“What are the rules of this game? Be yourself, because you can do it better than anyone else, and be a friend.”
I wrote those words about life in 2016 after a February trip to Tahoe for a men’s retreat. (Click here to read that post.) The week was full of snowboard sessions, creative shop talk, and guys swapping inspirational stories of personal tragedy and triumph. I sheepishly stayed in the shadows, searching for a Big Moment of my own to contribute to this brotherhood of overcomers but came up empty.
Fulfilled in my creative work and happy in my marriage, I was almost embarrassed to have experienced little to no hiccups up to that point. What did my pleasant suburban self have in common with someone who was a true survivor of terrible things? What could I possibly add that mattered?
After a little post-trip funk, I realized I had been so consumed with not fitting in that I almost missed the point. No one expected me to show up to every conversation with a war story. They simply wanted me to be myself and be their friend.
Who knew that, only a few years later, I would finally have a story to tell – that is, if my traumatically injured brain could find the right words. And if I was still me.
The day the rules changed was February 8, 2020. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that everyone following my wife Erica’s social media updates, and the GoFundMe started by our friend Jenn, knows more about that day than I do. While it’s seared into my family’s memory in painful detail, much of it will always be a blur for me.
It was a rare, shoot-free Saturday and I happily headed out to log some hours clearing our property before the start of wedding season. Leaving the kids at home and my phone in the truck, I fired up the excavator and started tearing up trees. I’m as comfortable on construction equipment as I am behind the camera, and more at home in the dirt than on the beach. It was shaping up to be a good day.
Suddenly, something hit me in the face, full force. I have no idea how long I sat in the cab, stunned, or at what point I climbed out to lean against a tree. I had no idea what happened; I only knew something was wrong. It would be hours later that my nephew would return with a flashlight to find the bloody, four-foot tree limb that had spiraled through my eye socket and into my brain.
Thirty minutes west, my 80-year-old dad had gotten up that morning also full of plans for a good day – puttering around his yard and doing nothing in particular. He couldn’t shake a growing feeling that he needed to be at the property with me so he had come out, stopped to chat, then hopped on a bobcat. His day flipped upside down just a short time later when found me with blood running down my face, unable to speak. He got me into his truck and raced toward the hospital, frantically calling everyone and reaching only voicemails.
My family finally began to gather right about the time an on-call physician staring at scans realized that what had appeared to be a severe eye injury was, in fact, showing damage to and debris in my brain. Though I didn’t know it, my safe suburban bubble had just burst. I was now in the brotherhood. The question, thankfully, was not one of survival. The question was, would I still be me?
For me, time faded into a muted awareness of vaguely familiar people, unfamiliar surroundings, and a general sense that something was very wrong. For everyone else, time had both sped up and stopped abruptly. Critical decisions that had to be made quickly were followed by hours of simply waiting to see what would happen next.
I don’t remember most of the moments captured in videos and photos in the immediate days following the accident.
I don’t know everyone who donated money to help us get through the months when our family business that literally cannot function without my eyes was in limbo.
I had never met the doctor who was my wife’s middle school classmate, who sent the plane that got me to Birmingham.
I don’t know every person who cared for my parents and directed resources to my wife.
I don’t know every person who prayed for my healing.
What I do know is that, in those moments, every person who stepped up was living out what I learned in 2016: be yourself, and be a friend. In their personal way, unique to them, each person was a friend to me and my family.
In the months after the accident, I was very aware of my family watching, hopeful that old Ryan would return. I, too, was waiting for old Ryan to return. How could I be myself when merely thinking drained every ounce of energy, yet left me too wired to sleep? How could I be a friend when I couldn’t trust my brain to retrieve the correct words for a simple conversation? If those are the rules of the game, could I still play? Were the rules different now?
Next week, I’ll share how the aftermath of the accident impacted our marriage and business, and where we are now. Living and working under the same roof is not for the faint of heart. Add a traumatic injury that is no longer blatantly obvious yet effects every aspect of your life, and you find out what your relationship is made of.
Thank you for the way each of you have carried our family since the accident. It’s because of all of you that I am very much still in the game.
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