Yesterday I saw an empty bread bag floating in the shallow, concrete-bottomed pond that serves as a a skating rink in winter and a playground for ducks and geese the rest of the year. The ducks were ignoring the bag, but I just couldn’t.
I found a long stick and decided to try to fish it out. By that time, though, it had floated farther away.
Thinking, “This is either a really good idea or a really stupid idea,” I took off my shoes and socks and waded into the cool water, which came up above my ankles. I easily snagged the bag and got it into a trash can.
But not without annoying the ducks. They’d swum to the other side of the pond without so much as a quack of thanks.
This is what my husband made yesterday, including the homemade crust. It’s a chicken pot pie (or “potch pie,” as our daughter called such things long ago).
Even though Ted is back at the office most days, he still nurtures me and his love of cooking by preparing leftover-able dishes and planning other weekday meals on the weekends. He often quotes his late father’s philosophy that “food is love.”
So where does that leave me, whose duties are cleanup, salad prep and table setting?
After all, while he made this dish, I was out on a run, stopping for a balance beam/singing performance and then a FaceTime conversation with my dad before a quick run back.
I was out of Ted’s way.
We have a galley kitchen—cramped quarters for two cooks—so he’s forever shooing me out as I try to clean as he goes.
And I’m no cook, anyway. Left to my own devices, I’d live on cereal, nuts, yogurt, fruits and veggies, plus the salmon filets he’s taught me how to broil. I may not share my husband’s obsession with (or talent for) cooking, but I’ll never miss one of his meals.
Food is love—and I’ll never let my chef forget how grateful I am for making our lives delicious.
Last evening, after returning from my second fun run of the week—I sat at the keyboard and once again attempted one of my favorite Paul Simon songs.
I finally admitted it’s too complex for my fingers and brain. (Also, the songbook is overdue at the library.)
The run, during which the two much more athletic men who showed up kindly reduced their pace and distance so we could all chat, was actually fun. I guess I learned to give myself a break, just like they did.
Never mind that my husband is always telling me to do the same thing. When I play “Hey Jude,” he quotes the line, “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.”
By the way, I got an automatic renewal on the other songbook I’d checked out, so I’m still plugging away at Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (I’m up to “Spare him his life from this monstrosity.”)
I don’t remember anything about the 2008 car crash we now call The Accident—and only much later did my husband realize why a medic, calling for him to meet us at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago as I was being loaded into a helicopter, urged him to hurry.
It was to give him a chance to say goodbye.
When I awoke in the hospital a week later with a broken body and a traumatic brain injury, no one knew if I’d ever be the same. After a month, I still couldn’t retain short-term memories. I’d recognized my husband and daughter right away (but how had she gotten older?). No problem recalling Dad or my many siblings either, but I kept asking if Mom was still alive. She’d died of cancer in 2007.
Such is the sometimes amusing, sometimes emotionally wrenching and always baffling world of the TBI patient. According to brainline.org, a TBI is “a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain.”
In my case, the diagnosis was “moderate” TBI. Among other scary things I’ve found in trying to review the data my husband has summarized into a 3-inch-thick binder over the years, this diagnosis had to do with my rating of 5 out of 15 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, my “initial decerebrate posture”–a rigid body position with legs straight, toes down and neck arched–and seizures.
I also read about my months of physical and cognitive therapy and my “residual neuro-cognitive problems,” depression, hampered mobility and trouble with “activities of daily living.” As much as I resisted it, we arranged for a home-care assistant.
Finally, I looked through my husband’s transcription of my “seizure diary,” a combination of my thoughts and his descriptions of my seizures, some of which he’d captured on video so the doctors could witness them. This trip down “no-memory lane” was my attempt to figure out the year I started yoga (2011? 2012? I’m not so good with numbers anymore), but I couldn’t stop reading about my now-extremely rare episodes. This one, from March 2012, was from a night Ted was working late:
“I get ready for bed early, multitasking brushing my teeth on the john, when I hear my phone. … Feel a seizure coming on and lean forward. Next thing I remember, Ted’s home and he’s coming to bed. It’s hours later. I’d gotten myself cleaned up, into bed, lights out. (Discover a sore on outside of lip the next day, another inside–from my teeth. Also blood and toothpaste in my hair.)”
