I faithfully sit at the piano several times a week, reach up, turn on the metronome, and dig in. It started out in complete frustration. My inability to remember anything, make sense of everything, when I knew vaguely that it had all, at one time, been the source of so much joy and meaning, both for me and for everyone that came in contact with me, was just crushing. And then, bit by bit, it started coming back. I could see that my diligence not only made me happy, but it brought my family joy. It seemed everyone that had ever known me before asked “how’s the practicing coming?” and just lit up when I told them how I was progressing.
But the last few weeks it’s been harder and harder, and today was horrible. Seems my coordination is slowly and steadily coming back, at least keeping up with the beginning level classical pieces I’m starting to be able to play again.
The giant problem is my dyslexia. I just can’t read music at all. Notes seem to be playing practical tricks on me now. It’s like my brain is an oversized junior high boy, with a not-very sophisticated sense of humor. “Your leg is cold.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is. (snicker, snicker).”
And with music notes…”That’s an F.” Next time “That’s an A.” I can never be sure if it’s my dumb brain trying to fool me, or if it’s actually telling me the truth.
I don’t know if, or when, this will change. No one knows. I’m on my own here. So I have to, one more time, come up with a Plan Q. A different way of existing in the world where piano may, or may not, ever be my “thing.” But as Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With the Wind, that terribly flawed depiction of the strength of the human spirit, “Tomorrow is another day.” So I won’t think about it today.
My neck was came darned near being broken in the car wreck. I have always struggled with neck pain: back in high school, I was trying to show off how extremely cutesy and agile I was, and I tried to do a back flip in our gym without a pad. I had never done one successfully before, even with a pad. The resulting damage left me in a soft brace for six months, which my mother tried to dress up by covering with attractive fabrics to coordinate with my, of course,deeply trendy outfits. Embarrassing epic fail.
Anyway, because of that old high school stupidity I have had degenerative arthritis in my neck for years. Then when I began playing piano for hours at a time a few years ago, it began hurting terribly, so my doctor ordered a course of physical therapy. During the PT, we found out that I needed bifocals, of all things, I was holding my head at such a weird angle trying to read the music and look at the students, back and forth, that that was triggering this latest episode.
So I didn’t start with the greatest neck history.
The impact of a heavy truck, hitting my little car, when he drove through what should have been a stop sign at over 70 miles per hour and hit the side of my car, was….very harmful. Let’s just say he made a very, very bad decision. But back to my neck. Never strong at the best of times, it was slammed back over my headrest so that most of my brain damage was to the back of my brain. My neck condition, was for months, critical. There was virtually no chance that, if I ever got the brace off, I could avoid an extremely invasive neck “fusion” surgery. I only vaguely understand this, but as I do comprehend it I would have lost a couple of inches of my neck, and much of the functions the neck performs beyond simply holding up your head and being a conduit for food. Turning your head, looking around, looking up and down…not so much, apparently.
And one of my vestibular problems, BPPV, was so drastic that I was simply throwing up anytime they would change my position. Move me. Try to sit me up. Turn me over. Roll me over. Instant spew. Again, thank God for the coma because I don’t remember any of this, but my family and the nurses certainly do. To all of you, I’m so sorry.
Then right when I began awakening from the coma, I was moved to On With Life. Enter Amy, the vestibular specialist. She watched my eyes, saw me doing all this spewing business and ventured a preliminary diagnosis of BPPV. But she couldn’t be sure, and she couldn’t treat it. The diagnosis AND the treatment both required some pretty fast movements involving my neck, which were clearly impossible with the neck brace on.
The neck brace came off just before I was released from On With Life in early January. Until that time, I had been taking motion sickness pills to dampen my vestibular symptoms and make them less noticeable. The week it came off, I was scheduled for a diagnosis and first treatment. They put these cool huge goggles on me, brought a trash can over, you know, just in case. Then you do a whole complicated series of movements, rolls, sitting up, laying down, and all the time people are watching your eyes on a screen to see the fine movements that the nystagmus causes. I asked Amy one time what exactly they were watching for, and she asked “Do you remember Cookie Monster’s eyes when he would see a cookie?” “Well, it’s a lot like that.” Interesting.
