This was the first Thanksgiving I have not hosted in a long time.
I originally intended to host. I invited my parents and members of my family who don’t live here currently and asked them all to come to my house. It was going to be a celebration of my newfound mobility, a six-month reunion to commemorate my hip surgery. But it ended up happening differently and I didn’t even have to clean my house (much). For which I am very thankful.
This year, we had Thankgiving at a local friend’s house (and a fine Thanksgiving it was!). Then we had a nice Italian feast a few days later with my parents. I can’t think of much, for which I am more thankful, than for the opportunity to live my life for so many years with my parents close at hand.
Coming Together for Better or Worse
My father has staged various family reunions over the years to commemorate his survival of a terrible car crash. Now, over twenty years later, it seems inconceivable that we could have been robbed of those many years with him. But at the time his chances seemed much more slim.
My father’s accident was probably my first brush with the notion that people with disabilities encounter obstacles just trying to live normal lives. He worked as an engineer and was well respected in his field. He continues to be lauded as having made a significant contribution. But one instant, in which his body encountered the full weight of an oncoming truck, changed everything.
I got a call from my mother from the hospital. My father had already been airlifted and brought to intensive care. He had broken his leg. He had potential internal damage and a head injury. He was in a coma, and would remain in one for weeks.
At the time, my husband and I had one little girl of about three, and lived in South Florida. We traveled up to Tampa to visit my dad in the hospital. All I can remember is the smell of French fries, and thinking, how strange, that a hospital should have fast food on site. It seemed counterintuitive in this age of cholesterol consciousness. But, of course, my kid was happy as a clam.
It was all extremely frightening, so much so, that my stomach seemed to be turning summersaults, and I was feeling a bit queasy. Naturally my first thought was that I must be pregnant, but that was the least of my worries (and turned out not to be true.)
My mom seemed to take it all in stride, spending the majority of most days at the hospital with Dad, reading magazines and books, writing letters and fielding phone calls. This was what the “for better or for worse” meant in the marriage vows. In sickness and in health. I tried not to think of the rest of words.
Changes in How We Seem to Others
We came back again a few weeks later. My father had to have brain surgery because he had “water on the brain.” It made me squirm just to imagine it. He was conscious by now, and speaking.
I visited with him, after his surgery I think. I remember the staples on his newly shaven head. He believed me to be an attorney from Tampa who had tried Sierra Club cases against his company, an environmental “enforcer”. He was very adamant that his company should be protected from people like me.
At another point in the same conversation, he believed me to be, instead, a lawyer for his own company, who would be litigating on his behalf. It was all very confusing, and I was a little hurt that he did not remember me. But his vocabulary was perfect, his manner very businesslike, and he seemed utterly unaware that, instead of his standard engineer attire, he now wore a gown that had an opening in the back.
As a result of the head injury and brain surgery, my father had been prescribed medications for epilepsy. There was a significant danger of seizures, apparently, and he was to continue on this medication for months. It caused an enormous change in his personality, one noted by everyone in the family. Years later, when my son had infantile spasms, a rare kind of epilepsy, I was very hesitant for him to try any medication, remembering what my father had been like, and how the medication seemed to change him.
After the doctors put a metal plate in his leg and did brain surgery, my father was eventually shifted to the rehab ward. He had to do various exercises that resembled the exercises my son was required to do, years later, as a baby and toddler with a disability. Just like my son, my father had OT (occupational therapy) and PT (physical therapy) and speech therapy. They may even have given him cognitive therapy.
I remember him complaining mightily about having to do ridiculous beadwork. His main opinion seemed to be that it was all a waste of time, except perhaps the physical therapy which helped him get back on his feet. Nevertheless, he was a good student, because he did so in record time. Some on his ward were not so fortunate after their accidents. Many had lasting cognitive repercussions, even from accidents less severe than my father’s.
Changes in Home and Work
The next time I came, my father was being shifted back home, and the concern was whether there needed to be major architectural changes to accommodate his difficulties. He was in a wheelchair at least part of the time at that point. But I don’t recall any changes except perhaps a bar in the bathtub. My father was very determined to get things back to normal, and stubbornly refused to be mollycoddled.
By the end of his hospital stay, several months later, my father was chomping at the bit to get back to work. Here again, he encountered obstacles.
People with disabilities are frequently undervalued, or assumed to have lesser competencies than they actually have, and could prove themselves to have, if they were only given the chance. My father got his job back, but things seemed different. He did not feel he was getting the same respect, or the same amount or type of work as before. After about a year of this, if I remember correctly, my father accepted an offer of early retirement.
You can understand how the severity of my father’s accident, the inclusion of a head injury, and whatever side effects the epilepsy drugs had on his personality, might have led some people to assume that cognitive damage had been done. But this sort of reasonable, but unproven, assumption is dangerous. It can limit the job opportunities and advancement available to people with disabilities.
My father was before, and remains to this day, among the smartest men I have ever known. As soon as he got off the medications, his personality went back to normal, as well. So, although these assumptions seemed reasonable, they were actually completely wrong. My father went on to work in his field for many more years, and did consulting work as well.
When my family gathers for a reunion to commemorate his accident, we do not do so to be morbid. It is a celebration: a way for us to once again be amazed by the way he tackled and beat something so serious. Something that could well have ended a less stubborn, less determined, less lucky person’s life.
Thanksgiving with my parents for the past twenty years would not have been possible, if my father’s accident, his recovery, and his stubborn refusal to be treated as anything less than who he was, had not turned out the way it did. He had life-altering challenges, he struggled through them with the dedicated help of others, and he did not allow his disabilities to define who he is or what he can do.
We should, from time to time, remember the difficulties people have faced, that have brought them to where they are today. Then, perhaps, we will be more willing to set aside our assumptions, and offer employment and opportunity and inclusion, to those we might otherwise prejudge. Rather than using their own conditions as weapons against them to limit their success in life.