Open Hands, Open Mouths, Open Hearts: Coping and Hoping with TBI

Open Hands, Open Mouths, Open Hearts: Coping and Hoping with TBI October 8, 2021

Christopher and me shaking hands the day of his wedding.

Last night was hard. I could barely open Christopher’s hand to insert a washcloth in it for him to squeeze so he does not pierce his palm with his fingernails. It’s the same hand that he often closes like a clenched fist. What made it harder was that I was so tired from a very long day.

Several evenings ago, I was able to get Christopher to follow my iPhone from one side of his bed to the other with his eyes and head as I played The Rolling Stones performing “Jumpin Jack Flash” live on stage. I loved seeing Christopher’s conscious control, which I wrote about this past Sunday. The next day, I played a workout video. Before the traumatic brain injury, Christopher was a workout fanatic. Once again, Christopher’s eyes and head followed my screen from one side of his bed to the other. I was ecstatic and so proud and went down the hall to find one of the therapists and asked her to come to Christopher’s room to watch his eye and head movements.

With traumatic brain injuries, you never know what kind of response you will get from day to day, night to night. It can be agonizing. Last night, there was no responsiveness to the same Stones song or another workout video that I showed Christopher. The only song video to which my son moved his eyes and head, albeit slightly, was Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” Still, Christopher appeared to smile as the song played. It is one of Christopher’s and Keyonna’s favorites.

The only other positive sign last night was when the CNA tending to my son brushed Christopher’s teeth. The CNA noted that Christopher appeared to demonstrate clear signs of conscious control while he brushed: shortly after he informed Christopher that he was going to brush his teeth, Christopher opened his mouth and jaws in such a way that his care giver was able to do a deep dive to clean his teeth, tongue, and gums. Christopher kept his mouth wide open until the CNA was finished rather than clench his teeth. My mouth was open, too, albeit with a sense of amazement. We praised Christopher repeatedly. One does not take such basic movements for granted. Sometimes I watch my son’s face and limbs closely for an hour or two at a time just to see if and how he will respond to prompts.

I wonder if God makes observations of me to see how I respond to divine prompts and nudging. If so, I wonder what God observed last night. Did I open my hand in confident trust and submission to God’s providential care or clench my fist and figuratively wave it toward heaven? Did I open my mouth and heart to God with prayers of thanks for the signs of conscious control and cries of intercession for Christopher’s healing or laments of bitterness toward God for all the upheaval? As with Christopher’s TBI, one never quite knows what kind of response to various prompts I will generate from day to day.

The CNA who brushed Christopher’s teeth is one of my favorites. He is always so thoughtful, caring, engaging, and energetic. Sometimes he even sings while he works. He’s so cheerful.

Just so you know, when I type “CNA,” auto-correct often tries to change it to “CAN”. It’s as if Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) turns into Certified Assistant Nurse (CAN), reminding me of the ongoing discussion or debate between Michael and Dwight in The Office. Is Dwight the Assistant to the Regional Manager or the Assistant Regional Manager? In my estimation, this CNA, along with a few others, elevates his game to CAN, if there is such a category. In other words, he’s really good at what he does.

While tending to Christopher and his roommate last night, this CNA asked me to pray for him. He’s experiencing some severe back pain and he does not want it to affect his care for his patients and his family. They need him. We need him. “Of course,” I said. Pray for him, too, will you please? Please pray, too, for Christopher and his roommate. Please pray that they would be able to get off their backs and back on their feet.

As the CNA shared with me how his children need him to keep going strong in the midst of the pain, I thought of Christopher and his daughter Jaylah. She needs her daddy, too. That thought nearly took me into a spiritual and emotional tailspin again last night. Whenever such pain seizes my soul, I need the emotional equivalent of a ventilator.

TBI often leads to clenched fists and teeth as well as clogged lungs. I face the spiritual equivalent in dealing with the trauma. My son Christopher and I are trying hard to cope and conquer the trauma in pursuit of healing. Like my son, who keeps his strong lungs clear by vigorously coughing up his secretions through his trach, I try to cough up the secretions that cloud my soul. I need an open and clear heart toward God. Scripture teaches: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23; NIV). Another translation reads, “Above everything else, guard your heart; for it is the source of life’s consequences” (CJB). Keeping short accounts with his lungs so the secretions don’t build and lead to pneumonia is critical to Christopher’s survival and well-being. So, too, I need to keep short accounts with dark brooding under heaven to make sure my heart does not become full of bitterness and anger toward God.

Lord, open Christopher’s hands. Don’t allow him to clench his fists and dig his fingernails into his palms. Lord, open my hands to you. May I not clench and wave my fists toward heaven. Open Christopher’s mouth and my mouth and may we sing songs of thanksgiving and praise. Open our lungs and hearts and make them pure. Remove the bile from deep down inside so that Jesus can dwell there by your Spirit.

For the various updates related to Christopher and our unfathomable journey together, refer here. Thank you.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town and Beatitudes, not Platitudes: Jesus' Invitation to the Good Life. You can read more about the author here.
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