At first without the neck brace there was a LOT of neck pain. Because of all the trauma to my neck, and because it had been immobilized for months, my neck was simply unable to support my head. Its ligaments were basically noodles. By evening it would be aching really, really badly. I slept in my old neck brace for months.
All the time I had been in the brace, I had had to sleep flat on my back. My normal sleeping position was on my stomach. After the brace came off, I couldn’t lift my head high enough to get it on a normal pillow. We found the coolest travel pillow, very bendy, with the center cut out of it. I slept on that, flat on my back, for another year. Now I sleep on a low pillow on my side, but I still spend at least half the night on my back.
People were praying for my neck to heal: Thousands of people, through my Caring Bridge, were praying, and for this surgery to not be necessary.
Three months after the accident, I went for my first set of neck X-rays. It was guardedly optimistic. Much better than expected, certainly, but far too soon to tell if the weight of my skull would still drive my head down into my neck, making the surgery necessary. Come back on the one year anniversary.
We came back at one year. More X-Rays. The doctor came into the room. Very, very good. Almost less than one millimeter of my head settling down into my neck during the first year, which was the danger point before my ligaments were strong yet. Still too early to be absolutely sure, but if the two year anniversary was just as good, he said I would never need to come back again and NOT NEED THE SURGERY.
Two year appointment. No fear at all in my heart. In the last appointment I had asked him for neck strengthening isometric exercises he could show me, and I had been doing them regularly with no pain. I was turning my head so much farther, looking around me so much more normally. I felt total peace whatever he said. I knew God had it.
After I had the X-rays taken downstairs, we went up and waited a little for him to read them. Finally he called me back into his off. He started out, as my husband said he always did, with a history lesson. I could wait. I knew it was going to be all right. Then he got to the point. He said “There’s virtually no more settling of your head into your neck.” “You never have to come back and see me.” And then he kept looking at them, and looking at me. “It’s odd. The only explanation for why you avoided injuring your neck more, and didn’t need the surgery, was your coma. If it had been even a week shorter, I think we would be looking at a very different set of circumstances with your neck.”
Sometimes God says “Yes.” Sometimes He says “No.” Sometimes He says “Wait.”
My husband says that he still wishes when all those panicked prayers were going up to Him….because every single day and hour that you don’t wake up increases the likelihood THAT YOU NEVER WILL! He’s the Creator of the Universe. Would just a text message have been too much? Just an “I got this one” or something? And I gotta say, that’s a question we’ll ask when we get there. But not right away. We’ll be too busy thanking and praising Him for stuff. Amen.
The Chair From The Depths Of Hades.
It is called the Rotational Chair Test. Here is the online definition:
The chair test measures dizziness while the subject is being turned slowly in a motorized chair
The rotary chair test is used to help determine if your symptoms are due to a disorder of your inner ear or a disorder of the brain. Eye movements are recorded with small electrodes similar to those used during the ENG test. Not all individuals need a rotary chair test to assist with diagnosis and many health care facilities do not have access to a computerized rotary chair. The rotary chair test allows measurement of responses to movements of the head that are closer to speeds encountered in daily activities. During this test, the patient sits in a computerized chair that moves. The rotary chair test is very useful in determining if an individual has a problem with both sides of the vestibular system (bilateral vestibular loss.
I feel my overwrought hysteria about this test perhaps needs a bit more explanation. Allow me…
First: Pre-accident my vision was so exceedingly poor that I was totally dependent on my glasses. Almost any physical punishment was preferable to my glasses being broken. I couldn’t even find my glasses without them on my face.I was very near the “legally blind” parameters. Because of the goggles they have you wear for the test, you can’t wear glasses. I am lost without my glasses. Totally vulnerable and afraid to move. Childishly near tears immediately. My husband had to help me to step up into the “dark room”, which was a very menacing chair placed on a platform (I know my husband will say it was “just a chair” but I’m sticking with my story) inside a totally closed capsule. God help anyone with the slightest hint of claustrophobia, because there were no warnings of that at anytime before the testing.
