Category Archives: Stroke

U is for Urgency

"i miss the old new york..."

My father keeps telling me how many years he has left to live, recalibrating his estimate each year, based on his general sense of wellbeing. He will occasionally announce like he did this year, “You know, I am 78. I have maybe 3 more good years left so I can travel. After that, maybe 5 years taking it easy. Then gone. Okay. Change channel to ESPN, please.” So far, he has outlived his original estimate years ago.

This does not alarm me–as my parents have been announcing their impending deaths my entire life, from the beginning of my remembering days. I once repeated Margaret Cho’s lines back with Korean accent-inflection and all to my mom, who began to giggle hysterically, seeing herself in Cho’s recollection and imitation of her Korean mother’s voicemails:

“BOOP! I have to tell you something. I just wanna tell yoooooou that Grandma and Grandpa, they are gonna die. *pause* I don’t know WHEN they’re gonna die, but sometime! So Mommy just tell you now, so when they die you’re not surprised. *pause* But don’t tell them! That’s not nice, that’s not nice! BOOP!”[1]

This is hilarious, because it is pretty much verbatim what my mother has told me. Except that in our household’s case, she kept telling me that she and Daddy were gonna die. Someday. And we should not be surprised. And that we needed to be independent. Because we could not depend on them to live forever. Because they could die tomorrow. (And let’s not even get started on my parental grandmother, my childhood live-in caregiver, reciting her funeral preferences to me as I fell asleep each night).

Of course, as “normal” as this all was to me, I started going to church on my own as an eight year old girl, surprising my atheist parents. It was a relief to discover the concept of Heaven and announce to my parents, “I am not afraid of Death!”[2] Humans are incredible at coping/adapting.

Ah, the things that war and early childhood suffering engenders! My war-surviving parents were blindsided by Death left and right, and they never wanted me to be blindsided. Perfect preparation for raising a writer, really.

This sense of impending death is useful in that it has provided me with an incredible sense of urgency and impatience my entire life. When in your head is the clear expectation that you or your loved ones could die any day and that the world could explode in guns and warfare, things get super crystal clear. And also, you make sure your pantry is never empty….just…in….case.[3]

When I got sick…this became less of a theory and more a reality. I really did have a stroke and it came out of nowhere, a freak event of a clot hurtling into the core of my brain, through a freak, previously undetected birth defect hole in my heart (which the doctor perfunctorily closed). I lost the ability to retrieve memories, and I had a fifteen minute short term memory (which eventually extended to a 60 minute short term memory, and then the ability to read a short story and remember it, after 6 months, etc., etc).[4] I couldn’t write fiction, let alone read fiction. I couldn’t return to writing my novel for two years.

The only thing I thought about, throughout my recovery, was regaining my ability to write. And in fact, the optimist in me was determined to come back as a BETTER writer, as inspired by Lance Armstrong (blood doping or not) as I was. I wrote in my diary everyday–sometimes it was gibberish. But mostly, it was a supplement to my damaged short term memory. Unlike Memento, I did not tattoo all that I had to remember (seriously inefficient!)–I wrote it down in my Moleskine journal, with timestamps, so that when someone would allude to something, I would rifle through the pages of my Moleskine until I found what had happened/been said previously.

But mostly, it was a record of my recovery, and it was my way of writing every single day. Oftentimes, I had to nap for hours after writing a single journal entry, because that very act would exhaust me/my brain. But I still did it. I wrote in an anonymous online journal about my recovery, where I gained some incredible friends who are still very good and close friends to this day. I just made sure to write. I was convinced that by doing so, I could reinforce writing capabilities and form new pathways in my brain that would make me a stronger writer. I wrote and I wrote. And I slept and slept afterward. And then I’d write. And sleep. Until I found myself itching to write fiction again, first in short spurts of descriptive paragraphs, and then finally, a short story.

Throughout this time, I was told I was back to normal more times than I could tolerate. But if I could not return to my novel writing, there was no way I was fully recovered. And I wondered about a life without writing fiction. I despaired. Deep inside, I knew I still had trouble remembering things, that part of my ability to retort wit/spontaneity was missing. I felt like a dull blade.

