Welcome to December, everyone! The month is meaningful to many of you since it’s the time when we celebrate Christ’s birth, but it carries especial significance for Ivan and me. December 3rd marks the fourth anniversary of my accident, and December 30th will be our fifth wedding anniversary. Five feels like a pretty big number (at least at our age), so I’d like to use this post to reflect on how God’s shaped our marriage through – or in spite of – my accident.
“It’s too bad you look this beautiful! It’s all going to be downhill from here.” Mom was pinning my wedding veil in place. I’d chosen an ivory, cathedral-length piece that matched the historic chapel located just a couple of miles from my parents’ house.
“Mom! That’s so depressing.” I knew she was joking, but I still wanted to flatter myself I’d look this flawless for longer than one day.
“Oh, you know I’m just teasing you!” She took the last pin out of her mouth and straightened up. “I’m sure you’ll look gorgeous for years to come. Especially since you’re this young!” She gave the veil one final fluff before stepping aside for the photographer.
Our conversation seemed harmless at the time, although it sounds foreboding now. It’s all going to be downhill from here. How could anyone have guessed just how quickly our lives would careen downhill? But December 30th, 2015, felt like a fairytale even if some bystanders suggested that the marital odds weren’t in our favor. Wouldn’t it be better to get some life experience first, since we were only twenty-two and twenty-three? What if we changed our minds? For our parts, Ivan and I felt confident about our decision. We’d prayed for almost two years before getting engaged. We also believed God designed marriage to be permanent; even if we wanted to give up, we trusted He’d give us the strength to stay together. When Ivan and I stood in front of the candle-lit altar that December morning, we knew we were making vows to God as well as each other:
“For better or for worse…in sickness and in health…til death do us part.”
By the time our first anniversary came around, our newlywed life had taken a severe downturn. Especially for Ivan. I didn’t look remotely like the girl he’d married eleven months earlier. I didn’t talk normally, move normally – or think normally. Sometimes I didn’t remember him; other times I accused him of outlandish antics he’d never committed, then ordered him out of my hospital room. (If you’ve been following the blog for a long time, it bears mentioning that he painted a very G-rated picture of me in those early days.) Even after I went home and my head began to clear, I’d often panic or become wildly unreasonable at the slightest deviation from our normal routine. When he’d ask me what was wrong, I usually couldn’t tell him.
Death hadn’t parted us, but my brain injury was doing its very best.
I remember one particular afternoon shortly after my discharge from the rehab hospital. Ivan must have been in class or working, and I was napping in the bedroom while Mom made dinner. Suddenly someone began rattling our apartment door (I’m not sure why it was open in January!), and I heard my caseworker calling to Mom through the screen. She’d been in the area, she said, and thought she’d go over my disability paperwork in person instead of over the phone.
“These regulations are such a pain!” Her voice easily pierced the living room wall after Mom let her in. “Honestly, Grace is so lucky to have you guys to do all this for her. Some of my clients hire lawyers just to walk them through it.” Then she paused and lowered her voice a notch. “But on that note – is Grace around?” Mom must have told her I was napping. “Oh, good! Because, honestly, I’m really concerned about her husband – what’s his name? – Ivan. I’m really concerned about Ivan.” Mom said something indistinct. “Well, you guys are new to the caregiving process now, but it really begins to wear on people. There’s this thing called ‘caregiver burnout.’ Yeah. Well, it’s especially common in spouses. And with Ivan being so young and all…” Her voice trailed off like she was insinuating something dirty. I wished I could hear Mom’s reply. “Well, I’m sure he’s doing a great job. All I’m saying is that I want you guys to be aware, and I want you to know all the resources that are available to you, especially Ivan.” She paused. “It’s just so sad, two kids like that…“
I rolled over in bed and tried cancel out the rest of the conversation. Who did this woman think she was, telling Mom that Ivan might get tired of me? She didn’t even know Ivan! My brain was too foggy to see things from an outsider’s perspective, though. Why would a twenty-three-year-old grad student stick around when he had his whole life ahead of him? Mom was sharing caregiving duties with Ivan in those early weeks. If Ivan became my primary caregiver, he’d be severely limiting his career and education trajectories – not to mention his social life.
