Tuesday, August 19, 2008
The New Normal
This is a whole different ball game. Casa Colina caters to brain and spinal cord injuries of every type. Wheelchairs zip around in all directions, turning the navigation of a hallway into an obstacle course or a bumper car ride. It has been startling for Katherine to be surrounded by people from all walks of life facing such gigantic challenges. A few seem to have the type of brain injuries that affect reasoning skills and cognitive ability. (To be blunt: seem “crazy.”) Others have a hard time with social skills. For instance, Katherine’s roommate greeted her by telling the nurse, “I want a divider!” Of course, Katherine was crushed. She had planned on introducing herself, making polite conversation, and establishing the roots of a new friendship. Her roommate, an elderly stroke patient, was annoyed by her presence.
After attempting a conversation with some of her fellow patients the first day, Katherine seemed slightly stunned. As we strolled away from them, she whispered to Grace and me, “Am I like that? Is that how I seem to other people?" Followed by what's become something of a litany: "They don’t know I’m normal inside.”
Grace, Jay’s Aunt Judy, and I sat in on Katherine’s “Disability Adjustment” class. It was a trip and a half...like something out of a Mike Meyers movie. I wish Amie had been there so she could do the voices for us. English was the second language for several participants. An interpreter repeated everything in Spanish to one patient, making it hard for me to concentrate even without a brain injury. Other patients kept up a steady stream of conversation. Two were having such an issue with each other that the teacher had to stop and intervene several times. It reminded me of a class I once taught whose roster included four or five ADHD students.
For a tiny moment, I couldn’t help wondering if we’ve landed in the Cuckoo’s Nest. Maybe Katherine will get to play Jack Nicholson.
Vignette: The teacher (psychologist) is going down her list of points. She talks about the effects of “trauma.” First, she must define it for those who don’t know what she’s talking about. Then she goes around the table asking people what kind of trauma has brought them here. Katherine says, “AVM,” but the teacher doesn’t quite hear/understand her. She asks one of misbehavers at the end of the table. He reminds me of a combative Fred Sanford. He launches into a long story: “I tell you what it is. It’s when you countin’ yo’ money and somebody lies and rips you off and you get blamed for it.” The teacher tries to define “trauma” in the current context again. The next gentleman says it’s when you can’t remember things. The teacher steers him back to first causes until he gets the right answer, “Fell off a ladder.” The man next to him was shot in the head with a nail gun. Next, the teacher goes around the circle asking the question, “What do you enjoy doing?” Katherine answers “Writing notes to people.” Two say playing golf. One says smoking. Fred Sanford says, “Counting money.” The teacher asks them what their proudest achievement is. The only other woman answers “Graduating from college.” An Asian man with a thick accent smiles as he tells us he is a good husband. Katherine says, “My baby.” Fred goes into another long thing, but it ends up with his money-counting ability. The teacher asks them to name the characteristic they like best about themselves. Several cannot answer this question at all. Katherine says “Compassionate.” One says, “Optimistic.” Before the teacher calls on Fred, Grace turns to me and mouths, “Counting money.” Sure enough...
After class, we all stroll out onto the pretty patio, where several patients have already lit up a smoke. One of the staff is explaining to a patient why the combative gentleman is combative. We pass the other lady from the class who is proceeding slowly up the sidewalk on a walker. She wears a t-shirt with “Property of Jesus” emblazoned on it in big block letters. Aunt Judy tells her that she likes her shirt. That serves as a secret password...brethren start emerging from the woodwork. The staff member accompanying the t-shirt lady starts telling us about a well-known Christian speaker coming to the area soon. Then an attractive blonde woman who appears to be about my age comes over to introduce herself. Her son is being admitted and evaluated. He is Katherine’s age, 26. His survival of a terrible car crash has been miraculous. She wears a cross. So we connect. We’re on the same page.
Little reminders: “You are not alone. I am here.”
