“It was twenty years ago today” My Life with Traumatic Brain Injury

Ride leader. BCA Wednesday Ride

On August 5, 2000 I set off to ride the Greylock Century Ride, a grueling 100 mile ride through the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. I had already gone up and over Mt. Greylock, the highest point in the state, and up the famous “Hairpin Turn” on Route 2, “The Mohawk Trail.”

At mile 33 I found myself off the road in a drainage ditch  (I found out later they are called “paved waterways” and are designed to keep then snow melt off the road.) The waterway led to a grate. It was too steep to ride back on the road or onto the shoulder so I literally went head over heels onto the pavement, still clipped into my pedals.

The damage to my body, I learned after trips to two hospitals, was a badly separated shoulder, a broken rib, a contused lung, and multiple abrasions to my arms, legs and side (cyclists call it “road rash.“ What I didn’t learn for three more months was that I had an undiagnosed severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).

I had surgery to fix my ruined shoulder, the road rash finally healed months later, the rib healed, the lung healed, but the TBI remains with me to this day, although I have adapted to my “new normal” and have learned to live with it. If you want to know more about the day of my accident I gave a paper on it to the Monday Evening Club called “I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail.

In September of 2004 I came to the realization that my disability made it impossible to remain a parish pastor, and I sadly resigned my pastorate of 22 years and went on long-term disability and SSDI, thus ending may thirty years as a pastor to congregations.

One of the ways I lived my new normal was to continue my ministry through my writings. I started this blog in 2009, and I have written about the things I care about, one of which is TBI. One of the first pieces I published here was called “I Have a Brain Injury.”

My first devotion for the UCC Daily Devotional was called “What’s Your New Normal?”

My “New Normal” is what my doctor told me to think about my life, and not compare it to life before the TBI. I have found this helpful, and a good way to think about one’s faith journey, for we are always faced with changes and new challenges. I have recently repurposed the devotion to help think about our new normal after this pandemic. That piece is called “Imagining Our New Normal.”

I will be remotely preaching on this topic this Sunday, August 9, at South Congregational Church in Pittsfield, and next Sunday, August 16, remotely at The United Congregational Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island, where my daughter is the pastor.

Finally I want to say that I am most grateful to my wife and family for the support they lovingly gave me through some difficult years. And I am thankful for God’s grace and vast love for me even when I didn’t feel it or acknowledge it. On the Tenth Anniversary of my accident I wrote a piece called “Disability and Grace.”

I ended that piece with this reflection:

The scripture that speaks to me most about disability comes from the vision of John the Divine as reported in the 21st chapter of Revelation. John looks up and sees a new heaven and a new earth, and a New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. He says, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

I take comfort from this promise that God’s ultimate intention for us is a community where we don’t suffer pain or death or loss.  That would have to include disability. No more sleepless nights, no more depression, no more chronic pain, no more anxiety and fear, no more shame. No more of all the things that beset us in this earthly life. Quite a vision!

This horizon of hope often allows me to bounce back from my set-backs, to experience forgiveness for my failings, to face the challenges and complications of each new day, and to enjoy the quotidian little (and sometimes not so little) graces that visit me unbidden and unexpected.

Amen.

 

(Photos: 1. On a BCA Wednesday Ride. 2. In front of the Monterey General Store on a ride)

Bicycle Touring in the Berkshires

It’s that time of year again when the ice is off the road, the bikes come out of the garage and we pull on our cycling shorts to find that once again they have shrunk over the winter. Here in the Berkshire Hills we have an active cycling club called the Berkshire Cycling Association, which organizes and sponsors a number of events, from road and mountain bike races to time trials.

For those who prefer not to go so fast there is a also series of weekly touring rides beginning this week and continuing into September. The oldest of these rides is the venerable Thursday Night Ride, which has helped many a new rider to learn how to ride in a group. Ably led by Shaun Weigand the ride attracts 20 to 35 riders on any given Thursday night. The rides begin in different locations and over the course of the season cover most of Berkshire County, with an occasional foray into adjacent Vermont, New York, or Connecticut.

A newer and smaller touring ride that meets during the day is the Wednesday Morning Ride, which regularly attracts about 15 riders. This ride, which I help to found four years ago and led for three years, is now led by Margie Safran.

