Shared Gratitude: A Tribute to the Burlington, VT Rotary Club

Two weeks ago, the president of the Rotary Club in Burlington, VT invited me to speak about traumatic brain injuries and read an excerpt of my essay, “Invisible Bruise.” Among the thirty members, I knew of two who had a connection to TBIs – one whose wife had suffered a concussion this past winter after she slipped on the ice, and another whose son died in a skiing accident four years ago. As I shared the statistics of TBIs, and my story, the room turned silent, penetrated only by intermittent gasps and soft utterances in response to a startling fact or personal passage I shared. Did these reactions stem from surprise, disbelief? Or did I say something that resonated with the group? When I asked if anyone had any questions, hands quickly shot up: “How are you doing now?” Someone asked. “What can we do to be more sensitive to others with traumatic brain injuries?” another asked. “What is a typical day like for you?” And, “Who do we turn to for more information about brain injuries?”
The president of the club then approached the dais. She grabbed my wrist, wrapped her trembling fingers around it. “Please,” she said, “stay here.” She paused, took a deep breath, her eyes trickling clear tears. “My daughter suffered a brain injury,” she said, her voice the sound of shells washing up to shore. She explained how her daughter had fallen off a horse, how she struggled for years, judged by others as being lazy. It wasn’t until her mother read a book about another woman’s own recovery from a TBI after falling off a horse that she realized her daughter had suffered from one too. She looked at me, the tears now streaming down her flushed cheek. The hairs on my arms stood up, as surprised as I was at this serendipitous moment, this moment of unexpected mutual understanding.
At the close of the session, people gathered around me, eager to share their personal stories. “My wife thought her concussion was improving, but she’s having trouble again,” one of the members said. “She’s experiencing exactly what you described, the difficulty multi-tasking and concentrating.” Another member told me about the brain surgery she had years ago. “I know what you’re talking about,” she said, then hugged me. The man whose son died from a skiing accident approached me, his eyes blood-shot. He shook my hand and held it for several seconds, the warmth rising from his lifelines seeping into mine. He said a quite thank you, then dropped his head and walked away. I rubbed my palms together, holding onto the warmth, this man’s indescribable loss floating just below the surface of rheumy-eyed gratitude.
I left the event grateful, grateful for newfound collective understanding and open-minded conversation about a misunderstood injury. I am grateful for not being along when leaving the event – TBIs are everywhere: in gasps and tender utterances, in hugs and trickling tears, in blood-shot eyes. And submerged silences.

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