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“The Shame of Losing” by Sarah Cannon

The Shame of Losing by Sarah Cannon
264 pp, ISBN 978-1-59709-624-9, Red Hen Press, 2018

When my son was seventeen, he suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of a drunk driver in a crash that killed his girlfriend. A detective showed up at my house the day after Neil came home, asking if he could pluck 25 hairs from his head. He wanted to try to match them to the ones he had retrieved from a crack in the windshield of the drunk driver’s SUV. I came to think of that literal crack in the glass as a metaphor for a dividing line in our lives: between then and now, life before and after TBI.

Sarah Cannon’s crack in the glass came on October 30, 2007 when she gets word that her strapping young husband has suffered a traumatic brain injury in a freak accident that will change their lives in ways she cannot foresee. With prose that is both haunting and immediate, Cannon brings us a kaleidoscope of details from the first disorienting phone call to the foreign sounds, smells, and sights of the emergency room. Her story slides back and forth between past and present, filling in the background from her childhood on Puget Sound and her comparatively carefree marriage to a self-described “Nick Danger” of a husband—skiing daredevil, helicopter pilot, Northwest firefighter and tree-climbing arborist. Now they are all facing a very uncertain future.

While staving off terror and loneliness, Cannon puts one foot in front of the other. She is by his side, ever his advocate, first in intensive care and later in rehab. When he cannot drive safely due to visual impairments and a seizure disorder, she takes him to appointments, sometimes three in one day. She fights on his behalf with Worker’s Compensation, a multi-year process, as her own finances become increasingly perilous with her husband’s continued inability to work. She plaits her tale using an inventive combination of first person narrative, epistolary prose, real-time journal entries, even a short screenplay.

Though surrounded by a loving family and generous friends, Cannon is at times unable to accept the help they offer. She has circled the wagons so closely around her young family; these rays of light can hardly penetrate its defensive perimeter. She cannot bear to respond honestly to inquiries from neighbors, children’s teachers and fellow moms with anything less than full-throated optimism, for fear that if she utters the words—her husband might be permanently disabled—they may just be true.

One person who tries to be of help is Cannon’s mother-in-law. On one well-meaning visit, she comments that her son looks great “except those eyes.” Cannon initially thinks she is referring to the swelling, the bruising, the suture lines. But when she clarifies, “I just didn’t expect that stare to look so empty”, Cannon gets her first glimpse into her possible future.

As doctors, we sometimes think we have the answers. We know the statistics, the confidence intervals. We make prognoses. And while we may have book knowledge of anatomy and physiology, pathology and pharmacology, we often have no idea what the illnesses and injuries we see briefly in our offices or on the in-patient unit look like on a day-to-day basis for families. I know this from my own experience with my son’s traumatic brain injury and my foster daughter’s severe eating disorder. And I am grateful for Sarah Cannon’s contribution to the body of work written by people who have suffered through a devastating experience and been brave enough to tell their story.