I didn't know my husband when he served in the Army, nor when he was injured. In 1988, just months following his four years active duty and while in the reserves, Geoff was in a horrific motorcycle accident that severed his spinal cord, leaving him completely paralyzed from the sternum area down.
Geoff faced a life-changing tragedy that could turn anyone's heart cold. Before his accident, Geoff planned a career in the military and that was ripped from his life the second his body hit the ground.
While the guard rail he hit is still dented to this day, Geoff’s spirit was not destroyed. He chose to push forward and move on saying, “I have too much to do with my life.”
Within just a few months, Geoff had completed rehab and was attending college full time. I will always admire his courage in facing adversity and transforming his life so quickly – and doing so with a zest for the uncertain life that lie ahead. Here are eight of the ways we have learned how you can choose how tragedy changes your life, including the pictures!
1. Vulnerability can show your strength, not your weakness.Just like in any marriage, we have our good times and bad times. However, when you add a disability or a tragedy to the mix, there are challenges to face that do not exist in any of the marriage guidance handbooks out there.
We wrote our own wedding vows and focused on three crucial qualities we believed – and still believe – will cultivate the vivacious union we anticipated: the courage to be vulnerable; responsibility of never taking the other for granted; and open communication.
When we committed to one another we understood it was not only about marrying the right partner, it was more about BEING the right partner. The effort to become vulnerable enough to continuously succeed in carrying out open conversations is endless. But the results are worth it. It does not do anyone any good to shut down…it only hinders your own happiness.
2. You can love people 'to the moon and back.'After many years of struggling through the challenges of fertility treatments, our son, Ethan, was born in April 2009. He is the center of our world. Nothing mattered as much as it matters now with Ethan sharing our lives. There is not a day that goes by that Ethan does not share how much he loves us “to the moon and back.” We cannot imagine life without him.
Adaptive parenting was new to both of us but Geoff never ceased in finding ways to make it work. If there was a way to take care of his baby son, he was determined to find it…and did! Like many parents, we aren’t perfect. But we think we have learned and are teaching Ethan the most profound essential to a happy life… pure love.
3. You can allow adventure to help you adapt to adapting.Sometimes it’s hard to consider myself a caregiver because Geoff is so independent. Before we met, Geoff was already competing in many adaptive sports and had skydived. We have tried snuba, parasailing, kayaking, skiing, swimming with dolphins and manatees, camping, hiking, and sailing.
Adventuring into nature has been a release for us, sort of a way to say “No thanks” to the limitations and barriers in a disabled life. There are so many opportunities for adaptive adventures now and we are keeping our path open for many more adventures in our future!
4. You can wield laughter as a tool.Life can be a drag at times, barriers can get in the way of happiness. We find that a little family laughter and fun can make the stresses of everyday life slowly fade away. And it doesn’t have to be a major event. Tickle time, chase, hide and seek…just a few of our family’s secrets to contentment. Follow it up with snuggles, a few I love you’s, and we are done for the day!
5. You can see recovery as a lifetime reward.We always say we may never have met if it weren't for adaptive sports. Geoff was introduced to it during his recovery shortly after his injury and it truly changed his life and has made him the strong willed, determined person I was drawn to.
It also changed his path. After delving into the adaptive sports world and seeing and feeling the benefits, firsthand, he decided to pursue a career in recreation therapy. He has dedicated his life to organizing and promoting adaptive sporting events for others with disabilities and his mentorship over the years has changed many people’s lives.
November is Warrior Care Month and I feel his life experience epitomizes the heart of this month. Not only was he given a second chance at life, essentially through others giving to him, he is living it with the purpose of giving back.
6. You can tackle the next challenge.In December 2013, after weeks of excruciating headaches and fatigue, we learned Geoff had a brain aneurysm most likely originating from his accident 25 years ago (but had since calcified). Only one week after the discovery, he was in surgery to have a stint placed to shrink it down.
The weeks before and during recovery were trying times for us. Many times we shared the frightening revelation of ‘what if’…’what if doctors had not discovered it early enough? What if there had been damage.’
Those moments we were thankful and cherished the thought that life is short. Other times we were tired and our zest for life was tested. This photo was taken the day of Geoff’s follow-up scan when we found out he was completely healed, the aneurysm had disappeared.…this is the day we all took a very deep breath…and hugged extra tight…and got our zest back…and moved on.
7. You can choose the way your children see you.One of my most heartfelt moments so far is when Geoff was interviewed by CBS about his upcoming participation at the 2014 Invictus Games and why it was important that Ethan and I were going to join him.
“[My son] sees me in a wheelchair every day. But I want him to see me as an athlete…and that you don’t give up, no matter what your circumstance. You can do anything.”
Ethan’s zest for life, in part, stems from this. I wrote this poem to celebrate all the adventures that lie ahead for them (and us).
8: You can determine how recovery changes your life.We were privileged (thanks to the generosity of the Fisher House) to be with Geoff while he won a bronze medal in Handcycling at the 2014 Invictus Games.
Not only were we proud of Geoff’s achievement, the honor of being among hundreds of wounded, ill, and injured service members from around the world was humbling, to say the least. Many have lived through exceptional valor that others cannot imagine, they’ve braved the unthinkable during their time of recovery, and they remain courageous while turning their tragedy into a new life full of hope.
They could have given up, they could have said, “That’s enough.” Instead, they made a choice…they choose to say, “I have too much to do with my life." And they pushed forward.
Heather Hopkins is the wife of a veteran, a freelance photojournalist and a portrait photographer. Her current projects are focused on adaptive sports for people with disabilities and appear primarily at www.footstomp.com and on her blog here.