The caseworker wasn’t the only one to wonder. “Is Ivan going to leave?” was a common question after the accident. Some even said it was a mistake to get married before Ivan finished his master’s degree: if we’d waited, I’d have had the accident before we got married. Over the past five years, both of us have had several mandatory psychological evaluations since I have a brain injury and Ivan is my primary caregiver. The doctors often begin with the assumption that he has (or has had) some motivation to leave or treat me badly. We’ll both admit that these interactions have grown increasingly tiresome and painful. It hurts to be second-guessed as a worthwhile wife or a faithful husband. But we’ve also come to realize that these are opportunities to share about the power of God’s grace in our lives. And the questions are legitimate, in their own way. Only God could enable Ivan to love me sacrificially in spite of the brain injury that alters my behavior, not to mention the other neuro problems I post about more frequently.
“Hmm…I just need more conflict, you know? More angst.” Comments about our marriage haven’t just come from friends and doctors. Last spring I was discussing the first draft of a nonfiction short story with my professor, and she kept fixating on one particular subplot. I won’t give the story away since it will be published next year, but the subplot that bothered her was about Ivan.
“It’s just so – I’m mean, you’re a good writer, but it’s hard for me to buy this as real nonfiction.”
I smiled blankly and adjusted the webcam, pondering how I was supposed to correct a true story. “Well, I promise I’m not making anything up. My husband did actually fall last Christmas right before our anniversary and that is his actual personality. I know it’s, like, bizarre given the context, so I could pick a different topic – “
“No, no, it’d make a compelling short story, especially given your accident. But you’re going to have to be more vulnerable if you want to seem like a real-life couple. I mean, this is your fourth anniversary that you’re writing about! I don’t see any fights, any blow ups. You mention your faith but there’s no ‘angry at God’ moment. Ivan’s your caregiver and then this bad thing happens to him, for crying out loud. Where’s the breaking point? You could make it from you or from him. We just need more realism, Grace.” I’d read enough of my classmates’ work to know what she was talking about. I’m privileged to work alongside many talented young writers (both fiction and nonfiction), and heartbreak is a favorite theme. But my story didn’t involve Ivan and I fighting, or breaking up – or even swearing. And my story was true.
“Um, I’m really sorry, professor. My draft is accurate, if that’s what we’re going for.” I hesitated. “I know it’s sounds weird, but Ivan and I just aren’t mad at God. We believe He loves us and is good, even though I’ll be the first to admit we can’t understand what He’s doing sometimes. And the marital conflict part, well – I think it goes back to the angst thing. I guess we don’t have a ton of marital conflict since we don’t have a lot of angst.” Now it was her turn to stare blankly. I was too nervous to wait for a real reaction so I steered the conversation back to the original purpose of our meeting. “But those passages I emailed you about are still reading super bumpy, so if you have suggestions about them, that would be fantastic.”
These past five years haven’t been easy. God is the only One who can sustain any marriage, and I believe He’s given extra grace to help us make it this far in spite of our age and life circumstances. I’d have to suggest He’s given Ivan the greatest grace, if I’m being honest. From my years as patient (and weeks as caregiver last December), I think it’s easier to have the bad things happen to you than to be the one taking care of everything. This is even more true when you’re dealing with a traumatic brain injury. Seizures don’t affect my personality or rational thinking; on a bad TBI day, Ivan has to care for someone who’s very different from the person he married. I’d flattered myself those episodes would vanish within my two-year neurological healing window. They didn’t.
It feels anticlimactic to say I’m grateful that Ivan has remained faithful to God and me, but “grateful” is probably the best word for this context. 🙂 I’m also grateful to our parents for modeling that commitment for us; to my family for their tireless, hands-on service; and to our church family for supporting and encouraging us. Humanly speaking, our relationship – or any permanent romantic relationship – seems impossible. Thankfully it’s not up to us. By God’s grace, all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26)