Today, as we approach our eight-year “Acci-versary,” it’s hard to identify with that version of myself, a newspaper editor forced to face a new reality. So much has changed—my physical recovery and return to fitness, new neurologists, the right medications, a deeper relationship with my husband … and yoga.
Ted (who’s become so knowledgeable that people think he’s a doctor) had urged me to try tai chi for its intense focus. I wanted something more athletic, so the instructor directed me to a yoga class taught by his wife, Lynda.
I now understand why Ted was drawn to tai chi as a therapy for me. In Dr. Norman Doige’s 2007 bestseller, “The Brain That Changes Itself” (accidentally discovered along with Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program during a PBS fundraising segment), the author discusses why people tend to become forgetful as they age. He explains that the nucleus basalis, a group of neurons in the brain, is designed to secrete acetylcholine, which helps form clear memories. Those neurons get neglected from a lack of mental stimulation, or from being “set in our ways.”
“Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system—new physical activities, challenging puzzles, new careers that require learning new skills,” neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says in the book. He also touts the brain benefits of learning a new language in adulthood (Sanskrit, anyone?) and getting “sensory input from our feet.”
Learning something new? Check. Focusing intensely? Check. Going barefoot? Check. Whatever, I was sold.
I began attending classes three times a week, jogging the mile to the community center since I no longer drove. It felt good to work my muscles in new ways and to see myself in the big mirror holding (what I considered) perfect poses. But soon something inside me began to change. I’d catch a glimpse of my face in that mirror, and I’d be grinning, not grimacing. I’d see a classmate’s pose and think, “You can do it!” instead of feeling self-conscious or competitive, my default modes. And after class, I’d feel calm.
‘Mertz’ and the science of neuroplasticity
These are not unusual effects of yoga and meditation—of “being in the present moment,” I’ve learned. Antoine Lutz, Ph.D., and Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison have studied Vipassana or “insight” meditation for years. They found that the practice improved emotional regulation and stress control even when their test subjects were not meditating. When the researchers trained a different group in “compassion meditation”—having them focus on loved ones and then wish them “well-being and freedom from suffering”—this group showed evidence of increased empathy. In the brain, that meant more activation in the right amygdala in response to images of human suffering.
In addition, the compassion group also showed reduced rates of depression, as measured by psychological tests. “Davidson and Lutz’s work suggests that through mindfulness training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and compassion,” according to a 2012 article in Psychology Today. “People are not just stuck at their respective set points. We can take advantage of the brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.”
Which brings me to brain plasticity, otherwise known as neuroplasticity. I remember hearing a lot about this property of my noggin, even in the early days, when I didn’t quite know what Ted was talking about. What it means is the brain is capable of sort of stretching to accommodate more knowledge. Doige explains it much better in “The Brain That Changes Itself”:
“Clearly, when we learn, we increase what we know, but Merz’s claim,” he says, referring to Merzenich, “is that we can also change the very structure of the brain itself and increase its capacity to learn. Unlike a computer, the brain is constantly adapting.”
But the old “use-it-or-lose-it” principle is also at work here. “Merzinich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate and control plasticity to waste away,” Doige says.
“Intensive learning,” eh? I have a feeling my husband took that phrase to heart when he … encouraged? … suggested? … okay, pushed me to sign up for teacher training at Prairie Yoga in the neighboring suburb of Lisle in 2015. Sure, I loved my classes at the community center. I adored Lynda’s warm, witty style, and I had made a group of wonderful friends, even if I couldn’t always put the right name with the right face (and still, to my embarrassment, sometimes call Craig “Steve” and Cathy “Cindy”).
Embracing my inner weirdo
Hmm. At this point, I’m thinking I’d better back up and fill the reader in on the rest of my lingering … let’s say “peculiarities.”
