Perfect working condition

A little over a week ago, I got a concussion. I took a soccer ball to the face at close range and top speed and then finished playing the game wondering why my reflexes seemed so much slower than normal and why I was suddenly making so many silly mistakes. Not until I was walking out to my car afterward, staring happily into the distance as if nothing within a few hundred yards could possibly be worth my notice, did I first suspect something might be wrong. I took the side streets home, which I suppose means I retained some ability to make good decisions.

Later that night, the headache started, and the stiffness. I was dizzy, I felt a bit as if I were floating, and I was having a hard time coming up with the words I wanted. The thought of eating any food made me sick. I went to bed, slept for ten hours, got up to take my dog out, then went back to bed and slept a few more hours. I was sure I had a concussion by that point, and after calling my dad, who is not a doctor but who is in the medical field, I knew what I had to do to get better.

Or, rather, what I had to not do.

Here’s a general list: no computer, no playing with my iPhone, no reading books, no writing, no driving, no playing video games, no watching tv or movies. No drinking alcohol, and no Advil. No grading or working on the freelance projects I’d picked up. No running—hell, no walking fast—no bike riding, no weight training exercises, and definitely no soccer.

In short, I was rather worthless as a human being. There were only two things in those first days that I could really do reliably and without causing more pain: listen to audio books and sleep.

Let’s just say I never knew you could get bored of napping.

After a few days, I started to experiment with normal activities. Five lives on Candy Crush? Okay. Four-hour work meeting? Disaster. Guitar lesson? Mixed results. Halving a recipe? My cousin, who was helping me cook, apparently let me add however much of each ingredient I thought was correct, then simply followed behind me and fixed all my bad math.

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It’s a very strange thing to be in your own head, knowing this is not the way your head is supposed to function. It’s frustrating to wonder, after walking into your kitchen and just staring around, if you’ve forgotten what you came there for because you were distracted or because your brain isn’t working correctly. And most of all, it’s infuriating to know that the things you love to do most are now things that are off limits.

A few years ago, my paternal grandfather had a heart attack. It was a bad one, but not a terrible one (I guess…), and since then—and I’m still not sure how related the two things are—since then, his cognitive ability, including his memory, has been going at an alarming rate. Now the man who crafted me a wooden She-Ra sword, who tricked me into stopping sucking my thumb by sneaking up behind me, putting water on my thumb, and telling me it was poison (probably not a technique you’ll find in any parenting 101 book), who told such funny stories and could make me laugh so much, well, he’s not really there anymore.

The trouble, though, is that he’s there enough to know this isn’t how things should be. I’m not sure he has a sense of what right would look like, but he does seem to know that things are wrong, oh so wrong. In the past few years, he’s had to stop driving and going on walks (he used to go every day). He had to sell all of his woodworking tools, and now he can’t be left alone in the house. He spends most of his days in bed, or napping in an armchair with his cat because there’s almost nothing he can do. And it both breaks my heart and terrifies me, because maybe it’s in my genes, and maybe what I’ve gone through these past ten days has been a small glimpse into my future. And maybe it’s messed up for me to even compare the two situations, or to make this about me me me, but now there’s one fewer person I love in the world who is holding on to me, to who I am, and so I respond by trying to make sense of me, of my life, in ways that I used to rely on others to do. Who would he say I am, I wonder. What would he think of the things I’ve done? Have I disappointed him because I haven’t gotten married or had kids? Does he resent me for all the times I could have gone to visit and didn’t? Is there a piece of him, somewhere, that misses me already, that feels the hole where his granddaughter used to be? That part would live in the heart, I think, and I have to believe that in him, in me, in all of us, the heart can remain whole, in perfect working condition.

5 Comments

  • Amaris says:

    Oliver Sacks just had a great piece in the New Yorker about Spalding Gray’s brain injury and how the brain itself can prevent you from certain activities (and enjoyments) after an injury. It’s always amazing to read about just how influential the brain is.

  • CJ Schoch CJ Schoch says:

    “It’s a very strange thing to be in your own head, knowing this is not the way your head is supposed to function.”

    Much of this post is relatable, but this line in particular stands out to me bc it’s often how I feel struggling with depression. The brain can trap us within ourselves even when we know we are being trapped, and it is indeed an odd, unsettling struggle; how do we fight our own minds when our minds are what we’re supposed to be fighting with?

  • Nicole says:

    Kathryn, I was very moved by your heartfelt piece. You beautifully articulate things I’ve felt recently – how the loss or change of our loved ones is also a loss or change of ourselves; how we struggle against it; how fear is strangely, surprisingly intimate. Thank you.

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