Jennifer Bridgman

A Super Man

In those initial days following my husband’s accident, I was fairly certain that no one in the world could understand what we were going through. How could they? Chris and I had been married for less than a year and putting the finishing touches a baby nursery when the unthinkable happened—he became paralyzed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to us, and especially not right now. And more importantly, this wasn’t supposed to happen to Chris. Strong, agile, happy Chris.

He was the one we'd fought to keep up with. He was my workout buddy, my hiking companion, my dance partner, my lover. He was the guy who spent so many hours at the gym that I'd threatened to have his mail forwarded to 24 Hour Fitness. He moved with an athlete’s grace, and I loved the way he quietly commanded attention just by walking into a room. He was unstoppable.

Then on that afternoon in February, life unraveled at the seams. Our definition of trauma was no longer confined to the eye-catching newspaper headline or unfortunate story involving a “friend of a friend.” Suddenly, it was our story. Had it belonged to someone else, I probably would have stopped, counted my blessings and thought, How tragic. I can’t imagine what I would do if that happened to us. The reality is that when it did happen to us, there was no time to stop and think.

It was an odd feeling to go from the nurtured to the nurturer. Up until his accident, I was barely cognizant of all the ways I depended on Chris. If I awoke to a mysterious noise in the middle of the night, I was comforted in knowing my husband could jump up and protect me. If my taillight needed replacing or I needed a box from our cobweb-infested basement, he was quick to respond. I loved the way his tall frame next to mine made me feel feminine and safe. I often told him we were the perfect “kissing height” for one another.

In the blink of an eye, life as we knew it ended. It wasn’t merely as if the world had stopped rotating; it was as if it had screeched to a halt and landed on my shoulders. The boundaries I relied on to define my place in the world blurred until I thought they would disappear all together. Our relationship evolved in ways we never could have imagined, and our roles within our relationship shifted in response—uncomfortably so. I found myself responsible for more than I thought I could handle. Chris found himself having to rely on others, an issue that often waged war on his feelings of self-worth. 

A girlfriend once asked me, “Don't you ever just feel pissed? I think I would be!” I reflected on her question often and was always relieved to discover that I was not. Never once had I been angry at Chris for being injured. Sure there were times that I was livid over the umpteen doctor appointments, the constant modifications to our home, the equipment that took up all of our closet space, the bills, the pills, the pain, and the cumbersome wheelchair, but I never for one second blamed my husband for getting hurt. Weeks by his side in the hospital taught me that injuries can happen to anyone at anytime. There was no rhyme or reason for his paralysis, and trying to come up with an explanation was a painful waste of time. Chris could have incurred the exact same injury walking down the street, snowboarding or diving into a swimming pool.

I‘m relieved that I stepped outside of my comfort zone to share our journey with others. As the protagonist in our ongoing saga, I’m forever grateful Chris allowed me to share our story, too. By opening our hearts to others, they helped carry some of the burden. They opened their hearts in return. Acquaintances became dear friends, and our already-loving relationships further deepened. Many people entrusted us with their own personal tales of trauma and grief, and we came to see that pain doesn’t discriminate. In fact, we learned that everyone has “stuff” to deal with.

As others complimented me on my strength and composure, I wondered if I could handle what they’d revealed having gone through themselves. I came to the conclusion that we’re all capable of surprising ourselves with what we can achieve, especially when love is our guiding force.

Chris and I were faced with a choice: we could let the injury win or we could make the best of our situation. Through hard work, we were able to protect our marriage from calamity’s formidable blow. The temptation to feel sorry for ourselves was always negated when we stopped to count our blessings. Yes, our days were often stormy. Yes, depression could strike like lightening without any thunderous warning. But Chris and I recognized that our worst fear would be to look back and wish we'd continued to sense the sun's presence just beyond the clouds. Without fail, our young "Sonshine" helped them to part.

I began to read. A lot. I read inspirational memoirs like Walking Papers by Francisco Clark, The Long Run by Matt Long, and Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor. I attended a fundraiser event featuring Michealene Cristini Risley and Jan Yanehiro, two of the four authors of This Is Not the Life I Ordered.

While reading Christopher Reeve’s two books, Still Me and Nothing is Impossible, I recognized my connection to his wife, Dana. We were both in our early thirties when our husbands became paralyzed through recreational accidents. In the early days of recovery, we were both also caring for our firstborn sons.  Dana and I had both married men named “Christopher”—husbands noted for their integrity, strength and character. We were both praised for having solid marriages.

I came across a quote in Christopher Anderson’s Somewhere in Heaven, a biography on the lives of Christopher and Dana Reeve. A reporter asked Dana what it was like to be in a relationship with Superman. In response she said, “I didn’t fall in love with Superman. I fell in love with a super man.”

Once again, I had something in common with Dana. This was exactly how I felt, too. My husband had never seemed stronger, yet at the same time more vulnerable. Our love became gentler, our lives became more human. Our lows were felt more fiercely, but so were our highs. We cried together out of pain and out of joy.

Chris and I found ourselves traveling down an unfamiliar, bumpy road. Although there were no maps or signs, we knew it was the avenue of the grieving process. As much as we wanted to hold hands, it was impossible to travel at the same rate. Both of our lives took a dramatic turn following Chris’ accident, and we both had to readjust our future dreams accordingly. However, the very nature of our wounds was different, and Chris suffered a far greater loss than I could ever comprehend. Difficult as it was, I knew I had to forge ahead on the path and trust that my husband would follow.   

United in our journey but separated by our wounds, laughter was the bridge that kept us connected. It kept us heading toward the same destination. Years ago, it was my husband’s incredible sense of humor that made me fall head over heels. Now, it was his sense of humor that would lift me to my knees when I didn’t have the strength to rise on my own. My husband’s grin and the humor that continued to twinkle behind his eyes became my guiding force—my beacon in the darkness.

We have come to see that nothing is constant. There is danger in defining oneself by external roles. Jobs change, relationships end, bodies fail, death is inevitable. Trauma has brought clarity to universal truths we can cling to, such as love and the perseverance of the human spirit. These gifts are the silver linings of our family's personal storm.

I'm reminded on a daily basis what makes a great husband and father, and it has nothing to do with one's ability to change a light bulb or roll the trash bin to the curb. I married a man who gives more to his family than most able-bodied men are capable of doing. I always knew I fell for a great guy. Only now, he's become my super man, too.