I now see double without my glasses because of the brain trauma. Did I mention that the test was SANS GLASSES? Oh yeah, I think I did.
Second: The accident left me with PTSD. I was on anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depression medication, sleeping medications. For this test to be successful, they had stipulated that I was to be drug free for 48 hours before the test. So, basically, I hadn’t slept AT ALL for 2 nights except for brief naps from total exhaustion. And just wait until you hear what comes next.
Third: The test was scheduled for Tuesday. That Saturday morning, our much- beloved family dog, a yellow labrador retriever named Remo, who was over 12 years old, finally was unable to get up off his fleece in the kitchen. My husband and our son carried him into the yard and helped him stand so he could go to the bathroom, and then carried him back up on our deck and laid him on a blanket. The entire rest of the weekend he kept slipping in and out of consciousness. It was unspeakably difficult to watch. Monday morning my husband called the vet and they made an appointment for a couple of hours later. Remo had been our family dog with all that entails. The laughter, faithfulness, joy, stories, parties, camping trips, kayaking, singing along with my voice lessons The morning he was being put to sleep was the first morning I was scheduled to be off of all my medications. We had waited months for this appointment, my husband had scheduled the entire day off already. We needed some answers. We were going. Come hell or high water, and this was pretty darned close.
Back to the capsule. I hear the woman’s voice coming through a speaker somewhere in the darkness. I try to concentrate on the directions, but I am so extremely afraid I am having real trouble keeping it together. I am determined not to break down after we’ve come through all this. I’m finally here! I finally am just praying one word with tears running down my face. Please. Please. Please.
Fourth: Immediately after the accident I lost all concept of right or left. The first part of the test was showing a tiny red laser light on the wall, which of course I couldn’t see at all, and I was supposed to tell if it was moving right or left. The woman was given NO IDEA at all of what my medical history had been, she was just to administer the test. My husband was out there trying to explain, and I was inside having a total meltdown. Finally he opened the capsule, put my anxiety stone in my right hand, closed my fist over it, and had me repeat after him “right. Right. Rock right.” Finally I had it. He closed the door again. Back to the dreadful, terrible, awful, stifling darkness.
And somehow we held it together. I wasn’t alone in that dreadful place. Someone was there with me. Jesus was with me in my childish fear and isolation.
We had been waiting in this particular doctor’s office for several hours. First one waiting room, then an interview with an assistant, then another waiting room, and so on and so on. Now it was hours later, both of us were starving and I was scared out of my wits and my husband was worried to death for me, and the doctor had just rushed into the r00m, asked if we had had this particular test yet. When we replied “No,” he had sent us down to this lab. The sheet from the morning had said “don’t eat the morning of the test.” Luckily I had eaten a granola bar because now it was after 2:00 with no end in sight.
There were several tests. The chair kept stopping, turning, the voice kept issuing directions that I would desperately try to follow. My husband said it was maybe 30 minutes. It seemed to me like an eternity of pain and chaos. Tears kept streaming down my cheeks. The lady kept asking if I needed to stop, and sometimes I would for a bit. Sometimes my husband would open the door for a while and reach in and hold my hand for a while. They were both so unbelievably kind and gentle. The lady was simply appalled that they had sent me down without giving her any warning at all about my situation. I was just so grateful for the knowledge that both of them were keeping watch out there.
By the end I was just a broken, sobbing wreck. Praying for Jesus to please hold me. Which He clearly was. The lady’s sweet voice would ask me a question, I would breathe and ask Jesus to help me, and He would whisper peace to me. We got through it.
Then back to the doctor’s office to await the results of the test. Which was definitely the worst thing ever. Ever. Ever. We had been sustaining ourselves throughout this entire ordeal with the hope of finally getting some answers if only I could just hold on and make it through the test. And finally I had DONE IT!!!! Triumph!!!
