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"So when is your book coming out?" someone asked after I spoke about my art exhibit and the realities of emerging from coma at a local Rotary Club meeting. "Oh, I don't know." I said. I could not yet discern how to talk or write about my mystical experience during coma so that others could read without skepticism, and a memoir without a description of that would be incomplete. Beyond ordinary understanding or standard definition lay my experience. So 2010, I limited the topic of that talk to my art exhibit, rehabilitation, and return to this reality; I did not address the liminal, my time in the coma. Then, one day in winter 2014, I decided to mark the decade since my accident by writing what I had held in my heart.
I had a structure for focus--my art and several journals written in hospital and throughout physical therapy. Patiently I reread journals from the earliest days when I struggled to hold a pencil. Journal entries resembled scribbles with an occasional decipherable word. These pages showed me a mind and a body searching for presence in this world. At times my writing became clearer so that I observed the pressure needed to mark on the page; then I saw fading ink and slanted scrawls following. My penmanship revealed that my effort to establish a presence in this world exhausted and overwhelmed me. When, as part of my therapy, I was asked to keep a journal of daily activities, I resented turning something so helpful to me in the past into yet another means for therapists and doctors to monitor my activities. But it wasn't the content that interested them as much as the development of a consistent practice. They had a clinical way of assessing the content and reviewing my thoughts.
Once I trusted they wanted me to keep a journal for therapeutic reasons, I poured my feelings into those journals without fear of their judgement. Now, the journals serve as a window into a time of extraordinary growth and an invaluable resource. My art exhibit arose in response to a profound moment that occurred as I left for out-patient therapy about two years after my wreck. The five pieces of art anchoring chapters 1-5 resulted from trying to understand my wreck, coma, and recovery.
The creative process that culminated in my art exhibit I will discuss in detail later; for now, understand the art arose before this book. Not until I decided to write this book did I realize how seemlessly that exhibit fit my recovery process, and how the painting titled Abide helped guide my exploration of my unfathomable experience while comatose. The heart of this book addresses a five-year period, 2004-2009. I produced the paintings in 2009 and 2010. About the words: Because I grew up in the Methodist church, my language and descriptions are Christian and Protestant. My experience, however, belongs to us all. If you feel more receptive, encouraged, or inspired by substituting other words by all means do so. As I share my experience, I trust you to draw your parallels, your conclusions.
“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
Despite the severity of my wreck, Amy’s death remains the seminal event in my life. Until my younger sister, Amy, fell ill in 1994, we lived an American idyll. My two sisters and I played with puppies and ponies, raised fresh vegetables and fresh eggs; swam in a pond every summer and skated there every the winter. We participated in school and church events, drove to town for movies, shopped at the mall, and saw occasional, traveling theatre productions. Our neighbors remarked that we kept the road to Owensboro hot. When a blizzard closed school for six weeks in the late 1970’s, we sledded down hills and skated on ponds and split wood for fires and imagined we were like the Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie ( a popular television series based on the children book series Little House in the Big Woods.
There was a large age gap between Sharon, the first-born, and me, the middle child, and Amy, the baby. Sharon was 11 and I was 8 when Amy was born. Once Mom and Dad brought Amy home, Sharon and I doted on her, deliberately waking Amy so that we could play with her. When she could walk, Sharon and I took Amy with us wherever we went: mall, movies, ballgames, plays. Of course, older and wiser, we bossed Amy all the time, “Wear this. Sit here. Go this way.” Our pediatrician once commented to Mom that Amy had three Mothers to mind. After Sharon married and I left for college, Mom, Dad and Amy moved to the deep south. Mine and Sharon's misdirected efforts to conquer the distance determined by our birth age difference with Amy were tempered by the geographical distance. Amy was able to grow up into an individual with her own talents and interests. Soon enough the distance between the three of us would be insurmountable.
Aged 24, a talented artist, Amy succumbed to leukemia in spring 1995. How do good families deal with calamity? Must I accept Amy's death as Gods will? Must I justify her illness as a price to be paid? Must I forgive God for this cruelty? Simplistic answers from clergy never diminished my grief or my anger. The God misrepresented to me in my youth had allowed Amy to die. I never believed God caused Amy's leukemia. Worse, I believed God cared not at all for Amy or for us, but remained impersonal and indifferent. If religion taught me to give God got all the credit for good, religion should hold God responsible for the bad. When I lifted my broken heart to God and asked for Amy's healing, why did God ignore my pleas? Maybe there was no God.
After Amy died and my fury abated, I quit praying for years: I believed that if I had prayed correctly, God would have spared Amy. After all of my years in church, all of my Sunday school lessons, how had I failed to learn the secret prayer code that would guarantee God would grant my desperate pleas for Amy?
One year after Amy's funeral I attended another,--for my unborn, second child who strangled in the umbilical cord. Before that discovery I thought how quiet the baby was, imagining him asleep. When my doctor could find no a heartbeat and induced labor, I gave birth to a perfect little boy no longer alive. Although my husband never wanted to name a child for himself, he gave this child his name, Donald Ray Dortch Jr, Donnie gave his name because it was the only thing he could give him. For the first time, I witnessed my husband become selfless.
Five years after Donald Ray Jr.'s funeral, my dad, Thomas Alva Deaton, died on August 1, 2001. He suffered a rare, aggressive thyroid cancer (the cancer that killed film critic Roger Ebert). In the years after Amy’s death, Dad had struggled to reconcile her death with his life and faith. Like most parents, he would have gladly died so she could live. He spent five years in a small group reading A Course in Miracles, searching for any wisdom to help him understand Amy’s death. As a result, Dad's new understanding of ancient Christian texts proved invaluable to him and us during his brief, agonizing death.
Meanwhile, my life continued with our healthy daughter, Audrey, born in 1994, and a healthy son, Logan, born in 1998; first in a small house, then a larger house; a promotion for Donnie to district manager, then regional manager; career opportunities for me--from performing to teaching. And then one accident changed everything.
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About the Author
Angie was awarded an MFA in 1992 and taught Acting and worked professionally until 2004. She was comatose after a car wreck in 2004 and as a
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