Sunday, May 20, 2012

More interpretations of what is inspirational

As I ponder this subject, my ideas begin to crystallize. Picture rock candy forming on a string as the water evaporates. Maybe not.

Maybe it is more like my ideas are becoming purified like water through a Brita filter.

What is it called when something goes from opaque to translucent to transparent? I think that is the process I mean. My concept of inspiration is becoming clearer or at least easier to articulate.

April 26th, 2002 my brother Tim died. This is an excerpt from my words at his memorial:

            When we were kids there was a huge snowstorm in New York one winter. The schools were closed and Matt and Tim and I went to the park together. Matthew, always the adventurous one, convinced us to jump from the high brick wall separating the different levels of Riverside Park. He said the snow was so deep it would catch us. It would be soft and fluffy when we landed. We sat on the wall and looked down and it seemed much too far. Tears started to run down Tim’s face. Matt said let’s jump and he did landing in a roll and laughing. By then Tim was really crying. I knew I had to jump next or I would lose my nerve. My foot got caught in a vine and I fell head first. (Yikes, another blow to the head.) Still I landed okay although much harder than I had expected. From down below we egged Tim on, “JUMP! JUMP!” we shouted over his wails. Trembling and sobbing, he finally did. Tim's tears froze on his face and we all laughed together. Years later I realized that he was the bravest one of all of us because real bravery is to do what you are afraid to do. 

I think that is why I do not find inspiration in portraits of smiling brain-injured people. It is not because I do not think they should be smiling. It is because for the most part, the ones who are smiling were smiling even before the injury. 

Far more inspirational is the person who never really smiled, even when she had plenty to smile about and now with a brain-injury must fight so hard to smile. 

The face I see has an expression of determination not resignation, dried tear stains, and a smile revealing a glint of arch humor. It is a face that is mourning the loss of the old self while embracing rebirth. Not unlike a baby, entering the world and leaving the safety of the womb, crying at the outrage. Those cries, gasps, screams reveal the struggle but also serve the purpose of allowing oxygen to enter the blood stream. 

I shake my fist at the reality while I struggle for air. The face of brain injury that inspires me is the one that reflects survival. I do not need a face that says: I am happy even with a brain injury. I want a face that says: 

I AM even with a brain injury.

(Maybe, I do kind of want to be an inspiration, just the way I am.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day

Last weekend my daughter remarked, "I sound just like you when I say that." Whatever it was she said I am grateful that I do not recall for it is never a flattering comparison that accompanies those words. I, too, have had that feeling. I cringe as words that sounded inane, laden with hyperbole, and spoken with that tone, have crossed the time/space barrier from my mother's mouth to mine. Why do I fear that I have become my mother? Why does anyone?

Today is a good day to remind myself that for every annoying habit or distasteful trait I inherited from my mother, there are dozens of positive qualities that she passed on to me that make who I am today.

For one thing, no matter how horrible things were, birthdays were celebrated with aplomb. I am generous because of my mother who every year bought us many presents, even when there was little money. She let us pick what the whole family would eat for dinner. She made a special cake. Thanks to my mom, I still think it is weird when people claim to have made something themselves when it came from a mix. Yeah, that's right! I made it from scratch! Hollah to my moms. She bought our favorite ice cream, even if it was butter pecan and nobody else liked nuts.

I am also thoughtful because of my mother. Yes, at times, I have wondered why she clipped and mailed articles about rowing crew to me for ten years after I was a coxswain for a year in college. I know, now, that she was thinking about me and she wanted me to know it.

These days, it is fluffy sheep and Sudoku puzzles and I love them both. Because of my mother, my sister also has this awesome quality. She is delighted when she finds a Custo Barcelona bag for me or anything with skulls on it. "I saw this and I had to get it for you!" Those are loving and sweet words and I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I say them. I need to remember that I sound just like my mother then, too.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I have friends again!

I have been doing pretty well, making many new friends through the Brain Injury Association. 

Two weeks ago, I went to the Sprout Film Festival with my first new friend. She is so smart and so strong and like me, was totally clueless about how bad things had gotten at her job before she left. 
The first time I met her, I tried to explain that I used to be smart. 
She said, I know, me too. 
I said, "No, I mean really smart. I went to Harvard." 
"I went to Yale," was her reply and with that we bonded. 
I wonder if we could start an Ivy League brain injury group? 

Last Saturday, I had so much fun with another one of my new friends. She is a super talented artist with a wicked sense of humor. She so cracks me up. We are the same age and she also grew up up in the city. We have a lot more in common but it's not worth delving into here. Anyway, we went to a rummage sale and found treasures. She kept singing, "We don't need no _____" to the tune of Pink Floyd's The Wall, as it got later in the day and I was pondering the purchase yet another unnecessary acquisition. 

"We don't need no Ikea curtains." "We don't need no vintage microscope."

Then out of the blue, she turns to me and says, "So, I guess you sister is in a lot of trouble." 
I said I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Her husband is a lawyer, right?" 
"Well, I heard on the radio this morning that he is her lawyer, that she was involved in some kind of protest, and that she got in a lot of trouble. He's going to be defending her. Her husband."
I started to freak out because we joke all the time so I had to make sure she wasn't kidding. I told her she was scaring me and that I hadn't heard anything. 
"Was she arrested?" I asked. 
"I think so, maybe, I might have heard it wrong, though..."
At this point I called my hubby and asked him to Google it. He called me back and explained the whole story. Apparently, my brother-in-law was defending some protestors opposing a new stop and search thing. (I think.) The judge found out who my sister is and wanted to her. Apparently, it made big news that my sister gave him a piece of her mind, telling him she disagreed with his ruling against the protestors. 

