Jennifer Bridgman

Love Never Fails



At age thirty-two, Chris and Jennifer Bridgman are happier than they ever thought possible. Twenty-five years after first meeting on an elementary school playground, the two have reconnected and fallen madly in love. Now newlyweds with a child on the way, their idyllic lives are shattered when an accident leaves Chris paralyzed and clinging to life. After surviving an emergency operation to fuse his spine and remove a life-threatening blood clot, Chris is hospitalized for four weeks to rehabilitate and relearn basic daily functions from a wheelchair. Within days of his homecoming, the couple will welcome their first child—a beautiful boy who brings much-needed “sonshine” into their lives. This memoir chronicles one family’s journey to find hope, healing and happiness following spinal cord injury. Tested to the limits as a couple and as individuals, Chris and Jennifer must learn to overcome hardships as they navigate their new world of parenthood and paralysis, ultimately discovering that Love Never Fails.

Preface

February 20, 2010. Like the permanent crease transecting my palm, this date is part of me, a scar on my memory that now serves to define me. This is the date I nearly lost my husband.

Origins of this memoir are a handful of e-mails, written to update friends and family on Chris’ condition and my rapidly approaching due date. Responses to my “Team Chris” updates were overwhelming; people cried with us, laughed with us, cheered with us. Strangers reached out to offer assistance and ask for inclusion on my distribution list. Our ordeal became front-page news in the local paper, and the ensuing community support repeatedly saved us from paralysis’ isolating and sinister grip. Recognizing the therapeutic nature of pen on paper, I found solace in telling our story.

As I wrote of grief and healing, my world expanded. Particulars of our situation are unique, yet our torment is shared by many. Paralysis affects an estimated six million people in the United States. As many as 1,275,000 people in the United States are living with a spinal cord injury, and 12,500 more will join them each year. Much like a fingerprint, no two cases of spinal cord injury are identical. Some people heal, others do not. Doctors are hesitant to offer decisive diagnoses. They are even hesitant to offer hope.

My husband and I found ourselves navigating a murky gray area with no road map to recovery. We chose the road less traveled, opting to consider the unknown as infinite potential for our future. Most spouses can only guess how their partners might respond when faced with catastrophe. Time and again, I’ve witnessed my husband rise above depression, pain and grief. As the wife of a paraplegic, I have a front-row seat to the human spirit at its finest. I do not love my husband in spite of his injury; I have come to love him even more because of it. 

From robotics to stem cell trials to nerve regeneration studies, our nation stands on the cusp of medical breakthroughs aimed at both curing paralysis and improving quality of life for the afflicted. I have shaken hands with everyday champions—the nurses, doctors, therapists, researchers, philanthropists and educators who strive to make a difference. But the real heroes are the injured community, the brave warriors—male and female, young and old—who dig deep within themselves each day to forge ahead with heart and resolve.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Chris and I had our share of dark days, and we know they will come again. The darkness, however, is no match for our love and for “Sonshine,” the nickname of our wondrous child born just five weeks after Chris’ accident. Our young family never anticipated taking this rocky road, but as we meet others traveling along the same path, we are honored to share our plight.  Through our story we aim to prove that hope, healing and happiness are possible following spinal cord injury.

And so I write....



If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. 
                                                                                                                                                                                       -Woody Allen

Chapter 1: Intuition

 “Any day now, huh?” the woman asked.

By thirty-four weeks pregnant, I was well-versed in small talk with strangers amused by my oversized belly. My side profile and I drew attention wherever we went these days. I had to admit, I loved it. 

Instinctively raising a hand to my abdomen, I smiled back at the woman. “Just a few more weeks to go.” I had come to expect one of three invariable follow-up questions, to which I would respond accordingly: “Yes, it’s our first,” or “We’re due April 4,” or (my favorite), “Not sure—we’re keeping it a surprise!”

