The Note and the Notes

My father, the 91-year-old co-owner of the very big Ace Hardware in my very small hometown, never forgets a birthday, including those of in-laws and grandchildren, but he often forgets to mail the card in time. When he does, he never fails to call and wish the recipient a happy birthday. On Saturday he called with greetings for my husband.

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Dad asked if I’d received the note he’d sent me recently, along with a copy of an article that he found applicable to both of us–me as a brain injury victim and him as a nonagenarian. I hadn’t found it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t somewhere in the pile of mail on the kitchen table.

I dug around and soon found the business-size envelope addressed to me, in his familiar handwriting. The clipping was headlined “Fish More, Live Longer,” and it began with the observation that time seems to pass more quickly as we age, whereas kids seem to be forever impatient for things to hurry up and happen.

The theory is that children are constantly getting new mental images and experiences but that, as we age, “we lose this intensity of perception, and the world becomes a dreary and familiar place–so dreary and familiar that we stop paying attention to it.”

So lifelong learning and challenges are the key to keeping or regaining a healthy brain, as is taking time to “fish more” (or stop and smell the roses).

Dad and I are literally on the same page! Not only does he go to work at the store every day, he participates in numerous community activities and is locally famous for his garden and fish pond.

And about that note? The best part was the phrase “I think you and I have a lot in common.”

Besides paying me an enormous compliment, I think he was kinda-sorta suggesting a blog idea, so I was going to get right on that after the relaxing weekend I was having with my husband, whose birthday coincides with the long Fourth of July weekend.


But Saturday evening, as we were relaxing outside in the shade of the patio umbrella listening to music, a familiar classical piano piece came on, and so did a lightbulb in my head. “Hey, I think I used to play a simple version of that!”

Ted told me it was Beethoven’s Fur Elise. So I ran inside to try it out on my “piano” (electronic keyboard). Muscle memory didn’t work, but I quickly figured it out, scribbling down the notes (just letters) as I went. I asked him why my fingers didn’t remember the notes, as often happens with songs I’d learned in childhood. He said, “Maybe it was from that piano class you took in college.” What piano class??? (That’s brain injury for ya.)

Yeah, so apparently sometime after I met Ted junior year, I took a piano class. Before graduation I also managed to squeeze in History of Rock and Roll and History of the Beatles, which I do vividly remember.

When I posted about the musical memory/non-memory on Facebook, along with a photo of my musical-ish scribbles, one of my friends replied with a cartoon clip of Shroeder playing the opening of Fur Elise in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Hmmm, I says to myself, maybe I was just imitating Shroeder.

The next day, I sat down at the “piano” bench again. I’ll let Facebook tell it: “ON SECOND THOUGHT: Yesterday’s musical epiphany didn’t sound quite right when I tried to play my scribbles today, so I had another go. Still don’t know if I learned “Fur Elise in an unremembered college class or from Schroeder of the Peanuts. Either way, it was a good brain exercise.”

But then … a thought: What if this came from the songbook that came with my keyboard, which I received years after my TBI? I’m no good at sight-reading, and it’s hard to make recent memories stick, so maybe I labored over this thing and then put the book in a drawer and forgot it?

I looked through my songbooks and, yes, there was a version of Fur Elise. Rats!

So it’s still a musical mystery, but there’s something else here–something that ties together the note from my dad and the notes spinning (happily) in my head. The connection came, as connections often do, during a moment of quiet contemplation. I often find these moments, as Dad does, in nature.

Such moments also come during prayer or meditation. Today’s epiphany came at the end of yoga class, during savasana, a time when we lie on our backs with our eyes closed and our bodies and minds completely relaxed.

A song began playing in my head: Fur Elise! And suddenly I knew how the two competing topics would become one. My musicality came from my late mother’s side of the family. I can close my eyes and see her smiling and singing in church. Yes, I’m glad I inherited my dad’s energy and zest for life, and I’m also glad that my mother put music in my heart.

Tougher Than I Know

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Part of the flier my husband created for the yoga classes I teach to veterans.

My husband likes to tell me something when I’m feeling down–not just down-in-the-dumps down, but “I’m a brain-injured dumb-dumb, and I can’t cope with this and this and this and whatever anymore” down.

You can probably guess by the title of this piece what his message is. “You’re tougher than you know,” he always says, and I always end up feeling better. Then we always end up laughing about an incident during my hospitalization after The Accident more than a decade ago, during a time when I was in and out of consciousness and mostly out of coherence. A former high school band mate who’d gone on to become a professional musician had apparently told my sister at one point that I had perfect pitch. In the hospital I became convinced this saxophonist had called me a “perfect b—-!” During the years that followed, that silly misunderstanding morphed into my husband’s belief that I am “one tough b—-” (meant as a compliment, of course), and he’s almost made me believe it.

