Jim and I soon became inseparable. We had a lot of fun, sometimes joking about our injuries but also testing each other out in the corridors with a pastime that became famous among the younger patients: wheelchair racing.
Most people wouldn’t consider wheelchair racing a dangerous sport, but it was. We were brutal in our pursuit of winning, and looked forward to the thrill of competition, especially as we weren’t supposed to be doing it in the first place. Some staff frowned on our races and would shut them down, but others turned a blind eye and gave us the chance to feel like regular people again. We took so much joy from these apparently insignificant moments – they represented an escape from the reality of our situation.
I’m not sure exactly when we realised that we wanted more than a friendship. Because of where and how we met, whenever other patients or staff saw us together, they always wore a sly smile. Looking back, it’s easy to see why it made them happy: how often do people find love in a rehab centre?
We took so much joy from these apparently insignificant moments – they represented an escape from the reality of our situation.
From the very beginning, our relationship surprised me. Firstly, I never expected to find romance while trying to overcome life-altering injuries. But I was also surprised by the way we were able to turn these life-changing experiences into something so deep and special.
Jim had a way of making everyone feel welcome. It didn’t matter if you were a cleaner or a brain surgeon, everyone was greeted with a warm smile and a friendly gesture. It was his beautiful and gentle soul and the deep, loving concern he had for everyone around him that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Anyone he spoke to was always made to feel like the most special person in the world.
But if I had to pick just one thing about Jim that I loved the most, it was his humility. Humility, I had come to understand, was not the absence of confidence. It was the desire to recognise the contribution of others, whichever way it comes to us.
Jim’s humility didn’t make him feel like a lesser person. Acknowledging the support of others actually lifted him higher and gave him a greater sense of purpose. It was there in the way he always made another patient feel like the most important person in the room, and in how, when faced with a choice between being right and being kind, he always chose kindness, no matter what he had to give up to do so.
So when he passed away suddenly in the rehab centre, I hit rock bottom. It took a while, but eventually rock bottom became a foundation on which I could start to build the rest of my life. And that realisation gave me hope.
I knew in my gut that the place for me to rebuild was on the Gold Coast, where Jim and I had planned to start our life together. That’s where I sat on the lounge and began to compile a list in my mind of all the people who had shown up for me in my life – especially during the past year, when I’d been incapable of doing the same in return.
Wendy, Jim’s mum, was high up the list, but there were also family and friends, doctors and physios. Almost without thinking, I picked up a pen and starting writing down their names. Before I knew it, there were 30 on a piece of paper.
I knew that each of those 30 people had my back – they had got me through some of the most challenging experiences life could throw at anyone. I imagined them in a room together and felt a wave of gratitude flow through me. Thirty people was a lot, and this list was just off the top of my head. I felt like I was being given the answer to a quiz question that had been puzzling me, only for it to turn out that I’d known the answer all along.
I opened my phone and, again without giving it too much thought, started calling everyone on the list to thank them. A lot of tears were shared, and a lot of laughs. I put the bulk of my long-term emotional recovery down to the three hours I spent calling those people.
Gratitude is powerful. And the best thing about it is that you don’t have to wait for adversity to strike before you embrace it. Since that day, back in late 2013, I haven’t stopped embracing it. It’s one of the most powerful ingredients for human resilience.
When I was in the depths of some of my struggles, I often looked to others for inspiration, all the while knowing that, deep down, I had the resources I needed to get through every challenge. I had the power to choose a better life – for myself and for all the people who had believed in me, including Jim.
The same can be said for how we choose to see our world. We can choose to see the world that mainstream media and social media often depicts, which at times seems the very opposite of kind. Or we can actively choose to tip the balance by responding with kindness.
Edited extract from Kindness (Allen & Unwin) by Kath Koschel, out January 31.
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