Victims of Theft

The Swimming Lesson
by Mary Oliver

Feeling the icy kick, with the endless waves
Reaching around my life,
I moved my arms
And coughed
and in the end, saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us,
that ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all about swimming,
but only
How to put off,
One by one,
Dreams and pity,
love and grace,
How to survive in any place.

First I’ll tell you about Phyllis. Her stroke dealt her a harsh blow–she cannot walk without assistance and she has lost the use of one hand. She has also lost self-control–she acts petulant, spoiled, and manipulative; she will throw objects in anger at the slightest perceived insult.

She’s one of the patients I meet at rehab whose life has been forever altered by their brain injury–whether it’s a stroke, accident or surgery, like me. Her former self has been stolen.

John was a trial lawyer. I am not why, but after his stoke he has a terrible stutter. I assume he was once articulate; now his primary therapist tells me she hopes to find him an administrative job in a law office. She has him practice by making copies and collating them. When he drops the stack of papers he just sorted, I notice that the long streak of curses he yells is not once interrupted by his stammer.

Kent is sweet, but cannot focus. In the middle of telling me about the college he took his teenage son to visit, he trails off. “What was I saying?” he asks, ashamed.

Larry tells me about the terrible-tasting meatloaf his wife cooked last week. He ate it without complaining–“It’s the least I can do after all she’s done for me.” Like so many rehab patients, Larry may never work again. His vision is now so bad that he cannot read a line of type or calculate a sum of numbers. (“Oh, I didn’t see that 2 there.”)

The second John is an ex-Marine. He was a helicopter pilot who fought in Desert Storm. He once ran his own company, but he had to sell it after the awful elevator accident that caused his brain injury. He isn’t fit for work any longer.

What lives are we suited for now that we have been broken? I ask myself that constantly, or at least I do when I can stop wondering why these things happened to these innocent people.

How does a thief choose his victims? It cannot be because we are weak. These are some of the strongest people I know.

When we are robbed, we feel exposed and violated.

The Balancing Act

Beauty of the sunlight falling on a tall vase of red and white carnations and green leaves on the altar in the novitiate chapel. … The “simplicity” that would have kept those flowers off the altar is, to my mind, less simple than the simplicity that enjoys them there but does not need them to be there.” –Thomas Merton

"Lifted," a journal page I completed August 18, 2011.

It seems that ever since my brain surgery I am caught between pretending and pity. Years later, I am still trying to find a balance between the two.

On any given day, I am probably pretending that everything is OK and that all the changes to my body and mind–and all the challenges added to each daily task–aren’t too much for me to handle. I let people think that I can take it all in stride.

Of course, it’s hard to keep up that kind of pretending–but what’s the alternative? Pity. As soon as I admit that there are things I cannot do, or even go so far as to confess that there are parts of my previous life that I’ve totally given up, people look at me differently. Even if they try to hide it, I can see the pity start to creep into the corners of their eyes.

Once I’ve been honest, people feel badly for me and wonder what my life must be like. They imagine what it might feel like to be me.

And suddenly, although all I’ve done is explained why I was too slow to catch an elevator or clumsily knocked over a coffee cup, I have reminded them of the brutal truth of how fragile our bodies can be. I have made them think of their own mortality.

So it’s no wonder they distance me with pity. The truth is hard for me to take, too. I’d much rather pretend. For as long as I can.

How Can I Forget?

I am forever changed by my brain surgery--but will I always be defined by it?

Just the other day a friend said to me, “You know you’re a walking miracle, right?” I smiled and said, “Of course,” knowing that I have regained much more since my brain surgery than the doctors expected. (That seems like a miracle for sure!)

But in truth, I had forgotten. Yet… how can being a miracle slip my mind? How can I forget to be grateful for being alive?

I had spent the first two years after my surgery high on all the small, constant improvements that I saw in my abilities. I worked hard at my therapies with perseverance and drive. There were days when I would feel depressed or get discouraged, but I never let those times slow me down for long.

For the first two years, the reliable pattern was this: I would work hard and do what I was told by doctors and therapists, and I would be rewarded by gaining back some skill–holding a pen to write, walking without a cane–that the surgery had taken away.

Because of my small successes, I began to feel as if I had some bits of wisdom and words of comfort to offer others facing a difficult situation. “If just one person has their pain eased by talking to me–if I can help just one person feel better–then everything I have gone through is worthwhile.” That’s what I constantly told myself and anyone else who will listen.

The night that Adan, my second son, was born, one of the pastors from my church came to visit me in the hospital. I told him that the only reason that God had healed me was to show the world that anything is possible, that He can do anything, and that miracles still happen. I felt lucky, blessed, honored.

While I still believe that, I realize today that I have come to accept my limitations as my “new normal.” What I once worked so hard for–the ability to stand in the shower or drive to work–have become everyday activities. All that I have accomplished makes it easy to forget how hard I worked and how lucky I am.

But it’s good to be reminded.

I titled this collage, "Memories." It's a piece I created years ago, but was never really happy with. Just the other day I reworked it.

Before and After: Visual Proof

"Before"--a composition with cuts that now seem too intricate to achieve.

Once I fully realized–and it took a while before I did–how much I had lost after my brain surgery, holding on to the things I still had a grasp on became almost an obsession.

I had lost the ability to keep time to music, to dance, to run, to balance. I could no longer sing (even with the radio), and for almost a year after my surgery, I couldn’t drive a car. Those things were gone forever; after all, it was only after months of intense therapy that I could walk, feed myself, and hold a pen to write. I felt as if I was no longer myself.

So art became important because it was one of the few things from my life “before” that I could still enjoy “after”–it was a part of me that I could hold onto. At least, I hoped I could. I remember crying for at least an hour the first time I tried to use a pair of scissors with my occupational therapist. (What a disaster that was! I would have gotten a neater edge just by tearing the paper.)

It took a long time before I would create a journal page or collage that I wasn’t too embarrassed to show others. When I finally did, it was my way of saying, ” See, some part of the old me is still alive. Here–look at this–I have proof.”

An "after" entry in my journal. As I take a step in a new direction, I can't help but glance back.

Journals and Healing

Some of the visual journals I've filled over the years.

“Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem like nothing to you in comparison?” Haggai 2:3

I was about two months into what would be six months of physical and occupational therapy after my brain surgery. That’s when I realized that the best way to make progress was to tell my therapists what I wanted and needed.

That was how my work on my visual journals started–really, really, started.  Before, I had created collages and kept art journals off and on, but brain surgery had left my hands so weak and uncoordinated that I could barely write or hold scissors. Creating art seemed out of the question, yet at the same time, it wasn’t a part of my past that I was willing to give up.

So the occupational therapist and I brainstormed a bit. She asked if could I use punches instead of scissors. She suggested exercises I could do to strengthen my hands enough to hold a paintbrush. I was determined to try.

I set myself a goal of creating a collage a week in my art journal, but became so excited that I completed one a night for several nights in  a row. The journal became a tangible way to see progress though out my months of therapy. It was something small that I could keep close, look at, and think, “I made that!”

Were those pages like the artwork I had created before? No, but somehow the restrictions on my creativity slowed me down and forced me to explore new paths–ones I would not have bothered with before because there were so many others to travel, and they all seemed so easy.

When I showed fellow therapy patients my journal, they got it–they understood the pain, frustration, the small triumphs, all without a word said.

One of the pages in the first journal that I worked on while in occupational therapy.