An Essay by Patti White
THE EMERALD ZOYSIA was like a Persian carpet, so thick it concealed ant hills, the water meter, the slightly depressed grid of the sprinkler system. I walked quickly across the lawn, on my way to teach a class, my bookbag in one hand, and caught my foot in a hole I couldn’t see. Forward momentum carried me toward a face plant on the sidewalk. I stopped myself with my hands and one knee and flipped sideways onto the grass. And my head found the only hard spot there.
Coup and contrecoup. In a whiplash situation—like when I got rear-ended at the cross-walk, just six weeks before I fell—the brain moves forward, then sloshes backward, hitting the skull in both directions. In a side impact on the ground, maybe gravity keeps the brain squashed against the earth, pooled and puddled, an impact rippling through the cells and then subsiding. Immediately—or maybe hours or days later—the brain reacts in protest. I know that’s what must have happened. But until that day, for me, the brain was intellect and consciousness. An abstract and intricate structure, Escher-like, with mazes and helixes and arcane corridors. A spiral galaxy in a shell. Now I know different. The brain is flesh. It is physical and fragile, and it does not abide a fall.
THE WAITING ROOM had a giant abstract painting that made me recoil. Reds and yellows, vertiginous black streaks, the most aggressive piece of artwork I have ever seen. I moved to another seat but couldn’t get away from the colors. Or the sounds: people chatted as they waited, rustled papers, made phone calls. Stretched their legs. Rattled keys. It was too hot and too bright. I saw one man put a prayer slip into a wooden box; he was backlit like an angel of god, and it hurt my eyes to look at him.
In the changing room, I felt vibrations in the floor, sensed movement, whole populations of the addled or broken walking the halls. I heard doors open and close. I huddled on the bench in a thin cloth gown that felt impoverished, an orphan garment, what you wear when all is lost. I waited. I sang a little folksong to myself: come all ye fair and tender ladies. I put my hands on my forehead. I waited and waited until I feared I had been forgotten. I sang, very softly, another verse: I wish I were a tiny sparrow.
The MRI chamber was dim and cool. I was grateful to lie down, to be tucked in, to feel a breeze over my face. But the noise was unbearable, like planets colliding in space. I tried to interpret the different tones, the apparent shifts in the placement of the machine. Clearly, things inside my brain were shattered. There must be blood and swelling. But when the report came back, there was nothing to see: minor white spots that might have been old vascular damage. Two weeks after the fall, there was no evidence of the concussion—only the symptoms. Like the way a piece of artwork could terrorize my brain and send me sideways.
THE MOTION OF THE SPOON taking yogurt from the cup. The motion of a page turning. I couldn’t read and couldn’t drive. That first week a neighbor took me to the grocery store to pick up a few staples: more yogurt, some bread and milk, cat food, canned soup. She waited in the car while I walked the aisles, dazzled by sensory data. Overhead banners flapped in an air-conditioned breeze. People talked on their phones; the carts rolled and racketed. I wanted lunchmeat, but the shelves confused me: long rows of packages, so many words and colors. None of it made sense. I gripped the handle of my cart. Lowered my head. Checked out and fell into the car like a lifeboat.
The grocery was a challenge for a good while. One day I stood in line behind an enormous woman in a scooter who had coupons. Lots and lots of coupons. I waited. She discovered more coupons in her purse and sent the bagger for more items. And still more items. The manager moved me to another lane and unloaded my groceries onto the belt. The computer wouldn’t boot up. I stood there, breathing softly. My brain wobbled from the strain of so many things happening. I wanted to lie down on the cold floor, but instead, I leaned on my cart. The manager apologized, gave me a coupon for free groceries, moved me to a third lane. When I finally made it to my car, I just sat there, my head against the steering wheel, my eyes closed. I don’t think anyone saw me.
A MONTH AFTER THE FALL, I was able to read a chapter in a book. Three weeks later, I finished an Agatha Christie novel. Then I drove to Lowe’s for a pot of mums. I voted in the presidential election even though standing in line made me dizzy. Some days I was able to walk the dog; other days, I turned back at the end of the driveway. It was three months before I could carry on a conversation for more than 40 minutes. I almost fainted the first time I went to the hairdresser.
