Written by, Neils Knudsen
I’m not sure who the caregiver is in this marriage. My wife, Judith, who suffered a serious spinal cord injury in 2004, has given back more than I’ve ever given her. It didn’t always seem that way. In fact we were near divorce at the time of her accident.
We met one cold Tuesday night in February, 1997 during a dance class at the Murray Arts Center. I was two years into the single life after divorcing my first wife of 23 years and still trying to rediscover myself. She had seen ten years since her marriage ended.
Since there were more women in the class than men we were supposed to change partners from time-to-time. I tried to avoid her. She was clearly too much for me. That tall, slender and quite buxom woman would eat me alive and steal my lunch money. She fit a stereotype which I couldn’t afford, financially or emotionally. No problem, I thought. Those other guys are clamoring for her attention.
They tried . . . oh how they tried, but to my horror she shunned them and zeroed in on me.
Why me? I don’t have anything she wants, I thought.
Over the course of that evening, and many more to come, we became partners. This woman actually had a sense of humor similar to mine. She bantered with me. She teased me and, more importantly, I could actually tease her back. I was hooked. We married in October 1997 and moved to New York City where she worked once again on Wall Street for a young man who was once her protégé.
Judith grew up in a large Wyoming farming family. They were poor which only made her stronger, harder working and more determined to pull herself out of that circumstance. She was the middle child between four brothers and four sisters who gave no quarter and expected none in return. Competition was not new to her, but ambition would pull her out of, not only poverty, but an abusive marriage.
I relate this part about her life because it helps illustrate who she really is . . . a woman of strength and good character, of love and deep compassion. It also helps to tell you of where she was in her life when the accident happened.
As usual, Judith was prickly, stubborn and controlling the morning of Friday, July 2, 2004. She didn’t want to be and said as much, but life had pushed her there and it was hard to put aside.
A year of marriage counseling and an on-again, off-again relationship was coming to a close. I was working a weekend graveyard shift. She was beginning a long Fourth of July weekend.
She had gone on a bike ride with her cycling club. When I got home that morning I unplugged my phone, closed the windows and drapes, went to bed and quickly fell asleep.
My daughter shook me. “Dad, wake up.”
I hated to be wakened during my work week for no good reason. There never had been before, why now? “What?”
“Judith’s been in an accident,” she said as she plugged my phone in. It rang.
I answered it. It was Judith’s best friend, Gloria. The story she told chilled my bones. “Judith lost control of her bike and flipped into a ditch. Her back is broken. She’ll never walk again.”
“Are you sure it’s permanent?” I asked, hoping for some good news. “Sometimes these injuries are temporary.”
“Yes,” Gloria said.
My heart sank, but I still held out some hope. I got dressed, called my workplace to let them know I wouldn’t be in that night and then drove to McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden with my daughter.
The news of Judith’s bicycle accident had preceded me. Her mother and most of her siblings waited in what I soon learned was the ‘cry room’. They told me others who lived in far flung states and countries were on their way.
I joined them as we waited and hoped for a chance to see her. I cried.
An eternity later Judith’s daughter, Aimee, emerged from the ICU. She updated us and then turned to me. “She wants to see you.”
“Me?” I searched the bewildered eyes of her family. They seemed as surprised as I was. I followed Aimee through those impassable doors that led to . . . what? I held onto a prayer that I could hold back the tears when I saw her.
The nurse came out of Judith’s room as we approached. She said something, warning me about something, and something, something, something and I could only stay five minutes. “So little?”
She seemed asleep when I saw her. Scrapes covered her face. Bandages shielded her nose and forehead. Tubes strung from her mouth.
I leaned over and caressed her temple.
She opened her eyes and looked at me.
God denied my prayer. I wept.
Her eyes glistened and smiled.
God answered a prayer I did not know I made.
I saw deeper into her soul than ever. I saw the gentleness she always wanted to have. She would let go of her past.
(Editorial Comment from Judith) “At this point, I have to give you the other side. I knew almost at once when the bicycle flipped me head over heels and I landed on my back that I was paralyzed. When Neils came in, I was battered and bruised and hadn’t even begun to deal with what it all meant. When our eyes locked I smiled mostly in wonder because I could see love, a physical manifestation, as a light with many colors streaming from his face. I knew that we were together, united and I was safe, as I had never before been safe.”
The five minutes I was given became an hour. I thanked the nurse for letting me stay.
Aimee would later ask me if I could deal with being her mother’s caregiver.
“I will do this,” I said.
The next day Judith’s daughter April arrived from Arizona. The day after that her son flew in from New Zealand. The three of them took charge of insurance, doctors, the hospital and things I knew nothing about.
A week later she moved to a regular hospital room. The family continued to visit and her friends and coworkers often filled her room. As word of Judith’s accident spread, flowers flooded in and spilled into the hallway.
I did not, until that moment, know how well loved and respected she was.
“Why me? Of all the men on that dance floor, why did she pick me?” This woman who was so well regarded at her work and had such a wide ranging set of friends chose some dolt like me. Doubts about my ability to be a suitable caregiver crept in. She had a lot more support and resources available than I could give her.
Eventually she left the hospital and went to a rehab center. We put our home up for sale and began looking for something more wheelchair friendly. At this point my real caregiving skills were yet to be tested.
The day finally came for her to come home wearing a clamshell brace which covered her from chin to tailbone. She hated that device, but at least she was out of the hospital. Home healthcare services were set up and I continued to go to work. My shift work and 14 hour workdays weighed me down. The physical issues Judith had were not unlike that of a newborn baby. The changes in her body functions required frequent attention. Preparing meals, bathing and nurturing were not unfamiliar, but the intensity of it was.
Judith has never been a complainer, but she did have days when her outlook suffered terribly. I tried to give her some hope of new adventures with stories about the wonders I’d seen while in the Navy. We soon planned a cruise to the inside passage of Alaska.
More doctor visits, hospital stays and surgeries added to the time demands. The emotional impact on Judith of these trials stressed her ability to cope. There seemed no end in sight.
Word soon came that my mother, who lived near Seattle, had developed dementia. She wanted to return to Utah. I couldn’t deal with it. Fortunately, after weeks of searching for a facility to care for her, my brother accepted that challenge and looked after her. Nevertheless, as the years went by, watching her decline was difficult. We were by her side when she passed away peacefully in 2010. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Thank you Neils and Judith for sharing your story. We look forward to next Sunday, part 2.