Yesterday we talked about how a life-threatening accident can change your marriage in a way that shared a profound sense of strength with all of us. Today we’re also talking about a life-altering medical emergency, but in a way that is all about hope born through struggle. Here is Emily’s story. (And yes. Their wedding is the Wordless Wedding for this afternoon. So it’s that kind of joyful, hopeful, and hard day.)
Our lives for the past few years feel like they have been all about dealing with curveballs. My husband, Matt, has dealt with them with an ease that I envy. I, as a planner and organizer, have had my bouts of sobbing and hyperventilating that come before acceptance. Matt and I had been dating about three years when the first one hit. Up until then we had been happily moving in a standard dating trajectory of two career-minded people living in New York. We had moved in together about six months before and were enjoying merging our lives. Matt had dealt with back and leg pain for as long as I had known him. It started out minor and had been slowly growing more intense to the point of almost being unbearable. He had gone to a series of doctors and none of them had been very helpful. It seems back pain is so common that doctors don’t always take it very seriously. They looked for alignment issues or a slipped disk and when they didn’t find anything major, they mostly shrugged their shoulders and told him to take some Aleve. One even treated him with steroid injections and was upset with him when the pain didn’t get better.
Then one day he came home after some tests with a new doctor, sat me down on the couch and told me that they had found a tumor on his spine. It was almost a relief. At least we had a diagnosis, but the plan from there wasn’t simple. As it turns out, doctors are reluctant to open up the spine of an otherwise healthy thirty-year-old man, but the tumor wasn’t going to go away on its own and it wasn’t going to stop growing. A few months later we walked into the hospital at 7 a.m. with his parents so that a surgeon could cut through his spinal column and remove the tumor. It was pretty much the worst day of my life. At about 4 p.m., after spending all day in the waiting room watching family members being told that everything went well, the surgeon came out and took us into the hall. The surgery had been “successful.” They had been able to remove the whole tumor, and he was awake—but he wasn’t able to move or feel either of his legs. They were taking him for tests and we would have to wait and see what happened. After a few hours of waiting and hearing nothing his father eventually tracked him down to the ICU. We spent the next few days dealing with the typical hospital frustrations and exhaustion, a lack of answers to our questions, and minimal luck finding the people who should be able to answer them.
There are too many moments from that week to recount. Calling my boss to try to “calmly” tell him I would be out another day and then completely breaking down on the phone. Getting a hospital roommate who’d had a similar surgery and was already walking the halls. Watching the first physical therapy session where they just tried to get him to sit up. Finally sitting with one of my best friends in my apartment and sobbing. At the end of the week they moved him to a rehab center across town where he spent the next two months. It was a tough couple months but he was amazing. He decided that he was going to get better and worked at it constantly. While he was unwilling to accept anything other than total recovery, I remember the moment where I realized that if he never got any better than he was that day, that we would have a good life together, a life that I wanted. I was walking through the park, talking on the phone with one of my best friends whose mom had polio as a child. I realized that his condition at that moment was what her whole life had been. Suddenly I could picture it all and it wasn’t so bad. She had a good job, two wonderful kids, and pretty great life. From then on I knew I was “in” and whatever happened I could deal with it.
A year later we had accepted the slow process of his recovery and were slowly getting our lives back to normal despite his limitations. When he was released from the hospital, he could barely get around with a walker and couldn’t really leave the house. He had slowly gone from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to nothing, mainly through sheer force of will. He spent the spring and summer walking around the park for five hours a day, gradually getting stronger and faster. He had decided to spend a few months in Boston as part of our process of trying to decide whether to move there, I was able to get back into intense work mode, and there was talk of getting married.
Then curveball number three. There is no way of really telling this story without a little TMI. Matt had spinal damage in the middle of his back. That affected all feeling and movement from his waist down. And yes, that means everything you think it does. I went off birth control pills while he was in the hospital because it was a daily reminder of everything that was on hold in our lives. When he got out of the hospital, I tried not to think about it too much and just be patient. Then one night, about a year after he got out of the hospital, we had both had a little too much to drink and the fooling around “worked.” Wonderful. Then I woke up at about 3 a.m. in a panic, looked at a calendar, and realized our timing. When we got up in the morning we talked it through and I tried not to over-think it. People try for months or years to get pregnant, how likely could it be from one time. One time in over a year. And if it did happen, wouldn’t we be happy about it? Two weeks later I missed my period and took a pregnancy test. Then another. The two blue lines appeared immediately both times. I called Matt, who was in Boston, on video chat and made him look at the tests. I cried and hyperventilated.
Our lives went from slowly easing back into normality to kicking into high gear. We announced the news to our families. We planned a wedding for when I was about six months along (I wanted to be far along enough to look pregnant and not just chubby—but not huge and exhausted) and a move to Boston a couple weeks later. It wasn’t the wedding that I pictured but it was everything I could have wanted. Yes, there were things we had to give up. Matt would have liked to surprise me with a proposal. I struggled more that I expected with looking pregnant in my wedding dress and not feeling pretty. There were friends and family from far away that just couldn’t plan a trip to the wedding on the shorter notice we were giving them. The financial pressure of planning a wedding, a move, and a baby all at once was a little overwhelming. But mostly it was wonderful. As painful as his surgery and recovery had been, it brought us and our families together in a way that normal life couldn’t have done. Even before the wedding and baby I felt more like a unit than I could have imagined a year before. There is also something about a child/grandchild on the way that puts everything wedding planning related into perspective.
Now I sit on the couch, with my huge belly and swollen feet, waiting for the arrival of our daughter within the next month. (That whole due date thing is a crock. As far as I can tell it is basically a due month.) I have no idea what happens from here, in a way that overwhelms me if I think about it too much. Matt is still doing physical therapy and working on his stride. His sensation is still very limited and we just have to hope it will keep coming back. I know he hopes that he will be able to run after our daughter once she is on the move. Life in Boston hasn’t been easy. I miss my friends terribly and I have no idea what is going to happen with my work. Moving when you are six months pregnant isn’t very conducive to finding a new job, though I do appreciate that I’ll have some flexibility to see how I feel after she is born. With all that, I mainly feel incredibly lucky. We are surrounded by beautiful wedding and baby gifts that constantly remind me of all the love and support we have in our lives. I guess we just keep moving forward and hope the good surprises outnumber the bad.
Photo by: Emily Anderson