Six months in, a tooth cracked and needed a crown. The dentist had a picture window with bird feeders outside and a view of the river, but I couldn’t see it — the chair reclined so acutely it gave me vertigo. They brought me a warm blanket, they gave me Novocain and gas, but I resisted everything. I squirmed when they tied gauze around my tongue. I flung my arms wide when the assistant touched metal to my teeth. I asked for bathroom breaks. I took the mask off and got up to walk in the hall. They brought another warm blanket. I clung to the arms of the chair. I told myself I was not upside down, not slipping back, not unable to breathe. By the time the temporary crown was in place, I was disoriented and exhausted. And starving, so even though my face was still numb, we stopped for egg drop soup. When I finally got home, I put a bag of frozen peas on the top of my head.
During my last exam, I still wouldn’t let the ophthalmologist dilate my eyes. I let him photograph my retina, then endured the correction process: is this lens better? or this one? number one or number two? The lenses fogged over; my eyes were overheated, my brain on the edge of a revolt. The doctor told me his mother fell down the stairs and hit her head; now she has dementia. His voice was too loud. The room too cold. The machine clicked in an unpleasant way. Maybe none of the lenses were better. This was three years later. That’s how hard a fall it was.
TWO MONTHS AFTER THE FALL, a friend took me on an excursion to a small family graveyard about an hour outside of town. Curves in the two-lane road; light through the pines. And then a gravel road, bumps and dust and my head spinning. But the graveyard itself was steady and calm. Some headstones so thin and worn they looked like tabular bones. Others just rocks with no names. One family buried under a sort of roofed cabin, with screened windows and sand for a floor. I wandered among the graves. The day was warm, late October, the wildflowers all brown or barely alive, weeds here and there. Outside the wrought iron fence, I found evidence of a teenage bonfire. We walked among the dead, among strangers who died of causes we couldn’t imagine: smallpox and tuberculosis, the civil war or a family murder. I was just glad to be somewhere that wasn’t my house. But I had to steel myself for the drive home: more trees, more light and shadow. My friend talking and talking.
It was a while before I realized that I was, in some ways, a dead person. Invisible injuries, like chronic pain, erase the person who quietly suffers them. My colleagues apparently thought I was on sabbatical or had left town for good. It didn’t occur to them to inquire. My family, scattered across the country, took note of my Facebook updates but felt no need to check on me in person. Only a few close friends and my kind neighbors made efforts: to take me to the doctor or buy groceries; to meet me for lunch; to plan an excursion to the graveyard.
Small acts of kindness mattered more than I had expected. One day, a husband and wife from down the street came looking for me and my dog. They had seen us walk past just before the storm broke and found us sheltering on a porch a quarter-mile away. One neighbor made a point of putting my newspaper on my front porch; another started bringing random milkshakes. These things pulled me back from the edge of invisibility; they were like white stones among the dead wildflowers, bits of order, structures to cling to, ways of knowing who I was and where I belonged.
THAT FIRST WINTER we made a trip to Gulf Shores, a tourist town on the tiny strip of Alabama that meets saltwater. Only five hours from home, it seemed ideal for recovery: a deserted beach, bright skies, the Blue Angels practicing air show maneuvers over the water. We ate charbroiled oysters, swamp soup, and fried grouper. But at the lonely minigolf course, all my angles were wrong. The waves along the shore made me a little nauseous. And the jigsaw puzzle laid out on a glass dining table was impossible to process; I couldn’t see the relationship of depth and ground: the pieces and the glass and the tile floor beneath the table seemed to exist on the same level.
One day we braved a cold wind to explore the damn-the-torpedoes fort at the entrance to Mobile Bay. We found a grass quadrangle protected by ramparts and battery emplacements; entered vaulted arsenals and dark storerooms; touched the crystals formed by minerals leaching through stone walls. We traced a narrow drainage canal where water trickled over moss. That man with a parrot on his shoulder was not a pirate but an actual colleague, a professor of photography; he said he was camped out nearby or renting a house on the bay or maybe he said he was leaving soon for Paris. I couldn’t follow his conversation. So I wandered off, climbed the rotten metal stairs to look at the water beyond the walls. Saw freighters on their way to port; a couple of oil rigs in the distance. Whitecaps on the bay.