…and then, after two years of struggle, I woke up and blinked and everything was bright and sunny and calm and I realized I could remember things that I couldn’t previously remember. That I could remember people’s names again. That I could read something, and remember exact quotes and remember the exact page on which these quotes resided. That there was still a dark hole in my memory around the dates of my stroke that I had trouble remembering, but I could memorize license plates again while bored behind the wheel of my car.

And I could write my novel again. I nearly wept. But I didn’t, because my thalamus by that point had finally healed, and my coping ability had returned.[5]

The road back to my novel was graciously short, and yet simultaneously, way too long for my own comfort.

In the end, my novel benefited from that break. I returned with a greater urgency to finish and complete this novel. With a greater urgency about life and love itself. With a great understanding of this exigency. It’s been years since my stroke, and I still think about that time whenever I need to summon that need to finish/urge myself to move forward.[6]

[1] The thing is though: you can never prepare for Death. It sucks when it happens.

[2] I am no longer church-going or Christian. And I, like many Jews, am not really sure Heaven exists.

[3] On 9/11, right after the planes flew in to the WTC, my dad called me up and the first words out of his mouth were, “We are going to war! Prepare yourself! Go to store and buy water!”

[4] The only thing I was able to read and retain in those early months of stroke recovery was People magazine.

[5] Until I had fully healed, I wept with great ease. I just couldn’t control my emotions. Like a small child, I cried when I missed someone, and I cried when someone hurt my feelings, helpless without response.

[6] I try to engender the same sense of urgency in my students. I tell them we don’t have a lot of time. That we are in this basic skills class to remedy the last 10 years of ill preparation. That we have one semester, just a few months, to make up for all that lost time. That we are in it together.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Filed under Alphabet: A History, Memes, Stroke, Writing

Meditation on Perfect Days

"You Would"

Needless to say, I haven’t even looked at my novel since arriving in Berkeley. For various reasons. Responsibilities and obligations that overpower writing. It makes me sad. Frustrated. Angry. Guilty. Resentful. It makes me want to eat. Punish myself. It makes me feel small.

But I did have a perfect day out here this weekend. I met up with friends at yoga (lots of chanting, alas–it’s Berkeley after all). We went to the Bakesale for Japan, surrounded by a lot of love and baked goods.

My friend and I nibbled on our treats as I felt the cool and dewy foggy air on my face, the kind of air that makes my skin gurgle with delight. She and I hadn’t seen each other in months and we made easy talk, the kind that comes with long familiar periods of silence, a combination of good friendship and post-yoga calm. It was good to see her. It felt good to be with her.

I felt so balanced. No anger. No worries. No anxiety. Just peace.

When I got home I said to myself, “If I can fit writing in, this will be a perfect day.” And so I cracked open my journal and wrote. No pressure. No plot or character development or perfect language. Just thoughts. And feelings. A wonderful mess of writing, like listening to a vinyl record with its pop and crackle.

It was a perfect day.

When I had my stroke, I had, among many things, a lot of issues around short term memory. Mostly, I didn’t have a short term memory. Whatever had happened 15 minutes prior, I forgot. And forget about planning. I couldn’t plan anything at all. So I lived in the present tense.

My damaged brain was totally quiet. There was no  background “static” containing worries, anxieties, fretting, and grudges. Think about it–you probably have an ongoing radio in your head–try to silence it–it’s nearly impossible to turn it off. Stressing out requires memory. Worrying requires memory.

My brain was just quiet for the first 2 months of recovery. Just a blank. I couldn’t even figure out what to eat. I’d open the fridge, dizzy with hunger, and become overwhelmed with all the labels and ingredients inside. Too much. I’d shut the door and walk away from the noise that I could not process. Sit down. Forget I was hungry. Be dizzy. Be quiet. Stare at the wall for hours. Or maybe minutes. I didn’t know how much time had passed. Pet my dog, her soft fur. Stare at my fingers. Then stare at the wall. Turn the television on. Not understand a thing, forget the plot. Shut it off. Sit again. Quiet.

I now think, wow, that’s peace. That’s being in the present tense. In the midst of something awful, I was experiencing something magical, something people pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time to pursue: total silence.

