Jewish Journal

First Person - In This Moment

by Esther Pasternak

Posted on Apr. 20, 2006 at 8:00 pm

"Look where you want to go and you will go there," my ski instructor explained. As a college English major, I was always on the lookout for a good metaphor. I didn't ski much after that, but I used my instructor's metaphor constantly throughout college.

When I graduated from UCLA and got a job, I thought I knew a few things about life. After all, I had been able to spot a good metaphor and incorporate it into numerous 10- to 15-page essays. I read everything from Beowulf to Chaucer, and I aced most of my classes from abnormal psychology to British poetry.

About two years ago, the day after my 23rd birthday, everything changed. While my grandfather was walking across a street, a car struck him. His head slammed into the car's windshield with such force that the glass cracked. Then he flew through the air and struck his head again on the ground.

My grandfather is my best friend. I have spent every Sunday with him since I was born -- going to restaurants, talking for hours and going to festivals. I could literally feel his unconditional love for me. When I was 5, he dropped me off on my first day at summer camp. I was terrified to be away from my family. The counselor called him and he rushed over to pick me up. He let me know that it was OK to feel afraid, and he took me to a restaurant and bought me gifts. He assured me that he would always be there for me. I quickly learned to love camp, but more importantly, my grandfather taught me to love and trust myself.

My grandfather's kindness extended outside his family to everyone he encountered. He sold jewelry at a swap meet, and he was always honest in his sales. Many of his fellow vendors rationalized cheating customers, but he would never do it. It was more important to have integrity.

Our family rushed to the hospital after the accident, where we found out he needed emergency brain surgery. We kept waiting for the nightmare to end, but it only got worse. One surgery turned into several. He stayed in the hospital bed for almost six months with no ability to speak or care for himself. He could only mumble incoherently and scream. The months went on and on in a never ending daze. Month after month, I kept waiting for him to return to "normal." My family and I kept searching for the right medication, procedure or surgery that would "fix" him. Finally it seemed as if he was getting better -- he started walking, communicating and acting "normal."

Suddenly, he deteriorated again. All his progress was lost; he would fly into unprovoked rages. Now our goal is to keep him comfortable. I have finally accepted my "new grandfather." I can still see his loving, gentle nature shining through his beautiful eyes. I know the grandfather I love is still there -- it is just hidden under the devastating effects of severe brain trauma.

In trying to make sense of this tragedy, I realized there are many people dealing with their own nightmares. Perhaps sharing a few words may help someone.

Living in the Moment

My grandfather has no short-term memory and no attention span. Sometimes I'll go visit him and give him a big hug. He will tell me how happy he is to see me and then turn away. When he turns back to see me again, he greets me all over again with no memory of what just happened. For months, I looked at this phenomenon as a terrible tragedy. What is the point of even going to see him if he doesn't remember? But, it does matter. While we are together, we are happy. If he can't remember that it happened later on, it does not take the real joy he felt away. The cliché "live in the moment" is not just a cliché to me anymore. It is real.

Facing Indescribable Pain

Sometimes I will be sitting quietly with my grandfather, and he will suddenly fly into an agitated inconsolable rage. In those moments, panic fills me and I feel dazed with the shock of the intense sensation. I feel almost certain my insides have been ripped out. Then the burning, raw pain radiates heat throughout my entire body.

For a long time, I tried denying that I was hurting. I tried pretending I was OK with how unfair life can be. I thought that being an adult meant staying cool and collected no matter what. Finally, I realized that I needed to face how I felt. Somehow, just acknowledging how much everything hurts makes it more bearable. When you stare the pain directly in the eyes instead of trying to hide, it becomes much more manageable.

Tantrums Are Not Just for 2-Year-Olds

There are days where I can't make sense of anything. Why should such a gentle, loving man have his life stolen from him in an instant? And then I feel guilty for having a negative attitude. Well, now I don't feel guilty. I let myself feel exactly how I want to feel. Then I take a warm bath and think about all the blessings I have and how much good there is in the world.

For more information on the Brain Injury Association of America -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a better future though brain injury prevention, research, education and advocacy -- visit www.biausa.org.

Esther Pasternak is an account executive with The Jewish Journal.


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