More often than not, the stranger would then tell me about their own “baby”—someone who had seemingly morphed overnight into a kindergartner, a college-bound teen, or a grown adult with a family of their own. It didn’t matter how many years had passed—the child was still referred to as “my baby.” The conversation typically concluded with a wistful glance at my belly and a wisp of regret. Enjoy every second…it goes so fast.”

Dressed in flip-flops and worn maternity chinos, I browsed the aisles at the art supply shop alongside my mother. The baby’s nursery was nearly complete, and she was helping me select a few finishing touches to hang on its walls. It was a brisk Saturday in February, the day before my much-anticipated baby shower. The new maternity dress I’d purchased for the occasion was hanging in my closet, and the three gift bags I’d assembled for the hostesses were lined up along my kitchen counter. As soon as my mother and I had finished our shopping, she would be treating us both to pedicures—our special mother-daughter tradition before major events.

I had butterflies in my stomach thinking about the day to come. Being the center of attention had always given me anxiety, but I reminded myself that the star of tomorrow’s show wouldn’t be me—that honor belonged to the precious bump I was carrying. I loved being pregnant, and the past few months had been the happiest of my life. I was madly in love with Chris, my husband of less than a year, and I couldn’t wait for us to become parents.

Due to the economic recession, I’d been one of a dozen employees recently laid off from our struggling landscape and construction firm. Chris and I were fortunate to have enough financial security that my layoff wasn't catastrophic, but I still took the news hard; I'd cried the entire drive home, a box with all my personal belongings from my cleaned-out cubicle in the passenger seat beside me. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. 

I’d worked throughout my first trimester, keeping my pregnancy and my horrific bouts with morning sickness under wraps. Then suddenly, my morning sickness subsided and I found myself with unexpected free time on my hands to fully enjoy my days—last-minute lunches with my husband, daily swims, long, meandering hikes and plenty of time to dream up our unborn child’s nursery. I spent hours getting lost in books, finishing every pregnancy book on my shelf before getting sucked wholeheartedly into the Twilight series. I attempted to cook dinners and bake desserts for Chris for the first time in our relationship. While I was known for keeping a meticulously tidy home, my domestic skills disappeared the moment I stepped foot in a kitchen. For the past few years, inviting friends to dinner had simply meant phoning in reservations somewhere. “Our smoke detector doubles as a cooking timer," I would explain. Chris, who couldn’t have cared less about my culinary skills, would pipe in with his favorite line: “She makes a fantastic bowl of cereal though!” With more free time, however, I began to enjoy looking up recipes, shopping for ingredients and spending time in the kitchen. Many days were just spent hanging out with my parents, who were as ecstatic as I was about the baby on the way.

Being pregnant instilled in me a sense of calm and purpose. I gained newfound respect for my body as it worked hard on building a new life, and I felt empowered to be solely responsible for nurturing and protecting another being. It didn’t matter to me how many millions of women gave birth each year; I couldn’t help but feel chosen. Long before I would ever cradle my newborn or drift to sleep inhaling their delicate scent, motherhood had irrevocably changed me. It simultaneously softened me and strengthened me in ways I never could have imagined.  

The muffled ring of my cell phone snapped me back to the present moment. I put down my shopping basket and dug through my purse for my phone. A quick glance at the screen and I tossed the phone back, opting to let the unknown caller go to voicemail. The voice in my head spoke quickly. It reminded me that I did know someone whose phone number began with “831”—Tony and his wife lived in Santa Cruz, and occasionally Tony and Chris would ride dirt bikes together.

***

In my three-and-a-half years with Chris, I seldom felt anxious at the idea of him on a dirt bike. A motocross enthusiast since the age of eight, Chris was a talented and experienced rider. As a child, he idolized racing legends such as Rick Johnson and Jeff Stanton, and his favorite weekends were those spent ripping through the dirt of Hollister Hills on his red Honda CR80.