Gail Denton, Ph.D., who suffered a mild TBI herself in a 1991 skating accident, discusses the issue in the book “Brain-Lash: Maximize Your Recovery From Mild Brain Injury,” which she calls “an outwardly invisible illness.” Although my case is moderate (in between mild and severe), I still appear normal … well, depending on what I’m wearing! See Exhibit A
What people don’t see (unless they’re my husband) are the emotional fragility, the intense need for routine and especially the mental fogginess when it’s nearing time for my 10 to 12 hours of nightly sleep. In her book, Denton says TBI patients tend to get mentally fatigued because they lack the energy reserves that keep “normal” people from getting overwhelmed.
Denton also lists a number of deficits in the brain’s executive functioning that are so me:
Processing speed. This is why, when new yoga cues are given, I often tilt my head quizzically and then just copy what my neighbor is doing.
Attention span. Oh, look! My cat just woke up!
Sensory overload. I don’t wear the dark glasses just to look like Mrs Cool. Also, big crowds, noise? I’m outta there.
Word finding. That’s gotten much better, but … who did you say you were again?
Disinhibition. Uh-oh. My childlike lack of decorum (“I’ll break into song at the grocery store if I want to!“) Also, see Exhibit B.
Multitasking. Gah! Go, away, cat, I’m trying to write a thesis.
Follow-through. Oh, I’ll write that one later …
Sense of humor. Ha! See above.
There. Now back to your regularly scheduled thesis.
Now back to science
Numerous other studies have pointed to the benefits of yoga and meditation for TBI patients. One that I found especially interesting was the yoga program for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, GA. Dr. John Rigg, director of the TBI Clinic at the base, describes on NPR’s “All Things Considered” how a blast in combat can affect a soldier:
“What happens is that primitive animal instinct, which is located in the subcortical brain, becomes hyper-aroused. … The subcortical brain doesn’t understand geography and stays hyper-aroused. Their muscles are tightened up.”
But after a short time in yoga, he says, participants report better sleep, relaxed muscles and a better outlook. “It’s an enlightening factor, even for people who don’t continue in yoga, to see that they can use breath and physical movement to actually change the way they feel.”
As if I didn’t know that! Still, I was one nervous yogini when I showed up for teacher training my first day.
Maybe I should have taken a look at the following recent study first: Harvard psychologist John Denninger and his colleagues divided their subjects, all of whom had reported high levels of stress, into three groups. One group was taught Kundalini yoga—which includes meditation, breathing exercises or pranayama, and the chanting of mantras in addition to physical yoga postures; the second only meditated; and the third listened to relaxation recordings. Based on questionnaires, brain scans and gene analyses of blood samples, the yoga group showed an increase in the expression of genes for energy metabolism and a decrease in the expression of genes for pain and stress, according to a November 2013 article by Bloomberg News.
One of Denninger’s colleagues on the study, Harvard physician Herbert Bensen, had literally written the book on stress relief in 1975. In “The Relaxation Response,” he called his work a “validation of age-old wisdom,” rather than a breakthrough, that presented “a simple version of Transcendental Meditation for people in the Western World.” The book, which has since been updated, shows methods of activating the parasympathetic nervous system when the “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. He calls two of the steps essential:
Focusing on a mantra or activity “to keep the mind from wandering.” (I can testify to this one. Yoga, meditation and walks in nature do quiet my mile-a-minute thoughts.)
Having a “passive attitude.” (Working on it. Does passive-aggressive count? I kid, I kid.
Me? A teacher?
Brain injury and all, I was accepted into Prairie Yoga’s teacher training program with open arms, thanks in no small part to a recommendation from Lynda to studio owner Lori Gaspar. Lori trusted Lynda, a Prairie veteran who continues to teach and take classes there, so Lori added me to her own 200-hour trainee group. This was an Iyengar-based class, meaning the emphasis was on holding each yoga position precisely and for a long time, rather than “flowing” from pose to pose.
I loved it! I got to do challenging poses and make close friends. Still, the written homework was hard at first, and it wasn’t easy for my unpracticed brain to retain what I was learning about body alignment, hands-on adjustment, anatomy, yoga history and philosophy, Sanskrit and … oh, geez, other stuff. Then there was that scary new technology on my phone—the Uber app—that I had to master, since I don’t live anywhere near jogging distance of Prairie.