Back to that last blasted office. He rushed in again followed by an assistant or two, And delivered this verdict. That he wasn’t sure why On With Life had recommended he see me. That he could only find a small amount of residual vestibule damage. What he had found (not him, of course. One of his assistants.) was significant cerebellum damage which accounted for my balance issues. He seemed surprised that none of my doctors had figured out that the cerebellum damage was responsible for my balance problems. He seemed to think that, because he could find very little evidence of vestibular damage now, that must never have been my problem.
When I inquired about exercises for the remaining vestibular problems, and the cerebellum damage, he stated that he wasn’t aware of any. When I asked again, trying to pursue possible places that did physical therapy, or exercises for balance that I could do at home, he just shrugged and would not, or did not, comment. The unspoken message in the room was that I would never get better than I was. It obviously wasn’t his issue. He was in the business of diagnosing problems, not solutions. “Hope” was not his MO. We’ve run into several doctors like him, and I have come to despise this philosophy. Medical doctors by no means are required to be experts in rehabilitation but they DO NEED TO BELIEVE IT IS POSSIBLE and be willing to point their patients in those directions We’ve run into these situations over and over and over again. You would think when they see and hear my story, they would change their tune, but apparently not. Apparently not.
That trip was a major setback. I was sick from the test itself, sick from losing our loved pet, sick from being off my meds for so long, severely depressed. I lay on the couch for days. Finally our daughter, who was back in New York, got so worried that she called the vestibular specialist at On With Life. Amy called me back.
She announced what we had heard from that doctor, about my vestibular problems being almost nonexistent now, was great news. I said “How is it great news?!” She said, “It means that our initial treatment worked really well, and also that you have been doing a great job at home with your therapy! This is really great intel! Now we know that your problem must be combination of anxiety and cerebellum damage, and there are definitely exercises we can do for that!” The way she said ‘WE” suddenly filled me with hope. Along with the “get on with it” tone in her voice. I sat up on the couch, and asked what the first step was. She explained, and my doctor certified me for another 3 months of out patient therapy at On With Life. We got me back seeing a therapist weekly for my anxiety. I had mourned, and rested, long enough. Time to get back work.
Back on track. Back moving forward. Back getting On With Life. They have a magical way of seeing a diagnosis not as a stopping place, but as just ruling something out, so that you can start exploring other possibilities. When the doctor told us he found very little sign of any vestibular damage, Amy knew how severe mine had been. I had been throwing up constantly every time they moved my head, until Amy had diagnosed it. I HAD been doing my exercises multiple times a day! Amy heard success where I had only heard echoing disappointment.
I understand this test is the gold standard of vestibular tests. We’re definitely fortunate to have a facility in our state that has this test available. I don’t mean to frighten people away at all. I know that my circumstances were, hopefully, very, very unique. I’m just being brutally honest about my perception of this test and its echoing repercussions. People have this test all the time. I’m sure the sweet lady was as traumatized as I was. They should have given her at least some warning. There’s a an extremely large chasm between me and someone who is experiencing bouts of puzzling dizziness, which was everyone else we seemed to be seeing in the waiting rooms. The majority of them had driven themselves, or at least were walking by themselves.
Thank goodness the doctor decided not to do the water test, whatever THAT was. Apparently my results weren’t bad enough for that….we’ve often debated what that would be. I sometimes wonder if it is in anyway connected with how they used to test for witches. I am just am certain I don’t want to find out, so please don’t tell me if you do know.
Talking. Like Anne of Green Gables, I have been told too many times, too roughly, that I talk too much. And I know I do. I am a verbal processor to the extreme. I hear, or think, or read the barest germ of a thought, and immediately have to talk it through WITH SOMEONE ELSE to start bringing it to life. My husband is the total opposite. He can dream something up, and plan every nuanced detail before he springs it on the world in all its glorious fruition. Not me.
I have to exhaustively find person after person to talk phase one, phase two, phase three, phase forty, phase one hundred,, of a plan that might not ever happen. My husband used to marvel at how I could expose myself like this. But I simply had no choice: it was the only way I could ever achieve anything.
