Writer Esther Quatfass had an idyllic life. Together with her husband, she emigrated to Swedish Lapland, where the couple ran a tourist sled dog company that organized multi-day trips. Esther feels at home in the rugged Lapland countryside, but a fateful accident in which her husband broke his knees, thighs, a foot, an elbow and his jaw changed everything. She describes what happened to her and how they shape their lives now.
Suddenly he was at my bedside.
I didn’t grow up with religion, but faith does have a place in my family. It is a concept that can mean many different things. It seems to interface with all aspects of life. When is something real and when does it only exist in the mind? Steven wasn’t really there by my bed, but he was. Maybe it was just a wish, but I felt his presence. The sense was real and primal.
I got a call from the hospital. It was serious. I had to come right away. From our house on the lake in Swedish Lapland I hurried to the neighbors, five hundred meters up a snowy hill. After that it was another hundred kilometers to the emergency room.
The big bang
Driving there I tried to imagine how everything must have happened before the big blow. The sudden appearance of headlamps in heavy snow. A brief, penetrating realization that there is no escaping it. What do you feel or think during the split second when you know it’s going to happen? Is there still room for fear or anger? Do you make an instinctive attempt to avoid the blow, or is there just a crippling void?
Two cars that collide head-on: I can’t imagine it. The noise. The shock that thunders through your body, breaks your bones, rips your guts, knocks your teeth out. The creak and grind of metal in ice-cold outdoor air.
He was ventilated, kept asleep, given high doses of pain medication and blood and who knows what else. A tangle of tubes entered his body in three places. He had broken his thighs, knees, an elbow, a foot and his jaw, and had lost most of his bowels. He had drains and a catheter. The contents of his stomach were collected in a hose that went through his nose then out into a bag. After a few operations his legs were fixed in metal scaffolds and there was a double stoma, severing the bowel.
It is not true that your life is turned upside down after something so drastic. It is even worse: your life is shattered. The fragments and splinters fly in all directions and parts of them shoot so far that they remain out of reach forever.
Sell the dogs
Because Steven was in a coma, I had to make all the decisions for him and his thirty-five sled dogs. I wanted to keep the kennel running for him, give him a chance to come back, but he would need my help just to stay alive for months if not years. I had to organize our life to make that feasible for me. While he was still asleep, I sold the first dogs. He did not get to say goodbye.
After four days we made contact for the first time. He recognized me, wanted to be touched by me and soon raised his hand and made letters in the air. “How’s the other one doing?” was one of the first things he wanted to know, after I had reassured him his dogs were well taken care of.
We shared our tears and frustrations, but there was no anger, or depression. More than anything, we both wanted to get back to our life as it had been, our house in the woods by the lake, living as deeply in nature as possible.
Two months later I was turning our home into a hospital, with an adjustable bed in the living room, three wheelchairs, two rollators, pots, urinals and an IV system. Our house became a warehouse for medicine and Steven came home.
I did everything myself. The days were full, and at night I had to get up repeatedly to help Steven use the pot, or to resolve an error in his IV. I went through just about all the unhealthy consequences of sleep deprivation: Hair loss, a bad concentration, slow reactions, irritability, skin aging, and after a short period of weight loss, hormone driven weight gain.
Step by step forward
As if all of this were not enough, a serious complication arose. Excess bone growing in the broken joints, prevented Steven’s elbow and knees from bending. They were stuck. The doctors did not know what to do. Not knowing — it came at us from all sides. Although people know a lot, they don’t know everything.
There is plenty of false safety around, people who think they know, people who pretend to know, whole governments and institutions with inviting images of knowledge, you name it, but since the accident we have already encountered so much ignorance that life seems to have become one big medical experiment.
I wonder if we can afford to push the limits of what is possible, when it is accompanied by suffering and destruction? Does all of this just confirm that man is not so supreme, that the world is not so malleable as we are led to expect? And there are limits to how we can remake creation, or undo destruction? Do we have to face the fact that we as humans cannot achieve everything in this world? These are questions which can be looked at from a lot of different philosophical perspectives.
In any case, Steven made rapid progress going quickly from twenty mouse steps with an elevator rollator to a few hundred meters with an ordinary walker. Then suddenly he left the walker behind. His knees and left elbow remained inflexible, but slowly and with full concentration, he managed to keep moving. The special equipment began to disappear, first the rollator, a wheelchair, then the hospital bed and the ramp into the house.
He was moving forward. But he wanted more. To avoid a heartbreaking comparison with what he was physically before the accident, we had to make a break in time. The accident became a starting point and an ending point simultaneously, the moment from which we start counting again. There will always be before and after ‘the accident’. A Steven from before and a Steven from after. Adventures before and adventures after.
When we had reached calmer waters after a turbulent six months, we inquired into what had happened to the other driver. Forgiveness and resentment are each other’s continuation, like love and hate. When I focus on what Steven has gone through and how he has been crippled for the rest of his life, when I focus on everything that we have lost and what we are no longer able to do, I find myself staring into the eyes of a dark creature that is out to crush my soul. It wants to make me feel how much it hurts, how much sorrow there is. It wants me to be angry, hateful, and if I gave it room, it would drive me to seek revenge.
But I have not allowed that creature to come close, though people told me it was my right to be angry, that I had the right to wish harm on the other driver, and that it was human to feel this way. But we were not angry. And we did not wish anyone harm. We were happy when we heard that the other driver was not seriously injured.
She was brave. She came to visit us. She said she’d seen everything as it happened, seen the lights, two bright rays in a dark, icy world. She had come out of a corner, following the curve down a gentle slope. A young woman, alone. She drove at the permissible maximum speed of ninety kilometers per hour. Her car was set on cruise control, she said. After the blow, both cars slipped to her side of the road, then ricocheted back to Steven’s side and then to her side again. They were two cars intimately entwined, like boxers in a ring, who finally let go of each other.
We keep the dogs
We can no longer carry out multi-day sled dog tours, but we have kept ten dogs and Steven has been on his sled with them a few times. Because of the IV he needs every day to stay alive, we have to stick to a regular routine. Every day he needs a liter of fluid and every night a liter of intravenous food. But while waiting for further surgery on his joints, we are doing things again. Everything goes slower and is more difficult than before, but we make small walks with the dogs and sometimes go on a trip to the rapids nearby. We try to get the most out of ourselves, enjoying each other and our possibilities.
There is no evidence to explain the accident. There is only conjecture. But what does it matter? Any car with a driver in it is a potential killing machine. It can happen at any time. There was no evil intent here. It was an unfortunate combination of events. Even if suspicions of negligence were proven, it would change nothing. We can’t get back what we lost. That would only be possible if we should return to that particular moment in time and adjust the course of that day. If I had made Steven leave home an instant later, if we’d taken more time to say good bye to each other, if I’d taken time to make him feel loved, if I’d known our lives were about to change drastically, if I’d known we were coming this close to it being the last time…
When Steven and the woman hugged each other, I saw that strangers can have a strong emotional connection. In a certain way, they will always remain connected.