Five days after the accident on Memorial Day weekend 1995, I became fully conscious and able to make sense. Dr. Scott Henson and Dr. John Jane, chief of neurosurgery at University of Virginia Hospital, explained my situation. They told me in detail about the extent of my injury and said that after the pneumonia cleared from my lungs they would operate to reconnect my skull to the top of my spine. They didn’t know if the operation would be successful, or even if I could survive it. They had a plan, but it was extremely risky and they needed my consent. Dana had insisted (over the objections of some of my family) that the doctors discuss everything with me and that nothing be done without my permission.
I answered somewhat vaguely, “Okay, whatever you have to do.” Ever since childhood I’d been used to solving my problems. Whatever scrape I would get myself into, I was always sure of a way out. So at first I thought this was just another temporary problem. I needed surgery, but I’d be up and around before long. It was only after the doctors left that I began to absorb what they had told me: This is a paralyzing injury.
Dana came into the room. We made eye contact. I mouthed my first lucid words to her: “Maybe we should let me go.” She said, “I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what.” Then she added the words that saved my life: “You’re still you. And I love you.”
If she had looked away or paused or even hesitated slightly, or if I had felt there was a sense of her being noble, or fulfilling some obligation to me, I don’t know if I could have pulled through. Because it had dawned on me that I had ruined my life and everybody else’s. But what Dana said made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and commitment. I was even able to make a little joke. I mouthed, “This is way beyond the marriage vows—in sickness and in health.” And she said, “I know.” I knew then that she was going to be with me forever.
“The only love worthy of a name is unconditional.”