You drive nine miles on the first day, five miles on the second, and eight on the third. How many miles have you driven?”
I stare at the booklet in front of me. The words make little sense. I read them again and pick out the numbers.
“Ah, 26?” I venture.
“Try again,” says the woman sitting across the table from me. I read the words again.
“Oh, 22,” I say, blushing.
“Good,” she confirms.
I am not smarter than a fifth-grader.
But I am smart enough to earn a check mark on her evaluation sheet. She is a brain injury therapist, helping me recover from the stroke and seizures I had in August, the ones that kept me in the hospital for 20 days, 13 of them unconscious in critical care.
To the outside world, I look great. There are no visible signs of the stroke save for my wooden cane – rather distinguished at my age, I think – and I’ve lost a good deal of weight since I got sick.
“You look great!” say friends and neighbors.
I repress the urge to shout back, “I feel terrible!” My mother raised me right.
Inside I’m a muddle. I can barely decide what clothes to wear, talking and walking at the same time confuses me, and trying to fill out that ballot before the Nov. 8, election felt like digging to China – with a trowel. I want to sleep all the time, I can’t listen to music, and the entire world has an unpleasant haze over it.
Years ago, many of us had an odd aunt or uncle who sat in the corner after Thanksgiving dinner petting the cat, unable to follow the conversation. We didn’t know they were suffering lasting effects of lingering brain traumas, ones that left them invisibly and permanently injured. Our parents forced us to kiss them hello and goodbye, satisfied they had fulfilled their family duty to them.
This year, I realize, I will be that odd aunt sitting in the corner petting the cat (Hi Stripers) after dinner. My family will do better than most at involving me in the conversation because it has had practice. My mother-in-law suffered a devastating stroke 13 years ago. It’s the first time I’ve been grateful for their practice.
But I know at some point I will run out of energy in mid-sentence and gimp off to the spare bedroom.
“Is she OK?” someone will ask.
“She just needs to lie down,” my partner will say reassuringly.
But I can’t articulate that. Perhaps at a different house someone else with a brain trauma can, but I can’t. And perhaps someone else won’t realize at all that she needs to leave the conversation and stays there, speechless, until she is guided to the spare room to rest.
Every brain trauma is different, and every recovery is different. Absent any visible signs, it’s natural that friends and neighbors forget that inside I’m still a muddle. Ask me how I am and my mind will immediately go blank. Ask me instead to repeat a story, or how Thanksgiving dinner was, and I might conjure an answer.
Each person with a brain injury is unwillingly disguised from us, a mystery wrapped before our eyes, waiting to be challenged, waiting for us to find a way through the uncertainty, through the haziness.
And besides, who knows what you’ll learn? As my father-in-law was nearing death from brain cancer a few Thanksgivings ago, I got him to talk about getting to school in winter in very rural Alaska. No cars, no school buses, he said, but “skis or potatoes.”
We think he meant snowshoes.Chris Madsen, a software developer and writer who moved to Olympia six years ago from Maine, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at email@example.com.