After catastrophe, the path back to joy

A train wreck survivor’s harrowing, tender quest to rebuild herself, inside and out

| 27 Sep 2022 | 02:31

After something awful has happened, how do you go back to feeling safe again? The pain and fear had subsided and been shallowly covered over with new memories and new confidence in my healing, but both had a disturbing tendency to break through the surface unexpectedly and remind all of us of their latent power. I needed to bury them deeper under good memories. As it turned out, taking trips with the boys was the perfect way for me to reassure them – and myself – that I wasn’t so fragile anymore. I could play.

Initially, I’d planned on taking ten-year-old Steven only on a modest vacation. I thought we’d go to the beach for spring break. It would be just the two of us because his brothers were busy with high-school sports camps. When I pitched the idea of a special mother-son trip to him and asked him where he wanted to go, he said matter-of-factly and without hesitation, “Japan.” I laughed out loud before quickly covering my mouth.

“What an interesting choice...,” I stammered. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and reject his idea outright. “Let’s think about that,” I continued. Steven’s face fell just a bit. Even a ten-year-old knows that phrase out of a mother’s mouth rarely means yes.

Later that night, I told Jonathan about Steven’s crazy idea, explaining how Steven had told me that they were studying World War II in school and he was really interested in the descriptions of Japanese life. I realized I was inspired by my son and his out-of-the-box thinking – inspired enough to check my frequent-flyer-miles account, the benefit of a twenty-year career of international business travel. Why not? Another half-hour of typing revealed the availability of two business-class seats on a discount Chinese airline through Beijing... Tokyo Disney beckoned.

Adventuresome Bradley chose Hawaii, and Austin settled on Portugal and Italy after he graduated the following ear. With a completely straight face, Austin later expressed his shock and surprise that his girlfriend would be traveling to Portugal at the exact same time. What a coincidence! The memories the boys and I made on each of those trips went a very long way toward rebuilding my confidence in my body, but most importantly, my confidence that I was still me.

Steven and I laughed deliriously at the Japanese toilets that cleaned our nether-regions far more thoroughly than we were accustomed. Bradly dared and taunted me into zip-lining over a 100-foot waterfall on the Big Island of Hawaii (although I got my revenge by signing us up to swim with giant manta rays that looked like they could devour us whole). And Austin and I ate and drank our way across Portugal and Italy. Snapshots of Steven and me wearing silly animal hats in a crowd of Japanese tourists at Tokyo Disney, my pathetic attempt at surfing in Maui while Bradley confidently ripped through the waves, and eating gnarly, salty barnacles with Austin and his girlfriend in a seaside Portuguese village have all gone a long way toward countering the other searing memories that I will never forget.

Neuroscience tells us it is possible to retrain your brain. Sometimes, trying new things can help. For me, getting back on a plane and going places I’d never been, attempting crazy adventure sports, and keeping up with my yoga and meditation have all helped tamp down my anxiety and rebuild my confidence that my body is strong enough....

It was more than two years after the accident, autumn 2017, when I went back to work part-time. I still didn’t have the stamina to commuter every day or sit at a desk for eight hours. My body is creakier and stiffer, and I stretch daily to keep the soreness at bay. I’m still an excellent customer of my local pharmacy – I am vulnerable to infection and take antibiotics at the first sign of a fever – but unless I’ve had a recent surgery, I buy buckets of Advil rather than prescription painkillers. Sleep remains an issue, and I curse the fact that all the melatonin in the world seems to be no match for the aftermath of a train wreck. My company kindly agreed to put a couch in my office for emergency naps. I don’t advertise its purpose, but when colleagues come in and remark on how nice it must be to get a couch, I joke that all they have to do is get hit by a train, and they could get one, too.

- Excerpted with permission from Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing (2022) by Geralyn Ritter