I also faced my fear of failure during the weeks my two group partners and I fretted over the free public class we were assigned to “sequence” and teach. (A weird aside: Remember those executive brain functions I listed that take a hit after TBI? One I left out is Sequencing. So maybe yoga helps with that too, since our class went just fine.)
And now, back to science. In other brain-positive research, a 2013 study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston compared MRI scans of cognitively impaired people after an eight-week program of yoga, meditation and mindfulness with those of similar patients who had gotten standard care. According to the April-May 2015 edition of Neurology Now, the program group showed better connectivity in the hippocampus, which is related to learning and memory. (Score! The hippocampus is where most of my damage is!)
And then there’s this, from the June 2015 edition of the medical journal Disability and Rehabilitation: An eight-week mixed-methods case study in which yoga teachers worked individually with TBI patients showed a 36 percent improvement in balance (a biggie for me; I still struggle with those types of poses). Other benefits, as measured by physical assessments and interviews, were confidence, lower-extremity strength and endurance.
Said one patient: “I mean, it’s rocked my world. It’s changed my life—I mean, all the different aspects. I mean, physically, emotionally, mentally—it’s given me, you know, my life back.”
Physically, emotionally, mentally. … I know, right? But for me there’s more.
‘Take it or leaveit‘
In “BrainLash,” Denton concludes with what she calls a “take-it-or-leave-it” chapter that “introduces the concept of an increased or newly installed skill known as extrasensory awareness. It is a potential product acquired with brain injury. It serves your pleasure.”
So I guess this is what I’d call the “take-it-or-leave-it” part of my thesis. It’s hard to describe, but I feel a new sense of connectedness now. Things happen because they’re supposed to happen; everything works out. If The Accident made me who I am today, I’m glad. I like myself better now. I think this awareness came several years later, when I was no longer in “survival” mode, going from seizure to seizure, so maybe my brain had a chance to heal somewhat.
The feeling grew when I started yoga—and exploded when I learned to meditate. In fact, shortly after a three-day seminar on the topic at Prairie by visiting teacher Nicolai Bachman that, honestly, did not hold my interest, I became aware of a strange phenomenon. When I closed my eyes, I could “see” what looked like an open eye at about the bridge of my nose. Being an idiot, I mentioned this to a classmate, figuring it was some bizarre “neurological thingy” from my old TBI. She said something like, “Whoa, that’s really advanced.” So I did some reading (in my own Teacher Training Manual, for gosh sakes) and concluded that I was seeing that famed “Third Eye” that lets you “see from a deeper place” and “trust your own intuition.”
While it’s not “like I have ESPN or something” (gratuitous “Mean Girls” movie reference, see Exhibit B), I do get little intuitions. For example, long after I’d finished the previous paragraph, I got a mental tug telling me I’d misspelled “Nicolai.” I looked it up, and sure enough I’d added an H. Also, if I ever need inspiration, I just close my eyes. (How do you think I’m getting through the writing process?)
Mostly, though, this Third Eye brings me comfort. Says Denton in “BrainLash“: “You may experience an increased interest in spiritual matters … for which you had no interest. This may be a general awakening to a higher power.“
That has certainly been the case for me. I was raised in a church-going family, but at a young age I found religious doctrine illogical. The idea of God didn’t make sense to me, though I wasn’t about to admit this to my parents. Decades later, though, I had an epiphany, but it’s unclear exactly when. My husband says I found God a few years ago, after The Accident but before meditation—and very shortly before a recurrence of severe seizures that led to an episode of post-ictal psychosis (think “The Exorcist”) for which I was hospitalized for a month. (No, that “Exorcist” line was a joke, but Ted says I got spooky-religious and was even convinced at one point that a male orderly was God.)
The only religious awakening I do remember was a gradual one, when the peace of meditation became a way to connect with the Universe, with God.
