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Magical As A Fresh Snowfall: The Story of Lova

 

magical snowfall

Magic keeps us going, keeps us paying attention.

Leaving the house before daybreak always seems at least in part like an interesting adventure.  On this week’s Monday morning, I had it planned to drive with my husband through the dark of night to his meeting, so that I would have a vehicle to drive later that morning to my own.

A pre-dawn snowstorm created these two unusual occurrences, since 1) these days I rarely have cause to leave the house so early, and 2) it is, after all, spring (or, supposed to be); just last week temperatures had risen to the 70s.

Perhaps you have already seen that

variables like these are the ones that lead to chance meetings.

We traveled quietly alongside one another, observing the billowing snow.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” my husband noted.

“Yes,” I replied, with a throat already tightening, eyes watering, “but it reminds me of my mom,” I answered softly.

“I know,” he said, “it takes a long time.”

“I should be good in about two more years,” I guessed.  “I still can’t talk or think about it.  But moments like this–well, they just…bring her back…”

“So palpably,” is what I was thinking in that deep barrel that can be known as grief.

As the outside visibility grew poorer, I was able to admit this mystery–the mystery of one’s presence beyond life, beyond their natural life.  This admission from me, who cannot bring myself to acknowledge or count the months that she has been gone, yet vaguely realize that it is somehow already nearing two years.

Moments later, just before 5 a.m., incredibly dark with a heavy snow accumulating, I dropped off my husband, kissed him goodbye, adjusted the car seat and mirrors, fastened my seatbelt, and proceeded into the snowy night–just me, a few streetlights, and two other cars distant on the roadway.

Not far from home, I saw in the darkened light the shadow of an old woman. She was trudging along the curb toward oncoming traffic.  Already driving slowly, I had time to look hard and long, as confusion began to flood me.  Her walking on the street seemed dangerous, though I noticed the sidewalk was fully covered while the road was not.

I looked in each of my mirrors to see no others, and came to a hesitant stop not fully knowing if I wanted to say what I was about to say; then pressed the electronic button to roll down the car window.

“Do you need a ride?” I called with a start in my heart.

The woman’s face was undecipherable, cloaked by a babushka, and she seemed as confused as I was by this unexpected greeting.

“Oh, please,” she said, her figure uncertain through the falling snow.

“Wait there,” I called, “I’ll pull in–there,” I pointed, to the driveway not fifteen feet ahead.

Then, I worried.

Could she shoot me?  Could she be mean?  Would she?  Was she a she? Might this spontaneous action end the story that was my life?  I had been warned never to pick up strangers on the road…

And then before I had any time left to fret, the car was in Park and she was opening and entering the passenger’s side door.

She entered wheezing, bungling her way into the front seat, breathing heavily from the walk.

“Where are you going,” I asked incredulously.

“I’m going to the train station,” she answered; “I need to catch the 5:20 train.”

“Oh, my gosh,” I said, “so early in the morning; it’s still so dark outside!”

“I have to work,” she asserted.

“Well, I know just where the train station is,” I added; “I live right near there,” to let her know she was not inconveniencing me.

An immediate calm filled the car for us both, it seemed.

“I live on Elm Street,” she said, seeming to let me know she felt safe, and also to indicate how far she had already walked.

“I grew up on Elm Street,” I brightened, surprised at the delight that followed, and all the energized talk about her house number, along with that of her friends’, the current neighbors of the house that was for so many years my home.

“You poor thing,” I said.  “You are walking to work on this cold day.”

“One more year!” she repeated, “One more year!”

“Ah,” I said, “retirement!  And then you will retire!”

“Yes, yes!  I am an old woman.  It will be about time!”

“How old are you” I asked, feeling the press of time as we made our turn toward the station, and with more surprise in my voice than I meant to share.  It felt like a script I had never read, a scene I had never envisioned.  More thoughts raced through my mind than I had time to moderate.

“I’m 80,” she said, seeming to know that that was awfully old to be commuting from the suburbs to the city.