But yesterday, from beginning to almost the end, was a true test of my tough b—-ery.

So I wake up, resolved not to hoof it to the Community Center gym as I usually do because I was nursing a twisted ankle. With coffee in hand and a pillow propping up my foot, I was reading the newspaper when a call came from the Veterans Center, where I was due to teach my next yoga class in a week.

The social worker there greeted me in a cheery voice and said she wanted to let me know who was expected at tonight’s class. (You might recall from the previous paragraph that the next class wasn’t for a week.) Oops. After my initial panic, I told her I’d be happy to teach.

The truth is, the center had been having trouble getting participants to commit to coming to yoga. For the most part, they come for counseling, so getting even a small turnout to my classes has been a challenge. I understand that. It’s just that I’ve spent many a stressful Tuesday and/or Wednesday trying to reach the right contact person at the short-staffed, overworked office.

And I’ve been known to obsess over the yoga sequences I plan, revising or completely redoing them up to the last minute.

And I don’t drive, so I coordinate with a neighbor to take me to the center. That arrangement went off without a hitch … until yesterday. She hadn’t come to pick me up, so I lugged my equipment to her door and rang the bell. … Nothing. So I tried her cell phone, leaving a message that we must’ve gotten our wires crossed about the date (the class used to be on Thursdays) and that I would get another ride. (She called me after I’d gotten to the vet center–oops, spoiler alert–apologizing profusely for having fallen asleep. No worries, Pat!)

And it was raining. And I’m not good with Plan B’s.

But then I pulled up the hood of my raincoat, walked back across the street and called my next-door neighbor, Ian. (Ringing doorbells is so last century.) He just needed five minutes for his little boy to finish his dinner, and he’d be right over, with his son in tow. So I got to know a neighbor I’d only spoken with in passing and made it to the Veterans Center in time.

The yoga class, as always, was a joy! When I told the class that I’d have missed the morning phone call if I’d gone to the gym as planned, one of the veterans said it must have been meant to be. I think he’s right.

The overworked social worker had offered to drive me home, but my husband made it back from work in time to pick me up. I told him his words had gotten me through what for me was a hard day.

“You’re tougher than you know,” he said. … “B—-.”

Is That a Duck on the Roof, or Am I Just Quacking Up?

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Check out the view from my cat’s bedroom window this morning. (Don’t ask.) Upon closer inspection (see pic below), I confirmed that, in fact, a duck and not a goose was sitting on my neighbor’s rooftop. The mallard stayed there soaking up the sun for quite a while … but soon enough, I heard him quacking into the distance to start his day. I wish I could say the same for myself (except for the quacking), but I got distracted by my brain-injury blog and hampered by my own brain’s inability to handle technology. I don’t know where my feathered friend was headed, but I imagine he was seeking better real estate.

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The Tree of Hope

On Sunday afternoon, I made a new friend. Nothing super-weird about that … except I’d already made acquaintance with a tree behind her house and fenced yard — and in fact had done yoga poses and meditated in front of it numerous times over the past few months.

This tree, you see, has been giving me inspiration on my walk-jogs along the paved path where our neighborhood borders the local forest preserve. From its branches the homeowner had hung thin strips of wood painted with what I thought of as mantras, such as “Hope,” “Believe” and “Be Kind.” You know, all that New-Age-y crap I like.

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In all the time I’d passed by the tree, I’d never seen a resident of the home and imagined him/her to be a wise guru type, or at the very least a fellow yoga junkie.

Well, Sunday as I approached the tree, a woman in hiking boots was just coming out the back gate holding a leash attached to a big, friendly dog that looked eager to get going. (Of course, I already knew this dog from said yoga/meditation sessions. He’d sat quietly nearby–calmed, I’d imagined.)

I complimented her on the tree, and she was delighted that I found the hanging “affirmations,” as she called them, so meaningful but said she hadn’t noticed me behind her house before. (Probably a good thing.) Other passersby have also enjoyed the daily dose of positivity, she told me.

Some of the phrases come from Scripture; others, either she or her husband came up with. (I could have sworn I’d once seen an “Om” dangling from one of those branches! Well, that’s brain injury for ya.) What surprised me most was that the wood strips themselves were repurposed sections of old window blinds. Nice!

No, strike that. What surprised me most was that my new friend had planted a sickly stump of a treelet years ago and hadn’t expected much. She still has to cut back a dying branch each year, but that tree, which she dubbed Stumpy, has flourished, at least enough to hold our neighborhood’s affirmations.

I had been planning to continue on the paved path to its end and then turn around and head home, but she invited me to join her and her dog on her muddy trek through the woods. These woods, in their drier days and my not-so-seizure-prone days, had been my running grounds.

The woods also contain paths to my old friend Rocky, the boulder atop the high hill overlooking the lake. (See “Rocky” on this blog.) I used to run the mile from home to the hill (by way of another paved path) and keep running until I got up to Rocky, where I’d sit and catch my breath and the view before walking home and heading to the office.