Just ask myshrink
Or maybe I’m nuts. But my shrink assures me I’m not. “Your participation in yoga helped you to shift to a level of being more peaceful inside,” says psychologist Joseph Keegan of Naperville, with whom I’ve worked for I-forget-how-many years now. “Prior to that, you were at more of a frenetic pace—anxious, pensive. Yoga provided you with a sense of equanimity and altered your sense of interconnection with the world.”
He says yoga “opened up a door to a sense of spirituality” and even points out that my habit of picking up litter and recycling as I walk home “reflects that you feel you have a place in the universe.”
But my progress hasn’t all been because of yoga. Not giving a thought to the possibility that he might screw up my thesis, Keegan attributes some of my improvements in cognition and memory to playing the piano. (Actually, it’s an electronic keyboard; I just keep it on “grand piano” setting so as not to sound like an ’80s “hair band” member.) Ted, knowing that learning piano, especially in adulthood, works wonders for the brain, had given it to me for Christmas one year.
“With your decision to play the keyboard, you moved on to challenge yourself with music—to challenge yourself in a positive way, a different cognitive way,” Keegan said. “And it gave you positive, resonating feedback.”
So I guess the point of all this is that yoga and meditation—plus music, nature, friends, family (especially a devoted, selfless spouse) and faith are the keys to coping with brain injury—and I’m living proof. Oh, and prescription drugs. And excellent doctors. (I highly recommend Dr. Elizabeth Gerard at Northwestern Memorial.)
… And did I mention the drugs?
One last note: Thank you to my teacher trainer, Lori, for rejecting my first thesis idea—autobiographical song parodies—because she wanted me to learn something from the process. All this research and writing was hard, but I see now that it was just what my brain needed. Just for fun, though, I’ll leave you with this:
I recently mentioned I might like one of those fancy GPS running watches, so my dutiful husband did some research until he found the most user-friendly model.
He showed me the basic steps to get going with it and also directed me to some online tutorials. When I still didn’t get it, he printed out even simpler instructions. Nope.
He set me up to get going, and all was well until I finally stepped out of the building. Still no GPS signal. So I just pressed START and hoped for the best as I ran to the park.
Okay, there’s a lot more boring running stuff I was going to say here, but the rest of the afternoon was much better.
I ended up sitting on a park bench, eyeing baby ducks with good intent (Sorry. Musical shout-out to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung.” No one but my brother will get it, but it’s my blog.)
Now, where were we? Oh, yes, my friend Helen, who’s in her 70s but doesn’t have a brain injury and does understand technology, had a look at those printed directions. She couldn’t make sense of them, so we moved on to more pleasant topics.
When we rose from the bench to walk her home, I heard a “ping!” The GPS signal had kicked in!
With apologies to Helen, I bid her goodbye and went for a test run. Destination: balance beam.
Turned out it was about six-tenths of a mile from the park to my favorite plaything. But instead of hopping on the balance beam to walk back and forth, singing various songs and trying simple yoga poses, I sat on a bench, eager to post about the experience on Facebook.
I returned to the post I’d abandoned a couple of times since receiving the watch. Its too-clever title, “Idiot-Proof Watch, Meet Idiot,” reflected the frustration I felt trying to figure the thing out.
But my husband has been adamant that I not put myself down. He’s always reminding me that I have a disability, not a lack of intelligence. So what if I’m no math whiz and have trouble following directions and can’t multitask and burst into tears when I’m upset and … and …?
Above all, I am not to call myself an idiot.
But documenting my progress from frustration to (maybe?) mastery of one aspect of this watch was too tempting. I started typing on my phone.
Then, along came Other Jerry. I call him that because I recently met another older fellow named Jerry. Great guy. Boy, the people you meet now that we’re mask-free. But I digress.
Other Jerry, riding a 10-speed bike and wearing a cardigan, slowed near my bench, and I said hello and introduced myself. I only started doing that sort of thing since the brain injury, and especially in the post-vaccination, mask-free era. But I digress again.
He and I commiserated about technology, praised the VA—where he got his vaccine doses and where I used to volunteer as a yoga teacher—and talked about the Navy. He’d served I-forget-when, and I bragged about my 93-year-old dad, who’d lied about his age to join up in World War II.
