“THE ULTIMATE MEASURE OF A MAN IS NOT WHERE HE STANDS IN MOMENTS OF COMFORT AND CONVENIENCE, BUT WHERE HE STANDS AT TIMES OF CHALLENGE AND CONTROVERSY.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
My intentions were pure and I only wanted what I thought was best. But if I am honest with myself, on the day that I watched Bree say her goodbyes to her family at the airport, I began to truly second guess whether not asking her to marry me so she could experience a mission was the right decision. And the day Bree left for Montevideo, Uruguay, is when life introduced a new level of challenge into both our lives.
The Start of a Long Road
After months in Montevideo, Bree began to notice pains and tingling in her feet as she and her companion performed service for the people of Uruguay. She likened the sensation to being similar to the pins-and-needles you experience when you sit funny and your leg or foot falls asleep, or when you hit your funny bone and the nerve pain shoots down your forearm. She explained that it started out small and she figured it was just a result of the Doc Marten shoes I had convinced her to purchase. She has high foot arches and assumed that she perhaps was just not getting enough arch support. She tried supports that could be bought from a shoe store, unfortunately to no avail, and even went so far as to have her feet measured to have custom arch supports made as the pain continued to worsen. She never got to try the custom supports as days later things would get much worse.
As a 21 year old I think Bree felt like many new adults feel at that time in their lives. She was a vibrant and healthy woman who ran long distances for fun, hiked like she was born and raised in the mountains, and played volleyball, softball, and basketball with ease. She had never really been sick as a kid and took pride in her self-sufficiency. In short, she probably felt invincible. So that fateful morning, when she awoke to find her legs wouldn’t move, was undoubtedly terrifying.
The following are excerpts from her journal:
Day 1 – I guess I can’t deny it anymore – something is wrong. My body is broken. I woke up yesterday unable to move my legs. It was so cold in our little house and I guess I thought that maybe it was just the cold that was making my weakness worse. But I couldn’t even will my legs to twitch. Panic set in. I rubbed my legs vigorously and prayed…and cried. Numbness isn’t a new sensation to me. Hadn’t I pushed through 5 day long softball tournaments as the only pitcher and recovered from an arm that no longer wanted to work? Hadn’t I struggled through, and overcome, Juvenile Arthritis? But something is different. I can no longer stand. I threw my legs over the bed and pushed myself up to stand…and I fell. Hard. I might as well have fallen through the floor into a 50 foot well. I suddenly felt very alone and very scared.
Now I’m laying in a hospital bed with sheets that are covered in my blood. The nurses couldn’t get an IV in and it’s hard to tell if my arms and hands are bruised or just bloody. The IV is still barely there and every movement of my left hand is excruciating. The nurses keep wanting me to get up and use the restroom but I don’t feel like I need to – and to be honest I am scared. I am scared to ask for help, and scared because I have to. And I’m scared because I still can’t feel anything. I don’t understand why they keep pushing it. I’m frustrating them I know. I speak enough Spanish to communicate but I didn’t learn any medical words or terms – who would have thought it would be necessary.
Day 8 – My hands aren’t working so well. It feels the same way my feet and legs did – weak and slow to respond. I now know why the nurses kept trying to get me to use the bathroom – the paralysis is in my torso, as well as my legs and feet now.
Day ??? – I only see the nurses. Never a doctor. Never anyone else. They poke me and rotate me and ask me “good?”
I’ve been released. I’m at the mission home but don’t feel more comfortable. The doctors didn’t know what else to do for me, but I’m supposed to see a neurologist this week. I was told I should call home but was given strict instructions not to upset/scare my family. As soon as my mom picked up I instead got lectured for not writing. When I said I was in the hospital mom got upset anyway. President was listening on another line and took over the phone call. It’s probably better that way – I’m not sure what else I could have told them.
Back out in “the field”. Not really though, I just stay at the apartment all day and read. Neurology appointments 3-4 times a week. I just lay there. They attach electrodes to my skin and shock me to try and stimulate a response. They get nothing. I just cry. Not because it hurts. Because no one knows what’s going on. Because I don’t know what’s going on. Because there’s something in the way people look at me that makes me angry.
I’ve been issued an ultimatum. Since no one knows what is wrong with me they decided it’s psychosomatic. They decided I am making this happen – or pretending – or both. That’s the look I’ve been seeing in their eyes. So I have a month to get better or go home. They say they already know what will happen. They say I was too weak to have ever come. Maybe they’re right.
I’m on my way home. I just couldn’t do it – I couldn’t will myself better. I feel like a failure. But even in my darkest moment God is sending me a light. One of the flight attendants on my flight from Brazil to the US has become my angel. He picked me up and carried me from my seat in coach all the way to first class and he has not left my side this whole 21+ hour flight. He listens to me and offers his own words of wisdom and comfort. He thinks I’m strong and inspiring and that I should write a book about this experience. I think kindness and compassion like he has shown are more inspirational than anything I could say. For the first time in months I feel seen.
