Nearly two years ago I awoke on the floor of an ice cream shop. An old man knelt over me. He moved his index finger in front of my eyes: first up, then down, left, right, repeat. His eyes were locked on mine but didn’t seem to register my gaze as I looked up at him from the ground.
The sign of the cross? Was I…
No, couldn’t be.
Shifting my elbows beneath me to lift my back off the cold hard surface, I kept my eyes on his. After what felt like an ungodly amount of time, he spoke.
“Can you watch my finger with your eyes?”
I nodded, following his instruction.
“It’s a stroke test?” I asked, laughing when he nodded in response. He sighed in relief, his body shifting to a more relaxed pose as he realized he could stop worrying about all these moments I’d failed the test. A misunderstanding, not a stroke.
In the time that followed, I learned I’d fainted while waiting in line for a cup of coffee at the shop. The old man was a cashier, the first person to rush over after I fell backward and my head slammed against the unforgiving concrete. The fall was enough to fracture the base of my skull, part that abuts a host of key nerve endings. It’s the type of skull fracture usually only seen in race car drivers who crash on the runway, or in one photo I saw after the injury, in a little girl from the Gaza Strip after she survived a bombing.
A horrible injury, but one hidden beneath my hair and below the surface in its immediate aftermath.
“At least I didn’t spill my coffee,” I joked, trying to convince the EMTs who showed up to take me to the hospital that an ER visit was an overreaction. After a fall like that? I had a splitting headache, and what worse place to be than an ER if you already have a headache?
Eventually I agreed to go. I didn’t have a doctor, so why not take them up on their offer of a ride rather than navigate hospital bureaucracy on my own?
Good thing. The injury was life-threatening. Upon arriving at the ER, I was strapped into a brace and wedged into a corner of the overwhelmed unit for my first night in the hospital. My then-partner showed up and while I thought I was conscious, when we later compared mental notes I realized I’d blacked out for whole hours and days at a time.
As proof of how far gone I was, apparently (and I cringe even as I write this) I yelled at a nurse. I screamed that I couldn’t have a brain injury. I was starting a PhD program in the fall, I was done waitressing for good! She told me to contact any family members I had, not worry about whatever job or future I thought I might have. I was scared. I was 22.
The next few days never settled out of the blurry state they arrived in. I wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital bed for days. I was constantly under observation. Aides drew my blood every few hours, waking me up to do so. My dad flew into town, which even in my foggy condition was an unmistakably bad sign.
And the one-on-ones with the doctors, so many doctors. Those still mix into my dreams:
“You have a brain hemorrhage.”
“If you feel wetness below your ear or nose, that’s spinal fluid and you need to get to the emergency room immediately.”
“There’s potential swelling in the brain, which…well, it can be fatal.”
“If you notice your voice changing, or someone tells you that you sound different, get to the hospital. It means you may have a stroke.”
“You could lose mobility, you could lose the ability to speak.”
“Just contact your H.R. person at your work – they’ll know your company’s compensation policies for short-term disability.”
Okay that last one, that one’s funny. I worked in a coffee shop. My H.R. person? Yeah, right.
Two years out, it’s clear my skull fracture is a Serious Event. I think about it a lot. I get self-indulgent about it in a way I don’t about other more difficult challenges I’ve been through.
Traumatic brain injury is a fitting name. It’s trauma alright, and not only physical.
But while that story’s straightforward, what’s harder to explain is why I work the years of specialist visits, of follow ups and health scares over and over in my mind. Because no matter what pretense to detachment I could strike, the reality is cliché: every day I’ve lived since that injury feels miraculous. Not in a glib way either. More as a constant presence.
After all, none of the worst scenarios played out. Sure, I lost my sense of smell, those nerve endings sheared off by the edge of my skull: awkward, but no tragedy. I have dry mouth, all the time: awkward, yes, definitely not sexy, but in the scheme of things, minor. I can walk. I can talk. I went to grad school. I live independently (with roommates, but that’s because of the housing market; even the healthiest poor person is still poor).
I’m 24 now. Young, still. The red tape of doctors and hospital bills and physical problems have slowed me down, but not much. I still feel like I don’t know close to enough and maybe never will but I’ve come to suspect that’s because I surround myself with some of the sharpest people around, relentless thinkers, organizers, comrades. While the grad school workload is a barrier to political involvement, I knew that would be the case. And I get paid to read and write. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to not having to work at all.
So, there’s no neat ending to this and no real reason I wrote it either. Other than that the date when I fell down and nearly never got back up is nearing and that anniversary makes me profoundly grateful that I get to live and work and know good people. Praise the lord that old cashier wasn’t making the sign of the cross over my body, and not only because I’m an atheist.
To another day.