After he cycled off, I tried to return to my self-deprecating post.
The Universe seemed to have other ideas. Two of my friends walked up, shouting out greetings. Mary and Ellen are closer to my age, but they were as baffled by the watch and as grumpy about technology as me.
Once again, the conversation took a more interesting turn, or turns, including what a “butt” I’d been to my husband about the watch.
By the time we wrapped it up, I decided to head home. But first I sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” while walking to and fro on the beam. (Needless to say, I’m a well-known weirdo at the shore.)
I still had a GPS signal, so I just pressed START and trotted back. It was a longer distance, but later the data showed I’d stayed at a much more comfortable speed.
Back home, as I often do, I apologized to my husband for the way I am.
His rejoinder: “If it makes you feel better, you were that way before the accident.”
This afternoon I was about to head outside, having frittered away the morning on news, Facebook and a frustrating practice session at the keyboard/piano.
I dressed, masked up, laced up and grabbed some keys. I noted these weren’t my own set but figured my husband had taken mine by mistake.
The key went into the lock with its usual stubbornness, but this time it got stuck. I attacked the key with my usual stubbornness. The result is what you see here:
Since the door was still unlocked, I went back in and called my friend Helen, whose text about going outside had roused me from my piano funk. (I don’t mean funk in the musical sense, either; the piece was Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” sorta.)
My next instinct was to text my husband, but I didn’t want to bother him. The poor guy is finally taking a week off work, and I was happy to see that he was carrying his golf clubs when he left the building.
So I thought to myself, “Now, what would a responsible adult do in a situation like this?” As you might imagine, I ask myself that question a lot.
I decided that a responsible adult would call the doorman, who probably has a locksmith on call and definitely keeps extra copies of everyone’s keys.
So, naturally, I got one of those metal poultry skin-fastening thingies and started poking it into the lock, to see if I could pry the key remnant out.
It worked, no prying required.
Then, playtime. I unrolled my yoga mat and kept myself entertained for awhile. An instructor I follow online had demonstrated a new way to do a familiar pose, so I happily struggled with that until I got the hang of it.
At some point it occurred to me that we might have an extra copy of the apartment key. Genius that I am, I opened the drawer where all the keys and things end up. Between yoga poses, I held up each key next to the now-reunited half-keys for comparison. Nope.
There’s a drawer under the keys-and-stuff one, and something made me open it. You’ll never guess what I found inside: MY OWN KEYS!
I called Helen back, and we had the longest conversation we’ve had in the six months or so we’ve known each other. We decided that may have been because we weren’t being battered by the wind and there weren’t any cute kids, dogs or ducks to distract us.
At any rate (a favorite Helen phrase), the husband is back now, and I’ve written this blog post. It ended up being a happy indoor day that I wouldn’t have had if that key hadn’t broken.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about the car accident that left me with traumatic brain injury and epilepsy. Occasionally husband Ted will fill in some of the blanks.
The most recent of these occasions came the other night when we were watching one of our favorite TV shows, the hilarious and heartbreaking “The Kominsky Method,” starring Michael Douglas as a Hollywood acting teacher and Alan Arkin as his agent/best friend. (No spoilers, please. We just started Season 2.)
Arkin’s character is grieving over the death of his wife. His fictional experience, combined with Ted’s sadness over the recent loss of his father, must have led him to relate the following story to me.
Ted hadn’t gone into detail about the early days of my hospitalization, when it wasn’t clear if I’d survive or what I’d be like if I did. The other night, however, he told me that at one point a friend of ours urged him to talk with a member of the clergy on staff. I’ll call him Rev. L.
In their talk, Ted let it all pour out. Not only was he terrified of losing his wife, he also had to keep it together for our teen daughter, who was uninjured in the accident (thank God).
He told Rev. L that since he’d been mostly living at the hospital, all the household chores had piled up. He began cleaning out the refrigerator but stopped when he came to the leftovers from the last meal we ate together.
“I couldn’t just throw it out,” he said, “so I ate some of everything.”
The pastor practically jumped out of his seat. “Food is love!” he exclaimed.
