want to thank everyone here for everything they did for our family. We feel a special bond with everyone here. They helped save my family’s lives.” He, too, paused. Emotions still ran high, this year. But after a minute, he continued. “We lost our mom that day. But we also lost any cynicism we ever had.”
In the end, the reason so many of the survivors had returned to a place that surely must have held bad memories for them, seemed to be that the good memories–of just how powerful community can be, when it bonds together, and how powerful love can be, when it is poured out in need–so clearly outweighed the bad. Already, they have learned that. And that truth is, indeed, a rare, powerful and comforting gift to hold in your hands.
What the future holds for any of us is still unclear. There will be challenges, for sure. But I hope there continue to be opportunities for growth and learning, as well. And maybe even unexpected gifts to be found, where and when we least expect them.