In high school and college, Chris’ odd jobs at Round Table Pizza and the local gas station didn’t pay enough to cover dirt biking expenses, so motocross took a backseat until his late twenties. After a few years learning the ropes as a mortgage loan officer, Chris began to enjoy a steady income. One of his first major purchases was a pre-owned Yamaha dirt bike.

Motocross was so important to Chris that it eventually permeated my life, too. I joined him at Club Moto, Metcalf or another local track on weekends. Chris referred to dirt biking as his “therapy,” and I tended to agree. He was an upbeat and positive guy by nature, but his mood was never more jovial than after a good ride, all grins and gleaming eyes amidst a face caked with dirt and sweat.  

At the track, I liked to snap photos from the stands before retreating to his beloved truck—a black, lifted Ford F-150 with an engine powerful enough to rattle our living room windows from the driveway. On mornings that Chris ran late to work and gunned his truck down the street, he’d leave behind a wake of sounding car alarms. If the truck had belonged to a neighbor, I would have hated it. But it belonged to the man I loved, and so naturally I’d fallen head over heels for it, too. Chris wasn’t impervious to the scowls he got from other drivers around town, but they didn’t faze him either. “Sorry, pal,” he’d quip under his breath. “As soon as they come out with a Prius that can carry my dirt bike, I’ll get one.”

We stocked his truck bed with folding chairs and a cooler for our outings at the dirt bike track. As Chris contributed to the rowdy buzz of 250cc and 450cc engines in the background, I relished my uninterrupted hours in the sun sipping Diet Coke. Earlier in our relationship, I’d used the personal time to leaf through bridal magazines and finalize details of our upcoming wedding. More recently, soda had been replaced with bottled water and bridal magazines had been replaced with baby books. Chris was elated with impending fatherhood, and he listened eagerly to snippets from my dog-eared pages on the drive home.

In his spare time, Chris watched enough televised dirt biking races that I couldn’t resist teasing him. I warned him that if there was a nuclear war going on, he wouldn’t even know because he was living in a television bubble. When dining out with friends, the conversation would often turn to some new television program. “Wow,” I’d say, “that sounds like a show I’d actually like to watch. Unfortunately,” I’d continue, shifting my focus toward Chris, “Speed Channel is the only station that comes in clearly at our house, right dear?”

Back in 2008, Chris had begun competing in weekend off-road hare scrambles in remote areas of California. Early in the morning, we’d pack up the truck, swing by Peet’s Coffee and hit the road just as the sun peeked above Mount Hamilton. I’d wait on the dusty sidelines in my Fox trucker hat and my “I Heart #183A” pin—Chris’ racing number with District 36—and cheer wildly as he whizzed past. He continued to rank high in his division. Chris hit the gym daily and was meticulous about his diet—he was in the best condition of his life.

By May of 2009, Chris and I were newly married and eager to start a family. On the morning on July 30, I awoke feeling different. An at-home pregnancy test confirmed my suspicions, and I twirled around in my robe as I tried to wrap my head around the news. I grinned back at my reflection in the bathroom mirror until my cheeks ached and tears blurred my vision. By the time Chris awoke an hour later, I had taken two more pregnancy tests—all with the same thrilling result.

As Chris poured his morning coffee, I set a gift bag beside him on the kitchen counter and embraced him from behind. “Good morning, hon,” I whispered, nestling my cheek between his broad shoulders. “I have a surprise for you.”

Chris took a sip of his coffee and set the mug down. “A prezzie for me?” he exclaimed, nailing his imitation of an overexcited child. We both laughed as he turned around to face me. He leaned back against the kitchen counter, crossed his feet at the ankles and adjusted the sash of his bathrobe.

He grinned and picked up the gift bag. “Hmm…what could this be?”

Inside Chris discovered three onesies that I’d pre-ordered online in anticipation of this very moment; the first one he held up read Daddy’s Pit Crew across the front.

“Are you serious?” he cried out. His gaze alternated back and forth between me and the onesie. Chris wrapped his arms around me and whispered how happy he was; the sound of his voice told me he was smiling. We got ready for work that morning, continuing to steal quick kisses and glances in the mirror—two people going through the motions of an ordinary day while sharing the most extraordinary secret of all.

