Neck Brace and A Miracle

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.

Through the Prism of Music

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

To Teach…or Not to Teach

 

 

 

 

I was born to teach.  More precisely, I was born bossy, and I learned to channel that productively to become a pretty good teacher. Given my insatiable drive to help people, plus that music seemed to be my native language, it followed that teaching music and working in church music was the ultimate life goal for me.  All my life I’ve done both of these things, in varying combinations.  It was the very air I breathed.  It was never a job.  I would gladly have done it for free, but unfortunately you have to have money to live in this world, and that I was able to help support our family by doing this was just pure joy to me.  Sure, I got tired.  But what was a healthy body for if not for working hard?  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the harder I worked, the more proud I was of the picture of ME:  the hard-working, talented, nice, little do-gooder always rushing around helping people and making everything better.  Oh, and I had a very cute. sporty, second hand little car with a stick shift that I was doing all this in.  But I was very conscious that you shouldn’t be proud, and that it was all coming from God’s grace, and I was always very insecure and vulnerable, and willing to demonstrate that at a moment’s notice.  Or less.

And then, in Sept. 2014, a truck hit me.  It changed everything.  Two and a half years after the accident, I took stock.  I was home.  I was beginning to be able to read 15 to 20 minutes a day, to listen to music occasionally (maybe 1x a week), to walk around the house by myself.  I still couldn’t  even walk outside by myself or make many decisions on my own.  I definitely would never be able to work full-time again…I was praying that God would prepare me to someday be of use to someone, in some capacity, again.  Maybe leading a children’s choir in a church, or something like that?

I still wasn’t driving myself, and I was staring into the very bleak prospect that, quite possibly, I would never be able to drive again.  So any possibility of employment would have the added complication of transportation.  We don’t live in the city or the suburbs, so driving has always been somewhat of a necessity.

I had to start all over with piano, and after almost 2 years of almost daily practice, I was still struggling to learn the most elementary level of classical songs.  So possibly I would never be an accompanist again, because my vision didn’t seem to getting any better.  Reading music is essential for an accompanist, unfortunately.

It was as if I was walking down a long hallway of closed doors, and I was trying them one by one, only to find them all locked.

Or it was like a nightmare of being back to middle school again.  I was extremely unpopular (which had actually started in elementary school, and lasted clear through high school, but who’s counting?).  Several classes I had no friends in that particular class.  I would walk into the room, and every time I would try to sit down, a student would shake their head “no” and tell me that seat was saved, or move their books onto that seat.  I would end up standing until the teacher came in and saw me, and made the students move their books off the “saved” seat.

This latest feeling was reminiscent of one of those awful memories, of trying and trying and trying to find a way to make it better, to get out, to find a seat, and running again and again into a “no”, or a wall, or a locked door.

I went into another depression.  My counselor says that a good thing about brain injury is that it forces you to face your “stuff” and work through  it more quickly than healthy people, who can mostly just keep going until things get really unhealthy.  Alcoholism, divorce, etc.  God spared me from those by breaking my body and brain.  Thank you God.  I mostly mean that now.  I really do.  Sometimes more than others.

Anyway, I feel as if the main way I can help now is just tell my story.  I might never be a “teacher” again in the traditional sense; I might never be an accompanist again.  I will never sing again so that anyone but God will want to hear; but I have learned to type and write again, and I can tell my story.  And I do have a story now to tell.  So I’m going to do it.  Again, thanks for listening.