Given the bulk of the news that assails us every day — rancorous, disturbing, threatening, sad — it’s easy to find that feelings of thankfulness are becoming diluted. Even the approach of Thanksgiving, so long associated with family, togetherness, warmth, and lots of food, can become tainted with moments of despair. And then, if we’re lucky, something shows up in the news that gives us reason to be thankful despite the shootings, racist incidents, apparent epidemic of sex abuse, or any of a dozen other downers.
For me, such was the report in the Ledger recently of a local appearance and talk by Aimee Copeland. She’s the young woman, you recall, who had a zip line accident five years ago, an accident that might have been only a lingering memory except that a cut it caused allowed the entry of the terrifying flesh-eating bacteria. As described in the article by Ledger reporter Alva James-Johnson, the disease caused major organ failure and eventually the amputation of one of Aimee’s legs and both hands. Death was a distinct possibility.
No one who has not faced such horror can imagine what it must have felt like for this young woman to face it. No one who has not seen their own child fight to live while losing both hands and one leg can really imagine what a parent must feel in such a situation. Surely the parent would willingly take the victim’s place, but that’s not an option.
Miss Copeland has fought a battle of almost inconceivable difficulty, a battle that involved the body, mind, and spirit. And she came out a winner. A winner with battles still to fight, no doubt, and the assurance of days when life may look bleak. But my money is on her to win every future fight. Very self-sufficient, contradicting the official outlook five years ago, she is a social worker and psychotherapist in Atlanta. And an inspirational speaker who is helping others win their own battles.
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I was especially pleased to read her description of her time at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where she looked around and saw other young people who were physically much worse off than she was. My late wife had surgery performed by a Shepherd surgeon, followed by a lengthy recovery there. She and I later spent three weeks in a therapy and training program there that basically sought to teach her, and others, how to live as close to a normal life as possible, despite handicaps. And to teach me how to help her and manage her care more effectively.
My wife, paralyzed by a broken spine caused by melanoma, had never been self-pitying. She took her paraplegia and the continuing threat of death in stride, but her spirits had to flag from time to time, even when doubts were camouflaged. But at Shepherd, she looked around and saw not just examples of how her life could be improved, but numbers of people, many of them quite young, who were more handicapped than she. She learned that she could talk with them, encourage them, do things for them when needed, and she blossomed. She could see clearly, as Aimee Copeland describes it, that “there’s always further down.”
I’ll be spending Thanksgiving in Michigan with my daughter and her family. There will be a lot of good food, warmth, good company, and a lot of remembering. And I’ll be deeply grateful for the blessings that have come my way. I’ll be thankful for the dangers I have survived, for the errors that have been forgiven, and for family. Always for family. And prominent among the blessings for which I’ll be thankful is Aimee Copeland. She and others like her, candles lighting the gloom, remind us of how blessed we are. Remind us that “there’s always further down.”
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”