My mind was always bubbling, always excited, always full of ideas. And between children, church, and school, I had the perfect places to release all that energy. It was a lovely laboratory of ideas and excitement building on ideas and excitement. But the last few years it had reached a crisis point of stress, and I knew something had to give. So I was enrolling in a Masters of Music Education to get a job at a university as a mentor to student teachers, which increasingly had become my passion.
And then…the accident.
Now I have been totally off Zoloft, my anti depressant, for several months. I have been off my anti anxiety medication for a long time because that drug, along with a couple of my other medications, set off a terrible drug interaction which caused such severe dizziness it left me almost unable to walk or move. So..
I’m feeling excitement again, my brain is sparking all the time, I’m excited about ideas. Because I have dyslexia now, I can’t read books, but I can listen to podcasts and listen to audio books, and I can think about them. And I love it. And, along with that, I feel sadness. And it’s my sadness. And I love that too . I don’t want to lose that again.
But I’m deeply, terribly, afraid I might have to. Right now I don’t have a neurologist, but my doctor has requested an appointment with one that I liked the sound of. I really loved the previous one, but after only two visits, we received a letter saying he was joining a non-neurological practice and, in more polite terms, his patients would just have to fend for themselves. So since them I haven’t had a neurologist.
I have almost nightly meltdowns now. This is due to a lot of things, but a whole huge chunk of it is my desperate need to talk with people who I know, and who LIKE me! I so miss that! Writing is just not the same. It’s not collaborative, not a team effort. And talking is so hard now. I get so confused, story lines are difficult, time lines are impossible, my speech is still slurred when I get excited. I dread talking on the phone still, , and I almost hate meeting new people and having to talk to them.
When my husband is home, he’s always working on something out in the yard where I can’t follow, or it involves equipment which makes sudden very loud noises. Anyway, he carries such a huge load of guilt and worry about me all the time. He really only seems to truly come alive when he’s working out in the yard or remodeling our house. He hates to sit and talk. I used to dislike it, too. But that was before the accident. when I could walk and talk at the same time.
Friends have to come to me now. We live in a pretty isolated area. Everyone who used to come to our house would always exclaim “What lovely privacy!” And that’s exactly how it is. Very private. How lovely…..except now, when I really kind of need more neighbors.
Maybe the doctor, on hearing this, will put me back on the Zoloft, Maybe that’s for the best. If I have no one to run all these exciting ideas by verbally, maybe it’s best if I just never think them. Maybe. Because this really is a kind of torture. I keep telling myself to put on my big girl panties. Stop being a whiner. No one is mean to me at all. So what if no one wants to hear my exciting ideas about _________ just this minute? Is that really the end of the world? And then I scream (silently, of course) yeah, to me, it kind of is. It kind of is.
Ooof. I wrote this whole thing last night in a total orgy of self pity, and then I went upstairs trying to flee from the whole world downstairs. I put on the television to public television and there was a documentary about the history of some genres of folk music. The particular segment that I settled on was set in West Virginia, and was narrated by a couple of men whose fathers had spent their entire adult lives working down in the coal mines. I watched those terrible scenes before me, and immediately felt bathed in shame.
I thought I would just erase this whole thing today. But then I decided not. I am not who I used to be. I am not nearly as clever or able to process things mentally well at all. I get confused frequently, and I get angry. That slows my thinking down to a virtual crawl. This frustrates me EXTREMELY. I am in some ways, vastly more selfish now. But in other ways, I know and recognize suffering as I never did before. I know I am in no way experiencing the limits of human suffering, or even anything close, but at least now I can maybe catch a dim glimpse of desperation? Maybe? I have no idea. I just know I couldn’t erase what I wrote last night, but I had to write an addendum. Please forgive me for whining.
I have always felt strangely drawn to children and people with autism. Somehow I just enjoyed being around them, talking to them. Through the years, I read everything I could get my hands on about this peculiar and often devastating condition. In 1991, I taught my first special education music class, and I was hooked Almost every year I seemed to have at least one or more special ed students in choir. At my last school for seven years I had singers in all my choirs from our school’s special ed class. It was thrilling to see how each of them grew as people and musicians during their years in choir, and how the mainstream students would respond to them.
