Grasping at Straws

A few weeks ago, Paul and I took Ellie out to eat at Tyler’s, one of our favorite local places to go. We’ve been taking Ellie out and about since the day we got home from the hospital last May, partly in an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy and give us a break from the many hours spent in that wonderful, awful, confusing, enlightening newborn phase. Now going out is no longer a race to finish our food as quickly as possible and Ellie joins us at the table in a high chair, entertaining herself with toys, coasters, straws and anything else within reach (note to self, continue to remove knives from reach).

On this particular night, Ellie was happily playing with her Eeyore rattle (which just entailed tossing him about and then throwing him on the ground – “How often will Mommy pick this up for me?” seems to be a fun new game) and Paul and I were debriefing after a long week at school. We were surrounded by families, which seems to always be the case when you go to dinner at 5:30 PM on a Friday (whatever, it’s the new party time).

I looked over at the booth to my right, where a harried looking mom was sitting with her husband and two kids. The daughter picked up a straw, tore the top of the wrapper off, then blew the rest of the paper in her dad’s direction.

He laughed.

I started crying.

They were silent tears, but still they rolled down my face. Ellie was oblivious, of course, but Paul knew. And when he glanced over at the family, he also knew why.

Such a simple, almost mundane interaction between a daughter and her father, but I will never know it again with my own dad.

We got to the point where–when my dad was still alive–he would take out one of the ballpoint pens he always carried and actually write his name on the straw first to make sure I didn’t steal it. Then whenever I wasn’t paying attention, off came the top of the wrapper, and into my face the rest flew.

Virtually every single meal out that we shared.

I never thought that just seeing that sort of moment being shared by another father and daughter would affect me so much. It just was a little tug at the stitches I have worked so hard to maintain in order to hold myself together.

It often strikes me how little we will ever know about most of the people we encounter in our lives. It was raining last Tuesday morning, so I took the bus and enjoyed listening to some music on my phone. We hardly ever have to drive much of anywhere anymore, so taking the bus or running is really the only time I have just to sit and listen to music. As I thumbed through my music library, the Beatles’ “I Will” came on, and I stopped my search and just let the song play.

I’m not sure really how it became our de facto song as a family, but it did, and no matter how many times I hear it, I think about my mom and dad singing it on one of our many beach trips, or about how Paul and I walked down the aisle to it after our wedding. All these memories somehow manage to roll past my eyes in the 1:46 it takes for the song to run its course.

Looking around the crowded bus, it occurred to me that no one else knew exactly how I was feeling in that moment. That in that short span, I heard and saw my dad and my family as complete, even if just in my mind. No one else knew how bittersweet those memories felt even after four and a half years.

But then, looking at all the different faces surrounding me, I realized that I also would never know what they were thinking or feeling. Maybe someone else has a broken heart, or is stressed about an upcoming exam. Maybe they just got a new puppy. Maybe they drank too much last night. Maybe they’re going to drink too much tonight. Maybe their mom has dementia. Maybe they just got engaged. I will never know, and that’s just life – it’s okay as long as we respect that other people are also experiencing their own battles.

Maybe that’s the art of empathy and just maybe that’s something we could all be better at, especially in these tumultuous last few months.

#TBIProblems

I was never a huge boy band fan. I mean, I’d be lying if I tried to deny ever dancing to “Bye, bye, bye” but don’t please don’t judge. I was 17 when it was released, okay?

Anyway.

I never got that whole obsession. It’s not like these guys were like the Beatles.

Similarly, I never got the whole obsession with hashtags on social media. It’s my limited understanding that they imply some sort of desire to have something “trend.” Is that correct? And what exactly does this accomplish? Is the fact that you just ate 20 hot dogs or slipped on the “uneven bricks” on campus at UNC (points to whoever remembers where that’s from) really THAT important? If I navigate to Yahoo after your Tweet or whatever it’s called, will I see #thosecageybricks trending on Yahoo?

Imagine my surprise when two things I don’t understand – boy bands and the free-for-all use of hashtags – came together in a perfect two minute blend:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57dzaMaouXA

First, two questions – when did Justin Timberlake become so cool? And really, when did hashtags become #thesymbolformerlyknownaspound?

At any rate, since this blog is centered primarily around my recovery from the verbal apraxia and aphasia that resulted from my TBI, it occurred to me that my TBI may be feeling envious. Perhaps it’s time to pay a little attention to all the other #TBIProblems, if you will.

Now, the thing about TBIs is they can be so very individual. No two people may have the exact same recovery, and it seems that while there are several commonalities among people with a TBI, the duration and degree to which someone experiences these varies widely.

First, ostensibly, I was unable to speak.

#Everyhusbandsdream

But, did you know I also lost around 16 pounds? Don’t be jealous. I lost a great portion of my appetite after both surgeries due to the anesthesia. After the first surgery, I worked HARD to eat because I frequently got “head rushes” and passed out a few times. The extreme head rushes just recently faded in the last few weeks, after my cranioplasty.

Falling with a TBI, which I managed to accomplish a handful of times thanks to my lack of appetite, is bad. So ladies and gentlemen, please eat. I don’t foresee the TBI becoming a popular diet fad.

In addition, while I couldn’t talk initially, my hearing was incredibly amplified and my sense of taste was skewed. I drank everything out of a straw and cut my food (what I ate) into such incredibly small pieces you would swear that I was 80 years old.

Why?

#Ichokedoneverything

Fortunately,  after a few weeks, I regained my ability to swallow relatively normally.

Also, people with a TBI, depending on where the damage is, may experience loss of mobility in their extremities. I located a very odd picture of myself in the ICU doing what appears to be the Vulcan salute from Star Trek (yes, I had to look up that terminology). But I was apparently trying to get the fingers of my right hand to move.

Luckily, I was able to walk okay and quickly took to shuffling about the hospital like my 80 year old self (that’s not fair, really, I’m generalizing and probably walked a lot more slowly than your average 80 year old). Out of the hospital, I became very adept at taking walks around the neighborhood, since I couldn’t ride.

I quickly regained mobility in my right arm and hand, going from a limp fisted high five to fairly passable. However, I am recalling one day while still an inpatient, I was in physical therapy and had to do the peg board.

The peg board is an evil, sadistic “game” in which you use one hand to pick up a bunch of metal pegs individually and place them in the peg board. There are several rows of this to be done. The first time, I could barely get through 10.

Not rows. 10 pegs.

After that, I continuously dropped the remaining pegs, got a horrible headache and had to take a break.

Perhaps the most humorous (but not really?) thing is that the right corner of my mouth is still numb. While I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding the huge blobs of food that would attach themselves when I ate after leaving the hospital (#Ilookedlikeahamster), I still have a propensity for drooling.

Yes, just in case you doubted my comparison to being 80. Okay, let’s say 90.

To this day, if I’m not paying attention, and I’m looking down, I just might drool.

And you would have probably never known about this, because I’m extremely careful when I’m out and about. But Paul has been the lucky recipient of witnessing this more than a few times. And I have no shame.

Other little things that no one else would know: my sneezes have changed! I went from ALWAYS sneezing these teeny little multiple sneezes to occasional giant blow-outs. Snot and everything.

#TMI?

I am extremely lucky in the realm on TBIs that my personality is the same, and I am of course still making improvements in my speech. While the sensation in my right arm is still off, I’ve stopped throwing my Starbucks drinks on the ground (clearly not on purpose). I never take my improvements for granted. However, I hope that I’ve given you all a little taste of some of the other things I’ve dealt with over the past four months. Why should speech get ALL the fun?

Now, I’ll never use another hashtag again.

#Really