Immediately, I envisioned the walk she must have ahead of her once she arrived downtown.

“EIGHTY?!” I declared.

At once, yet again unexpectedly, I flooded with pride.  I felt proud to be a woman.  Proud to be a woman helping this woman.  Knowing the work of women…the hard, hard work of women.  Knowing both how little and how much separated me from being that woman myself.  How it would have been like me not to retire before 80.  Or, 81!

“This is so nice of you,” she said smiling wide; “I am so grateful…This is so nice!”

And then she looked at me hard and long as if studying a return route.

With what seemed her brightest smile, she exclaimed:

“YOU ARE MY GUARDIAN ANGEL!”

And then, ducking and lowering her head closer, she repeated, “You are my guardian angel!”

The words hit large.  The confusion returned while, as if wanting to offer her more than just one ride one day in the snowy dark of night, I found myself saying, “My name is Debbie.”

“My name is Lova!” she proclaimed, smiling cheerfully.  And then repeating, seemingly for emphasis and separating the syllables:

“Loo-va!”

Her accent was thick.  Beautiful.  Her country eluded me.  Was she Czech?  I couldn’t be sure.

I felt I heard her clearly, “Loo-va.”  “Lova.”  Like a song I heard once but would never forget.

Back home in dark warmth and the light of my computer screen, I googled, “the woman’s name Loova.” And this is what I found:

http://www.nordicnames.de/wiki/Lova

Lova

And then it hit me…a completely unanticipated connection.

The neighborhood snow had me thinking of my mother.  Hurting over the loss of her.  And here was this woman of thick, stocking-ed calves, bundled up like a grandmother, heavy with time, going to work.  A woman I could help.  A woman who undoubtedly had given so much help herself to so many others in so many ways.  A woman still helping.  A woman named “Love.”

I tried to stem the wonder.  Could this on some level have been my mother, greeting me from the beyond?

Could the great gratitude this woman had, on this day that she said I made for her, this day that happens to fall on the 26th anniversary of the birth of my son–the day that he and I nearly both died in a complex labor–could any or all of that be in any way connected to any day I might have “made” for my own mother…or to the day the birth of my only son made for me?

Probably not.

But maybe.

We never know.

We just never know where a day will take us.

Because life is hard, but life is magical.

It is pretty much up to us to find the meaning in our days.  To add the joy to our own Happiness Jars.

I will just say that I am grateful that on this day–this day that echoes a time when I once labored so hard, this day when I was missing my mother but trying not to, on this snow-covered spring morning in 2015– that I was able to be open to the moment, and because of this able, in some small way, to be of use.

Here is a poem that also speaks to this experience:

 “To be of use” by Marge Piercy

                                                                                         © Debra Valentino, all rights reserved.

A Note to Brain Injury Survivors

as posted on Brain Injury Association of America's Facebook page

as posted on Brain Injury Association of America’s Facebook page

March has been named National Brain Injury Awareness Month, and while there is much to say to grow awareness of this acquired condition, I’ll start first with a link to some common facts herehere, here, and here.

While this blog is dedicated primarily to brain injury awareness, this specific post commemorates the plights of fellow sufferers, and as such is written for those actively recovering from brain injury.

To anyone who has sustained a head injury of any magnitude, and most particularly to the newer sufferer who might have similar questions as I had (when I first sustained my blow in September 2007), I congratulate you!  You have come through the hardest trial of your life, and in many cases beaten the odds to earn the unwanted but proud label “Survivor”–as in, surviving life over death. The road ahead may be long. Here is an abbreviated, albeit detailed list of a some of the things my experience revealed that I hope may be helpful to you as you endure the journey:

Tips for Head Injury Survivors

1.  No two head injuries are the same.

This is something I was grateful to learn early on, but something that remains glaringly true for me to this day.  Your injury depends a lot on how you were hit and where on the head, the speed and force of the impact, and specifically the kind of shape you were in at the time, including your age and even your occupation.  It also depends somewhat on the lifestyle you led leading up to the blow, such as whether you smoked cigarettes or marijuana.  In fact, it could be said that the possibility of head injury is the biggest motivation for healthy living, just ahead of lung cancer and alcoholism.  Of course, some people who are considered exceptionally healthy at the time of their injury are still at risk of the effects being fatal.

