I had no past. How could I have a future?
- Posted on Dec 17, 2009
Hospital. I was in a hospital bed.
A doctor stood over me. Other people were in the room. Two women, a nurse. The doctor pointed at one of the women. “Do you know who she is?” he asked.
I’d heard the same questions several times a day for a week. I didn’t recognize these strangers, didn’t know the answers to any of the doctor’s questions about myself.
“Can you tell me her name?” the doctor asked again.
I shook my head. The woman looked hurt, but said nothing.
“Can you tell me your name?” the doctor asked me.
I took a guess. “Tim?”
“It’s Bill,” the doctor said. “Your name is Bill.” He spread his hands out helplessly. I had the sense he was beginning to feel this was all as hopeless as it seemed to me. “Do you remember anything?” he asked.
My gaze went from face to face, finally landing on the second woman. “I know that woman right there,” I said, groping in my mind for who she was. It came to me. “I know her because I married her.”
Shannon was her name, I learned later. The other woman was my daughter from a previous marriage. I had two stepsons, five-year-old twins, named Nicholas and Collin. All this was told to me by strangers who visited me. Strangers that turned out to be my friends and family.
It started with a head cold that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t think it was serious, so I put off going to the doctor. I developed pneumonia, then sepsis of the blood and ultimately acute respiratory distress syndrome. The doctors induced a coma.
“They told me you were dead,” Shannon said one day, sitting by my side in my hospital room. I’d spent the morning in physical therapy, learning to walk again. I’d lost much of my muscle mass while in the coma. After lunch I had speech therapy.
“You only had a five percent chance of surviving. Even if you did survive, they said you’d most likely be an invalid. You were in the coma three-and-a-half weeks before you woke up on your own. Good thing I didn’t listen to them, huh?” she said.
“Good thing,” I agreed.
A miracle healing, doctor called it, but I was far from being my old self. I didn’t even know my old self. My entire life had been wiped from memory. Everything I knew, I’d learned after waking from the coma.
Eventually I was able to go home with Shannon—my home, though that wasn’t how it felt. It was as foreign to me as any highway motel. I continued with my therapy, but my memory didn’t return. In fact, sometimes I’d forget things I’d learned the day before. But little by little I took important things to heart: My elder daughter’s name was also Shannon. I lived in Ventura. Collin was afraid of the dark.
Before my illness, I worked in customer service at a computer call center. Now our family had to rely on Shannon’s salary as a salesclerk. No matter how many hours she worked we couldn’t pay all those hospital bills.
We lost our car. We lost our house and had to move. I considered asking for my old job back. “You say I was good at it,” I told Shannon as I set off in the morning. “Maybe I can be again.”
I got in the car with the best of intentions, but 20 minutes later I called Shannon. “Where am I going?” I asked desperately. I returned home in defeat. How could I possibly hold down a job?
Shannon suggested I talk to my brother. “Before you got sick you worked too much and stressed over it,” Bob said. “Maybe you should look on this as a new beginning. You’ve been given a fresh start.”
Bob’s advice sounded good, but where to begin? How could I build a new life in my condition? That night I lay in bed, unable to sleep. I walked aimlessly around the house. Show me the way, I thought.
I passed the twins’ room and poked my head in to make sure the boys were sleeping okay. Especially Collin. But when my eyes adjusted to the darkness I gasped.
Collin wasn’t alone. An angel sat with him, cradling Collin in her arms as he slept. I stood in the doorway for several minutes, taking in the beautiful vision.
Back in my own bed, I wondered, Did I really see an angel? I felt an incredible peace. I felt as if I was being held in the arms of an angel. An angel who was there to comfort me when I felt I was living in the dark.
For the first time in weeks my mind was not preoccupied with my problems.
But I knew what I saw. I would never forget it—and for me that was something special. “I’ll show you what she looked like.” I used the boy’s colored pencils to make a drawing. “You can put it on the refrigerator with their artwork when you’re done,” Shannon said with a smile.
I worked on my picture for hours. She didn’t look exactly like the angel I’d seen—no way anyone could capture her, but she was close enough. I showed Shannon. She frowned down at it. “Bill, this is really good.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No. You don’t understand. You’ve never been able to draw before. Even your stick figures were crooked. How did you make this?”
She showed the drawing to everyone. “You should make it into a template and cut it out of wood,” one friend said. “I’ve got some plywood and an old scroll saw I don’t use anymore. You’ve got that tin shed in the backyard to work in.”
“Bad idea,” Shannon cut in. She explained that I was one sorry fix-it man and an accident waiting to happen with power tools. “Sorry to have to break the news, honey,” she said. “I’ve always loved you anyway.”
For the first time since I woke up from the coma, I felt like I knew something Shannon didn’t. “I know I can do it,” I said. “I need the saw.”
Shannon found directions online. I traced my drawing onto a piece of plywood. Shannon stood beside me holding her breath while I carefully made my first cut.
The moment saw touched wood something happened in my mind. I didn’t struggle to follow the shape. Instead of cutting the angel out, I cut out pieces of wood. Like puzzle pieces. I barely noticed as they fell to the ground at my feet. Instinct—or was it something else?—guided my hand on the saw.
When I was finished I gathered up all the pieces. Over the next three weeks I arranged them and glued them together until—to my complete surprise—I had a wooden angel. It wasn’t the angel in my drawing. It wasn’t the angel who held Collin. It was my angel.
“You did it, Bill!” Shannon cheered.
I could barely remember putting the angel pieces together. But I remembered that feeling as I put the saw to the wood, of someone else guiding my hand. This was my new beginning.
I made more angels. Shannon glazed them, and we gave them to friends, to family, to everyone who had helped me come so far in my healing.
Eventually Shannon showed them to friends who ran a gift store in Ventura. They gladly took some to sell on consignment. When the store was featured on the local news, my angels were front and center.
I still make angels every day. I go into my shed, close my eyes and say a prayer. Then I let my artistic angel (who is quite handy with a scroll saw) create through me.
I’ve learned to face life the same way I face those jigsaw puzzle-like blocks of wood. With prayer and trust in my angel. The darkness doesn’t seem so scary these days—to Collin or to me.
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