This meant a great deal to Ted, and as he related it to me, I practically jumped off the couch. “That’s what your dad always said! That’s what you tell me!”
Ted, you see, loves nothing more than taking care of his family by preparing delicious, nourishing meals. (Okay, maybe he loves baseball more.)
I woke up this morning, as I always do, to music in my head. This one was Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” I’m now obsessed with learning all its piano chords so I can sing as I play.
I thought this obsession came from husband Ted’s text to me last night about how music is also helping fellow TBI survivor and gun-safety advocate Gabby Giffords, whose legislative career ended when a bullet pierced her brain.
Then I remembered an incident at the dentist’s the other day that I laughed off at the time. The young receptionist was scheduling a cleaning in six months, and I remarked that the date would be my 55th birthday.
“Fifty-five?” she gushed. “You don’t look a day over 50!”
For those old enough to remember Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella character on the old “Saturday Night Live,” her response to news anchor Jane Curtain’s scolding at the end of each “Weekend Update” segment would have been perfect.
I have a love-hate relationship with my cellphone. On the one hand, it keeps me in contact with the world—and lets my husband keep tabs on me—plus it allows me to photograph the beautiful things I see each day.
Such as this.
On the other hand, my brain injury and general lack of technological know-how tend to make me paranoid about my phone. I no longer fear Vladimir Putin is secretly following me on Facebook … or is he? That’s just the kind of sentence he’d want me to type, nyet?
More than once I’ve been suspicious when my phone shows I’m getting a call from an unknown number. These days, though, the only known numbers I have are of close family members and the few friends I’ve kept in touch with. (And most of those friends would be appalled that I just ended a sentence with a preposition.)
Today’s crisis started when the morning’s Zoom yoga class ended. I was grumpy, as I often am, about what I perceive as other people’s lack of virus precautions and my own impatience over not yet having gotten the vaccine. I’m registered in my town, and today’s helpful email update counseled “patience.”
BUT THE PANDEMIC IS STILL RAGING, AND THE VARIANTS ARE … YOU, KNOW, VARYING!
Sorry, patience is not one of my virtues.
So I lifted weights and then, for the first time in hours, opened my phone.
And there it was: a Messenger alert. I rarely use that app, so naturally I clicked on it right away. 😬
It was a former co-worker, asking if I was still involved with an activist group from my former suburb and calling me an “awesome hellraiser.”
I answered, “I don’t know about awesome, but since we moved … I’m not” involved with the group. Looking back at the exchange as I write this, I must have been afraid she was a hacker of my account or hers.
I got a reply:
“Oh, that’s right! How are you? Besides awesome, which you are.”
I responded: “Oh, thanks for saying that. I’m good, I really am. It’s just. Can u call me when u get a chance?”
Both the abbreviated spellings and the fact that I was reaching out for help to someone I hadn’t seen in more than a year shows how upset I was.
She didn’t have my phone number, so, despite my paranoia over privacy on the Facebook-owned platform, I tapped it out with no parentheses or hyphens, as if that would encrypt it from evildoers.
Then I waited. About 5 minutes.
I IM’d her (hey, that’s the term, isn’t it? 👍) confessing my TBI-fueled paranoia and asking her to give me a quick call.
She (if, in fact, that’s who it really was😱) would get back to me soon,
I waited again. No way was I going to interrupt my husband’s Zoom meeting for yet another of my phone crises.
Then I remembered an email I’d gotten that morning from a woman we’d both worked with at that same suburban newspaper. I checked, and I still had this friend’s number.
I called, and though she didn’t pick up, it was reassuring to hear her voice in the outgoing message. I laid out the situation rapidly, ending by reminding her that I’m nuts and wishing her well.
She later texted me back, but by that time I was off the phone with … wait for it … the actual woman who’d contacted me earlier. Not a hacker. Not Vladimir Putin.
I was relieved and delighted getting reacquainted with my former office mate. I now have her phone number in my contact list, so she’s not just a face on Facebook.
In 10or 11 oh-so-careful steps, I can get from one end of this balance beam to the other.
