The man who slept for 19 years

Thursday, July 10, 2003

July 10, 2003

Dear Terry Wallis,

The newspaper stories about you waking from a coma 19 years after a car crash concentrate on your first words and all the sea changes you have missed since 1984: the end of the Cold War and the beginning on Sept. 11, 2001, of what could be a longer struggle. You missed the onset of the AIDS epidemic, two shuttle disasters, the election debacle of 2000. You don't know what a hanging chad is.

I envy your ignorance of most of these. Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 summers and winters and missed the American Revolution. But the tragedy in the story was his awaking to find his beloved wife was dead and his young daughter was already married.

You have missed seeing your daughter grow up. You have missed a lot of growing up yourself. I wonder what an intellectually and emotionally 20-year-old man thought when he awoke to discover his 39-year-old face and body. What must you have thought when your 20-year-old psyche awoke to the realization that you are married to a 39-year-old woman? I am sorry the accident cost you the use of your limbs. You have major adjustments to make.

What happened to you contains a lesson for the rest of us. Many walk through life as if asleep, thinking whatever is always will be, assuming those we love and their love for us are givens. They aren't. It often takes losing someone, as you were lost for so long, to make us realize that everything is ephemeral, that all we have is now and the source it comes from.

A 13th-century poet named Rumi who wasn't yet popular when your accident occurred wrote:

"The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same.

Every wonderful sight will vanish, every sweet word will fade,

But do not be disheartened,

The source they come from is eternal, growing,

Branching out, giving new life and new joy.

Why do you weep? The source is within you

And this whole world is springing up from it."

I wonder where you were when you were not in this reality. In a fugue state where nine-pins sound like thunder? You are like a great explorer of the inner cosmos just returned from a long, long voyage. We long to know more about what you saw, where you traveled, what you know now.

Or was it all like a long, long dream, lost the moment the alarm goes off?

How strange the world must seem to you now: The ubiquitous computers, being assaulted on the street by mobile stereos, the surreal TV shows based in reality, the search for weapons of mass destruction. But they're nothing you can't get accustomed to. We have.

The stories say your mother was at your bedside when you uttered your first word out of the coma: "Mom." I wonder at the perseverance and hopefulness and love she and your father and your wife must have. Through all those 19 years, they often picked you up from the rehabilitation center and took you home and to family functions.

You have missed out on so much and have endured so much with so much more to go. And yet I'm sure you are happy to be back. It is, no matter what, a wonderful life.

Welcome back,


Sam Blackwell is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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