Don’t get me wrong: I was by no means an expert. I was simply very interested and really wanted to help them grow as singers and people. This led me to try different strategies with my students, with varying degrees of success. There was no guaranteed fix, because they were, and still are, all very, very unique human beings.
I quickly figured out, largely by trial and error, that emotional subtlety just didn’t seem to work with students on the autism spectrum. That certainly suited me: my natural method of communication many people would criticize as “too direct.” I maintain that being “direct” always is more efficient and more effective than passive aggressive. Maybe my constant smiling is not only a reflection of my positivity, it is also a way of issuing a preemptive apology. Of apologizing in advance for anything upsetting that I might say in the very near future…
As the years passed, working with these students and incorporating them into the life of the choir became more and more rewarding for absolutely everyone involved. Especially me. It wasn’t anything extraordinary, it was just how the world should be.
And then, as all the stories in this blog say…a truck hit me. I awoke to a world of total fear. Faces didn’t make any sense, voices and words didn’t mean anything, I couldn’t sort out any kind of sensory input. Total confusion.
Over the days and weeks that followed, I began to find patterns. Little by little, I began to recognize my family members again, then to recognize my therapists. I began to relearn words, and then language. I learned to swallow and eat again.
After I came home I continued to have problems interpreting people’s facial expressions, especially those I hadn’t known well before the accident. I had difficulty “getting” jokes, reading social cues, and just handling everyday social interactions. I relied on my husband to tell me if someone was being funny, was angry at me, or just what the heck was going on.
In retrospect I suspect that my brain was doing the best it could with incomplete and confusing input. Interacting with people I had known well before, my brain was already familiar with how they would react to certain situations, so it could fill in the blanks much more successfully. In totally new “after accident” scenarios, my broken brain had no baseline of data to operate from. The information coming in often was skewed and incomplete or I was simply misinterpreting some things. This sometimes led to very, very painful misunderstandings of something that I had said, or done. These situations rarely came up with people I had known before. Something must be different now.
Almost 3 years after the accident, there is still a lot of that left. I make stupid mistakes occasionally now that I would never have made before. I was pretty emotionally sensitive before, but I misread situations often.
Another thing: when I first came home, because of my overwhelming all-the-time fear, I was faking every “normal” emotion at a desperate pace. I didn’t want to let down my family, who I felt had already been through so much all because of me. I faked happy, nostalgic, hungry, expectant, cheerful, excited. All I was feeling, underneath my drugged-up calm, was the constant low-grade buzz of anxiety. Sometimes breaking out into fits of outright panic and tears.
Until that summer we went to Shell Lake. Out on the kayak, I looked around me, and realized I was happy. Truly happy. I hadn’t felt anything but fear for so long. I didn’t recognize it at first….it lasted for quite a while. That is still a truly beautiful memory.
I’m not autistic. Autistic people are born that way. I had an accident that involved brain damage, and because of my years working with autistic students, I am thankfully able to recognize many of these traits in myself. I regularly check several wonderful autism blogs and websites, and am able to recognize symptoms in myself such as perseveration which I now wrestle with quite a bit. These sites fortunately lead me to lots of positive, proactive solutions for my newfound struggles. I don’t think I would have been able to so quickly recognize these problems in myself, and known where to go to find solutions, if not for the years of struggles that these kids and their parents went through. Because of that pain, so many of them chose to reach out to help others with autism. And, I guess, me.
I am really confused how to feel about this. I guess, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how I feel. It just is the way it is. I just have to accept what is and start looking for ways to move forward from here. Those are brave words to say, but sometimes difficult words to act upon.
It all began with music.Language was next, and because I grew up in America English was what we spoke. I always have had a knack for languages, but music definitely came first.
