We can debate what astronaut Neil Armstrong really said after taking his first step on the moon back in 1969. According to The Associated Press and Navy Times, the commander of Apollo 11 tried to set the record straight in 1999. Millions of people watching live on tv or listening to the radio heard:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But after returning from space, Armstrong said that wasn’t what he had planned to say.
He said there was a lost word in his famous one-liner from the moon: “That’s one small step for ‘a’ man.” It’s just that people just didn’t hear it.”
During a 30th anniversary gathering in 1999, the Apollo 11 commander acknowledged that he didn’t hear himself say it either when he listened to the transmission from the July 20, 1969, moon landing.
“The ‘a’ was intended,” Armstrong said. “I thought I said it. I can’t hear it when I listen on the radio reception here on Earth, so I’ll be happy if you just put it in parentheses.”
Is it all a matter of semantics in the case of Armstrong’s first moon walk? I don’t know. But what I do know is that each step in recovery my son Christopher takes from overcoming his traumatic brain injury, no matter how small, is actually quite a big step for him—and for me.
Here’s a newsflash: Christopher may have allowed the CNA to brush his teeth Monday evening. It won’t make the headline news on your tv sets, but it did raise my antennae. The CNA told Christopher she was going to try and brush his teeth, and he didn’t resist. There were even eyewitnesses on the scene—my wife and daughter. Believe me: I interviewed (interrogated!) them later at the dinner table about what had transpired live at his bedside.
Was Christopher’s response to the CNA voluntary? What did he actually do—open his mouth wide so she could brush freely and vigorously? On many past occasions when CNAs or nurses tried to brush Christopher’s teeth with a sponge brush, he would clench his teeth and bite down hard with his jaws, if they were able to penetrate his defenses. Kind of like a steel trap. The staff at the hospital and rehab center always proceeded gingerly, with fear and trembling. They had to move forward and proceed with brushing in the vast unknown of my son’s mouth with a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. You could almost hear Dante’s line, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” You could lose your fingers, maybe even an arm or a leg, if you kept trying. Their best chance was to hope Christopher would yawn and then they could brace his mouth with a prop to keep brushing. But not Monday evening. Maybe it was the tone of the CNA’s voice. Perhaps Christopher was in a really good mood. We will just have to wait and see if it was coincidence, or if Christopher understood and welcomed the opportunity to have his teeth brushed.
Now you may think this is nothing big. After all, most of us somewhat willingly go to the dentist or hygienist to get our teeth cleaned. We open our mouths wide, when they ask, even if we endure the semi-annual or annual ritual visit to the dentist’s office in fear and trembling and by the skin of our teeth.
However, in Christopher’s case, any voluntary movement, any response to a prompt, is a very good sign. It may be a small step for a man, but it is a very big step for this man Christopher. If a pattern develops, and Christopher lets medical staff regularly brush his teeth in the future, it’s one big step in Christopher’s recovery.
Let me pause and take a deep breath, while you yawn from having to listen to me scrub away in this post. No, it’s not a commercial break, but a flashback, not to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, but to January and February of this year. If you could have seen where Christopher was at in January or February immediately following the devastating brain injury, you would see he’s come a long way. Of course, for meaningful recovery to occur, he still has a long way to go. But as our medical consultant, Dr. Robert Potter (M.D., Ph.D.) said way back then, healing and recovery’s got to start somewhere. Breathing on his own and breathing only room air were the first small steps for Christopher, but what would total consciousness be without them?
Now to return to my rendition of the Neil Armstrong astronaut quote, I would also go so far as to say that every small step Christopher takes in recovery is actually a giant step for everyone. How so? As we have been informed on numerous occasions by medical professionals, including a neurosurgeon, there is still so little we know about the brain. It is such a mysterious and complex organ. Moreover, a neurologist recently told us that in the past all too often people pulled the plug on patients suffering from TBI way too early. He indicated that the medical community suffered from self-fulfilling prophecies: people wouldn’t recover because they weren’t given more time to recover. One may not know for a year, two years, or even three years what the prognosis will be. Now, the neurologist wasn’t saying that in every situation, people would recover from traumatic brain injuries, but that more people would have recovered, if given more time. He is also “cautiously optimistic” that Christopher will experience some form of meaningful recovery based on the observations that have been made over the past few months. Christopher’s case is unique to itself, as is every other patient’s. However, as with other cases, Christopher’s case will help inform future treatment for others. So, in that sense, to the extent Christopher experiences meaningful recovery, it is a giant step forward for addressing patient care involving traumatic brain injuries.
Moreover, I believe Christopher’s situation is a giant step forward for humanity in another way. You don’t have to suffer from a traumatic brain injury to appreciate how much resilience Christopher has. The kid is tough. He’s been fighting for his very life for over five months now. He’d be the first one to tell you that where there’s no pain, there’s no gain. I’ll drink (some mouthwash) to that! We all get inspired by people’s stories of coping with suffering, enduring loss and grief, and rising from the ashes. In fact, know this: you have never met a truly great person who has not endured great pain and suffering. They are vital ingredients in building character, if we will make use of our struggles in this way, and not waste them. Who knows? Christopher may write a book someday about his journey. I may do the same.
Every small step you take along with us is a giant step forward for Christopher and us. It is hard to put into words what we have endured and how overwhelming and relentless all this is. Still, do know that we could not take the steps we have taken to this point without faith, hope, and love in and from God and without you. You have resilience. You have courage. You have compassion. You are taking small steps and great steps along life’s path for you, for us, for others. Keep taking those steps. We’ll keep taking them with you. Let’s keep fighting to live for one another and others.
Yesterday, when I visited Christopher, I played for him and for you one of his and his wife Keyonna’s favorite songs, Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” Keep flying. Keep taking those steps. Keep brushing your teeth. Keep hope alive.