One of the stranger symptoms resulting from the traumatic brain injury I got 17 years ago is my tendency to cry at odd times, such as while watching sappy jewelry commercials on TV or foolish pet videos on Facebook. Continue reading
Tune in to WSBS radio tomorrow morning, September 13 at 8:30, and listen to my interview on “Retirement, Aging, Loss and Change.” The Reverend John Wightman, a retired United Church of Christ minister, interviews me on behalf of the Religious Roundtable, a weekly Sunday morning radio show hosted by the Southern Berkshire Clergy Association.
John and I have a good discussion about the resources of faith in times of loss and change, including aging, illness and retirement.
Can’t get up that early or have choir practice? You can download the podcast of the interview here.
I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.
My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.
I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”
I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase. Continue reading
I have a brain injury. It is one of the bald facts of my life like being tall or having brown hair. Unlike those facts though, I was not born with a brain injury, but acquired it on August 5, 2000 (see “I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail”). In my life story that day is a dividing marker. There is the time before my injury and the time after my injury, just as ancient Israel divided its life into before and after the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile.
The great thinkers and writers of Israel who gave us some of the best parts of the Bible were preoccupied with why their exile happened. Or more precisely, they asked “What had they done wrong to cause the exile?” Why had God done this to them? As Rabbi Kushner asked in the title of his best-selling book: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
I honestly don’t ask that question about my accident. I don’t feel guilty about my brain injury. Some things in life just happen that we are powerless to do anything about, and I believe this was one of those things. I don’t believe God throws people off bicycles. And I’m not ashamed about my brain injury, although it has taken me awhile to deal with the strange reactions of many people to my disability.
I bump into people in the grocery store, and they ask me if I am feeling better, and I smile and say I am doing OK, which I am. But the real answer in regard to my brain injury is “no.” I’m not better and, like Humpty Dumpty, I’m not going to be put together again. The task for me is to take care of myself and adjust to my disability from day to day as best I can with a lot of help from my family and my professional caregivers.
So it is what it is. I sometimes grieve for the life I expected to have. I am sometimes sad because I miss my ministry and the purpose and meaning that came with it. But I am unable to do it anymore and that is that. I am grateful for the thirty years I had to do it. I am grateful for my wife and children and family and friends. I am grateful I still have speech and memory, and the cognitive capacities to write and imagine.
And I am one of the lucky ones. Of the roughly 1.4 million who sustain a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) each year in the United States 50,000 will die. One of the reason I choose to speak openly about my TBI is there are many of our neighbors out there who have TBI and they are struggling. The CDC estimates over 3 million Americans have a long-term or lifelong need for help to perform their daily activities because of a TBI.
And there will be more. Many returning veterans have TBI from concussive injuries. Many of these heroes will daily struggle to manage stress, control their tempers, solve problems, and deal with life’s emotional issues. Many will have difficulty finding and keeping a job. Many will be unable to work. I am glad that Gary Trudeau has created a sympathetic character with TBI for his Doonesbury comic strip. The more people know about TBI the better.
One of the reasons for better education is that many people with TBI go undiagnosed. Many of these will self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Untreated and unsupported such people with TBI will have very tough lives, and so will their family and friends.
So I choose to talk and write about brain injury so that more people can know about it, and can seek the support they need. There is support and services for people with TBI. I have been helped by the Massachusetts State Head Injury Program (SHIP). Massachusetts has an active Brain Injury Association, as do other states, and there is a National Brain Injury Association with a good website.
I was recently driving on the highway and saw a billboard from the Brain Injury Association. It pictured a camouflaged helmet, the kind our troops wear in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sign said: “You can’t camouflage a brain injury!” It’s really time we stopped trying to do that.
In August 2000 I had a catastrophic bicycle accident (see I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail). I was months later diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that eventually led to my early retirement on disability. I was rummaging around in the files and found this piece I wrote for Colleague after the crash. It’s called Spills:
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.