Because of this I never considered a life outside of music. I started formal piano lessons at age 4 because I was playing all of my older brother’s piano pieces note for note by ear. I majored in piano in college, and for several years was a staff accompanist at a respected university. It was as natural as breathing or talking, and I think anyone who knows me will agree that talking has always come very easily to me. It all was just so darned simple …I practiced and played for hours every day, but it was always pure joy and release from tension. I seemed to think in musical terms…I was constantly imagining musical phrases in my fingers. Add to this the fact that I had near-perfect pitch, and my life was filled with music. Fortunately I married a musician too, and our children were also musical, so life was rich and filled with flowers, art, books, laughter, and–most of all–music.
Then came the accident. Or as I prefer to say, “a truck hit me.” Everything stopped. The music stopped. My life came within moments of stopping. And it has been excruciatingly s–l–o–w in starting up again. Some days I am more successful than others at coming to grips with this new reality.
All my life has been some wonderful combination of teaching vocal music, leading worship, teaching piano, or simply participating in music. At church, school or home, I sang and was at the piano most of the time. After the accident all that came to a screeching halt. The part of my brain that processes the information coming in from my eyes and ears was badly damaged, so I could see and I could hear, but I couldn’t make much sense out of the signals I was receiving.
Besides this, I had major physical injuries to deal with as well as my damaged brain. The things that directly affected my singing were: my diaphragm was torn and had to be repaired surgically, several ribs were broken which still causes me pain when I try to draw deep breaths, I had a tracheostomy in my neck for weeks. There didn’t seem to be much hope that I would ever sing again.
At first, when we went to church, I couldn’t even match pitch, or sing more than two or three notes without having to take a breath. For several months, just getting there, and being there, was adventure enough for me.
I couldn’t make sense of the faces, the music, I was worried about things like where we would sit and having to get to the bathroom. My main emotion was paralyzing fear, but I was determined to get better. That’s pretty strong motivation for getting out and about again, and I knew I needed God, and church, more than ever before. So I made myself keep going.
After several months of listening I started trying to figure out the time signatures of the songs. I would try tapping along, and periodically ask a member of my family what I was thinking it was, and ask if that was correct. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Gradually I improved. Then I got somewhat more adventurous. I decided I would try to match a pitch.
I knew this would be quite an important endeavor for me. I remembered from my years of teaching that listening was vital to matching pitch, so I thought starting with humming would be best. One morning they were singing a piece I particularly loved, I so I finally got my courage up. I tried to breathe as deeply as I could, I hummed along for a few notes, but couldn’t hear myself at all so I decided to vocalize along with just a few notes.
Total train wreck. Not even close. My only consolation was that absolutely no one noticed, because my voice was so weak that it was practically inaudible. I was so shattered that I stood, blinking back tears, for the rest of the singing time.
That was another rough stretch. It was difficult to collect the broken pieces of my identity one more time and create another action plan. Hadn’t I done enough starting over?
I did a lot of thinking and self-reflection about my life, and realized that this had always been a core piece of my identity, something that I never wanted to lose. The idea of “music” is so much deeper to my identity than any nonsense about having a beautiful singing voice, or playing piano well. It is the lens through which I see the world It very much brings everything into focus for me. I knew that if I was going to find any joy in the remaining years of my life, it was absolutely essential for me to get music back. I just had to find a way to not let memories of what HAD been destroy my joy in what WOULD be. I resolutely pointed my face towards the future, and desperately tried not to glance back over my shoulder.
As a teacher I had always greatly enjoyed working with adolescent voices (there’s some speculation that may be because of my somewhat immature sense of humor) but that’s beside the point. Anyway, now I had to bring all those lesson home to myself. I was among the worst singers I had ever worked with, but I was also my favorite kind of student. A pretty quick study, very motivated, and there’s a big difference between learning for the first time, and remembering skills and theory that you’ve taught others all your life. All I had to do was think. Note names and their places on the staff, note durations, music theory, vocal pedagogy….all of that was in there. I just had to unlock it,
It all starts with breath, both in voice and in piano. Deep, rhythmic, relaxed breathing. How many times had I said that to my students? Breathe in tempo BEFORE you begin the music and then join in. It’s very much like children in a game of jump rope on the playground; if another child wants to jump into the game already in motion, you teach them to watch for a while, count along, then breathe in time and “join in with the rope.” Don’t over think it, just relax, breathe in tempo, and jump in.
