Just over a mile from our house stands a steep hill topped by a boulder in the shade of an oak tree. Back in my pre-brain injury days a decade ago, I’d get up early and go for a run before work, ending it with the zigzagging terrain of what I called The Mountain. I also had a name for the boulder: Rocky, which I’d sit on to catch my breath and take in the view–the lake, the woods and, at that hour, no people.
Then I’d walk home to start my day. At that time I was a regional editor at a suburban Chicago newspaper, so my job involved a lot of sitting, typing and fretting—pretty much like any job, now that I think about it. Those runs energized me for more than work. There was also the usual stuff of life—housework, grocery shopping, dinner prep and shuttling our daughter between school and gymnastics.
It was one of those nights after practice that The Accident changed our lives. I drove to the gym and had our daughter, who was 15 and on her learner’s permit, drive us back. At a four-way stop three blocks from home, there was a crash. I have no memory of any of this, of course.
Thank God, I was the only one injured.
I was airlifted to a hospital in Chicago. Besides moderate TBI and epilepsy, I had a fractured pelvis and five other broken bones, a lacerated liver, a bruised lung and two cracked teeth and didn’t regain consciousness for a week. When I did, I recognized my family, although my daughter wasn’t the skinny middle schooler I was expecting but had grown into a high school beauty.
My husband had plastered my hospital walls with photos and mementos from different periods in our lives. One was a printout of a saying from Mali shared by my sister, who had served there in the Peace Corps: “Dooni dooni kononi be nyaga da,” which means “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.” In other words, we may not see progress all at once, but with persistence and patience, we’ll get there.
He had also gone to my favorite running destination and snapped a photo for my wall. For him, Rocky had come to symbolize my uphill climb to come back, to remember, to recover. After my release from the hospital and long physical recovery, he and I walked together up The Mountain. At the summit I turned and raised my arms in triumph.
Eventually I returned to running, soon doing 5K races again and even a 10K. Those were good years.
But now it seems my brain won’t let me do what I love. During several runs and races, I started having seizures, and sometimes ambulances have hauled me away. So I slowed. Then, after a seizure-free year, my husband and I tried a 5K together. A mile or in … down I went, convulsing.
So now, even though I’m neuro-drugged to the max, I’m back to walking. I carry bags for the litter I pick up on the way and say hi to passers-by. I marvel at the beauty of nature, even as I mourn my running days.
But who am I to complain? I know what it is to be housebound and worse from a TBI and broken body. I know the drowsiness, the confusion, the loss of control of your life. In lesser ways, I still deal with all that. But it does get better, little by little.
Dooni dooni kononi be nyaga da, as they say in Mali.
I live in a very flat part of the country, but in my suburb there are a couple of hills besides The Mountain. When I’m at the top of either one, I can see Rocky in the distance, and I always give my old friend a (quiet) shout-out.
Speaking of Rocky, you know that movie starring Sylvester Stallone, and remember how his character ran up all those steps during training? I’ve been thinking that maybe I’m tough like that … and that maybe my Rocky isn’t just the goal; maybe I am Rocky. Mind you, I wouldn’t hurt a fly, but about 30 years ago I spent the summer in Philadelphia taking a copyediting workshop, and the whole group of us “word nerds” did the triumphant run up those actual steps.
I don’t have a photo of that group climb, but here’s me in 2009 with my old pal Rocky.
And to those still struggling, never forget: Dooni dooni kononi be nyaga da.