It was a strange kind of peace–just blankness. There was nothing to negotiate–just a sense of being in the world, without awareness of boundaries or limits. I’ll never have that kind of peace again–because my life is not a blank page as it was in my brain damaged state.

My life is full–of emotions and experiences and geography and people and responsibilities and indulgence. It’s messy. My writing slays me. But I’d also never not write. But that sense of peace, that incredible feeling of being everything and nothing, all at once I felt when sick? The closest I get to it is by writing. And the different peace I get from writing, a day of good writing, far exceeds the blank slate.

So when I don’t write, or when my writing goes poorly, I struggle hard. I lose my center. I lose my peace. It’s difficult. But there’s no solution to it, other than to keep writing. And then comes the peace, that perfect day, once in a blue moon.

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Filed under Life, Stroke, Writing

This is a really long story about my relationship with my body

finger puppets

I have had a really bad relationship with my body. A *really* bad relationship with my body. At the horrible risk of offending the quadriplegic community, I will say that for most of my life, I have been a psychological quadriplegic; my psyche was disconnected from my body. I did not include my body in my decisions, life, goals, etc. My body had let me down so often, that my entire life was in my head; my life was invested in academics, in reading, in writing, in conversation.

Everything, I thought, was mind over matter. Exercise was painful. Mind over matter. Backpacking, one of my favorite hobbies, was still painful. Mind over matter. My body brought me no joy. Pushing my body through the journey was a means to an end, dictated by my mind. Get to the top of the mountain and digest the view! F*ck the vomiting and the pain. Get through it. My body brought me no joy.

My body was the cause of psychic pain: in grade school, a very ungifted child at any form of athletics (except hula-hooping, and I’ll get to that later), I was always picked last. When you get picked last time after time, you learn to divorce yourself from the source of that pain, and that pain was my body. There are students who fail in school, and after awhile, they remove any self esteem from academic success.

I learned, strategically, to position myself as the CAPTAIN of teams in grade school. Guess what: I was a wizard at strategizing so that I picked the strongest teams. The “Dangerous Dandelions” won every single soccer game during lunch hour. I positioned myself as a fullback and prayed the ball would never come my way. It never did. Everyone on my team knew better than to let the ball get to me. I was proud of them for being so wise.

I was good at hula-hooping. But that was because my dad thought that hula hooping would chisel away at my belly fat. I could hula-hoop for an hour straight. I was a wizard at hula-hooping. Still, it had been a painful road; I had to hula-hoop in front of my dad who made me hula-hoop for an hour on end.

When I told a friend in my mid-20s that I didn’t work out because it was so painful and difficult, he gave me a response that was straightforward and true. He said, “Christine, if it were easy to be fit, everyone would be fit.” Oh. I realized that it wasn’t supposed to be easy. But–still, why was it so difficult for me? Why did I pass out during workouts? Why did running leave me dizzy and gasping for air, and often, throwing up by the side of a road or by the side of a treadmill?

My body was a source of pain in so many ways; I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. I was taught to cover my body up. I was told my body looked horrible in a bikini, not because it looked horrible, but because, in hindsight, I realize it was a way to prevent me from wearing a bikini. But the message came through, all the same.

When I got to college, and experienced the first amorous pair of male hands on my body, I stiffened. I divorced myself from my body in a way that I’d divorced my body before hundreds of times. My body was no longer there. And because I went numb, I let the boy go too far; I’d never been kissed before, but there I was, being kissed. His tongue was cold and probing and I wasn’t there. So I didn’t stop him. It wasn’t until my roommate walked in, saying, “Oops!” that I was able to snap out of my stupor and tell the guy, “I just want to go to sleep.” He was confused. And he was angry later, when I told a mutual friend that his advances were unwanted.

Future amorous encounters were just as uncomfortable. Had I been abused? No. I just couldn’t STAND my body. The next time a boy touched me, it tickled. It.tickled. I couldn’t stop laughing. It.tickled!!! I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t get relaxed. I had to drink to be touched. My friends heard me recount my dependence on alcohol to be touched and they became concerned. But it was what I had to do to divorce myself from my shame around my body.

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Filed under Favorites, Life, Running, Stroke, The Personal