Twenty years ago today, my friend Tamara Puffer and her husband Michael were driving home from an after-dinner outing for frozen yogurt. When another car slammed into theirs, their lives were profoundly and permanently altered. Tamara spent two weeks in an induced coma, followed by months of rehabilitation, relearning how to walk and speak, read and dress and eat.
Tamara had recently left her career as a professional violinist and was serving her first church as an ordained Presbyterian pastor. Her theology was deeply shaped by the homeless people she worked with as a volunteer at the Open Door Community in Atlanta. She embraced the Gospel as good news for people on the margins. After her accident, she reflected, “In one life-shattering moment I went from feeling like someone in control—with a clear career path, the privilege of choice, and a measure of power—to being an invisible person on the sidelines, merely trying to cope with each challenge as it came and get through each hour as it unfolded. I wasn’t simply feeling called to ministry among the marginalized. I was the marginalized.”
Tamara coped with double vision, severe headaches, and overwhelming fatigue. Through the long months of rehab, the closest she came to church work was painting a ceramic replica of Noah’s Ark. Though it was a hard realization, over time she came to accept that she would never again have the mental focus and physical stamina to serve a congregation. Perhaps her greatest grief was her loss of the manual dexterity she needed to play her violin, which had been a source of joy and comfort since she began playing as a child.
Tamara felt for a time like her life was over. But verses 18 and 19 of the 43rd chapter of Isaiah kept playing over and over in her mind: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Tamara shared, “At the time, I felt lost in the thick of the deepest, darkest, starkest wilderness. But I trusted that a way to move forward would be revealed. Sometimes faith is like that: the mind may not believe, but somewhere deep in the heart lies hope.”
Tamara began working as a volunteer chaplain with people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She said, “I remember the moment when it occurred to me that I was regaining cognitive and physical function just as they were losing theirs. We met on common ground, going different directions but walking alongside one another for a time and connecting on a level deeper than words.”
I’ve had the privilege of working with Tamara for a year on a book she’s writing about theology and brain injury. I have been her coach and editor, and she has been my teacher. Her book is titled Forgetting the Former Things, a double-entendre drawn from the Isaiah 43 imagery on the forgetfulness that often accompanies brain injury and the need to let go of the past and embrace the new.
Tamara says that she is no longer “productive” in the way that she once was. She believes that in our fast-food, instant-communication culture—in which the most common complaints seem related to busyness and stress—persons with brain injuries can be teachers about slowing down and savoring life, about regular rest and Sabbath times. Her book, she hopes, will be a contribution toward moving the church and the broader society in the direction of “valuing relationship over productivity, embracing community instead of competition, and aiming for the common good rather than self-sufficiency.”
I’m trying to pay attention to my wise and patient teacher.