It has been a huge blessing that Jay was able to rent a little house on the Casa Colina property. Although Katherine must spend the night at the TLC, no one seems to have any objection to our strolling her over to the house between activities. On weekends she is able to hang out for long periods. The house is something straight out of Ozzie and Harriett, and brings back memories of my happy “Fifties Five Points” childhood. One day, the Ice Cream Man even drove by with his nostalgia-inducing music. There is a grassy little backyard in which James can play, which has been a help to Sarah and Mary Ruth in keeping him entertained. We’ve already had some sweet, cozy times in this modest dwelling. It feels a little like Normal.
By Friday afternoon, Katherine was tired. We didn’t want her to be alone, so Grace, Jay, James, and I all got into the queen-size bed with her to watch TV. Of course James was all over us, and we eventually squeezed Jay out. But we were silly and funny and it felt comfortable, like putting on a ratty old favorite housecoat. It’s amazing how little it takes to make us happy now.
Incredibly, Katherine’s sense of humor has sharpened through all of this. She’s saying things she never would have said before...wickedly witty comebacks to her sisters’ stream of hysterical banter. When I pointed this out to her, she gave me an adorable little uneven shrug, and said, “You might as well laugh, or you might cry.” So we laugh. As I’ve said before, it’s not hard at all when Middle Sister is around. Rather, it’s hard not to. For years, I’ve begged her to audition for Saturday Night Live. She can make you laugh even when you’re really mad at her.
I'm rambling again. The point is this: despite Brain Damage, despite the world being forever changed, despite unspeakable emotions...Normal is slowly coming back. Whatever the heck that is. I tend to agree with Patsy Clairmont that it’s just a setting on your dryer. Personally, I’ve never really felt entirely “normal,” nor especially wanted to be. The first time Katherine realized how altered she is and started trying to tell us how she is still “normal” inside, I said, “No, Katherine. You’re not just normal, you’re special.” Normal is way overrated. Still, after so much havoc, it’s kind of nice to have a little coming back around again.
A modern-day Fairy Godmother from church who refers to herself as “The Purple Hippo Lady” gave me (among countless other generous gifts) a book by Carol Kent called A New Kind of Normal. Carol is an inspirational speaker whose only child, a stellar Annapolis graduate and devout Christian, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. A friend of Brooks’ gave us her first book, When I Lay My Isaac Down, which chronicles the events. It helps to know others have survived the unthinkable. There is a secret sorority of suffering.
In the prologue, she writes, “In that one shocking moment, everything changed. That phone call became a defining moment in time—a marker that has forever divided our past “normal” life from a life we never expected and certainly didn’t want...This book is about...choices we all need to make when our carefully developed life-plan takes a U-turn or comes to a sudden halt. It’s about discovering fresh hope and renewed courage when we would rather give up...It’s about choosing not to waste the sorrow. It’s about giving hope to others in the middle of our brokenness and tears, because it is all we have to offer. And because it is all we have to give, it is enough.”
Our “defining moment” occurred on April 21. I realize now that somewhere inside of me there was an unarticulated feeling that God would never let something like this happen to my family. Not us. Not my special Katherine. This kind of thing happens to other people, people you see on Oprah once they’ve come through somehow. But I’ve learned that no one escapes life unscathed. Sometimes things happen that startle us out of our complacency, disturb our assumptions, and destroy our expectations. But these things also serve to teach us something new.
Luckily, a room became available on Saturday, so we were able to restore the privacy of Katherine’s roommate. Katherine moved into a room across the hall which is unfortunately very dark and a little dreary. It makes me depressed in spite of Jay’s valiant attempts to brighten it up with pictures, flowers, and mementoes.
After we got her settled into her new bed, Katherine looked around and shook her head in mild amazement. “This is unbelievable. Un-be-lieve-able. I’m normal inside. What am I doing here?” I’m tired of answering that question, so I just looked at her. Then I said, “You tell me.” With humility and a wistful little crooked smile, she answered, “God has a lot to teach me here.”
Amen to that for all of us.