I arrived home from work that evening to find a dozen red roses and two stuffed elephants waiting for me on the coffee table—one pink and one blue. It was a glorious time in life; our future could not have looked brighter.

***

That fall, Chris decided to upgrade from his pre-owned ’05 two-stroke Yamaha YZ-250 to a brand-new ’10 four-stroke Yamaha YZ-450F.

“Santa will be bringing ‘J4’ right before Christmas!” he announced one day as he walked in the door from the dirt bike shop. Chris named all his vehicles after me—probably to soften the blow on how much time he’d spend either riding or working on them. Cleverly, he had bestowed me the honorable title of “J1.”

“J4” arrived right on schedule in late November, and Chris closely monitored weekend weather reports for a dry spell so he could take her out for a test run. “She’s a lot of bike,” he’d declared after a full Saturday at the track. “Some guys I didn’t know came over to ask me about her. I felt like a kid pulling into the high school parking lot in a Ferrari.”

“That’s so cool, honey!” I said, kissing his salty cheek. “You’ve worked your ass off this year—you deserve some toys.”

***

Perhaps the intuition I felt on that frigid February afternoon at the art supply shop came from some hormonal by-product of impending motherhood, or perhaps it arose from the infallible bond between Chris and me. But suddenly I knew something was amiss. How long had it been since I’d last heard from my husband?

Too many hours. 

I stopped mid-step in the aisle and reopened my purse, my frantic hands tearing through the clutter. My phone showed one unheard voicemail message. I held my breath and punched in my passcode:

Hey Jenny. My name is Jimmy Garcia…[brrrap] here at the, uh, motocross track. Your husband Chris, uh, had a [brrrap] good little crash, so [brrrap]…uh…the ambulance is comin’ out…uh, give me a call when you get this. They’re pullin’ up right now—the fire truck— [brrrap] gonna load up the bike….

I froze, unable to move or make a sound. Blood drained from my head. My body struggled to stay upright while my brain grappled to comprehend the information. I would have toppled had it not been for the cement blocks that had formed around my feet, welding me to the ground.

Jimmy’s voice was periodically drowned out by the undulating roar of motorcycle engines around him, making his words difficult to hear. Fear and frustration surged in my throat. “Will you all just shut up!” I almost screamed at the top of my lungs. But I knew it wouldn’t do any good. The only sound on my end was the eerie, diluted Muzak emitting from the store’s intercom system.

I was locked in an invisible cell of haze and confusion. The blood had returned to my head, swirling around now with such intensity that it was hard to focus. People continued to move about me, and from the corner of my eye, I saw my mother approach. I met her gaze, watching her face turn to pale stone as she absorbed my expression, her eyes imploring and wide. “What is it?” she demanded.

With both hands, I clung to my cell phone like a buoy in treacherous waters. “Mom, we have to go.” It was all I could manage. 

***

Once inside the car, my mind switched to autopilot. We headed south toward the motocross track, presuming the ambulance would transport Chris to a hospital in that vicinity. As my mother drove, I phoned a few family members with word of Chris’ accident. I was riled about having to make these calls. I knew the family would have many questions, and I would have no answers. I needed to keep my phone line open for Jimmy’s next call. I longed to sit silently and focus my energy on Chris, convinced that our powerful connection would enable us to hear each other’s thoughts. Phone calls to loved ones made the situation a reality, and that was the last thing I wanted. 

I wrestled with my own thoughts. Chris needed to be okay—there was simply no acceptable alternative. It’s probably a broken arm, I rationalized. They are treating his arm, which explains why he couldn’t call me himself. That makes sense, right?

Most family members on both sides lived within a dozen miles of us, and I knew they’d drop everything to gather at the hospital. Being long-since crowned The Dramatic One in my own family, I was reluctant to make waves, but it only took a moment to see that the situation warranted drama; no crying wolf here. Fleeting relief came as I envisioned our two families gathered later, shaking our heads in disbelief at the false alarm. “That was so un-cool to scare us like that, Chris!” we would groan.