Home. Everything is just as I remembered it, yet nothing is the same. Everyone was at the airport to greet me. Dad flew to Texas to be with me during the remainder of the flight home and he managed to find someone to drive us from the gate to get my luggage. I don’t know what everyone was thinking. I think the realization hadn’t quite hit home for them. As I was transferred from the courtesy transport to the wheelchair there was a palpable change, and when I tried to move from the chair to the car and fell, there was a pain in their eyes that their smiles couldn’t hide. I tried to imagine what I would do in their place. Would I know what to say? Would I know what to do? Probably not. Even in my place I don’t know what to say.
Even when Bree returned home she would be hospitalized for a month while the doctors here ran their own gamut of tests. She endured more shocks to determine her sensation levels and a spinal tap to check for MS. Eventually she would be diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and would be sent home to start rehabilitation therapy which consisted of being sandwiched in a machine that helped her stand upright while she stared at her feet, willing her big toe to move.
All the while I visited her as often as I could and tried to be there for her in whatever way she needed me to be. I didn’t know when she would recover or even if she ever would, I only knew that I needed to be with her. Somedays were better than others and she would feel like getting out with me. Even on the days when she was tired, in pain, and struggling I would just stay by her side. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do – watch her endure it all – but I did what I could to continue to make memories and make the most of the time we had together.
Bree had been making incredible progress and was recovering well. She seemed increasingly hopeful and I couldn’t help but feel hopeful too. In sickness or in health, I loved her and wanted more than anything to spend eternity with her. I had been working hard on her ring and was anxiously awaiting the day I could present it to her and ask her to be my wife.
I planned the day to the T. We would go up in the mountains that she loved so much and have a picnic. I had imagined proposing to her so many times I felt confident that there was nothing that could happen that I wasn’t prepared for. But I suppose the one thing I should have planned on was the unexpected.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good day for Bree and my best laid plans were laid to waste. I wasn’t able to take her to the mountains like I had hoped, and despite all my planning and preparation I didn’t account for the one thing that was outside my control: how she might be feeling mentally.
She told me no. She explained that she didn’t want to be a burden to me and that she felt it was for the best, but my heart was broken. It took time and a great deal of convincing through actions – showing up for her time and time again – that my feelings for her were not contingent upon what I thought she might or might not contribute throughout our marriage, but rather on the incredible person I knew her to be. I wanted nothing more from her than to let me be part of her life. Finally she said yes! But the hard part was far from over.
The Road Goes Ever On
I consider myself a pretty traditional guy. So naturally, it was important to me to not only ask Bree for her hand in marriage, but also to receive permission from her parents. While Bree was on her mission I stayed close to her family. Her sisters invited me to their kids’ birthday parties and I talked to her parents regularly. So, much like my imagined proposal to Bree, I was certain her parents would readily agree to and even celebrate our engagement. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Their reasons for withholding their support and blessings were varied and groundless, and I could only listen for so long before I had to stop it all. As politely as I could manage, and will all the graciousness I could muster, I stood, took Bree’s hand in my own, and said that while we had hoped they would approve of our decision, we also didn’t need it. We would be married without their blessing and without their support if that is what it took.
And that is what we did. Undaunted, we pushed forward. Bree couldn’t work and any money she had saved before was spent on her mission. We had to figure out a way to make a wedding work on my meager salary alone. Thankfully, neither Bree nor myself are very excessive people, and a simple wedding sounded perfect. Sadly, a wedding of any size carries expenses that are hard to cover without much planning. Regardless, I used what savings and credit I had and we created a wedding that, although would never be featured in a magazine and possibly not what most people imagine their big day looking like, was perfect for us.
What’s A Few More Bumps In The Road
With all that had happened in the short time I knew Bree, I wasn’t expecting our marriage to be uneventful, but I also don’t think I was prepared for all that did come. I had found a modest apartment in downtown Salt Lake City that was reasonably priced. However the building was old, and as we would come to find out, in need of some attention. The few short months we lived there Bree struggled with her health and experienced numerous relapses. Due to her condition there was always a risk that her heart or lungs would stop working, and the black mold that was hiding in the apartment was exacerbating the symptoms of her disease. Then one night the unimaginable happened – Bree stopped breathing. I did all that I could to revive her and called 911. Our location turned out to be a blessing as paramedics arrived quickly and were able to resuscitate her, but we couldn’t stay in the apartment any longer. Despite the price that we would pay to get out of our contract, I had to think of Bree first and foremost.
Within those same months, my car’s engine blew. It was our sole car and the fact that it was already paid off made it kind of a big thing, especially when less than a month later I would find myself unexpectedly laid off due to the CEO of the credit card company I worked for lying to the board of investors.
Thus began our years of homelessness, migrating from basement to basement in order to not burden anyone with our troubles, always paying and repaying what we could, and always wishing we could do more. The 9/11 attacks had impacted the economy and finding a steady job was proving to be more and more difficult. I pursued tech certifications to try and improve my skills and hireability, but it was looking hopeless that I would ever find a job that would allow me to take care of my wife.