I’ve been watching CBS’ 60 Minutes most of my life, but I missed last night’s interview with Liam Neeson, because I was busy cooking for my family. The minute I learned that Neeson was the guest, however, I actually felt relieved that I missed the show…then immediately began to breathe rapidly, feel slightly anxious, unwillingly revisiting the panic I felt when his wife, Natasha Richardson, died five years ago from Traumatic Brain Injury.
At the time of Natasha Richardson’s death, I was unable to cook. I could no longer follow a recipe, because of my own Traumatic Brain Injury. I had trouble reading and I had trouble following things in a sequence. I couldn’t process most information, certainly not automatically or without delay. I also could not cook extemporaneously, as I was accustomed to doing, or even stand for extended periods of time. I had actually given up trying to cook or really even wanting to. At that time, there were many things I no longer could do, and I had given up even caring; because in many ways, I was still fighting for survival.
In March 2009, I identified strongly with Natasha Richardson’s story. Richardson was a mother and 45-years-old when she received blunt force trauma to the head, and I was mother and 50-years-old when I received the same. Like me, Richardson reported being “fine” shortly after her injury. Like me, she also refused medical care initially, and then tried to resume her normal activities. Like me, the full impact of her injury took time to surface; and as in my case, the subsequent swelling in her neck and head, as well as the bleeding in her skull and brain, all impaired her communication skills. For each of us, this event changed everything. How I survived and she did not is still a mystery to me to this day.
At times I wonder if not going to the hospital is actually what might have saved me…though I would never advise this to anyone. In fact, I feel the opposite: Do not hesitate for any reason; always go immediately to the hospital. Do not wait, as I did, until a doctor insists. Not that you’ll be thinking…you’ll more likely be groggy and uncomfortable, perhaps even combative and crying, yelling and screaming as I was (which are all classic symptoms of closed head injury). So I might amend this to say that if you are the person accompanying a person who suffers a blow to the head, insist on calling an ambulance. Don’t argue with them about it, just do it. The injured person very well may need to receive oxygen, at the very least; but they probably won’t know it, and will most likely thank you in the end. Just be safe, and call for emergency help.
Natasha Richardson’s family is now left to tell her story, but because I somehow miraculously survived, I am finally trying to tell my own.
Five years after Natasha Richardson’s death and nearly seven after my own ordeal, I am back at last to cooking again. Yet I am still uneasy when I recall her story. I am still squeamish about watching a television interview about it. I don’t really like to relive the feelings I felt and the thoughts I thought when I was working hard to recover from my own Traumatic Brain Injury. It is a bit of a burden to carry, knowing how close one came to death. And having survived is not always filled with rejoicing. There has been a lot of suffering and chronic pain, endless medical care, and far too much negative change–all of which was completely against my will.
Still, what is also interesting (and what ultimately matters most to those who live) is what a person does, not only to survive a life-threatening condition, but also to endure it.
When occupational therapy failed me one summer, one of the tasks I discovered on my own that was exceedingly helpful was scrapbooking. It was something I could do that was analogous to the kinds of tasks I enjoyed in my job as a professor of English. It allowed me infinite opportunity for invention and hours of creativity, which I had regularly practiced in my reading, lecture planning, assignment making, and discussion leading. It necessitated a vast variety of materials, new skills and tools, all of which provided a new vocabulary, and consequently a new perspective, which was also at times mathematical.
In addition, scrapbooking stimulated my weakened memory as I sorted through old photographs, at times of events of which I now had no recollection (which was completely unlike my old brain that was detail-oriented, effortlessly remembering dates, as well as what everyone wore and said). Scrapbooking also provided endless trials of where I put whatever I was using or needing to use. In fact, I often spent more time looking for things I just had in my hands or retrieving things I was certain I put in a particular place, than I did actually crafting. This was useful, however, because my injury left me deficient in visual recall, and I needed at the time to work on this skill probably above all others.
For me there was a natural progression from scrapbooking to paper crafting, where instead of celebrating and documenting experiences, I created gifts for others and for occasions that celebrated and honored them. The flexibility of paper crafting was especially gratifying to me as I worked on tags, cards, printers’ trays, banners, books, and more. Really, there is no end to the things one can create with both mediums, but to a writer/technical writer, there really isn’t anything more fun than working with a lavish array of colorful pens, papers, and possibilities. It’s all in its own way very poetic, and not at all devoid of linguistic competence.
Because teaching college English did not permit excess time for exploring hobbies beyond writing, the opportunity for me to dabble in this new endeavor became a valuable experience at a time when nearly everything else that mattered to me was uncertain, or at the least had to be put on hold.
Not only did I learn a good deal by paper crafting, which also helped me to rebuild cognitively while developing new neural pathways, but crafting also helped me to heal further in other valuable ways, including spiritual and emotional. It was something I could complete when I generally felt worthless or otherwise non-productive. It was something I could enjoy in a quiet, focused environment, when other sensory information often felt crowding or even overwhelming. It was something, during short reprieves of chronic pain, that I could do that left me close to my bed for rest whenever I was overcome by fatigue. And crafting gave me something to plan and to dream about, as well as anticipate. Above all, I enjoyed the prayful experience of holding in focus the person and the relationship I had with the person for the duration of time it took to craft something for them. In this way, crafting was a calming meditation of positive thought and influence, something that inherently brought me great joy. It never mattered to me that it was joy typically greater in proportion than that of the recipient’s.
Scrapbooking, unlike poetry, generally has the appearance of being easy to accomplish, when in fact, it can be quite tedious and time consuming, while also requiring tremendous patience. Poetry, if it is good, often looks more complicated than it is—more arduous to write than it actually was. This is not to say that writing poetry is easy. It is just that the two arts are not generally seen in the same light, when my experience shows that they might be. In an upcoming post, I will explore the experience of writing poetry during recovery from head trauma.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.