Both rides are pretty leisurely, with friendly, helpful people. One needs a safe working bike, a helmet (always!), and knowledge of how your bike works, the highway laws, and how to ride safely on the road. (Photo above from left: R.Floyd, Marge Cohan, and John Yuill in front of the Monterey Genreral Store)

Spring Comes Slowly to the Berkshire Hills

I believe that spring will finally come to my corner of the world because two weeks ago I was down in Princeton (about three hours south of here) and saw green lawns, apple blossoms, and tulips. To use the language of Christian eschatology, I wait in hope for the future to break into the present.

Here in the Berkshires we must wait until early May for real spring to arrive. Later in the summer when the city dwellers descend on us for our cool nights and lovely days we are thankful for our geography, but this time of year we experience first hand T. S. Eliot’s observation that “April is the cruelest month.” (The Wasteland, 1922)

But here and there I spy glimpses of things to come. I have some crocuses (croci?) popping up around the edges of my house, and my lawn shows hints of green and begs to be raked. The days grow longer and each one, if closely observed, yields signs and portents. I recently read the children’s classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and though it was the dead of winter, shared in her rich descriptions of the garden’s daily changes.

So on a warmer sunny day this week I climbed on my bike for the first time in 2009 and hit the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail. I had to take the snowshoes out of my trunk to make room for my bike bag and floor pump, surely another sign of the changing season. It was a bit chilly alongside Cheshire Lake, but after all, the ice has been out of the lake for only a few weeks. There was no ice on the trail, but still a few stubborn chunks clinging to the shady cliffs alongside the Hoosic River at Cheshire Harbor, and some remaining big sandy piles of snow in the parking lot of the Berkshire Mall near the head of the trail.

The Canadian geese were in abundance, some lazy ones now never migrate and have become pests and foul the trail. We had one white swan for a few days several weeks ago but he or she is gone now.

Over the years of riding the trail I have seen a black bear, deer, snapping turtles as big as a lawn mower, and numerous other animals and birds. This week, though, I didn’t see much besides the geese and ducks.

 The buds are getting red, and here and there some begin to show the gold that precedes the green, reminding me of Robert Frost’s little poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

It’s been a long, cold winter here with lots of snow. But spring is slowly coming to the Berkshire and soon we can share in Solomon’s song:

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth:
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.”
(Song of Solomon< 2)

Mind Your Head

Natasha’s Richardson’s shocking death from a head injury last week after what seemed like a minor fall on the bunny slope of a Canadian ski resort highlights how fragile our brains can be.

I have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that I acquired in a catastrophic cycling accident in 2000, which is why I am the retired pastor who ruminates and not the still active pastor too busy to blog.  I wrote a memoir of my crash called “I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail.”

Unlike Richardson I was wearing a helmet when I fell, which may have saved my life.  Dr. Robert Cantu, a director of the Neurological Sports injury Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is quoted in yesterday’s New York Times, “Had she (Richardson) been wearing a helmet she would have been alive.”   Cantu said,  “Helmets, although they do not prevent concussion, have a virtually 100 percent record of preventing skull fractures.”

So wearing a helmet is a good investment in your health.  I ride on our local bike path, the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail , quite frequently, and am amazed at how many people ride bicycles without wearing a helmet.  Here in Massachusetts there is  a law that children must wear them, but I see mom and dad helmet-less while the kids wear them, which sends the message that helmets are for kids.  It’s like the parents who drop the kids off for Sunday School but don’t go to church.  Children get the message.  And people have told me they don’t wear one because they are only on the trail and don’t go very fast,  but it only takes a minor bump to do the damage, as Richardson’s injury shows.

And though a helmet can’t guarantee that you won’t sustain a TBI, it will likely lessen the impact and resulting damage and disability.  We are seeing thousands of cases of TBI from troops returning from Iraq, and the human and social cost of these injuries is profound.  TBIs can cause memory loss, focus and attention issues, personality changes, chronic tiredness, severe depression, inability to multitask, sleep problems, and many social problems.   A psychiatrist who fell from a ladder and hit his head had to quit his practice.  He told me that having a brain injury is “an exercise in patience and humility.”  I have found that to be true.

So do what you can to avoid getting a TBI.  If you ride or ski or participate in any sport where your head is at risk, do yourself and those you love a favor.  Wear a helmet.