In the eye of the storm
Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being.
Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.
Golden leaves fell across the country in mid-November, but the autumn beauty would soon not matter to Helen Weathers. For on the night of her fifty-ninth birthday, her life was swept completely out from under her. She had just finished celebrating at a restaurant with some of her closest friends and was getting ready for bed when she felt like a jagged piece of glass pierced her head. Then, the lights went out for Helen. For a long time. Most signs of life disappeared instantaneously when an aneurysm struck down this vivacious woman.
Five days later, her dearest friends, her husband, Robert, and the rest of her family waited patiently through a six-hour brain operation to see if Helen would survive. Her unopened birthday gifts sat at home on her table just the way she left them. The gifts would remain untouched for months, for after the surgery, she suffered a stroke.
Helen had always dressed with flair and elegance. This now bald woman lay helpless in a hospital bed day after day. She probably would have been embarrassed had she been herself and able to see the friends pouring in and out of her room. Later, she would be grateful. The endless stream of visits, flowers and food for her family gave her relatives the buoy they needed to survive the icy waters. Helen believes the love and support also kept her alive in the midst of the storm. Within a few weeks, many friends had a prayer chain going for her, hoping to bring her back from the brink of death. Their hopes and prayers were answered. But Helen could barely recognize herself. “I couldn’t remember what I looked like before,” she says. “ I don’t remember when I discovered I had no hair. My cousin Elsa said that when I looked in the mirror and saw I had no hair, I turned to Robert and her and said: ‘I have no teeth.” Helen’s friends continued to send flowers, food and cards. One of her closest friends brought her pictures of all her dogs: Doodles, Ms. Liberty and Taffy. Robert and their daughter, Sandra, brought her new makeup. Everyone wanted her back even though it became clear that Helen might never be the same woman again. At times, she was like a stranger. To others—and to herself.
When she started recovering, she had much to learn. How to write her name again. How to walk. How to speak clearly. How to dress herself. Sometimes, she felt like a baby. But her brain surgeon said it was a miracle she was alive. Helen was almost like a child. Her sentences were gibberish. She giggled uncontrollably. Then she’d cry. She was hospitalized for nearly half a year undergoing rehabilitation and trying to return to her former self. She was placed in intensive therapy and was given classes in arithmetic, which confounded her and left her trying to count things out on her fingers. Finally, she gave up and started using a ca lculator. “One of my favorite bon mots is: ‘In real life, there is no algebra!”
In therapy, one of the happiest incidents she recalls was being allowed to go out to a Wal-Mart to Christmas shop so her doctors could see if she could make it in a “real world.” Helen was delighted, though confused a bit, and finished all her shopping in the first two aisles. After seven months, she made it home to husband, Robert, and dogs, Doodles, Ms. Liberty and Taffy. Today Helen is restored to her former self and has gained back her abilities to paint, walk and speak.
“I am convinced that the only reason I was spared is to inspire others,” Helen says from her home where she receives dozens of calls a day from people seeking help with similar disabilities. “I have been in the trenches with people who have suffered like this. I know lots of people were pulling for me. Now, it’s my turn to encourage people to go to rehabilitation and hang in there.”
Helen is often asked: “How long did it take you to learn to write again?”
“Seven months,” she replies and then adds, “and almost that long to keep from putting lipstick under my nose.”
When Helen receives phone calls for help, she never turns anyone away. Because she knows deep in her heart that it was love and caring that guided her out of the storm and helped her wade safely back to shore.