In my case, I was a non-smoker, athletic and healthy, but also very active intellectually–an avid reader with advanced academic degrees.  In time, I was able to return to teaching and continue to enjoy an active life cognitively, but I have never managed to do the same physically…to get so much accomplished in a day, to golf 18 holes in one day, or sail a boat, or even hike much or for long, all of which I enjoyed regularly before my injury. For me, the effects have been primarily physical and most notable in reduced strength, energy and agility. For a more gifted athlete, the body might return faster than other cognitive abilities return.  It’s difficult to generalize or predict, but I do suspect that all the reading I did in the years prior somehow helped restore me cognitively. While I also recovered lost speech and some of the lost hearing, others may experience longer lasting and more severe deficits in these areas.  Again, the results of your condition are dependent on many factors, and some of these get eclipsed.  The more you pay attention to your symptoms, the better you can help doctors determine a course of treatment.

2.  You may have suffered additional injuries.

Although I took a direct hit to the forehead and face, most of my treatment focused on recovery from brain injury.  Not much attention was given to my vision, nose, teeth and jaw, though several months later these proved also to be adversely affected, as well as my hearing, neck and spine.  Because of the brain injury, my balance was poor for a good long time, and this led to additional injuries from falls.  In fact, I am still accident prone–bumping into door knobs and tripping over chairs–I am able to wipe out getting out of bed; it’s almost like my new sport!  I have gotten so much better though, and my recovery continues.  I am lucky to be able to walk without assistance, though significantly slower than before my injury.  Many people are not as lucky in this area, and they require the aid of a walker or even a wheelchair.

What is important to note is that if you are aware of a discomfort that gets minimized because your brain injury takes precedence, keep reporting it to your physician.  Once additional areas are diagnosed, you can obtain the necessary treatments to get you on a fuller road to recovery.  My experience has been that the more pain and suffering you can eliminate, the faster your brain will actually heal.  You don’t need to be expending a lot of energy overcoming small discomforts, because these detract from the big energy your brain needs to repair itself.  The same, of course, can be said for stress.  The more stress you can eliminate, the more energy your brain gets to use for the ongoing hard job of healing itself.

3.  The length of recovery is unknown.  

When I asked doctors how long I might expect to experience the effects of concussion, I was told 2 weeks–30 days–then 45–then 60–then 90 days–then 3 months–then 6–then 18 months.  When all of these dates came and passed and I had missed every deadline, I was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome that continued to last even beyond that expectation. The length of disability is probably directly connected to the severity of the injury coupled with one’s age and general condition of overall health.  When they diagnosed me, I suspect that doctors were going with baseline numbers that were outdated or non-specific.  My age of 50 years at onset of injury as well as the intensity of the blow I sustained (which they apparently dismissed or underestimated) seem to me the possible reasons why doctors’ initial predictions failed.

Also, I do not believe there was (or is) a test for the amount of shearing, bleeding and swelling that takes place–or if there was one, I was not given it or its results.  I did have CAT scans, but never received thorough results of their findings.  Generally speaking, aside from cognitive testing (which is very in depth), it feels like no one wants to tell you anything–or that they themselves don’t really know.  They do a lot of listening, but they don’t generally do a lot of informing.  As a lifelong student and conscientious steward of my own well being, this was a huge frustration to me.  I always wanted to know the names for things and the reasons, but doctors sometimes misread my pre-morbid curiosity as evidence of cognitive healing, when in fact I wasn’t yet able to walk ten feet without tripping or falling, had chronic ringing in my ears, and was still experiencing seizures daily.

