Brain Surgery

By the time the ambulance drew up at the Emergency entrance to the hospital, I couldn’t wait to get away from the havoc I had wrought inside the gleaming interior: stainless steel doors, sterile surfaces and starchy sheets, all liberally splattered with my vomit. Even in the kind of pain I was experiencing, I wanted to grovel in shame, though the guy in his scrubs trying to field the eruptions with one small blue bag after another didn’t seem grossed out. “It’s OK, love,“ he said, “I’ve seen a lot worse than this. Don’t worry about it.” Then his driver opened the back door, and they wheeled me down the ramp.

A few hours earlier, it had been Saturday evening, and Ruth and I were at the house of our friends, Scott and Diane, along with a regular group that gathered to eat Diane’s delicious soups and then play games together. Sometimes it was charades, sometimes dictionary, sometimes pictionary, but on that Saturday, we were playing some kind of made-up poetry game, dreamed up by our poet friend, Kim, and were fully launched into silliness accompanied by helpless laughter. But even as I cracked up, I could feel a very bad headache creeping in. Years ago, I had suffered from migraines, but this didn’t feel like a migraine; for no reason I could explain, it was frightening. Before the game was over, I told Ruth that I needed to go home, and she knew something was up when I gave her the car keys and asked her to drive. She asked if she should take me to the hospital, but I couldn’t see showing up at the Emergency Room for a headache so went home and fell into bed. An hour or two later, I was in the bathroom moaning with pain and nausea and finally mustered up the sense to agree to the hospital.

The ambulance having been called, our house was suddenly filled with firemen in rubber boots, the advance guard for the medical team. They tromped up and down the stairs while our dog went berserk until the medical team finally whisked me out on a stretcher, suggesting that Ruth follow in her car so we would have a way to get home—whenever that might be.

* * *

“Is it the worst possible headache anyone anywhere could ever have?” demanded someone as if they already knew the answer. It must have been a nurse or an ER doctor but I don’t remember the person, the face, or the timbre of the voice. Only the words. And thus began the slideshow that would comprise my memory of the next four weeks—sudden brilliant glimpses of a room, a person–medical or visitor–or quick snatches of audio: a new voice or the rattle of a stretcher cart hustling me along corridors beneath ceilings with right-angled pipes and sprinkler heads like carnations. Now, some months later, when I try to look into my memory, it resembles a black screen onto which a slide flashes every once in a while. Mostly, though, it remains ominously noir with a scratch or two flickering across its beaded surface, waiting for an image to appear.

It’s possible that those roll-down screens for home movie-makers are no longer made with a beaded surface as they were back in the fifties, when my father was making slide shows of his
35-mm photographs. Setting up the show involved putting the pictures with their square cardboard frames into a circular carousel from which they automatically projected as the gadget clicked from one image to the next, turning slowly in a circle. The beading of the new screen was mentioned frequently: my father loved that it was the latest thing, although the instructions suggested that a viewer should sit directly in front of it for maximum brightness. If you sat off to one side, the picture would be dim—a fact he reiterated whenever my mother hurried in from the kitchen to perch on the arm of a chair as his display began.

“You can’t see properly from there, dear,” my father would sigh. Irritation was a familiar mode for him, no matter what the rest of us were doing. So mother would shift over to the center of the room, ducking to avoid the beam of light that would project her disorderly gray curls and elicit further annoyance from the projectionist.

Sometimes, my father gave me the job of loading the slides into the carousel, which was harder than it seemed, as you had to put them in both backwards and upside down in order for them to arrive looking like the place they were taken. If I screwed up and our house appeared with the driveway on the wrong side, or the cars in France bowled along the wrong side of the road, or worse, stood on their heads, I’d be in trouble. The worst transgression of all, however, was to miss out a whole space, failing to load a slide into the metal holder where it belonged. If I made that mistake, the show would be in full swing, carousel plodding around nicely, when suddenly a click would reveal nothing but a large black square. There we sat, staring at the patch of nothing–brightly dark on its beads–while Pa grumbled under his breath about a silly girl who couldn’t concentrate on the simplest of tasks.

* * *

For a couple of days, I was in the Intensive Care Unit, where I’m told various friends came to see me, though they now remain only as one of those black squares when I try to picture them at my bedside. Soon, I was moved to the neurological ward, high up in a new tower, with bright daylight and a good view. Here, too, friends came by, but when they refer to those visits, I’m unsure whether to pretend that I remember them being there or confess that they might as well not have bothered—at least for my benefit. I’m sure their presence was crucial for Ruth, whose life had been taken over as suddenly and completely as mine: day and night monitoring doctor visits and the nurses’ dispensation of pills, sleeping intermittently on a pull-out cot in my room, and sending out regular group e-mails to let people know I was still alive. She dashed home for an hour a day to shower and pick up whatever was needed from the outside, so I was rarely alone, yet as soon as she walked out of our room, I was overwhelmed with as much anxiety as I could find the energy for. Even among thousands of caregivers, I was jittery until she returned.

One vivid slide that does still light up and slip into crisp focus shows a friend who came to sit with me while Ruth rushed home. Warned that I probably wouldn’t want to talk, Grace chatted for a few minutes and then sat quietly reading, holding my hand in hers. The jitters subsided as, once in a while, I opened my eyes and saw her outlined against the window, beyond which was a winter tree, hanging on to a few russet leaves and the line of the hills off in the distance.

For a few days I was quite compos mentis: talking and even walking to the bathroom or down the corridor to the nurses’ station. But the neurosurgeon’s plan wasn’t working; my brain function was deteriorating, and as I approached a week’s stay on the neurology ward, Ruth grew more and more frantic. I lost my ability to walk and then even to talk. She remembers my picking up my iPhone and looking at it as if it were a strange object unearthed from another century or a distant planet, quite unable to decipher its significance or use. When she tried to lead me to the bathroom, all I could mumble was, “I can’t remember how to walk.”

* * *

What I wonder now is whether those dark holes of forgetfulness are a way of experiencing denial. If I can’t remember at least some of it, perhaps it never happened. Or perhaps it happened but was not as serious as I was told by my neurologist. I was, she told me, three hours from death and had blown a pupil by the time I was examined by a neurosurgeon. It had taken Ruth two days of shouting, threatening, and crying, to drag him away from the CAT scans that he insisted showed no deterioration. When he did finally come to my bedside, it was only a matter of minutes before I was on a cart being raced down corridors to the operating room.

While my skull was carved open and my brain exposed, did those memories simply escape? Or after it was safely stitched back in place, did the denial serve a useful purpose? After all, nobody wants to believe they’ve had a saw taken to their head. Denial, in that situation, is both useful and effective.

— Judith Barrington

Judith Barrington’s Lifesaving: A Memoir was the winner of the 2001 Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. She is also the author of the best-selling Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art and three collections of poetry. She has been a faculty member of the University of Alaska, Anchorage’s low-residency MFA Program and teaches workshops around the United States, as well as in Britain and Spain.

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