There is no need to dwell on the exterior cliche of an injured soldier, the propaganda is superficial. Civilians have only plastic green men, heavy dusty movie set costumes, and Army-of-One heroes to populate stereotypes. Keep your images larger than life, no use touching up a paint-by-number. Mine was banal, foolish, and 19; enough said.
One fence is the fraternity itself, the next is brain injury. No other way to understand but be there. A Solid-American-Made-Dashboard cracked my forehead at 45mph.
Crumpling into the footwell,
unaware that the flatbed's rear bumper
was smashing thru the passenger windshield above me
the frame stopped just shy of decapitating my luckily unoccupied seat.
Our vehicle's monstrous hood had attempted to murderously bury us under,
but the axle stopped momentum's fate and ended the carnage under dark iron.
Shards of my identity joined the slow, pulverized, airborn chaos.
Back, Deep, Gone.
Unconsciousness is the brain's frantic attempt to re-wire neurons, jury rig broken connections, the doctor's desperate attempt to re-attach, stand back and say, good enough. Essential systems limply functioned, but unessential ones were ditched. Years later a military doctor diagnosed an eventual triage: Hypothalimus disconnected from the Pituitary Gland, Executive Function damaged, long pathways for emotional regulation interrupted.
I woke up still kinda bleeding, crusty blood in my hair, a line of frankenstein stitches wandering across my forehead. My sense of self had literally dissolved into morning dust floating in a sterile hospital sunbeam. My name was down the hall, words and the desire to speak were on a different floor. Life became me and also a separate me under constant renovation, a wrecking ball on one half, scaffolding and raw 2x4's the other.
Waking up in the hospital, I realized I needed help to get the blood cleaned up. A nurse came in, largely glared at me in disregard, and quickly left… for an hour. She returned and brusquely dropped a useless ace comb and gauze on the blanket over my feet and abandoned me again. This was my introduction to the shame of a VA hospital. I minced my way to the bathroom, objectively examined my face in the mirror with shocking stitches above one swollen eye. Gingerly rinsing my hair, the water ran pink in white porcelain. I remembered the sound in my skull between my ears when a doctor scraped a metal tool across my skull, cleaning debris before stitching. I recalled that in the ER I was asking Is he ok, repeating it like a broken record, knowing I should stop but I couldn’t. There was also perhaps a joke about an Excedrin headache.
It was morning, and since there was no such thing as time or purpose or feelings anymore, I wandered to the hall with my only companion, the IV pole. One side was a wall of windows, and I was, what, 10 or 12 stories up from the streets of a much larger city than where I crashed. The hall was warm and sunny. I wheeled my companion to a blocky square vinyl chair to sit next to a pay phone. I didn’t have any thoughts at all, or care about it. After about an hour my first name floated up from the void, then with some effort my last name. It took the rest of the morning to remember I had a brother. After lunch we resumed our post, and I spent the afternoon in concentration piecing together his phone number. God had pushed the reset button.
Thirty years ago the doctors didn't understand head injuries; they only recognized the physical symptoms. At first there was good reason to be permanently admitted to the hospital. My blood pressure was unstable, sometimes so low that drawing blood for tests caused my veins to collapse even with baby needles. My thyroid had shut down completely, only jump-started again with six months of Synthroid. I had to learn to live with crashing blood sugar and fluctuating appetite. For years afterwards, any stress would cause arrhythmias, my heart filling and skipping out of sync, blood pressure popping my skull. Will the clock stop this time?
There is always at least one momentous event in every person’s life that becomes punctuation, before and after. The other side of Before the accident truly was a different me. I have a vague recollection of who that person may have been, and occasionally get reminders. Before, I was getting recruiting letters from Ivy League colleges and MIT, a high school senior at sixteen. After, I couldn’t balance a checkbook or even care about a savings account in the first place. Before, I had aced the military entrance exam only missing one question, even including the speed math section. They told me I could chose any rating I wanted, so I chose Air Traffic Control. Twenty years later, I thumbed through old high school yearbooks at a reunion. I saw a picture of me in the Shakespeare Club, not recalling what that could have been about. On finding a picture of me in the Ski Club I thought, Wow, I guess I know how to ski. A yellowed small-town newspaper article noted I was one of two National Merit Scholars; and in another there’s a mention of a part in the High School Musical.
This side of After, I kept mixing right with left, was dyslexic with numbers, and occasionally stuttered with word soup. Focus became separated from willpower, concentration was like herding cats. The world had become intense.
(chapter 1 continues in memoir)