Story by Laura and Brayden Faganello
Brayden was serving a church mission in South Africa when his cousins told me to write him a letter. I was new to Victoria, we hadn’t met yet. They thought we would be cute together, but I wasn’t interested at the time. I was headed to Brussels for the summer where my parents were stationed, and then off to Spain for a study abroad program and couldn’t think about adding anything else to my plate. Eventually (and luckily!) I thought “why not”, and decided to write one letter to him. I wrote the return address as my address in Victoria, and promptly moved to Brussels.
On June 3, 2015 I got a message from my brother who had picked up my mail. I had received the letter from Brayden on my birthday! It was the funniest thing I had ever read. So, I wrote a new letter to him, but this time with my accurate return address. We wrote letters over the course of 8 months. No facetime or phone calls, only letters and an email once a week. My happiest days were the ones a letter from South Africa appeared in my mailbox.
We both moved back to Victoria, Canada within a month of each other and were inseparable. We started dating in January, were head over heels for each other by February, and he proposed at the end of April. We were married July 15, 2016 on a warm summer day.
I had just finished my last university exam for the semester when a family friend asked me if I would be available for the day to help her company set up for an event. When I arrived the scene was already full of chaos. They were behind on setting up the huge event tent, and hadn’t yet put the walls up that would provide a barrier from the intense wind. Dozens of glasses fell and shattered, the balloons were all popping, and the coordinators were rushing to finish on time. One detail I remember so clearly was watching 3 ladies struggling to put a huge support pole into place. They hadn’t set it down on flat ground, but because the coordinator was helping them I assumed it was on purpose. I desperately wish I could go back and say something about that, to show them how unsteady it would be in the wind.
I was tasked with decorating a table, and as I was hunched over smoothing out the wrinkles I heard a gasp from the ladies facing me. I didn’t have time to react before I both heard and felt a loud thump, a sound I have re-lived over and over in my nightmares. I can still remember how it felt. My first thought was “well…that isn’t good.” I had no idea then how monumental that moment would be in my life. As I held my head in my hands, I looked around and saw that the huge pole had been pushed in the wind and had come down on my head.
My memory is very fuzzy after the hit. I remember little things, like telling myself over and over not to cry. I wanted my parents to come pick me up, not realizing they had moved to Brussels 3 years earlier. The world was spinning, at times it went black. The next few weeks were spent in a complete fog.
I remember waking up one day, and seeing Brayden. A rush of panic took over my body, I couldn’t say a single word. “Who are you?!” I wanted to scream. “Good morning, Laura!” He smiled at me. I was confused by how calmly this stranger looked over at me, and then went back to reading. My head was pounding, and I had to stumble to the bathroom to throw up. I saw my belongings mingled with his, our wedding album laying on the coffee table. I felt like I was stuck in a hazy nightmare I couldn’t escape. This wasn’t the first morning I woke up after the accident (I can’t even remember it!), this was just a normal daily occurrence for us. Nearly every morning I woke up gasping in fear. Sometimes I screamed, sometimes I cried, and sometimes I was lucky enough to remember I wasn’t in danger.
Over the course of the next two years I spent every waking moment in tear-jerking, white-knuckled pain. In addition to the TBI, the pole had caused damage to my spine which led to constant back spasms and never-ending tension headaches. Any noise, light, or movement caused me to cry out in pain. I remember one night the pain was so intense I was terrified I might die. Brayden rushed me to the ER where we waited for hours before the doctor shined a light in my eyes and said “it’s just a concussion, go home and rest.” Another doctor told me “it’s just a concussion, get back to work and you’ll feel better!” Every doctor seemed to say something different, but they all used the same dismissing tone. No one seemed to recognize the seemingly inexplicable pain I was facing every minute of every day, or the awful memory loss.
I had to leave university right before my final year and face the realization that I may never become a teacher. I lost my ability to read, write, and speak coherently. The company responsible didn’t step up and I was too sick to push for compensation, so I went without much needed treatment due to finances. At one point Brayden reached out to them, but only received a “Oh no, hope she feels better soon” type of text. I felt hopeless, misunderstood, and couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The Memory Loss
In some ways the worst part of the accident was forgetting Brayden. At the start, I had completely lost my memory of him. Every morning my brain would reset to thinking I was 17, still living in my parents’ home in Brussels. I would wake up screaming as I had no idea who was in my bed. Brayden would wrap me up in a hug to comfort me, which only made it worse. “Laura, it’s me!” He would say over and over. “Who is ‘me’”, I always wondered. I cried almost every day for 2 years wishing I could move back home with my parents, to the place and people I knew. “I want to wake up in a room I recognize, wear clothes I remember buying, live with people I know…I can’t keep living in this awful confusion!” I wailed at Brayden as he wondered if he should try to comfort me or just leave me be. He still wasn’t used to me jumping in fear every time he tried to wrap his arms around me.