With well-timed kicks, the baby reminded me to keep calm. Breathe, Mommy. Breathe.

En route to the hospital, my first phone call was to Chris’ mother, my second to his dad. I assured both Kathy and Larry that we had no reason to panic, and I apologized for bearing worrisome news. I was taken aback at how resolute my words sounded for someone who had yet to convince herself. I then arranged for my own father and brother to retrieve Chris’ truck, dirt bike and gear from the motocross track. The worry in my brother’s voice rattled me. It took a lot to elicit an emotional response from Jeff, a level-headed attorney with the Public Defender’s office. His unmistakable concern threatened my steely façade. I quickly thanked my brother and hung up.  

True to his word, Jimmy Garcia called back to confirm where the ambulance was headed. As my sole lifeline to the scene of the accident, Jimmy reassured me that Chris was conscious but offered few additional details.

The closer we got to the hospital, the more tangled my thoughts and emotions became. My mother made a wrong turn exiting the freeway and I lashed out at her, an impulse encased in instant regret. I had never been to this particular hospital, and I would have been fully lost without her by my side--both mentally and geographically. There was no doubt that my rational thoughts were quickly losing ground to my primal fears.




We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love. 
                                                                                                                                                                            -Sigmund Freud

Chapter 2: Trauma

No wonder people stared as the glass doors to the ER swung open at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Half-jogging, I supported my protruding belly with both hands while my flip-flops slapped the linoleum. The room was crowded. Nearly every chair was filled, and two long lines snaked toward the back wall as people waited their turn for a triage nurse. The forlorn faces bore the expression of someone left waiting far too long. Panic rose in my chest. My eyes darted around the room, scanning for anyone with a badge. I was frantic for someone to notice I was dying inside. I needed to see my husband, to hear his voice. I needed him to know that I was here and he was no longer alone.

I made eye contact with a woman on the other side of the plexiglass partition. Her eyes lingered on mine for a moment before they flickered around the rest of the room. She rubbed one temple with her palm as she surveyed the crowd; I could tell she sighed heavily by the way her chest rose and fell. I continued staring until she again met my gaze. I was pleading for her help and she knew it—we’d had eye contact, so now she was stuck.

With a curt sideways nod, she directed me to an empty chair at a window a few feet away. She would help me, but not without making sure I understood that she was doing me a favor.

I sat and leaned toward the window. My tight throat choked on every syllable: “My husband was in an accident…he just came here by ambulance. His name is Chris Bridgman.” My voice sounded far away and unfamiliar, like hearing myself on an answering machine. 

As the woman left to locate Chris, my mother rushed in from the parking lot. Her car keys were still in hand; her unzipped windbreaker had fallen off both shoulders. She stood behind me and tried to comfort me, but I brushed her hand away. Every sound and touch was an unwanted distraction that further convoluted my path to Chris. Everything in the room was too bright, too slow, too loud, too frustrating. 

The phone in my hand began to ring, and I longed to hurl it across the room. There was only one person I wanted to hear from, but he would not be calling. I looked down and saw the caller was Chris’ mom. I knew that I had no choice but to answer. It took monumental effort to keep the fear of out my voice; I could barely pacify my own panic right now, let alone deal with someone else’s.

Suddenly, words boomed over the paging system: Incoming trauma. Code Blue. I didn’t need anyone to tell me it was Chris. I felt people stare as my body became possessed, rocking robotically in the chair. The ball of my right foot bounced in double time on the floor below. My face remained frozen, other than lips that prayed without sound or direction. “Please, please, please…” I mouthed. I was praying and pleading and bargaining to both no one and everyone all at once.

Some agonizing minutes later, the woman reappeared behind the partition and confirmed we’d beaten the ambulance to the hospital. Chris, their so-called incoming trauma, had just arrived.

