More Than a Thousand Words
By Donna Lowich
"Walter, whatever happened to those pictures I had taken of Jeffrey and Kenny before I had my surgery?" I don't know why I asked or what made me think of them. The thought hit me out of the blue. More than two years had passed since I had last thought about those pictures.
Walter looked at me, trying to think of just which pictures I was asking about.
"You know, the ones I took with the boys sitting in front of the fireplace."
He shook his head, and said, "Gee, I don't know. With everything going on, I forgot completely about them. Too bad, they're long lost by now. It's been too long."
"I know," I pouted. "But those pictures would have been so cute, and they would be such a great reminder of the way things were..." The part of the sentence that I didn't say was: "and a great way to keep focused on my therapy so everything can be like that again."
The pictures were taken on the last visit my sister made before my scheduled spinal cord surgery. She brought along my nephew, Kenny, who was not quite three. He and my son, Jeff, who was four, played together all day. Then I sat them in front of the fireplace. The pictures were going to be Christmas gifts for my sister and my mom.
It was November 1985 and only two weeks before my scheduled surgery to repair a herniated disk in my neck. I was supposed to be out of work for six weeks, and then return to life as usual. That sounded like a good plan to me. But there was one flaw:
After the surgery, I awoke in the recovery room paralyzed from the shoulders down. I was in the hospital for those six weeks and then in the rehab hospital for another five months, returning home on June 13, 1986. My return home didn't mark the end of my work, but rather, just the start of it. I worked every day after that to recover from my paralysis. Between raising my family, and returning to work while continuing physical therapy, I lost track of those photos taken of Jeff and Kenny sitting in front of the fireplace in their new Christmas sweaters.
Now that I remembered the pictures, however, they were on my mind. I thought about calling the pharmacy and asking about them but dismissed that idea because it would have been too embarrassing to ask for pictures dropped off for processing so long ago. Instead, I imagined what the pictures looked like, and whether I centered them (I always have a hard time centering), and I played the tape over and over again in my mind of that last visit before my world went topsy-turvy.
"That's it," I decided to myself, "I want those pictures because they symbolize my life the way it used to be and the way I want it to be. Dear God, those pictures would be so wonderful to have..." It was this unspoken prayer that I thought had gone unanswered.
After awhile, the pictures came to mind less and less often, replaced by everyday life and everyday worries. Life was an emotional roller coaster: For every upbeat day when I saw even a little bit of improvement there always seemed to be paired with a "down" day that emphasized what I still needed to improve. It was with that up-and-down state of mind that I faced the challenge of my physical therapy sessions five days a week.
Then one night, in October 1988, the phone rang after dinner. I answered:
"Hello, may I please speak with Donna?"
"Donna, this is Tina from Warrenville Pharmacy. I have an envelope of pictures here for you to pick up."
I could hardly believe what I was hearing; there must be some mistake. I answered, "I'm sorry but I haven't dropped any pictures to be developed to you, at least, not recently."
"These are from a while ago," she said. She laughed a little. "We're cleaning our files here and I found the envelope."
Stunned, it took me a minute to speak again. "My pictures? You have my pictures? Thank you so much! I've been hoping and praying for a phone call like this. Thank you so much! We'll be down -- tonight -- to pick them up!"
"You're welcome. See you in a little while."
Walter drove down to pick up the pictures. Coming home, he smiled and said as he opened the envelope for me, "Wait until you see them. You took some great shots of the kids together."
I looked at each picture carefully, trying to memorize each small detail. I picked out one that was especially cute, with Jeffrey and Kenny with their arms wrapped around the other's shoulders, with their faces slightly touching. I had copies made for my sister and my mother, so they received their Christmas gifts, albeit with a three-year delay.
I framed my copy, too, and placed it on the shelf in the living room where it continued to give me the incentive to continue my battle to recover the function I had lost. Worth far more than a thousand words, these pictures encouraged me to focus on my physical therapy and to achieve well beyond the dire predictions made by my doctors in the hospital. With the boys grinning down at me, I received the needed incentive to repeat my floor exercises over and over again. I progressed from wheelchair to canes.
My prayers were answered on so many levels; the pictures and the memories they represented were not only a Christmas gift to me, but they also gave me the impetus to keep pushing forward. The miracle of the long-lost pictures continues to amaze me. Miracles come in all sizes; this miracle, which may not seem significant in and of itself, was a huge, life-changing event for my family and me.
Editor's note: Donna Lowich is an Information Specialist in the Foundation's Paralysis Resource Center. Donna was spinal cord injured over twenty years ago and has since dedicated her life to helping others living with paralysis.
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Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)Dept of Physical Medicine and Rehab Services at Baylor College of Medicine.
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