Without question, better diagnostic procedures are necessary in order to determine stronger estimates and treatment plans.  At any rate, recovery takes as long as it takes, and sometimes is never fully attained. This is a hard reality, but it doesn’t mean improvement ends. Improvement continues.  Your brain is the most incredible machine ever constructed–and if random injuries can happen through no fault of your own, then so can miracles!

4.  Your life has changed, but you look the same.  Except that you don’t really look the same.

Brain injury is considered one of those invisible illnesses–you can’t see it, so people don’t acknowledge it. You don’t typically get casseroles or pink ribbons or called anyone’s hero–there’s no chemotherapy to take, no race that can be run.  Mostly, people just like to think that you are nuts or stupid or worse…that’s one of the hardest parts, but pretty much a given, because brain injury is full of stigma.  People judge brain injury survivors in ways they never would think to judge other survivors of serious illnesses.  You realize early on how narrow-minded many people are, and you’re just glad that even as they’re calling you “strange,” your own mind is expanding–even though you’re the one with the head injury.

Only certain people will tell you that they cannot tell that you have sustained a brain injury.  Others will be shocked at the changes, which are sometimes subtle but not exclusive to behavior (contrary to popular preconceptions).  You may, as I did, age significantly.  As one person exclaimed in horror to me: “What happened to you?  YOU LOOK LIKE YOUR GRANDMOTHER!”

It’s not a lot of fun.

Your eyes, your face, your countenance–all of that changes significantly with a brain injury.  Add this to any physical scars or wounds you may suffer.  Then add or subtract your weight in any number of pounds. If you need medication, you will likely gain weight–or, at least I did.  If you suffer severe fatigue, as I do, your muscles will atrophy, and everything will drop about a half a foot lower.  This change in appearance is harder on you than on anyone else.  When you look in the mirror, you will see a new person–your new self–and every time you see this new person it triggers a grief for that healthier pre-injury state, for that lost life.

You have to be tough, and you have to be vigilant about recovering and/or rebuilding your self-esteem…but no worries, because surviving a head injury teaches you for once and for all how entirely bad ass you really are.

5.  All your relationships change; you will become the CEO of your own self.

It’s been said that by nature, people don’t like change.  People especially don’t like the change that head injuries bring (whether real or imagined by those who knew you once).  They especially don’t like what they can’t understand.  Of course, there is a lot of denial–a lot of people wishing you would just shut up and not refer to this traumatic event.  After all, if they didn’t see it, they may question whether it really happened. They don’t want you living in a past they don’t realize is truly your present.  Such reactions are another subject all their own, but don’t feel too aghast when you discover this challenge exists.

There is a lot of negativity connected to brain injury, so you need to be the eternal optimist and CEO of your own self.  You alone know what your path has been.

Just know that when a brain-injured individual exhibits the standard changes in personality or behavior associated with the trauma, it compromises relationships…and when they DON’T exhibit such behaviors, people will imagine or project them onto the brain-injured individual.  This is truly a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t condition, in that most people do not credit your victories, but exaggerate your deficits.  This may not be true for child survivors of head injury, but it is generally the case for adult survivors.

People will try to inhibit your growth in all sorts of offensive ways.  You will grow a thick skin.  People will also think you can’t discern their rejection or their laughter even when it is right in front of you or right behind your back–or, they’ll simply stop caring that you can.  They don’t know that there are subtleties; that you recognize when they are making fun of or mocking you, and that you will remember these moments–or again, they won’t care.  You become a sort of non-entity to them.  Remember, too, that this is typically not a sympathy-inducing condition.  It’s all unfair, but it is the way it is, and you can’t let yourself be taken down farther by any of this.

brain blog

Many people will enjoy your new (though usually temporary) lowered status.  It gives them power and prominence.  It’s okay–it’s their un-evolved thinking, not yours.  Sometimes, the ignorance can be so profound that it can seem that people practically equate brain injuries with decapitations–as if your whole head fell off.  You have to learn to shake off their primitive inferences.  Survivors of brain injury have a long road ahead educating others.  That is okay, because we are actually more patient than most of the people misjudging us.