On Sunday, as we sloshed through the mud and tried to strategically avoid giant puddles, we talked about our lives, our families, our stories. Wonderful, messy nature. Her dog, my cat. The need to share feelings and the necessity of solitude.

We hiked uphill to Rocky, had a seat and took in the view. Just as I had already met the tree I now knew as Stumpy, she’d been a longtime friend of Rocky’s. There was even a time when someone wrote affirmations on it, she said.

Conversation continued on the way back. When I mentioned that my family would be seeing “Hamilton” soon, she said she’d loved it and that, weirdly enough, she had finally had time to listen to the entire soundtrack a couple of days ago. I had just made it through the whole thing (though not for the first time) the previous day.

Eventually, we made our way out of the forest and onto the paved path. We exchanged text info, and she took a selfie–which I’m still waiting for, by the way. I’ll only use it if she wants to be in this blog post (and not just to prove I’m not writing about an imaginary friend). I returned to my house, she to hers.

The thing is, I had’t planned to go outside at all that day. Rain was threatening, and I was in a blah spell that I couldn’t shake. My husband knows the outdoors perks me up, no matter what the weather, so he suggested I take a walk. I’m sure he wasn’t trying to get rid of me.

It wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was just what I needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But seriously, folks …

I know I’ve billed this blog as “the lighter side of brain injury,” but sometimes I worry that I’m giving TBI a good name. Living with brain trauma isn’t as much fun as my posts may have been making it sound.

So let me be clear (as the politicians say): A lot of the time, it sucks. And I’m one of the very, very lucky ones.

It’s just that it’s in my nature to play down the negative and see the humor in things. (Thank God my sense of humor didn’t get lost in the car crash with my recent memories, mathematical ability, spacial and directional sense, etc.)

So, what was I writing about? Oh, yes, the sucky side of brain injury. Well, dang it. So many TBI patients have it so much worse. I’ve seen the blogs. I’ve read the articles. My neurologist considers me a miracle. I am. Shut up, brain.

I’ll try this again. Today I didn’t wake up until almost 12:30 p.m., and I felt like what I recall being hungover feels like. Well, of course. Yesterday I had allowed my senses to get overloaded. After yoga, a group of us had met for lunch to celebrate a classmate who’s finishing up rehab from a quadruple bypass he had in November. Our yoga class is like a big family, and we were all eager to welcome him back into the fold.

But the restaurant was a sports bar. Loud music, numerous screens showing sports events, and multiple conversations with multiple groups of friends proved to be too much. I had a good time, but to survive I took two breaks and kind of zoned out for awhile (on purpose).

So I was bummed out today after finally having my cereal, coffee and newspapers (plus social media, of course). By then it was midafternoon.

Just then, I heard the little clicking sound on my phone that meant I’d gotten a text. It was my “little” brother. (He’s 42!) “Just wanted to say hi. It occurred to me that I may not have told you I’ve been keeping up with your blog. Well, now I have.”

Life is good. No joke.

As Squirrely as I Want To Be

It started as a Facebook joke. One of our backyard birdfeeders hangs from atop a pole, and a squirrel kept climbing up and helping himself to the for-birds-only goodies. … At least I assume it was a he. … And the same one.

Gah!!! Even as I type this I see squirrel butt!!!

Ahem. … This time, I’m restraining myself.

 

You see, my war against squirreldom might have gone a bit too far yesterday.

I’d gotten into the habit of dashing out the back door whenever I’d see one of those interlopers and shaking my fist, a la Grandpa Simpson. That did the trick, though it sometimes scared off the birds as well. All bets were off during the polar vortex, when I didn’t so much as get near an outer wall of the house. My husband, who has no fear of negative double-digit wind chills, kept the feeders stocked during those dangerous days.

But with warmer weather, I found I could merely open a window and holler at the critters to go away. (I’m using the verb “holler” on purpose here, because I might as well have yelled, “Go on, git!”)

I didn’t truly lose it, though, until yesterday, when I was trying to capture a cat’s-eye view of the birds but couldn’t because the evil squirrel kept scaring them away and stealing their food. (In hindsight, I guess it’s not the height of mental stability to waste time photographing your cat watching birds with the goal of sending a photo text to your husband at work with the lyrics: “My LaLa brings all the birds to the yard/ And they’re like, ‘It’s better than yours’/ Damn right, it’s better than yours/ I can teach you, but I’d have to charge.”)

I didn’t get the photo, but I did send the lyrics. He loves that cat.

But something he said last night did give me pause. I told him how I’d finally had it with that squirrel and run out the door brandishing a wooden spoon at him. He laughed but said, “You’re gonna end up on somebody’s YouTube.”