Each morning we woke to condensation streaming down the outside walls of the condo. Once, we ate breakfast at a small diner on the main road. I ordered eggs over medium, sausage patties well done, and biscuits. It was another bright day, and the small restaurant was busy. Then out in the parking lot, a trailer caught fire, somebody’s mobile meth lab, or a grill packed too soon. Everyone rushed to the windows. Voices rose, and people ran out to help. Silverware clattered. I looked at my plate, round and white on a red-checkered cloth. I looked at my coffee cup. I grasped the edges of the table and held on tight. My friend said I went pale and started shaking. All I could tell was that my brain had just turned off.
MOST OF THE BRAIN’S ENERGY is consumed with filtering out excess information, the sensory data we don’t need, a whole world of input that would overwhelm us if allowed in. It was clear that my filter was broken, and I was drowning in sounds and colors and the way things moved. The internet advised the obvious: avoid high stimulus environments; control your space; sit with your back to the wall; wear a hat; consider noise-canceling headphones. I learned that sleep, especially a long sleep with a fever, helped re-set the brain a bit. So did watercolor painting. I turned to familiar series on Netflix, plots I already knew by heart. I learned to live a small life: do one or two things per day.
I developed an adversarial relationship with my brain. Spoke of its needs and demands, its refusal to process information. How it felt shrink-wrapped after a difficult day, how it prickled, or felt leaden or buzzed. I told the neurologist I felt dizzy or confused or anxious. Or as if I’d been hit by a two-by-four in a Saturday cartoon. He manipulated my head to fix the positional vertigo and prescribed Xanax for the anxiety. He said: do what you normally do until it feels bad; then stop doing that.
What I would normally do is attend softball games at the university. The second spring after the fall, I made it to one game. I went alone and sat in my usual seats, just to the left of the batter and seven rows up; perfect seats, shaded in the warm afternoon. The stadium was full, the sky was clear and blue. I felt connected to something essentially American, something seasonal and sweet: a home game and a good team. The loudspeaker blared pre-game music as I stood in line for a hot dog with mustard and relish and a Coke. A woman and her daughter in front of me waved their hands around in some kind of slapping game, and I had to look away. I had to breathe. The game started, and someone hit a home run. During a media break, kids in Taco and Hot Sauce costumes raced around the perimeter of the field. Fans clapped to encourage the pitcher to throw a third strike. Cars moved east and west on a highway beyond the fence, out beyond the flags and the terraced area for fans with lawn chairs and suntan lotion. It was softball. I lasted three innings.
When I got home, I got out the frozen peas. My brain felt like tin foil. My eyes refused to stay open; I didn’t want to look at anything. The silence in the house was balm in Gilead. But I felt the world narrowing around me. In the quiet of my house, surrounded by crape myrtles and hydrangeas, the summer not far away, I realized I was in a very soft prison or a southern gothic novel. My brain had a front porch with ferns and rattan chairs, and I was sitting there with a glass of lemonade.
IT WAS A HEAD INJURY FROM A FALL in the front yard. The kind where symptoms might resolve in a week or two, or where cognitive functions might be disrupted for months. The neurologist tells you to wait it out. After six months he starts calling it post-concussion syndrome. You hear stories: a man who still has difficulty with language fifteen years after hitting the dashboard; a woman whose vision had to be retrained after a hiking accident. A year goes by. Then three.
No doubt the concussion was complicated by my age. By the fact that there were really three concussions: a whiplash from being rear-ended in July; a side-impact concussion in September; a rattled head from a fender-bender the following June. We know now that the effects of brain trauma are cumulative over time. So maybe you have that one catastrophic injury at war. Or maybe you get tackled on the football field over and over. Or maybe you are an older woman who has a year of accidents.
I was lucky to have insurance, to have a job that offered medical leave, to recover so much function. I can read with nearly complete attention. I can drive for 2.5 hours without incident and carry on a conversation for an afternoon and do three errands in a day. I can go to a movie. But I still can’t face the idea of an airport. Or enjoy a neighborhood party.
