March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. On this blog I have written about our experience with TBI, but so far the story remains locked in my computer in draft form. I claim it is finding time that is preventing it from being finished, but when I read it again, I am not so sure that is true. It is still traumatic to think back. It stings. No longer a gaping wound, but a tender scar. Maybe putting some of it out there I will be inspired to get with it again and finish it up. For now, I share a few days in the life of TBI with you, for the sake of awareness and because, though ours is a hard story, it is a good one.
“Do you want to dance?” A sandy haired guy with a big smile asked.
I looked around and said, “Sure, I guess so.”
We danced. When the song was over, the young man turned to ask me if he could get me some punch. But I was gone. Vanished into the crowd.
He tells me we met at the welcome back dance in college. It was my sophomore year at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and Bill was a freshman. 1982. The dance was an opportunity, in the fall, for returning students to socialize after being apart for the summer, as well as a chance for the incoming freshmen to integrate with the rest of the student body. After I snubbed him, he said he thought I was a snob and he didn’t think very highly of me.
I say Bill tells me, because I do not remember the encounter. At all. It is a running joke between us that he made such an impression on me that I can’t even recall him at all. In honesty, he was probably right to think I was a snob. I was young, fickle, and flighty. What he describes was very much in character for me before life knocked me on my butt. Yet, the story of our love begins this way, which still causes Bill to tease me incessantly.
The first time I actually remember meeting him was in the student center lobby. We had a tight group of friends who hung out together on the couches there between classes. Each year our group got bigger as new freshmen arrived and we added to our number. Bill was one of several who joined us that year. Dance aside, once we officially spent some time together we became really good friends. We regularly took off hiking, always with his guitar in tow. We found out-of-the-way eateries and a video arcade. We played putt-putt and went to the movies. We stayed up late talking about God and walked around campus to look at the stars.
“Are you guys dating?”
“No! We are just friends.” I said to everyone who asked.
“Are you a couple?”
“No! We just like to hang out together sometimes.” Bill would say to everyone who asked. We were together enough that people assumed we were dating. Looking back I guess it should have been a clue. We were content to be friends and enjoy one another’s company.
The friend group all hung out together all the time as well. We played games, took trips, went to eat together, sang together and were pretty much inseparable as a group. These were the kind of folks you meet in college who are friends for life. Heart friends.
One weekend it was supposed to snow, which is a big deal to people in Georgia.
Someone in the group said, “It’s supposed to snow tonight. We should hit the road to beat it and go skiing tomorrow!”
“We could go to our house in the mountains. It is about a 3 hour drive from here and only a short drive from Sky Valley.” I said, “It’s a small slope but I don’t think we have time to get all the way to NC, plus it’s free lodging.”
“Let’s do it!” said someone in the group, “meet back here in an hour and we will take off! If you aren’t here, we’re not waiting for you. One hour.”
We were all in for this spontaneous snow skiing trip. Deciding to drive through the storm was pretty typical of our caution-to-the-wind group. We wanted to catch the fresh snow in the morning, all 2 or 3 inches of it. Yes, remember we are in Georgia where it is more likely to ice than snow.
The predicted snow began to fall while I was packing causing excitement to pump my heart a bit faster. When I arrived in the lobby, Bill was the only one there. We waited and waited for the others to show up. No one ever did, so much for caution-to-the wind spontaneity. However, being adventurers as well as avid skiers, Bill and I were not deterred.
“Do you still want to go?” I asked.
“Let’s do it!” he said.
So, we embarked on a cross-the-state trip just as the storm hit and the sun started to go down. Not a necessarily wise move, but a daring one.
The snow was coming down hard. The windshield wipers were freezing up.
“Can you even see?” he asked.
“Not really,” I answered.
“Stop and let me scrape the windshield off. It’s solid ice.”
We stopped what felt like every 5 minutes the rest of the way. Icy conditions caused the car to slip and slide at every juncture. It took us 3 hours to get halfway. We stopped to get gas and realized we didn’t have enough money to get dinner, so we picked up a bag of double stuff Oreos and some milk. You would never know we were in danger, because we talked the entire 5-hour trip. Navigating around downed trees and crashed cars, we continued on our way as if it was a spring day. By the time we arrived, we had shared a bag of Oreos and our life stories.
The next morning, we expected to find fresh snow, but were disappointed when there was only rain falling. The fog was thick pea soup. We couldn’t even see off the front porch. Skiing was completely out of the picture. Still, we considered it a get-away and tried to make the best of it. I had a project due for my interior design class which required some decisions and a trip to town. Bill tagged along. We picked out paint swatches and wallpaper samples for my “dream house” project. I already had the floorplan, but I had to design each room and make selections.