I decided it would be most time-effective to combine practicing singing with practicing piano. So I formulated a plan for daily practice of both.
That Christmas my family bought me a stationary recumbent bike to strengthen my legs. When I finished my piano practice, I would climb on my stationery bike and start pedaling and singing. This, I reasoned, was not only strengthening my singing voice and breath support, but my memory. During that Christmas season I would sing every Christmas carol I knew, and all the verses. Especially Good King Wenceslaus. My oldest daughter and I, when she was in high school, challenged each other by memorizing ALL the verses to that carol. Every Christmas since we (somewhat teasingly) test each other on the words. That was one thing I was simply desperate to get back.
I had taught general music for years, so I knew lots of folk songs. Those all came in very handy during our child raising years as lullabies, and they came back into use now. Again, all the verses. I thought of it as “double” or “triple teaming” my therapies.
My singing voice now no one would describe as “beautiful.” Not anyone who didn’t know about the accident. But at least I can contribute to singing in church now, and I can pretty much make it through a complete phrase. That was a necessity for my inner musician. Now that’s all I ask. But I’m still working. Still pedaling away madly on my bike doing vocal warmups.
Now for piano. This was definitely the most painful blow. I was never an operatic vocal soloist, but I was a very serious pianist. The accident threatened to steal all that me. I forgot everything. Except that, once upon a time, I had been very good. Now I couldn’t see the notes…they didn’t stay still on the page. I couldn’t remember what they meant. My cerebellum was damaged, which greatly affects one’s coordination, so my fingers wouldn’t work right, and my hands wouldn’t work at all together.
My music therapist at OWL was wonderful. My family had told her how vital music had always been to me, so they all thought music would be a great way to reach me. So they started taking me in to sit in front of the piano, and putting my hands on the keyboard. I was wearing a heavy neck brace, so I couldn’t keep my head upright for very long. Multiple times a day my husband went through this pain. Then, one day, a miracle. My hands played a major chord. Then, a few seconds later, another one. Then slowly, back to the first one. Back and forth this went on, for quite a while. Then my hands fell to my lap, and my head fell forward. After the first chord, he had begun videoing, and when it was finished, he sent it to our children, They happened to be all together, on a rare afternoon off-duty, off for a walk. They watched in disbelief, and then hugged each other. They told me afterward that even though I still hadn’t spoken, or recognized anyone, they knew in that moment it would be all right. That I would be back. That I was still in there.
Fast forward several months: when I first came home, I was able to pick out single melodies again by ear, and could vaguely remember how to read music, but the notes still wouldn’t hold still at all, and I couldn’t tell the notes apart on the page. Fortunately my whole family reads music, so someone was always available to help me out. My cerebellum injury left me with very little sense of tempo, so I’m reliant upon a metronome. I had to start over with the simplest exercises, one hand at a time, then work up to scales. At first I tired extremely quickly, so I could only practice a few minutes a day.
When, eventually, it became clear to me that I would never hold a full-time job again, or possibly ever drive myself again, I sank into a deep, dark depression and thought “why practice? I’m never going to use it again!” Then, one day while (hopelessly) praying about it and the thought stole into my mind “you’re never going to be ready for ANYTHING if you don’t get your butt over onto the piano bench and start practicing!” After all, it took me years of practicing the first time when it was all so easy. Now it seemed it was going to be much more complex. Better not waste another minute. It seems as if I can’t even succeed at giving up. Believe me, I’ve given it quite a few tries.
As of writing this, I’m mid way through the Grade 4 Alfred books. I’m tempted always to compare it to how I was before, but I simply cannot do this. It’s just much more difficult for me this time around. I laugh that I’m not only like most “ordinary” piano students, I’m like the most challenged ones now. The ones that I always watched in wonder. The ones that I sometimes thought “How I wish I could just climb into their heads to see what it’s like!” Well, how I got my wish. Except it’s more than a visit. Now I live here.