A year ago, we had a driveway happy hour. I walked the dog down the street and sat in a tailgate chair to socialize. People milled around getting snacks. The dog strained at the leash. A toddler threw a tantrum. Older kids rode bicycles up and down the driveway. I held a red cup of iced tea and tried to focus on the conversation. More people arrived. I said it felt like weather on the horizon. The toddler climbed up on a chair and tipped over and the dog freaked out a bit. It was warm and humid and pollen was thick in the air. People talked and talked. I lasted a little more than half an hour. Then I had to go home and get quiet.
I was lucky but I know that I am not quite who I was. I hesitate and retreat. I am not sure what to say or why. I think about brain death, about losing words, about the effects of isolation. I worry about falling again. And I manage myself like a difficult child. I carry food and water and a book to read. I evaluate the sensory environment, monitor soundscapes. I make sure I have an exit strategy for events. I plan my day around my brain.
I DON’T KNOW IF I HAVE LOST MEMORIES. How would I know? All the words seem to be there, all the math I need, how to get from one place to another. But my memory of the past has never been strong. When I went to my 25th high school reunion, I recognized the names of classmates and even some of their faces. But except for my closest friends, I had no memory of interacting with them as people. You must remember Linda, my best friend said, she fainted in class all the time. But I did not remember her at all, though I remember the mercury in chemistry class, how the silver liquid rolled and split and then coated someone’s class ring. I remember designing a poster for the senior play. The plaid headscarf on the girl who had mange. The taste of the onion rings at the Big Boy drive-in. And so much of my past is like that: small bright chunks of exquisite detail with oceans of darkness in between. How would I know if some of that darkness, the concealed or dim memories that never made it into poems or the stories I tell people, how would I know if those were gone?
I do know that my sense of time-shifted and then shifted back. I didn’t notice that until recently, when a 20-minute drive to doggie daycare suddenly seemed like a 20-minute drive, like nothing, just a few songs on the radio. Instead of a trek, a journey, something needing forethought and vigilance and endurance. During the worst of the concussion, everything seemed to take longer, though not in a way that made me impatient. Just that the steps in things became visible to me as my brain took account of them. That look in the rear-view mirror. Turning the stove off. Putting the detergent in the washer. Twisting the cap off the milk jug. My brain noticed every move I made. It was as if I were living in a foreign language and putting together sentences from a phrase book.
I wish I could have translated that language for the neurologist. I wanted to tell him that what I felt in the brain was not just cognitive but physical. That when I said it crackled, I meant the material of my brain sizzled with electricity. That the confusion was also a bruise or a pulled muscle. That there’s a place on my forehead that feels like I walked into a freezer door. A place that is not where my head hit the ground.
THE BRAIN IS HEAVY and dense and cushioned by spinal fluid. The skull is hard. All of this protects the brain, but also makes it vulnerable. When faced with an impact, the brain keeps moving until it hits bone.
I think about the spiral galaxy inside my head; how those long arms of stars spark and fly outward. The surreal staircases of poetry. The corridors I walk in dreams. How tenuous it all is, the sense-making, the creation of new thoughts, the mechanisms of memory. How it all depends on not falling into the holes we can’t see.
I think about the split second when balance goes and you come crashing down. How the whole universe of your self is in peril at that moment: the brain and skull and earth reduced to a singularity, a narrowing of reality followed by something explosive or shattering or a just blinding light.
How everything on the other side of that moment is different.
Patti White is the author of four collections of poems, Tackle Box (2002), Yellow Jackets (2007), Chain Link Fence (2013), and Pink Motel (2017), all from Anhinga Press. Her poetry has appeared in journals including Iowa Review, North American Review, River Styx, Nimrod, DIAGRAM, Forklift Ohio, Missouri Review, Parcel, McNeese Review, Slippery Elm, Vine Leaves, Waccamaw, and New Madrid; her nonfiction in Gulf Coast, Miracle Monocle, and Mulberry Fork Review. Her most recent publication is Particularly Dangerous Situation (Arc Pair Press, 2020), an experimental novella. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.