In this odd turn of events, I was with a guy who just hours before had been an acquaintance, but now was with me picking out paint colors, cabinets, floors, and wallpaper for a house. The opportunity gave me some insight. I found out we had similar tastes and ideas about what went together and what did not. I also took note that he wasn’t the least bit put off to help me with my project, either. We laughed when the people at the hardware store thought we were a couple planning our future home. We didn’t try to explain, but played into it with all the drama of a newlywed couple. Once we had all the samples back to the house, we spent hours considering various combinations. It was the first time it crossed my mind that Bill might be fun to date, but I was enjoying having him as a friend and I didn’t want to complicate things with a romance. I had just come out of a relationship, and so had he. We were content to be friends, and the impromptu “ski” weekend had confirmed to me that he was a good guy.
I started paying closer attention after that trip. I found Bill charming. He was gregarious, witty, and compassionate. Kind. He never met a stranger and he drew people in, chatting with them for hours. He was funny and always had a one liner come back. He was spontaneous and always up for adventure. He liked to take off at a moment’s notice for a drive or hike. He accepted people as they were and I wished I could do that. He knew God personally and deeply but did not push me to do so. I was caught up in doing the right things, checking off performance boxes, more surface level, while he understood grace and demonstrated it towards others. Everybody loved Bill. I knew he played a little guitar, but when I heard him play the piano I was hooked. Something touched my heart deeply whenever he played, still does. People continued to ask us if we were dating and we would laugh and adamantly say, NO WAY! We had grown to be best of friends and the simplicity of that was all we wanted, that was the truth. No pressure. No stress. Just relaxed moments with someone who enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his.
It wasn’t until spring break that we kind of woke up to what everyone else saw plainly; we were falling in love. One night, while on a cruise to the Bahamas with a group from school, he and I went for a stroll on the deck. We looked up at the stars, but there were only a few, and the moon wasn’t visible at all. In fact, he apologized for the lack of moonlight, right before he kissed me for the first time. I must say, I didn’t care that the moon wasn’t showing at that moment. It was the smoothest transition from friendship to becoming a couple. We just fit together.
Our friends all said, “It’s about time!”
“What?” we asked.
“We have seen this forever. How could you not know?” they said.
We were truly surprised at their reaction, because we were kind of surprised that it happened at all, but from then on we were inseparable. Our hands just seemed to suddenly fit together, like my hand had been incomplete without holding his all those years. It was a dream beginning…strolling along beaches, shopping the markets, spending time on the deck, all of it was magical.
We often look back at those days and are so grateful we had them. If we had known what was coming we would have savored them even more. We dated for the next four years. It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, but we worked through a couple of breakups and smoothed out the rough spots. By the time graduation rolled around, the next step of marriage was obvious. We were 21 when we married in the summer of 1986. Our wedding was during a drought in the hottest summer on record. It was 107 degrees the day we married at Frost Chapel…without air conditioning. We joke now and say it might have been a sign of the furnace to come, but we were young, in love, and undeterred by life.
We were madly in love. It was the newlywed kind of love without much sense, but all of the excitement of the future laid out in front of us. We spent our first year finding our way through life together. We were best friends turned lovers, and there was no stopping our dreams from coming true, all because we were together. Do you remember those days of glorious togetherness?
After a year, we bought a little house in Alpharetta. Bill was the Children’s Pastor at our church, so I quit my teaching job to be a pastor’s wife and to go back to graduate school. There was no wisdom in that decision whatsoever, but we were so in love with the idea of me being home and having kids at some point soon that we threw caution to the wind. We called it faith, and we stepped out into it. It was soon evident the folly of our choice, though we would not have called it folly.
We were paying for me to go to graduate school in counseling at Georgia State. We were paying a house payment. We had one income and it was a ministry income that was well below what we needed to live. A course correction was needed. I began to take on some tutoring students, which made sense for a teacher. It was a flexible way to earn some income at home without having to punch a clock. It allowed me to create my own schedule around grad school and church commitments, and we figured I could cut back as needed when the babies came later. Our little financial bump in the road was solved, or so we thought.
I had my first tutoring student at the house on Feb. 2, 1988. It was a morning that I did not have class at Georgia State, which made it a Tuesday. Bill was scheduled to meet a family from church to discuss some concerns for an early breakfast, and then he was going on to the church for the rest of the day.
After my morning goodbye kiss while I was sleeping, he was out the door.
“Have a good day,” I mumbled.
“You too,” he said back, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said in a sleepy voice as I rolled over in bed and pulled the covers up around my neck.
