Monday, February 7, 2011

Judging Mark Kelly: Gabrielle Giffords Would Want Him to Fly the Shuttle


Give him some credit. Give her some credit.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head on Jan. 8 in Tucson, Arizona, has made so much progress in a Houston rehabilitation center that her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, decided to leave his wife's side and join his crew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, scheduled to launch in April.

And here come the critics, right on time: Mark Kelly is selfish, he's ego-driven, he cares more about his career than he does his wife. How can he even think of abandoning her in her fragile state?

Hey, people! Mark Kelly is going back to work, like thousands of other husbands with sick or injured wives. And – no small thing – he's preserving his sanity. Unless someone you love has been through a trauma as severe as what happened to Giffords, you have no idea what you'd do in that situation.
As a cancer survivor, I have a clue. When you get word that no matter how many surgeries or treatments you endure, you'll probably die in a couple of years, you go a little nuts. And the people you love go right down the rabbit hole with you.

You don't realize it, but you have a movie in your head. It's laying dormant for now, but it can rev up at a moment's notice. The title is "I Am Hurt, but They'll Save Me." The doctors, the nurses, your family, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors and the amorphous forces of the universe will all join hands and fix you.

In this movie, everyone says the right thing at the right time. They listen closely to what you say. You're never lonely. You suffer through some discomfort and sadness, but after a measure of attention and care from professionals and loved ones, you bounce back. You feel like your old self again, or maybe even a little better than you used to be.

That's your story, and you'll stick to it until reality throws a punch that leaves you curled up in a fetal position, sobbing uncontrollably. I can just about guarantee it: You will feel abandoned. You'll be scared. You'll feel angry, confused and hopeless. You'll envy people who blithely assume their good fortune is a given. Just like you used to.
It's only human. We instinctively turn away from trouble. We descended fromhunter-gatherers, built to fleemore than to fight.

My week in the hospital in 2001 was a blur of flowers and visits, kisses and hugs, a few laughs, lots of pain. And, two days after surgery, the worst night of my life. The day my doctor delivered the bad news on the type, stage and survival statistics of my ovarian cancer, I felt totally alone. My family hadn't yet arrived, and my husband literally didn't know what to do.

What I needed was a husband who would crawl into bed with me, cry with me, stroke my hair, and tell me he loved me more than ever. What I got was a normal man who was exhausted, frightened and desperate for some peace of mind.

I'll bet I'm not the first wife to walk that path. It took me a long time to understand what happened and why, and to forgive. People are not always up to the challenges they're given. It can take years to get up to speed.

But I don't think that's what's happening to Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords. I take Kelly's words at face value: This space flight is what she would want him to do. Everything I've read about this intelligent, compassionate woman suggests to me that he's spot on.

But even if he's wrong, the decent thing for the public to do is let them sort this out in a way that makes sense to them. The catastrophic shooting that took place a month ago is a tragedy for which Giffords and Kelly bear not one scintilla of responsibility. She's a heroine. And a survivor. Mark Kelly did not choose this spotlight. And he's not abandoning her to the winds. He's leaving her in good hands.

Recovery from brain injury can and does happen. Just ask Bob Woodruff, former ABC anchor who was 20 feet away from an improvised explosive device that exploded in 2006. He thinks she has an even better chance at recovery than he did.

There's no doubt that, in a year's time, Giffords will be different from before. Progress may beslower or less complete than everyone would like. But no matter what happens, I suspect Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords will find a way to adapt. Ordinary people do not become astronauts or congresswomen.

Someday Mark Kelly will be able to tell his wife all about his last trip into outer space. Her smiles may be delayed, but significant just the same: I'm still here, I'm still me, I still love you. And I'm still proud of you.

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