All of these negatives can actually be to your advantage.  They keep you constantly adjusting, and they certainly keep your brain firing.

While your communication skills might be encumbered, you know that you still perceive a great deal. Some, if not most of your perceptions are accurate. Don’t dismiss your thoughts because others do. Don’t undermine your recovery because others don’t care about it. Don’t fear you cannot improve because others tell you that you can’t, or treat you as if you won’t. Putting you down makes those sorts of people feel big, superior. It enables them to dismiss what they don’t know how to address. Or maybe they just feel helpless. If they care, you will know it.

6.  Solitude is not a bad thing; embrace it.

After brain injury, you have to and will become your own best friend.  You will spend a lot of time home and in bed, unable to socialize–and this will make you fall out of favor with some people–and that’s okay. It’s all okay.  The rest is necessary, and it will restore you.

The greatest gift you will receive from your brain injury is learning to live by yourself–alone in your own perseverance.  Notice how your mind still serves you. Do not focus on what you cannot do, but rather focus on what you have re-learned and on what you are doing in this very moment.  Perhaps your wounds have healed.  Perhaps you are seizure-free.  Perhaps you have an awesome physical or speech or occupational therapist.  Even with your disabilities, you can still think, still imagine, still invent, still meditate, still pray–and if you are really lucky, maybe you can even remember to look at your planner to see where you are supposed to be and when…and maybe you will even show up on time.

One thing for certain, you don’t need anyone who doesn’t give you the respect you are due.  You have survived a life-threatening blow to the head, and you have so much still left ahead (no pun intended). Feel sorry for those who do not have a shred of the empathy you have developed.  Be proud to stand on your own and say, “I lost the one organ that controls every single thing including the breath in my body, and I am here to tell the story”…and then, tell it.

Never be ashamed to admit you have suffered a closed head injury.  It is nothing to be ashamed of, but in fact an accomplishment of the highest order.  Remember those who were not fortunate enough to survive. Endure for them.  Endure for all the millions yet to experience this harrowing affliction.

That is how you celebrate Brain Injury Awareness Month.

That is how you celebrate yourself.

I am amazed by your stories.  I am amazed by you.

Thank you for celebrating with me.

Here is some of the best news we have heard lately.

Here is a video worth watching, if you are interested in understanding TBI.

Namaste.

© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

A Return to Teaching

Happiness Jars created by workshop participants.

Happiness Jars created by workshop participants.

“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”    

—  Walt Whitman

What constitutes a really great day for you?

Are you content with a simple, unexpected kindness?

A telephone call from an old friend?

Or, do you need a grand adventure to make the day qualify as awesome?

What kind of vehicle would you require for your grand adventure:  a boat?  A motorcycle?  A hot air balloon?

What makes a great day for you?

Would a dozen roses do it?

A cup of coffee with a friend who is a good listener and a great conversationalist?

Or, a cup of hot tea while you ponder and plan, or perhaps read?

Is it a great day for you when you catch all the green lights and miss all of the red ones?

Perhaps you’d rather not think about it, but many people suffer so much that a good day to them is simply one they survive.

Recently, I experienced a day that was good beyond my wildest imagination–a really grand surprise.

I had the opportunity to lead a group of women at a nearby library in a workshop on creativity.  It was rather magical the way this experience unfolded, and even more magical how it ended.

Stumbler subscriber emailed me after reading this blog post, saying, “Always such a joy to receive your wonderful posts. The cozy musings draw me in to such an extent that when I come to the last word I am always jarred back in disbelief that I am sitting in my kitchen at my computer.”

This particular subscriber is the local chapter president of a national organization called NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), of which we are supporters.  She and I had previously discussed the possibility of doing art-related seminars of some sort, and her enthusiasm spurred my desire to facilitate a group event–or maybe it was her particular use of the word jarred.  (I know, I know:  groan.)

In no short time, we had a venue and people signed up for what I called a Creativity Workshop.  Planning the workshop was great fun, and it only got better from there.

