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Accidents divide things into the great Before and After.
"Even before his brain injury, Alan had a hard time remembering names," I'll say. "Since Daddy's accident, I have to work more," I tell our daughter, Kelly. The brain injury community marks time by asking how long someone has been "out of" injury, the same way bereavement counselors ask how long your loved one has been dead. Six months out, two years out, ten years out.
Out of what, exactly?
Out of the giant crevice that has been exploded into the bedrock of your life.
Here's how I see it: One day, you and your family are hiking across a long, solid plain, when out of the sky comes a blazing meteor that just happens to hit one family member on the head. The meteor creates a huge rift in the landscape, dragging the unlucky one down to the bottom of the crevice it has made. You spend the next year on a rescue mission, helping him climb to the top, but when he gets up there, you realize that he has been greatly changed by the hardship. He doesn't know a meteor has hit him. He will never know, really. He only knows that he has spent a lot of time in a dark, confusing place. He left a lot of stuff behind, the stuff he was carrying with him, down in that big hole, and it's impossible to get it all back.
How do you even get him out? Well, you and your family have to jump across the crevice first and then pull him up on the "other" side of your life. Or you have to stay on the side where you were, drag him out, and then all leap together to the other edge of the crater. It's not easy. The chasm between the old life and the new is wider than you think. You could fall into the darkness yourself, trying to jump across.
And the damned crevice is always there, the bad-luck meteor stuck down inside it. You turn your back on it and go on, across that wide plain of life, again. But along the way you have to tell the improbable story of the meteor. You have to describe the big hole in the ground and the little holes it left behind. You dream about the crevice. You dream about the time before the meteor came down without warning. And you can never again hear about anyone getting hit on the head without knowing it is the beginning of a new and bewildering journey.
"Look at what he did with that light," says my husband, Alan, studying a canvas at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's the last day of the boffo, much-publicized Cézanne exhibit. Supplied with free last-minute tickets from friends, we jump at the chance to get in under the wire, though we know the gallery will be packed. Stories about the city's Cézanne-crazed summer had reached us in airless hospital rooms, seeming more like reports from another planet than an event we could actually attend.
Alan has a long history of never going through an art exhibit just once. He circles it two or three times or more, returning to study individual paintings in detail. I've usually been cooling my heels in the gift shop for twenty minutes by the time he wanders in.
But today a weak, subdued version of Alan leans forward on a cane, gazing at Cézanne's brushstrokes as he listens to the canned narration clamped onto his head. He has no spare energy to walk around the exhibit more than once -- he'll have to drink in each painting in one thirsty gulp.
Right now I don't care how long he spends in front of each painting. He can stay there all day, wearing his dorky headset and listening to the droning narrator a couple of times for each picture. I'll wait.
"He can still analyze art!" I think. A revelation, like the one only a few weeks before: "He can still read!"
The brain is an amazing organ. The three-pound blob keeps lots of great information up there, like the lyrics to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, the sensation of your first kiss, and the digits of your childhood phone numbers. Put your brain through a windshield at seventy miles an hour or bash it with a sledgehammer, and then it's a crapshoot. You might remember something or you might not. You might not even recall who was in the room with you five minutes ago. You might not walk or talk again. You might never wake up from that coma. You might wake up and be nasty and aggressive. You might talk in jargon. You might only sing a sitcom theme song, over and over and over.
Alan's brain got run over by a speedboat.
That last sentence reads like a bad country-western song lyric, but it's true. It was a silly, horrible, stupid accident. Only months before touring the Cézanne paintings, Alan was lying in a coma in Kingston, Ontario. A Canadian government helicopter touched down on a highway near the remote lake where we were staying and rushed him to a teaching hospital. In the helicopter Alan began to have seizures and stopped breathing. By the time he was stabilized in the emergency room, doctors and nurses were telling me they didn't know what would happen to him.
"You just love me for my brain," says Alan, smiling in his new affability. I laugh every time he says it, sharp tears stinging the corners of my eyes. We used that phrase all the time when we were work-obsessed graduate students newly in love. Now Alan uses it ironically. His brain has been damaged and will never be the same. His rehabilitation counselor says that the "old" Alan died on July 1, 1996, and a new one arose, created by the rivers and lakes of bruises that coursed over his brain as he lay unconscious in the days after his injury. He is a man with different frontal lobes, and a different personality to match.
Several weeks after his accident, while still in an addled state at a rehabilitation hospital, Alan told a doctor that he felt reborn. "That's a common feeling among our brain injury patients," said Dr. Weinstein.
"I have a question, though," continued Al. "If I had to be reborn, how come I'm still forty-four years old?"