No matter what you may feel about the United States Congress, no matter if you believe Washington is broken, no matter how cynical you may be about the gamesmanship and the choreographed pageantry of televised government meetings, if, as an American, this doesn’t move your heart in at least some way, then I doubt nothing else could:
Before the tragedy in Tucson only a year ago, I only knew one thing about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: That she was a Blue Dog Democrat. And I’ll be honest, as a proud and outspoken progressive Democrat, I’m not a fan of Blue Dog Democrats. Gabby Giffords may still be a Blue Dog, but either way, to me, she will always be a hero.
As a kid, I spent entire years of my life in and out of surgeries, recuperations, and physical therapy. I didn’t know anything else, really, but there’s absolutely no use feeling sorry for someone like me. It’s not as if I was afflicted with a sudden tragedy, that I’d known life one way and, in an instant, everything had changed. And in a way, I sensed, even as a kid, that I was lucky– not just because I was born into this amazingly supportive and encouraging family– but because I never knew any other reality or state of being.
When I was around ten years old, I had a series of major orthopedic surgeries. My bones were growing in the wrong directions, so they needed to point everything the right way. That’s how it was explained to me at the time. No one ever said, “If we don’t do this, once you’re an adult, you’ll never be able to walk.” But I understood.
It was about four or five days after one of those surgeries. I was in a hospital room in St. Paul, Minnesota, a room I shared with at least two other kids. And I was in severe pain; I had casts plastered around both of legs, from my ankles to my hip. “You have to exercise,” I was told, like a mantra. “Up, up, up.”
And even though I was sometimes reluctant and sometimes slow, I always followed instructions, because I had absolutely no intention of living with those casts. As a kid, it was as simple as that: The sooner I can recover, the better. And I was doubly fortunate because my mother was a trained, registered nurse; she pushed me harder than anyone else.
Across the room from me, there was another little boy, right around my age but with a crop of bright blonde hair; he was also recovering from a major surgery. He’d been in some sort of accident.
His mother kept shuffling in and out of the room. The nurses and the doctors were telling this kid the same things they were telling me: “Up, up, up.” But the kid didn’t want to exercise, and for his mother, this seemed perfectly okay.
“Don’t push him too much,” she said. “He’s been through enough. If my baby wants to rest, let him rest.” She was obviously distraught. She probably hadn’t slept or taken a shower since her child was hurt, yet she remained forceful and adamant.
That afternoon, my mother hoisted me onto a wheelchair and rolled me out of the hospital room and into the common area. All of the rooms in this particular wing encircled an enormous space with every kind of toy a kid can imagine and an endless supply of video games– a reward for doing your exercises and obeying instructions and, looking back, an ingenious way to incentivize a kid recovering from surgery.
After spending a healthy amount of time playing video games, my mother wheeled me into the parent’s break room, which was really just a nook with a small table, three or four chairs, an old vending machine, and a couple of windows that were frozen over with snow and ice.
“That poor kid,” my mom said. “His mother shouldn’t be doing that to him. You have to work to get better.” It wasn’t necessarily advice for me. She was genuinely upset.
“Why is his mom telling him that he doesn’t have to do what the doctors tell him to do?” I asked.
“It must be hard for her,” she said. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
For kids like me, kids that were born with something and never knew life any other way, hospitals become ordinary. Sure, there was always a sense of fear and dread, but after you’ve gone through the experience a few times, it’s easier, almost perfunctory, to believe that things will get better. Time slows down; life sometimes seems to come to a standstill, a holding pattern, and somewhere, you can find solitude in that.
To me, it always seemed more difficult for the kids with ordinary lives who, in a flash, were suddenly sharing the room with kids like me, veterans of the pediatric surgery recovery unit who were surrounded and encouraged by stubborn, battle-tested families.
Gabby Giffords is not my hero because I can relate to her experience. I can’t, at all. She’s my hero because she sets an example for kids and families who confront sudden and unexpected tragedy with overwhelming helplessness and resignation, instead of unwavering hope. She demonstrates the resiliency of the body and the spirit and the absolute necessity of fierce and unrelenting determination.
Find a way to be. Up, up, up.