My friend felt bad, I think, and said she only mentioned it because she thought I would have already known what happened. I've been there. I totally understand and it didn't bother me. I am okay because I see a part of me.

Last night, another new friend took me to see a play. I guess I would be raving about how great it was if I had not fallen asleep in the middle. It was good though. It was about head injury in the N.F.L. and what they are starting to learn. On the way there, I was telling her about a misunderstanding I had recently with a family member. My sweet, thoughtful, ever positive friend exclaimed as I finished the story, "What a fucking bitch!" Immediately, she back-peddled a bit, recognizing that her reaction was slightly over the top. Well, those of you who know me understand why I relate to that. It only endears her to me more.

It is really a blessing to be friends with these ladies who are smart and funny and kind and creative but who also have a brain injury. We get each other and laugh about it. I still say I'm sorry a lot. But with them, they know I mean it. I love you guys!

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Yesterday, I officially withdrew from my Masters degree program. It makes me so sad to say that. Sad is an understatement.

Although the only action I needed to take was to write a short letter to the director of the program, my instincts to preserve my sense of self rendered me paralyzed, unable to execute this task for months.

I taught for 22 years. Prior to my surgery, I had spent the previous 12 years as THE sixth grade math teacher. When I started teaching just math, there was an honors section and three regular classes. Although it was not called "honors" and followed the same curriculum as the other sections, everyone knew it was the "top" group. It was a lot of fun teaching that section. It was not easy like many teachers thought. It was challenging and exciting and it was where I found my real strength as a teacher. When they did away with the advanced section, it became my personal mission to find a way to teach the gifted math student in a regular math class. A successful system would be one that benefited all of the students.

After my surgery, my return to work was a spectacular disaster. In previous years, Labor Day weekend meant the return to school to dust off materials, make a few copies, and label all the student supplies. In 2007, I returned to my classroom in August to prepare for a new year as I had always done. That first day back, I found myself sitting on the floor crying. I had been there for 5 hours and had accomplished nothing. It was the teacher who had subbed for me during my absence who consoled me, encouraging me to be patient with myself. For a fleeting moment, I felt like everything would be okay.

Month after month, things got worse and worse. I could not learn my students' names. I had never used lesson plans before. I had never needed them but suddenly, I was writing things on the board that made no sense. I could not talk and write at the same time. I could no longer do anything that required thought if there was any noise at all. Good luck trying to silence a group of sixth graders so you can string together an intelligible sentence. On the rare occasion I was able to get everyone to completely freeze and not utter a sound, my method for reaching that state was so alarming that my students were too terrified to process whatever it was I had wanted to say.

The advice I got was the same from everyone. Stop trying so hard. You don't have to be the perfect teacher. Just go in and stick to the plan. That is good enough. Even if I could have done that, it would have been so out of character for me. I had been a great teacher because I loved doing it. I loved the students. I loved the material. I loved a challenge and I was creative in my strategies for problem solving. I could get the classes' attention by whispering, by speaking another language, by singing my lesson, by doing a silly dance, or even by whipping out a puppet to take over the lesson. My favorite was my king puppet.

I got King Puppet at the Bank Street Book Store. I was drawn to him because his beard was so soft and furry. I used to love to bring him out at the start of our measurement unit, exclaiming simultaneously, "Take out your RULERS!"

After the first year back, my class load was cut in half. The next year, all of my classes were taken away and I was asked to work with just a few students who were gifted in math. Although, I was beginning to get a picture of the damage my brain injury did to my abilities as a teacher, I was, for the most part, in denial. It felt like a nightmare, being stripped of my responsibilities, my title as chair of the math department, my esteem in the community. However at the end of that third year, I thought I had found my new post-injury place. Although I could not plan a lesson or teach a whole group, I could work with one or two precocious kids whose needs I could assess on the spot. My long-term memory for math was intact so with help I was able to retrieve materials and introduce a new enriching and stimulating topic to a kid who was bored out of his mind in his regular class. That spring I applied to and was accepted into the Three Summers Masters Program in Gifted Education at the University of Connecticut. I think I remember blogging about being like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. If I couldn't have a brain at least I would have a degree.

Fast forward to today. I stopped teaching last year and day after day, week after week, month after month, I have begun to accept that I cannot teach anymore. I wanted to hold onto a tiny bit of possibility. I thought I wanted to pursue the degree so at least I could write about the subject. If I had lost my reputation as an expert in my field, those letters after my name might be an acceptable substitute. Although some of the schoolwork was manageable, most of it required skills I lost like planning. Officially dropping out of the program was like admitting defeat, letting go of the last lingering hope that I might some day wake up from this nightmare and be my old self again.

My cognitive therapist helped me write the letter during a session. It took me 2 weeks to type it up and then I finally printed it and popped it in the mail. When I was shutting down the computer, I realized I had not dated the letter. Oops. Nothing I can do now.

Later in the afternoon, I was cleaning up and this sight caught my eye. I am not sure how or when he got there. Framed in the glow of the sun through the window was King Puppet laying face down on a stool. How perfect! How beautiful! How symbolic! The King Must Die! It took awhile but I was finally able to let myself put down my ruler.