Two summers ago we planted our first vineyard. Experienced gardeners who grow grapes know that pruning is essential for an eventual bountiful crop. But I am a novice in the vineyard and when my husband set out to prune back some of the most beautiful, lush vines I'd ever seen, I was surprised. Reluctantly I stood by as he cut away the stragglers that were sapping strength, absolutely perplexed at the notion of cutting away what appears to be thriving in order to guarantee an abundant harvest of good fruit in the future.
But I know now, as I look at the bunches of grapes growing and thriving in my garden this summer, that pruning is necessary for complete growth. So too, I have come to realize the role of pain in our lives. Pain prunes away the unessential emotions, ambitions and illusions, teaching us a lesson we can never learn otherwise.
Once in the midst of a sweet season -- when everything finally seemed to be coming together, both at home with my husband and 22-month-old daughter and with my career -- a life accident hit me as a writer exactly where it hurt. Like almost everyone I had been bruised by life, but I had never experienced a "before and after" life accident, the kind that makes your legs wobble when you think about it later.
That particular day I'd finished an article and recorded a month's worth of radio programs, so I decided to take the afternoon off to treat my daughter to lunch at her favorite fast-food family restaurant. We both had just started to eat -- I remember returning her catsup-smeared smile before turning away to bite into my own hamburger -- when suddenly I discovered Chicken Little knew what he was talking about: The sky could fall, and it landed on my head by way of a large ceiling panel, knocking me on the table. No one else in the restaurant was hit.
Although I never lost consciousness, I sustained a concussion severe enough to keep me bedridden for several weeks. My immediate convalescence took three months, and for more than a year after the injury I was partially disabled. For a long period I was unable to read with comprehension or speak articulately. Certainly I could not write because I was incapable of connecting two thoughts. Telephone conversations became almost impossible because without visual cues I could not process information. I could barely communicate the confusion and disorientation that was going on inside my head. As a radio broadcaster and a writer this dark plunge into the unknown was devastating. Books, which had always been my keenest companions, became strangers as I groped for words, both mine and others'.
At times I seriously wondered if my career had come to an abrupt end, for I learned that complete recovery from even a minor head injury (if it comes at all) can take up to 10 years with periodic improvements and long plateaus. Because it is nearly impossible to document just when a person has fully recovered, the National Head Injury Foundation continually reminds the head-injured, their families and the general public that "life after head injury may never be the same."
When a life accident strikes, it catapults you into uncharted territory, a wilderness without a map. If one is to overcome, it is necessary, I think, to see yourself as an explorer, not a victim. Along the way I discovered that some of the compasses I used are the same others have used in their journey to recovery: faith in a compassionate and loving God, the love of family and friends, and the healing balm of music and humor.
And above all, I learned the lesson of patience. I had not been a patient woman before my injury, but now I believe that patience is a divine gift when life prunes us back. Patience with understanding to know that when we are surprised by pain and loss, weeping may endure for a long dark season but eventually, one morning, will come a liberating joy.
But it will be a different kind of joy, one that you haven't known before, a joy of surviving, of overcoming, of a second chance. A joy of restoration and renewal. A joy of no longer caring about the insignificant details that often seemed to determine your time and devour your days, energy and emotions.
Make no mistake, pain is a wretched detour. But to be able to discern what's real, important and essential for your happiness and then to set priorities -- for whatever it is you really need to live -- makes the journey endurable.