It started as a brain-body exercise, a way I could gauge my recovery from a 2008 TBI. But soon the feat of crossing the little balance beam became much more: a way to connect with people during this time of isolation and masks.
I found the beam a few weeks ago on my usual run, after something made me turn right instead of left when I got to Lake Michigan. I eventually came upon my new toy, part of a “fitness trail” of exercise equipment.
“This looks fun,” I thought (or possibly said out loud, because masks make that socially acceptable).
After stretching, I carefully stepped up, noting that the thing isn’t any wider than my shoe. I made sure my hips were level and my abs were sucked in (yoga training) before slowly planting my other foot ahead.
Many tries later, I managed a few steps before falling off—always landing on my feet. Good thing that beam is less than a foot high.
By the end of the week, I was able to make it across; in another week, I’d learned to pivot at the end and sometimes cross back. I kept improving, but some days I just kept falling. (More yoga wisdom: Every day is different.)
Better day, better balance
So my brain was getting tons of stimulation, and I was having a blast!
But as I said, it’s really the social aspect of my daily-ish beam routine that’s made it worth my brain’s while. Who cares about some middle-aged lady waddling along a curved strip of metal, falling off and getting back on again and again, putting on warmer layers of clothing when necessary because she’s too stubborn to give up?
Apparently, lots of people.
I gladly stepped off and aside when a mother and her kids stopped by. The young girl and boy made quick work of the beam, but the mom said there was no way she could do it. The kids and I traded tai chi and yoga moves before they walked on.
Then there was the man who said he’d seen me at my quest (well, what would you call it, obsession?) and admired my determination. We actually introduced ourselves. S-O-N-Y (sounds like Sonny, I think, but … masks).
I started getting balance advice, too. Guy With Dog (guy masked, dog not) urged me to look ahead and slightly down, instead of at my feet. (That’s a yoga wisdom fail on my part: To keep your balance, gaze at a drishti, or calming point, downward in the distance.)
Similar advice came from a 20-something passerby named Vince, who was accompanied by Mary. We had a long, socially distanced conversation when I learned about Mary’s epilepsy. That’s a condition I’ve had since the car accident that led to my brain injury.
Unfortunately, in her case the grand mal seizures are not treatable by medication or surgery. (I didn’t get her number, but if I see them again I’ll recommend our neurologist, who specializes in intractable epilepsy, as my husband suggested.)
Another day, out later than usual, I met two fellow regular beamers, Ellen and a different Mary. We exchanged phone numbers and texts. Ellen’s a yogini, like me, so we did a few poses for fun on solid ground.
She can walk the beam backward but hasn’t mastered the pivot. Mary had been afraid to beam-walk but figured if I can learn … Anyway, backward beaming is not among my goals.
Bad selfie of me, Mary and Ellen
A piece of advice that has proven especially useful came last week from an elderly woman named Christiane (“like Amanpour”). She critiqued my technique between fascinating tales (“Oh, wait; that reminds me of another story”) of a childhood in Europe and a stint with the circus—she switched topics too quickly for my brain to figure out when she was in Germany and Switzerland, and her mask obscured her age. Also, she may well have just seen “The Sound of Music.”
Who cares? Her advice—to keep a slight bend in my knees and tilt my pelvis up so I’m not even slightly bending forward—has gotten me to a personal best of seven times across and back, with pivots!
Does it always work? No.
Do I always have fun trying? Yes.
Am I about to put off finishing this blog piece so I can go running to the lake and play on the beam? You bet!
While I’m gone, please enjoy this photo of my former Beam Queen daughter. This was taken when she was a high school senior, but she went on to become a college champion.
Now, where were we?
Mostly it’s been nice just to have conversations with people, whether it’s discussing the constantly changing beauty of Lake Michigan with Ellen and Mary, sympathizing with the other Mary over the injuries she’s suffered during seizures or agreeing with a passing couple that “We’re all crazy now” after they’d caught me talking to myself on the beam about which song I have to keep in my head to avoid falling off. (It’s the theme to “The Bob Newhart Show.”)
One day this week I was crossing the balance beam after pivoting when I heard clapping. It was Sony.