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We seldom walk the bridge toward the other


By Peter Oliver


Adam has a sparkling sense of humour, a sharp eye for fashion and an impressive interest in people. He is alert to relationships, takes a real interest in remembering names and acknowledging birthdays and anniversaries. Affable, defined as good-natured, cheerful, courteous and easy to talk to, captures the spirit of my friend.

When Adam was 23, he was set upon by three men who beat him, kicking him repeatedly in the head, until he was unconscious. The attack was unprovoked. The impact was dreadful.
He spent the next two months in a coma. When he recounts the experience of waking from a coma, he reminds me that it is not like the movie portrayal — something that happens in an instant. His description suggests a kind of dream-like state. As his mind tried to make sense of what had happened, nurses, doctors and other professionals seemed like teachers. He concluded that for some reason he had been sent back to school.

He had to relearn everything. He could not walk or eat. Family members were unfamiliar. He lost his ability to speak. Though he was fluent in English, the first words he spoke were “de l’eau,” some water, French words learned in childhood. It was a plea, “I’m thirsty.” One day he picked up a familiar book but he couldn’t read the words so he tried a simpler book. None of it made sense.

Gradually Adam recovered, but the brain injury he sustained has permanent consequences. He is not permitted to drive. Old friends married or moved on and, as education and meaningful work are either inaccessible or unattainable, new friends have been few and far between. In some ways the dreamlike state of the coma persists year after year as he tries to recover missing pieces of his life.

Adam’s mother, Florence, sees her son as a kind of castaway who “resides on a raft in a river, apart, afloat, with no solid ground beneath him. Sometimes the raft goes along quietly, as any river does, but inevitably it gets rough. The raft crashes upon rocks, falls apart, and Adam nearly drowns.” Florence likens the banks of the river to our world. “One riverbank is not steep. This is the side that offers help such as brain injury supports, counsellors and chaplains. Adam goes there sometimes but Adam does not live there, he resides on the river.”

Florence observes, “The other bank is steep. Adam can never climb that one because that is the one where people have jobs and are part of the mainstream of society — where his old friends reside, in fact. I earn a living on that bank. For the most part people there don’t understand anyone on the river nor do they understand those who are helping the ones on the river. Occasionally someone takes the bridge over to the other side and tries to help. Once in a rare while, someone jumps in the river and rides the raft with Adam.” These people experience the current, the rocks and the bank that people with a brain injuries can’t scale.

I’ve taken the bridge to the other side a few times and discovered something very important about Adam’s gifts. Adam has an uncanny capacity to gently but firmly admonish. I’m guilty of a less-than-glamorous habit — giving a compliment, the heart of which is a self-deprecating observation. Wary of this tendency, Adam brought me up short one day: “I don’t think you should try to build me up by putting yourself down.” I was reminded that a compliment emanates from a wholesome sense of self-regard.

Adam’s life is also a pointed Divine corrective. Many of us live atop the steep bank. We imagine that our making-it-work, putting-our-ducks-in-order, priority-setting, performance-setting way of living is what life is all about. It rarely dawns on us that all this driven-ness sets us apart from he who had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). By contrast Adam’s apartness brings him much closer to the Itinerant Saviour than our apparent “togetherness.” The disconnect Adam experiences is not so much his inability to plug into what society requires as it is our failure to plug into what God requires. His is the contemporary story of Martha and Mary, a story in which Adam is chosen for “the better part”(Luke 10:42).

Out of respect, I asked Adam to look this story over before it was published. He was a mixture of nonchalant and grateful. Later he texted me: “It may be important to show the time I have spent at the prison . . . but I think you know the importance of showing both sides.”

Yes, indeed, it bears mentioning that Adam has been part of the prison ministry team at the Correctional Centre for a number of years. As he puts it, it’s a way of “showing closure at my end.” . . . I wonder what that says about apartness and “togetherness”?

Oliver works in chaplaincy and development for The Micah Mission in Saskatoon.