Dr. Chuck Sandstrom was a seasoned organizational leader and motivational speaker when in 2009 he was brutally assaulted by a stranger in Akron Ohio. In spite of his life-altering Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and with the support of his wife Auburn, Chuck has come to unconditionally forgive the man who assaulted him and has actively engaged in assisting his young family.
In June 2009, while I was having an unregistered car towed from a rental property I owned in Akron, I was confronted by the owner of the car, a stranger who turned out to have a history of alcoholism, violence and incarceration. He was drunk and angry.
He punched me in the face. My head hit a brick wall a few inches behind me at the speed of a high speed car wreck. My nose was broken, my two front teeth were knocked out. I almost suffocated on my own blood and I was in a coma for around 6 weeks.
By the time I emerged from my coma, my family had been through early stages of rage, fear and vengeance, but they knew me enough to know that, if I survived and “woke up”, I would strive to forgive. Auburn vacillated between wanting to kill my assailant Michael Ayers with her own two hands to compassion for his family. She had already had multiple uneasy contacts with them, and especially his partner, Erica.
Because of the attack I lost what many would call “everything”: job, new home, property, and social standing. My free-spirited wife became a 24-hour a day care giver. Recovery has been a slow and difficult journey. Our hearts were broken wide open. We became outsiders to the mainstream life we had known.
When I finally was able to speak again, I began to form a relationship with Michael’s family and my profound disability had the effect of softening everyone’s hard edges. They too had had their lives changed overnight. Michael had gone into hiding the night of the assault and was nearly drinking himself to death. He was hiding from U.S. Marshalls who were prepared to shoot him upon arrest.
In Auburn’s meetings with Erica we learned he was taking huge risks to see his children and to try to provide for them. Family members were being shunned because of all the press coverage about what Michael had done. His son, seven-year old Michael Junior, was acting up and flunking the third grade. His four-year old daughter Lyric was diagnosed with a serious illness. Both children cried for their father night after night.
When Michael was finally arrested, we realized that seeing him get sentenced, though necessary, would not bring healing. What had helped us the most had been reaching out to his family. It was like we were the first ones standing up after an earthquake and we wanted to help these other hurting people to stand up too. It helped us recover from our own pain.
There was a moment in the court room pretrial when Michael turned and looked my way. Our eyes met. All either of us saw in the other’s eyes at that moment was compassion. As a result Auburn and I made a decision to “join the defense.” Through phone calls and meetings in hallways we spoke with the prosecutor and the defense attorney and made it known that, since punishment for Michael provided no “relief” to us, our wish was for him to have access to treatment, work, and school and to get out sooner rather than later in order to return to his children. We succeeded in arguing for a significantly reduced sentence.
Later, when Michael learned that I had forgiven him, he told Erica he had never had such a strange feeling. He said he felt love like he’d never felt it before.
In early 2011, we got involved helping little Michael Jr., the son who had been flunking the third grade. He knows me as “Dr. Chuck.” The first time we took him out he said, “You’re the man who is helping my dad, aren’t you. Can you please tell me why my dad is in prison?” He’d heard it was for spitting on someone and this was really bugging him. His family hadn’t told him exactly why his father was in prison, and so he’d cobbled together rumors and misinformation and couldn’t work it out in his mind. I felt this was unfair to us and to Michael Jr. and so, at our request, Michael Sr. explained to his son that he went to prison for hurting someone but didn’t let him know that the person was me.
In these more recent years, we all continue to have challenges related to rebuilding our families’ stability. There will always be an understanding and a love between both our families but such relationships are by their very nature fraught with expectations and disappointment.
To borrow from Harold Kushner, forgiveness is first and foremost a way of seeing. It cannot change the facts about the world we live in but it can change the way we see those facts. So most people see my injury as a tragedy but for my wife and me it’s created an opportunity to love more deeply. Strange as it sounds I see my brain injury as a great gift. People think we’re special to have forgiven this man but trust me my wife and I are not abnormally good people. What is true however is that the path of forgiveness can take ordinary people on an extraordinary journey.