The woman’s intonation was overly deliberate, as if I had bumped my head or was hard of hearing. She said, “We’re gonna take you back now. We normally don’t allow visitors into Trauma, but we’re gonna let you see your husband. It’s gonna be very busy in there.” Holding up two fingers for added emphasis, she concluded, “Just two minutes, okay?”

I nodded in agreement. Just get me back there. Now.

A young nurse buzzed me through the security doors and led me down a drab corridor. Her pace slowed as we approached a doorway. I could hear the mayhem before I could see it. The room was bustling with people, a blur of uniforms and badges and grim expressions. There in the center of all the commotion was my husband, lying face-up. He wore a cervical collar and stared motionless at the ceiling. His clothes had been partially cut away, although he still wore his tall riding boots. His short, curly hair was flattened like a bowl cut against his skull from hours in a helmet—a sight I knew he would have been self-conscious about under normal conditions. I longed for a baseball cap to put on him, as if that could somehow fix everything, somehow make him less exposed and helpless as he lay on the table. The eccentric neon pattern of his Fox riding gear looked garish under the hospital lights. A dusty outline remained where his goggles had been. My eyes lingered on his chest, the familiar mole, the deep pink scars from an old shoulder injury. All the details screamed reality. So why was the scene so impossible to believe? 

I bent to Chris’ ear and my words spilled out, “Hi, sweetie. I’m here. Oh my God. I’m so sorry, baby. You’re gonna be okay—I’m here now.”

I hesitated as I reached for him, not knowing where he hurt. I gingerly took his bloodied hand in my own. No one would clean the wounds on his hand that day. My nostrils flared at the scent of disinfectant swirled together with masculine sweat, dirt and blood. I wanted Chris to turn and look at me, but the neck brace prevented him from moving. I straightened to a level where he could see me, and when our eyes locked, his filled with tears.

“Babe,” his voice broke. “I’m so scared. I can’t feel my legs.”

Time stopped. For a second time that hour, my head was no longer connected to my body. His words were clear, but I was incapable of processing them. Shock silenced any sounds that tried to escape my lips. Like a car engine that refused to turn over, my mind revved in place and stalled.

Chris again stared past me, up at the ceiling. I watched a single tear slip from the outer corner of his eye and disappear into his hairline. I don’t recall what I said next, probably that I loved him and that he was going to be okay. Just like that, they wheeled the gurney out of the room. They were taking Chris to another floor of the hospital for CT scans, and I was not allowed to follow. This did not feel like a bad dream; this felt like someone else’s life.

A faceless figure handed me Chris’ helmet, along with the soiled remnants of his riding gear. The jagged edges of the fabric told me that they’d been in a hurry to cut it from his body. A gray-haired man with glasses began talking to me. He spoke like a doctor, yet he wore a plaid button-down shirt instead of the expected white coat. The room spun and blurred around him. I heard the words spinal cord and paralysis. The moments that followed were like a poorly-edited movie, the kind where there is a time delay between the dialogue and the facial movements on the screen. I watched the gray-haired man’s mouth move, but I couldn’t comprehend the sounds.  

When the man stopped speaking, I realized he’d asked if I had any questions. I could barely summon the strength to mouth my response. No.

The young nurse reappeared and led me back through double-doors to a private waiting room. Her attempts at conversation equally annoyed and soothed me. Recognizing the hollow look of shock so commonplace to these halls, she promised to return with family members now gathered outside the security doors. I found myself standing alone and fragile in the windowless room. The slightest wind would have caused me to crumble; the cold floor threatened to shatter my porcelain bones. I took a seat in the closest chair and stared at the balled-up motocross jersey in my hands. Clutching the garment to my face, I inhaled the familiar scent of my husband. I choked on sobs, but tears would not come for many hours. My insides wrenched as I envisioned my sweet husband somewhere in this hospital, all alone, staring at the ceiling, unable to feel his legs.