The only thing I knew was that it was bright and I could hear the sounds of clattering wheels rolling over a tiled floor and people talking. Johnnie had his arm around me, holding me up while I walked. The usual feeling of realizing you’re dreaming or arriving back into reality after a black out; you’re just in the middle of some situation or other with no knowledge of, or interest in, what happened before this exact moment but this wasn’t exactly that so I said to him “what’s happening” and immediately his eyes got soft and his face looked like he was watching his dog run out in front of a car.
“You had an aneurysm, it bled…you had brain surgery.”
“When can we go home? We have that camping trip on Monday.”
“It’s Thursday morning. You were sleeping for three days and half conscious for another week.”
I considered this information.
“So if it’s been 10 days I should have had time to get better, can we go home now?”
“Soon baby. Look, this is serious. You had a hemorrhage in your brain. Fifty percent of people die from that.”
Apparently I responded to this bit of information by screaming in fear and diving back into my bed. Since Johnnie had been walking me to the bathroom, the other consequences were neither pleasant nor dignified.
The kind of brain injury I sustained has some interesting consequences. If you are part of the half of the population that does not die there’s still a decent chance you’ll emerge severely to moderately brain damaged. The neurologist told me I was one of the only 30 percent who emerged relatively unscathed, emphasis on the “relatively.”
I didn’t feel lucky. There was some kind of dimness now, like someone had turned off the main light somewhere and I was walking around in a solemn, amber shadowed fog. I suspected that the world had ended and we were all just waiting to disappear. It was a kind of reverse narcissism; brains are endlessly creative and agile in telling stories to explain away panic; it wasn’t the end of me, it said, it was the end of the world.
Perhaps you are someone who thinks there is a “mind” or a “soul” separate from the body and that we don’t “have” brains, we are brains; we are sitting in the control capsule of our bodies, like a submarine’s captain. Well, at this point in the narrative I was losing touch with the ship. The control center was not communicating well. In other words, I was raving. The staff had told Johnnie to expect it.
“She will say things,” they told him.
“Don’t think they represent the real her and don’t tell her what she said afterward.”
Back home a month later I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Tell me,” I demanded.
I was thinking of people who only said racist or generally hateful things when drunk. Dis-inhibition is an after effect of serious neuro-injury but that doesn’t make it excusable. In vino veritas, I thought, if I said it, some vile, carefully unexamined part of me meant it.
No, was the answer, no, no, nothing like that.
“Tell me,” I persisted.
“I can’t think about it now. I’ll walk the dogs, you listen to the tape I made of you speaking while you were half conscious.”
So, I don’t know who that surrealist- schlock, new age nonsense spinning person was, but it wasn’t me…except that it was me, and worse, although I didn’t remember what I’d said, I remembered what I was trying to say.
I was trying to tell Johnnie a couple of very important things:
1) I might not get better. I might just get, and this is how I put it, “sicker and sicker, sadder and sadder” (he said, “no, better and better, happier and happier” and I thought this beside the point). I wanted him to be desensitized, prepared, like a dog you play noise for, to lessen its fear of thunder…
2) I felt what he felt, the sorrow and grief at not being able to protect the ones you love, especially if you are a man, and protection is how you express that love. It is a betrayal on the part of the universe. At the same time, hey, it’s just the universe. It’s just what happens and it’s the way it all works, it’s something to be accepted, not a sign of your weakness or failure, but somehow this thought came out of my mouth as “Sadness and Joy are the exact same thing.” If I could time travel I’d go back there and slap me. The same thing. What?
The tape played and I went on in this vein, telling him some thing or force called “they” take everything you value, everything you love. They break the promise that your children will never feel sick, get old, or — and here I sounded particularly sure of myself — know how time does its work.
In my mind what I was saying was reasonable and even poetically effective. It’s just how life is, Johnnie, there are huge and soaring things at work in the universe. Don’t worry, none of this is your fault and if you take the long view, we are all part of the universe, so hey…it’s all going to be ok…
No, he did not seem to find this cosmic perspective comforting, and I don’t blame him. My brain was working fine, it seemed. It was my words that were ridiculous.
Six weeks later it still scrapes something inside my rib cage whenever I think of the look on Johnnie’s face — which would have been on mine too if I hadn’t been so full of denial and dementia. He’s my life’s gift, but I was focusing on him to avoid something I’m afraid of.
That would be death, of course. Not that I’m not also afraid of that look on the faces of the people who love me. Over the years I’ve seen it too much; the blank look of sorrowful fear, only drained and replaced by a look of irritation; after the sorrow it’s always the anger.
Johnnie came to see me almost every day, spending hours doing my rehab exercises with me, playing word games to stretch my verbal reasoning muscles; the staff loved him and told him he was getting me better, sooner, by just being there. I just wanted to get out of there, however, and get to some kind of “group.” I was a bit concerned about all the extremely high grade opiates they were delivering to me through the IV drip…they titrated me down, though, and I was so brain damaged, I’d even forgotten my crippling compulsions.
So what was this lack of gratitude for being alive? I had “dodged a bullet” they said. I was “doing amazingly well.”
The truth is, all that raving about the universe betraying its pact with you (like it ever had one) was not for Johnnie but for me.
I was fighting off horror in all my waking hours, because, as Samuel Beckett wrote, we are “born astride a grave. The light glimmers for an instant and is gone.”
I was going to die. And from the “long term perspective” I was going to die soon.
What’s 20, 30 years to the universe?
I would cease to exist. Forever. The thought wouldn’t leave me. I vacillated between unbearable fear and impotent rage. I was not the same person. I was my brain and my brain had been irrevocably bruised.
As it turned out, it took me all of three weeks to forget all about death and start thinking about coral reefs and avante garde Japanese horror comedies, which is what I usually think about. We are resilient like that.
A philosopher once decided that life was short, without any meaning, a mere incidental phenomenon in an empty, non-sentient (i.e. dead) universe. Then, he wrote, “I went home and fried up an excellent chop on which I dined heartily.”
We all do that eventually, go home and eat a steak. After all, Samuel Beckett also wrote these words: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” which we do, one day, one hour, one moment at a time.