November somethingth, 2016
Who’s the Prime Minister?
Why are you even asking me this? That guy in America? Let’s talk about him. Trump. No, that’s the wrong one. What’s the question? The Prime Minister. The smiler.
I don’t mean it to come out like a question. I get another in return.
What date is it?
What the heck? I’ll just check my screen. Except I definitely don’t want to move off this floor. I’m sure it’ll be OK if I just say the day instead. It’s not like this is a test.
So, tell me what happened?
My head hit the floor, my son’s head hit my head and my head hit the floor again.
I’m going to tell you some words. I want you to remember them. Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble.
Ok. Words is my thing.
Can you tell me the months of the year backwards?
I can. And I do. But we agree between us, me, the nurse, and my friend Laura who is also my chauffeur for the day, that this is not an easy thing for most people at the best of times. And that the form we’re working though definitely shouldn’t use the word ‘handicap’ because we’re not talking about golf. Trying to decide if I’m mild, moderate or severe at things make me confused and angry and anyway the words won’t stay still. I try to stand straight with my eyes closed. I walk up and down the corridor in a line.
Can you remember the words I told you?
Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble.
The rest of November
I try to sleep. I overthink things. I stare at the ceiling. I hold my neck to get myself out of bed. The kitchen is a long way away and coffee isn’t piercing the fuzz anyway. Reading hurts my eyes. Thinking hurts my everything. Sarah from Southern Rehab sits with me at the kitchen table, explains that the eyes are the windows to the brain and mine need frequent breaks. She encourages me to write things down. I write down our next appointment on the calendar. I get the day wrong.
A friend tells me that the clue to being a good patient is in the word.
Monotasking is painstaking. Multitasking near impossible. And I don’t mean superwoman juggling. I mean showering. Forget driving; I get driven. I go to town (Wanaka) with my husband with the aim of walking up Mount Iron. I hold his arm for five minutes, then sit on the side of the track, sweating, terrified. I wear my sunglasses constantly, feeling like some quasifamous wanker with a stonking hangover in a glaring airport.
For a few days, nobody knows who the Prime Minister is. For most of the month, I’m really not sure what the heck’s going on. I go to the physio and play one legged ponies on a piece of foam. When I take it home, the family finds the movements tricky too. Another physio puts kind hands on my neck and says How do you feel? How does that feel? Tell me what’s going on for you.
I don’t know how to answer that, physically or mentally. Write it down, they say. Write it down. But the reading and the writing hurt most of all. There is a dead space in my head, surrounded by a cage.
I tell them I’m doing the bare minimum of teenagercare and householding. I’m only slightly lying. I’m pushing it every day. The supermarket is torturous. Eyes down, sunglasses on, teeth gritted, I sway through the aisles. Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble. Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble.
I stand in front of a class and ask Any questions?
What do you look like without your sunglasses?
I forgot that I had them on.
I take brain breaks, hot water bottle behind my head, staring at the cool whorls on the ceiling. I mull determinism and gratitude: maybe this concussion has been sent to teach me something? The rest of my body calls bullshit on my brain for even considering it. It’s obviously not thinking straight. The things I think but don’t write down are: Can anybody else see those flashing lights? I’m glad it was my head and not my son’s. Why doesn’t food taste of anything? Is this what Alzheimer’s starts off feeling like? I am being weird. Why is everyone so annoying all the time? What if the ideas never come back? I am scared of the acronym TBI.
When people ask, I say I’m fine.
I stop. I lie off the grid on sun loungers. I am lucky. I read. I drink alcohol and it tastes of something overrated. The cage gets looser every day. The water, though. It unbalances me even to think about swimming in it. I feel myself, cautiously so. Trepidacious. At least I remember the word. And can bear to Googletrawl and find out it’s not actually a word. I am trepid. And better.
Or so I think until I return to the overachieving traps of the everyday. My office upsets me. Everything about Back To School is an uphill battle. Square one with a smaller cage. But I remember the words, for what they’re worth. Elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble.
I wake up in the mornings and try to remember to roll to the right. Which the physio says is important. But I’ve forgotten the answer, if I remembered to ask why. I go to the doctor and get her to give me a piece of paper to say I’m allowed to take it easy. Black and white on the page. Allowing myself is another step entirely. Or rather a two-foot tango around truths. I should be better than this. My house should be more organised, my garden tamed. But my head isn’t playing should.
Can you remember the words?
Liz Breslin: Liz lives in Hawea Flat, New Zealand and writes poems, plays, stories and articles as well as a fortnightly column for the Otago Daily Times. She is comfy on the page and the stage, was second runner up in the 2014 New Zealand Poetry Slam in Wellington, did an audience-response poem at the 2016 TEDx Queenstown and came third in the Charles Causley Trust International Poetry Competition the same year. Liz’s first collection of poems, Alzheimer’s and a spoon, will be published by Otago University Press in 2017. Her website is www.lizbreslin.com
NOTE: TBI stands for Traumatic Brain Injury