By Karen Pyros-Szatkowski.
When I lived in New York City after college, too many years ago, I’d be so saddened the weeks following Christmas walking by apartment buildings seeing the discarded, used up Christmas trees piled in front, waiting to be picked up by the garbage collectors. I was in no way a tree-hugging, save-the-earth activist back then, but for some reason, these trees, some still with tinsel on the branches, made me view the city as a morgue and a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness and despair would replace the holiday happy from a few days before. The trees of all shapes and sizes, some tall and skinny, others short and more full, ugly Charlie Brown trees, and beautiful prize worthy ones, whatever fit into the lives of the former owners’ apartment spaces, had now served their purpose and lay, most of them without bags, on the cold New York City sidewalks, atop their own fallen needles. They were once connected to and nurtured by the earth, then worshipped and adorned with beautiful decorations… a proud centerpiece in the apartments, the holiday, and now tossed out like garbage. Actually, that’s exactly what they had become. Garbage. Although I never, ever, bought a real tree after my first Christmas in New York, I certainly don’t make any judgment on those that chose the natural over the unnatural; that’s not what this is about. I know that for every tree cut down, others are planted and farms grow trees just for Christmas pleasure. It is not a moral choice for me; it’s an emotion. I know real trees look much more beautiful, fully decorated, than the artificial ones, and I do love the smell of pine, but the memories of those discarded trees piled many feet high like dead bodies awaiting their disposal left too much of an impact on me, too much of a sadness, not because of the waste, but because of the abandoned love. From the pedestal to the street. Beauty completely stripped to nothingness. Life to death.
I’ve been feeling similar emotions recently, but not due to Christmas trees. I feel so much pain and sadness, all around me and not all mine. Being so easily connected through social media and website magazines, Damon’s story has reached out past the community in which we live to a much larger audience. Because of this, I’ve been connected to many new friends and reconnected to many old friends, so many of whom are affected either themselves or through family members by traumatic brain injury, death, or just horrible diseases. In our pre accident life I never would have crossed paths with most of these people. In our pre accident life I would never have been able to so deeply feel their pain. So many have reached out to us to share their own stories, looking both for inspiration from our journey and hoping to add support to theirs.
With a new awareness due to my own experience, their pain and sadness, their suffering, has added to my suffering, piling up like those forgotten trees, and I find myself crying almost daily over someone’s sister, son, or daughter, a friend’s injury or the horrors of living with cancer. The same thoughts of beauty stripped to nothingness, abandoned love, and life to death fog up my head. Not a day goes by where I don’t receive a message starting out with, “You don’t know me, but I read your son’s story, and I too have a story….” Some people I do know outside of Facebook and it makes it even worse, it just eats away at me. Hearing or reading all their stories, I shoulder their pain and sometimes I can’t rid myself of their sadness, now my sadness, as I ask: why her, why him, why, just why? I become every sister and every mother and every daughter. I feel like I’m looking back at those Christmas trees piled up, hopeless, helpless, in despair, just watching the decay. Like the trees, these people never had a say in being chosen by some circumstance, by fate, by God, for some reason we will never understand, to be killed by a drunk driver, stricken with cancer, or changed through injury or disease.
I want everyone’s outcomes to be miraculous, like Damon’s. I want Damon’s to continue to be miraculous. I want to help them all. To point them toward the resources no one ever helped me to find. I want to fight for them. To scream at their professional caregivers who tell them to relinquish hope. To call their nursing companies and demand better care. I want to give them hope and inspiration and make them all believe.
But of course, I can’t.
I have my own battles that take up almost all my waking hours and I can’t ever take on the magnitude of so many others. So I feel helpless. I can only offer our story and pray that it helps to inspire others to believe, to hope and to challenge the medical profession. But their pain layers itself on top of my pain, and sometimes the sadness of the world overwhelms me and I completely lose sight of the happy.
I know I need to stop concentrating solely on the dead trees and start looking at the flowers growing miraculously in the cracks of the sidewalks. I know somehow I need to learn how to take the pain of others, acknowledge it, feel it, but rather than co-mingle it with my own, keep it separate, and then let it flow through, flow away. I want to help everyone, but in doing so not lose myself or my ability to help my son. I just need to figure out how.
“Why do people buy flowers for other people?” my daughter pessimistically once asked me. “So they can just sit and watch them die?”
“Of course not,” I answered her then. “To enjoy their beauty. To care for them while they live.”
I need to get back to that. I need to enjoy the beauty. I need to care for them while they live.
Karen Pyros-Szatkowski is the mother of 20 year-old son, Damon Szatkowski, who after a car accident in 2011, lives with a severe TBI (traumatic brain injury.) Damon’s story, as journalized by his mom, is a story of faith, a mother’s healing love, gut instinct, blind hope, and miracles. It is the story of the rippling effects traumatic brain injury has on family and friends. Karen has played the roles of Damon’s nurse, caregiver, cook, chauffer and therapist. She is also the mother of two beautiful daughters who have helped dramatically in Damon’s recovery to date.
You can follow Damon’s story or contact Karen through Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.