No, thanks. I guess I’m really only playing to an audience of me. I really do have lowered inhibition because of my brain injury, but sometimes I feel I use that characteristic for fun and for others’ amusement. It’s true that I’ve gotten miraculously better over the past 10 years since a car crash left me with traumatic brain injury and epilepsy. But as my husband (and my neurologist, my shrink, etc.) will attest, I still break down when things go wrong.

Case in point: Last week, it was too cold for me to walk home from yoga, as I usually do, so I was hurrying to catch a ride. In the shuffle I realized I couldn’t find my phone. Friends and staff helped me look through the gym and yoga studio as I became increasingly panicked. I had tried a quick retracing of my steps through the studio, but by then a Zumba class with pounding music was in full force. (Part of my disability is heightened sensitivity to sound.) As my friend Ginnie bravely reentered the studio and found the phone kicked under a chair, a man who works at the desk hugged me. Derrick. I have trouble with names, but that’s one I’ll never forget.

Every day that I’ve been back to the gym, not one person there will allow me to be embarrassed.

So, to completely misquote the movie “Airplane!” “I am serious, and do call me Squirrely.”

Cat vs. Cat–or Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Polar Vortex

Our 25-year-old daughter looked tan but tired when we picked her up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on Sunday. She’d been on a two-week adventure in the Far East with friends and had spent the previous 36 hours traveling back.

While she was exploring Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, her cat had been exploring the far corners of our house. Frank is … how should I put this? … excitable. He’s known to be downright hostile to people he doesn’t like, meaning anyone but his mommy, and especially to my husband. (I won’t go into detail here about the bite that swelled Ted’s finger and led to a course of antibiotics–or at least any more detail than that.)

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There was also the matter of our own house pet, LaLa (short for Olive), a skittish longhair cat that cuddles only with Ted and me, and only when she feels like it. Frank is her sworn enemy. On shorter visits, she’d hiss at his every approach, whether he was pouncing at her or sidling up to try to take a sniff.

But we love our daughter, and she adores Frank, so of course we let him stay. It turned out to be an adventure for everyone. We kept in contact with her through daily text messages and photos—allowing us to see the sites and her to keep in contact with her “boy.”

As the days went by, the hostility between the two cats seemed to quiet—a little. Frank still got hissy with Ted but now seemed to want to be LaLa’s friend. Maybe Frank just didn’t understand that his mommy would be coming back and thought this new living arrangement was permanent. Then again, I could just be a crazy cat lady, assigning human emotions to animals.

But now that the ordeal is over, I can admit that the cat situation wasn’t the only thing troubling me during that two-week period. My husband and my shrink both tried to pooh-pooh my fears, but my daughter’s trip coincided with the government shutdown, and I’d read that flights to the East Coast might be disrupted. The shutdown officially ended just before our daughter was due to start flying home, but a day or two after she made it back, there were cancellations at O’Hare.

So, as long as there isn’t another shutdown, her three traveling companions–who’d planned to stay an extra two weeks–will be fine, right? I’m now sitting at my desk, taking deep breaths, watching the birds eating from the feeders across our snowy, frozen lawn, and saying a silent prayer. For those who’d like to know how kooky I really am, here’s a fun fact: My heart chakra just filled up. In other words, my heart is going out to them. It’s going out to us all. Then again, I could just be going stir crazy from being stuck in the house during the polar vortex.

Which brings me back to my daughter, who flew from a region with temperatures in the 90s to … Oh, geez, I can’t even remember what Sunday felt like. Cold, anyway. I loaned her my parka. But in another stroke of … luck? of whatever it was that kept me from dying 10 years ago and finding out that brain injury can be fun when it’s not awful? … she got here before the worst of the polar vortex.

Not to brag, but today (Thursday, Jan. 31), Chicago tied Milwaukee’s low of minus 23. The wind chill in Milwaukee made it feel like negative 40, while our city felt like negative 41. Plus, we live in the western suburbs, so my phone tells me it was much worse.

For the time being, our daughter is staying with us while working from home. Her office, like my husband’s and many in the area, have put on-site operations on hold. We’re all grateful to those who are out there keeping the rest of us safe.

By the way, did you hear they’ve been setting the railroad tracks on fire to keep the trains running? Also, to keep homeless people from people from freezing to death, Chicago city buses were dispatched to serve as moving shelters. This is some serious winter.

So our story has a happy ending–our daughter safe with us and reunited with her cat, our warring pets seeming to have come to a sort of detente, my fears turned into so much empathy for a cat who’s kind of a jerk but misses his mommy desperately that I helped broker the peace(ish)? Okay, I’m probably projecting here. Right now I’m happily housebound.

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Reunited, and it feels so good … Frank basks in the love of his mommy.

… which is how I would have ended this story, if my husband hadn’t informed me this morning that Frank has escalated his attacks on him.