I knew instantly I could share what I have read about Happiness Jars and the power of positivity, my own experience with phenomenally good luck after beginning the practice in January 2014, and anecdotes about the jars I’d made as gifts…but then my mind started to turn toward explanations:  “I have two ideas,” I said to my husband, “well, three; I mean four…actually, five–but there technically could be six…no, wait,”   I enumerated–prefacing how I thought I might go about expanding the subject, in case there were any skeptics.

Gratefully, my old reliable brainstorming has returned, and this activity resulted in the creation of a few sample jars, a gift-jar for another friend who’s been having an especially bad year, and the idea of individual theme kits, to be delivered at the workshop.  Each participant would select her own pre-assembled collection of embellishments to use on the empty jars that NAMI provided.

Watching the women select “their” jar was interesting…the minute one person wanted the lone blue jar, another person wanted it; some wanted small, some larger; some could not decide.  Each woman was then asked to select a kit (which included a label, a tag, some ribbon, a stack of matching pre-cut papers, sundry embellishments, and a color-coordinated pen) from the case of pre-assembled theme bags.

Part of my talk was how the concept could be adapted to meet individual needs, so I was especially glad to see this option so effortlessly put into practice.  As the kits were passed and I read the theme variations aloud, one woman knew instantly that she wanted the animal collection. Her enthusiasm was joyful to witness, and as she created her jar, she explained that she worked at placing rescue pets.  She planned on recording placements as they occurred by adding to her Happiness/Precious Pets Jar a dated, individual slip of paper for each one.  She would witness, then, how quickly the placements accumulated–a valuable physical reminder of the many pets and people she helps regularly.

At the start of the gathering, a woman entered the room in crutches; and as she hobbled in I thought what a perfect metaphor this was for our workshop.  Aren’t we all carrying some sort of injury?  Aren’t we all hobbling along in some way, meeting challenges, often running later than we hope to be, and sometimes in more pain than is visible to the eye?

I began the workshop by lecturing on the history of the practice, then explaining how to go about assembling the jars.  The rest of the second hour was reserved for the participants’ crafting with my assistance.  As the group worked, a notable hush fell over the room.  After scanning the crowd, I asked,

“So, what do you guys think?”

And out of the quiet erupted:

“I LOVE THIS!”

“I’M SO HAPPY!”

“THIS IS SO FUN!”

“IT’S AWESOME!”

“Really?”

“Oh, YES!”  And then a stream of compliments that I was not prepared to hear flooded and floored me.  The women praised everything from my delivery to my personality.  I am not used to such enthusiastic support (well, except from my beloved).  It was such a gift to see all the participants smiling and oh, so happy, and then to hear their gratitude and praise.

I was utterly amazed at the effect this activity had on the energy in that room.

In order to underscore the emotional and psychological impact of creative work, I told them how much fun I had preparing the day before–how happy I was while planning the workshop and gathering the materials.

And then I asked them,

“How was YOUR day, yesterday?

And the women responded:

“Oh, AWFUL!”

“UGH!!!”

“Yesterday was HORRI-BLE.”

“ONE OF THE WORST DAYS OF MY LIFE!”

“YESTERDAY, I WAS REALLY ABOUT AS LOW AS I HAVE EVER BEEN.”

“I HAD A TERRIBLE DAY!”

Before I knew it, women were opening up, sharing their fears and burdens in great detail.  There were even streams of tears.  I felt privileged that they confided to me in particular, though again surprised.  In every way really it was just a profound experience–seeing this joy, seeing this sadness…how crafting opens up the soul.

There is such a benefit to this simple act of community.  To the exchange of shared joys, and sorrows, too.

Watching the women work was an honor to behold.  Seeing the joy on each woman’s face…well, you realize how seldom we see this.  Watching the delight in their individual creations that were all so clever…the self-acceptance and self-approval, along with the shear happiness that creating together brought them, well…it was just about the most meaningful gift that I have received since I left the classroom.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Here is a poem I used to teach in my college English classroom:

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine.

                                                                                          ©Debra Valentino, all rights reserved.