I often think back to that day and wonder if I would have done anything differently had I known what was coming. Would I have woken up to do more than groggily mumble, ‘Have a good day?’ Would I have begged him to stay home? Or could I have gotten up and walked him out, pausing with morning chit chat long enough to make a 5-minute difference in his day? These what-if thoughts lead nowhere and I regularly banish them, but even after all these years they hang like shadows in the back of my mind.
Instead, I slept in a bit and then got up to prepare for my first little tutoring student. I had my teaching materials all out on my kitchen table; the kitchen we had wallpapered just weeks before. The house was coming together, and as I put out the supplies for the lesson, I felt like life was as well. My adorable little house. My husband who loved me. Our church family. Graduate school. Everything was moving as planned, truth be told, even better than planned.
My client arrived around 10:00 a.m. I think. I told her mom to come back in an hour and we got to work. We began with letter sounds, and putting together words. She was writing each sound as we said them. Then we were finding the words she had written in the books I had laid out, when the phone rang. I had her continue finding words as I walked to the wall phone in the kitchen.
“Is this Ray Gunnin’s residence?”
“Yes it is.”
“Are you related to Ray?”
“Yes. I am his wife.”
I do not know why I said that. I guess my gut knew the woman’s voice was talking about Bill, rather than his father. Normally I would have said, “No. You want my father-in-law, Ray” and given them his number. Not on this day because my gut knew.
“This is North Fulton Hospital ER. He has been involved in a car accident.”
I had a sharp intake of breath but no panic, yet.
“What is his condition?” (For future reference, if someone calls it means your loved one cannot speak for themselves. Not a good question to ask.)
“He is non-responsive.” Now waves of panic. Now nausea. Now foggy thinking.
“Mrs. Gunnin, are you there?”
“Yes. I am here. I will be there in a few minutes,” I said, as I slid down the wall, crumbling beneath the phone.
“Are you alone Mrs. Gunnin? Is there someone to drive you? It will not help your husband if you wreck on the way here.”
“I am alone, but I can do it.”
That was the first feeling of aloneness. I was alone and handling things on my own. I knew God was with me, but knowing it and feeling it are two different things. I can pinpoint so much back to this moment of feeling that I had to take care of myself. Rather than call someone, I gathered my strength.
“I will have to find a place for my tutoring student, because her mom won’t be back for 30 more minutes. But I will be there as soon as I get that handled.”
“Are you sure you are okay?”
“I am fine. Thank you for calling.”
I. Am. Fine. Those three words became my life mantra on this day. I hung up. Moving through foggy pea soup I vaguely remember checking with a neighbor to see if she could take my student. She could not. I scribbled a note since in 1988 there was no such thing as a cell phone…Bill has been in an accident. I am at the hospital ER. You can come get your daughter there…I taped it to the door.
While my student was cleaning up the supplies as I had asked her to do, I tried to make a few calls. No one was home. Not my folks, or his. No one I tried was available and each call left me feeling more alone with the knot in my stomach growing steadily bigger. By the time my pastor’s wife answered, the relief was so great the tears came. Not just small little crying, but weeping to the point she had no idea who she was talking to. She waited for me to calm down and when I explained Bill was at the hospital and that I was leaving to go there it was unintelligible.
She gently asked, “Who is this?”
God bless her, she couldn’t understand me at all through my hysteria. Once she could, she talked me into a calm so that I could drive.
“Michelle, take some deep breaths for me.”
“Now, let’s pray.” She prayed over me, and peace came.
It pulled me together to get me through whatever this day held. I had no idea that all my dreams had just been shattered, and that life would not be the same or that the walls of my life-house were crumbling to the ground. I did not know how ill equipped a 23-year-old is for such catastrophic news. I only knew that my true love was non-responsive in a hospital full of strangers and he needed me.
5 thoughts on “Chapter 1”
I enjoyed Chapter 1 of you life story and look very much forward to seeing the remaining chapters. You writings have been such a tremendous help and support to me and so many others. You are truly, truly inspired of the LORD and I praise HIM often for you and HIS work you allow HIM to do thru you.
With my heartfelt love and appreciation.
Thank you so much Jimmy. You have been a real encourager of my writing and my best distributor. 🙂 Thanks for that!
Thank you for sharing your hard story. As you decide to share the rest of your story, I want to read it. I am a former World Race Mom. God used your sharing at launch weekend to help prepare me for things to come. I am also a retired teacher and enjoy your sharing around education. I love your message of Brokenness Made Beautiful.
I am so glad to hear from you! I love to hear when my experiences help other people. Makes me know they weren’t for nothing. 🙂
Thank you, Michelle, again for sharing your life experiences – especially this one. The next chapter or follow up to this is a read to look forward to – not for entertainment, nor curiosity, but for the learning about TBI and for the spiritual sharing from someone who knows her subject very well.