As the initial pain subsided, memories of him slowly started coming back. Unfortunately the emotional connection to those memories was gone. I felt like I had just woken up to the marriage, and felt no attachment to it. I would stare at my wedding rings with anxiety, resenting them as they represented something vital I couldn’t fully remember. I grew resentful, and felt trapped. I knew the right thing to do was to stay with him, but the thought of that pained me. I couldn’t depend on the days when memories of him were accessible, and ignore the pain of the days full of fog. I don’t think Brayden has ever expressed just how difficult this has been for him. He always wants to protect me from hurting more than I am, so he always finds a way to spin the situation to focus on the positives. Even throughout our tearful discussions over how hard it was for me to be married to someone I didn’t truly know, he always reassured me. “You may not remember me, but I remember you. I love you know matter what, and nothing could make me give up on you” he reminded me often. I am so comforted by how unconditional his love is for me.
We couldn’t survive long on one income. I couldn’t work a normal job, but desperately wanted to contribute. Before the accident Brayden and I dreamed of having a photography/videography business. So, that became my passion project. I would wake up, grab my laptop, and learn about becoming a wedding photographer. At first, I could only focus for 15 minute increments before I needed a 3 hour break. Those measly 15 minutes of focusing had the power to make me so ill I would cry for hours. Once the tears were done, I grabbed my laptop again. I pushed myself until I could work longer with less breaks. At first it was the perfect job as I only had to work out of home on wedding days and could edit from my bed, but then I fell in love with the idea that I was capturing the most important memories of my clients lives. I treat every wedding I shoot with such love and respect because I would give anything to have a clear memory of mine. I’m so proud of the beautiful business I worked so hard to create despite the trials I was facing, and I treasure my role in recording these special memories for others.
Recovery & Dating
I don’t give up on many things very easily. Around the two year mark after the accident, I shot out of bed. The fog had begun to lift, and I was determined to get on with life despite the pain. I spontaneously enrolled in two university classes, and forced myself to relearn to read and write in the process. When Brayden asked me how my first test went, I told him: “I studied 10 hours for this test, but when I woke up I had an awful headache which took away my ability to read any of the questions. All of that work, and I couldn’t read a single question! The words were spinning on the page. Finally I just answered as best I could, and proceeded to throw up the rest of the day.” Taking those classes was brutal and I cried so many tears of frustration, but I passed them. Ever paper I handed in, every test I finished was a personal victory.
With my newfound energy, I approached my husband. “Brayden, I want to date.” He was sitting at the computer editing videos for our business. “Um, okay?” He replied. “I’m serious, Brayden. I want us to fall in love again. You know me, but I don’t know you. I want to know you.” It took Brayden several months to understand what I needed from him. He knew that he remembered and loved me, so he didn’t understand why I needed to fall back in love with him. Eventually I took off the rings that brought me so much pain and anxiety, and took charge of what I needed. “Will you go mini golfing with me?” I asked. We went, and by the third hole we were out of breath from laughing so hard. We started going out to dinner, going on long walks and drives, and binged way too many episodes of the Office and Parks and Rec. I would ask him the most random questions I could think of to learn about him, and he would patiently listen when I told him the same stories over and over. He read me my favourite books before bed, and left me sweet notes every morning before he left for work.
One day, I realized that I had started missing him every moment we weren’t together. I was giggling at all his jokes, and bragging about how amazing he is to whoever would listen. I started to love him again. The process took awhile, but it was so incredibly worth it. Brayden knew I really mourned the fact that I had such a fuzzy memory of our engagement and wedding, and felt a lot of pain surrounding that. He wanted to give me something I could remember, something we could both look back on together.
After a summer of dating, Brayden finally re-proposed to me. He took me to a beautiful overlook of the city, and handed me an envelope labeled ‘1’. He had decorated it to match the original letters we sent to each other, the letters I have treasured deeply as the tangible records of the start of our relationship. The first letter was his perspective of falling in love with me, which made me cry and feel so loved. Then, he took me to the exact spot he originally proposed. The second letter talked about the many hard things we have faced, and how happy he is we fought through them together. After that, he took me to where we had our first date to read the third letter about the future we have in store for us. He got down on one knee to propose, and I could hardly see him through my tears. It was the most perfect, beautiful, amazing moment of my life.
We have learned that love is a choice, and we are choosing to love each other. He has supported me through my highs and lows, and has shown me the meaning of unconditional love. We have turned the hardest trial of our life into the most beautiful blessing: the opportunity to fall in love with each other a second time.
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