Monday, March 7, 2011


"And here's the thing: Regardless of how miraculous a recovery may be, no one is the exact same person afterward. While I'm thrilled when people say, 'You'd never know Bob had been injured,' he can tell you how he's changed and what he does to compensate... " (from Parade Magazine, in Lee Woodruff's story about her reporter/husband Bob's brain injury).

I know about some of those kind of changes. In 1995, my own brain injury came in the form of a massive cerebral hemmorage that even involved my brain stem. As the big yellow Life Flight helicopter carried me away for special help, my husband was rushing to the same destination on the roads below; he had been told at the local emergency room as I left that, if I lived, I would likely be a shell.

I am not a shell now and I wasn't a shell then. I never lost awareness of the world around me, though I could not "download" my thoughts and responses... I could see the depth of worry on my husband's face as I was carried off... From the air, I worried too, about his safety on the roads below... And I remember how frustrating it was for me, a lover of the sky, to be trying to tell the Life Flight crew that I wanted to sit up and see the blue September skies around us as we flew. I realized the words I was trying to say were not getting through to their ears.

As Lee Woodruff wrote about her husband Bob's brain injury and recovery, she talked of many things that had changed for her husband and herself; they changed for Bob and me as well. But they didn't change the love between us.

If I were to write a book about the ways I coped and compensated, I would title it, "An Affair of the Brain and the Heart". It would be a story of the steadfast love and support of my husband and friends. Mine wouldn't be a mournful memoir at all; it would be a funny book. And it would be much longer and more in-depth than what I can include in this blog.

A lack of short-term memory---something that had always for me been as sharp as my long-term memory---became a daily enemy I worked against intensely. In the memoir, my husband would be a central character. I would describe his gentle joking that I had become a "cheap date." He could rent a movie and show it to me several times; until the third showing, I would think I was seeing a new movie!

I would write, as well, about the day I proudly reclaimed my longtime checkbook and bill-paying duties. I wrote the checks and figured the figures with great effort and care; it seemed to take all day; actually I believe it DID take all day. My husband checked things carefully and told me I was "right on!"

Moments after I sent out the checks and made the deposits, I realized with horror that I'd put the mail in the night deposit and the cash envelope in the public mailbox on the square! With great embarrassment, I called the bank and post office. The bank was the easiest; the local post office was dicier. The postal people ran out and retrieved the cash from the mail box in the nick of time as the regional mail pick-up was opening the box! This would not be my last humiliation in that early period of my recovery.

I had always loved the Biblical quote, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord." Now my injured brain did not enjoy any noise at all, joyful or otherwise, and I seemed to have lost the ability to discern where a sound was coming from. That seemed to make me an unwilling captive of noise; it was all around me and I existed WITHIN it. That contributed to something else... brain fatigue!

A balm throughout this was my great good fortune to be recovering in a new home in a beautiful setting; we had built it ourselves because we loved the land upon which we had set it, and the land was now a consolation that brought me peace and patience and its own sort of joy as I recovered. Our eldest son kept our family business going so my husband could be with me, night and day. And he was my motivation.

Description of my self-created coping mechanisms would include the trail of paper plates I left for myself each day, to find in the morning---my strategy to train myself, plate by plate, to follow the things I needed to do to get through the day. I wrote on the plates and my husband suspended them from strings at our doorways. As I made mistakes, my husband wisely and lovingly let me make them. I cherished and shared his humor through it all. It kept my own sense of humor alive.

Reading had always been my joy, but it took a bit of time to teach myself to read again. I arrived home on our 35th anniversary, and Bob set before me the neatly stacked news magazines that had arrived in my mail. To my surprise, I couldn't read them! The words looked like Greek, though I knew they weren't. I spent days and nights thumbing page by page, TRYING to read. I refused to give up, and soon my word recognition began to return. Trouble was, I read my magazines BACKWARD for a time. If I'd been Chinese, with their backward writing, that would have been fine.

I was still doing a newspaper column (and still am). Writing has always been a part of my spirit; it's a great part of who I am. I was able to keep my column going, but only because I had years of written histories and essays and information tucked away on my computer. These are what I sent to the newspaper at first... though someone had to teach me again to turn on the computer and retrieve them!

After six months I was able to drive, but not alone. My spatial senses had not fully returned, and that was adventurous! By summer I was able to drive alone, and I was as excited about that as I had been when I passed my driver's test as a teenager.

For a time, my sense of direction was out of kilter; it was amazingly easy to get lost in places I had known since I was a child. At first I drove my husband's work truck because it was equipped with a built-in phone. I would call and say, "I see a sign that says such and such; where am I?" And he would tell me. I re-learned my old neighborhoods and routes by accidentally wandering off the beaten path so often.

Early on I told my doctor firmly I didn't have amnesia, and all she said was "hmmm." A week later I told her I did have amnesia. Apparently I hadn't realized it because I had forgotten a lot of what I was supposed to remember! I also had a problem recognizing familiar faces, particulary in a crowd, and if anyone who's reading this has ever felt snubbed... well, it wasn't intentional.

I laugh to recall the day a neurologist used flash cards with photos of items, to test my progress in language recovery. In identifying the photos of the items on those cards, I went through many associated words---Frankie Vadnal... squeeze box... music... (etc)---and then on the tenth word or so, I victoriously announced with great elation: "ACCORDIAN! IT'S AN ACCORDIAN!" I don't know whose grin was broader; mine or his!

For the short-term memory problems that interfered with language re-development, I discovered the computer I had accepted so grudgingly would now become my friend. On the screen in front of me, it would hold each word, each sentence, each paragraph my mind would have lost as I began to write again. It even helped with reading recovery.

Writing will never be as innately swift and easy as it had been all my life, but it did return; it just took me longer, and still does. And what did it matter; I was never paid by the hour! Within a few years, when two of my columns were submitted (unbeknownst to me) to the annual Cleveland Press Club competition, BOTH columns won awards (first and second place) in this all-Ohio event with national judging panels. No one will know how shocked I was when I received the calls from the Press Club, informing me.

I still miss such things as my formerly photographic memory, which never did return. Until I lost it, I thought ALL people had photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge. It would have been oh-so-humbling if all people did have that, and it was only me who didn't. As it was, I would find my self-effacing self-imposed humiliation often enough.

All these years later, life is normal now; at least as far as anyone can see. But then again, I like to joke that at 70 I can make a slip of the tongue or search very hard for a word or phrase or train of thought... and well, it's just a senior moment; who DOESN'T have them?

Some things are better than ever. One of these being a certain go-with-the-flow mellowness; an appreciation and enjoyment of each day and each season; an ability to appreciate the highs and ignore the lows, to savor the good and shrug off the bad; and not to worry unduly about things I can't change.

If some would say I'm Pollyanna, let it be so. All these extra years have been a gift. What a waste it would have been to complain about the things I've lost and not to see the things I've gained.

And now I end this shallow reminiscence of my recovery with a quote of my own:

"Learning has always been my pleasure; it has always been my joy;
I wish I could unlearn and start again."

Those were the last lines of a poem I found in my casual journals.
When I noticed the date on that poem, I laughed.
I had written the words just two weeks before what my doctors referred to as "the big bleed."

(Rose About Town needs to tell you she has never before written publicly about any part of her own experience with brain injury; and may never do so again. She was inspired by Lee Woodruff's column this weekend and by her ongoing prayers for the recovery of Conresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and her own brain injury)