Wednesday, Part 1: Mark would not stay awake. He made it from the bed to the couch and fell back asleep. I woke him up to see if he’d have some breakfast. His right eye was ever-so-slightly not focused. His processing was slow and at times non-existent. I brought him his medicine and left him to sleep. I checked on him after my class. Same. I could wake him up, he knew the year and month, but he went right back to sleep. I taught another class. At noon, I woke him again. Did he want lunch? No. I made him lunch and woke him again. I watched patiently as he slowly struggled to get his feet into his loafers. I held onto him and guided him to the table. He ate. “I’m going to try to get him to the ER,” I told Michael. Mark just stared at me when I said we needed to go to the hospital. He also didn’t move. I tried choices, like you would with a child. This, or that? “Do you want to bring your water or leave it?” “Do you want Michael to drive you or me?” “Do you want me to bring the rest of your sandwich in the car or put it in the frig for later?”
Michael helped me get him into the car. When we got to the ER, Mark accepted a wheelchair.
The usual tests. Bloodwork, CT. The ER doctor pointed to her glasses. “What are these?” “Glasses,” Mark said. She pointed to her wrist. “What’s this?” she asked. “Wristwatch,” he said. “What does it do?” she continued. “Tells time,” Mark responded. She plucked a white board marker off a holder on the wall. “What’s this?” He stared. And stared. And stared. She pulled the cap off. “What does it do?” she tried. “It highlights things,” Mark finally said.
Did you ever sit in your car in the rain, wipers off, and watch the water flow down your windshield? Pathways are formed. The drops land into them and follow the channels created by their predecessors. And then occasionally, one veers off and starts its own channel. Sometimes it’s because it has started to rain harder: a variable has changed, and the channels have to change, too. Sometimes it’s unclear why one drop goes another way. Once it does, though, other drops will follow. Suddenly there’s a new pathway.
This is what Mark’s brain can remind me of. There are pathways that his thoughts know to go down. They’ve gone down them for many years. Sometimes, a variable changes. Some electrical storm in his brain? Something. His cognition veers off onto an unexpected path. Or the paths are wiped away. Something that used to connect now doesn’t. We wait to see if his mind rivulets will refill.
The ER doctor and neurology resident think that most likely, Mark had another subclinical seizure and was in a long postictal period. Really it’s just a guess. Seizures don’t leave a trail, and the breadcrumbs are tough to follow. “It would be great if he had bit his tongue or urinated on himself. Then we’d really know,” the resident said. He’ll learn not to say that someday, I thought.
As the hours passed, Mark slowly returned to almost-baseline. He made it about seven hours before the AMA pathway opened up in his brain. “Well,” he said as we watched Andy Griffith lying together in the ER bed (that Ronnie Howard really was adorable), “you about ready to leave?” Between the nurse and me, we succeeded in keeping him another hour. He did get the chest X-ray, but did not get seen by neurosurgery and did not get the MRI they ordered to rule out a stroke. Eventually, he stood up. I held his hand, and we walked out. While waiting in valet, I got a call from a neurosurgery resident. “So, you decided that he was postictal and didn’t need to be seen by neurosurgery?”
No, dude. Why do I have to explain what Mark’s brain injury is like to YOU of all people.
Wednesday, Part 2: While the EEG crew took Mark through their paces, I slipped out to the cafeteria for a break. A sandwich, a Diet Pepsi. Reached into my purse at the register: no wallet. Pulled out a tangle of phone chargers (I had accidentally brought two), crushed receipts, Covid vax cards. No cash. No credit cards. An empty checkbook. No wallet. I had no idea where it could be. Slight panic. In my fluster, I was verbally vomiting my situation. Husband in the ER, oh Lord I hope I did not lose my wallet, okay well do you want me to put this food back then? The cashier pulled out her purse. I’ll buy your dinner, she said. “Wow. Thank you. I have some gift cards! Pick one!” I held out Dick’s, Panera, Target. No idea the value on any of them. “My granddaughter likes Panera, and I have her tomorrow,” she said, plucking one from my hand. I think — and hope — that it worked out in her favor.
I was wearing my happiest overalls, bright waves of the rainbow from top to bottom. When I got back to ER security, the guard waved me through, saying, “I remember you!” The EEG technicians were still working. My wallet anxiety was raging, and I decided to retrieve my car from valet, check for the wallet, and then repark the car. While waiting for valet, a tall, masked, blond-haired woman walked by me. It took me a second to process her familiar features, and I yelled at her back, “Amy?” She turned. It was Alma’s former therapist, the one that held both of our hands and guided Alma through adolescence with a stunning blend of skill and compassion that is unparalleled in my experience. “I’m double vacced!” we said simultaneously and then embraced.
A hug, from a great person, right when I needed it.
And my wallet was in the car. I didn’t want to be the jagoff that takes their car out of valet and then instantly gives it back to them to repark. I remembered that I had driven to the ER on an empty tank. There was a gas station not far away. Filling the tank now would relieve my run-out-of-gas anxiety in getting Mark home.
I guess this is what Mark means when he says I could be more pessimistic. I could try harder. My back hurts because I slipped and fell down the steps the other day. I’m pretty sure I need a root canal but I can’t figure out when to schedule that while waiting to hear when Mark will have surgery.
But seriously, I met a nice cashier today, ran into an old “friend,”and got time to refill the tank. Mark and I stayed up, after getting home from the ER. We were both totally exhausted. But his brain was fully back online. We talked to the boys. We talked about how much he wants to drive again. “I just want to be able to go to Target if I want to,” he said. We talked about his experience with his illness, and my experience of his illness. He had left and come back, all in one day, and it was like a resurrection. You don’t go to bed after a resurrection. You stay up late and visit.
“Does this stuff really balance out?” a friend asked about my day, and my placing tiny goodnesses next to giant badnesses.
“It does,” I said. Listen, I know this is not a recipe. It’s what I have found that I can do to make my own life stone soup. Each time it works, it’s a victory. And a celebration.
Last night, laying in bed, I decided to go to the beach. It took me a while to choose between Lake Michigan and St. John’s. I wanted to lay my beach blanket in the shade but still be close to the water. I took turns going to each, in my mind, feeling the sand, listening to the water and people laughing. The wind was gentle, and water soothing. I fell asleep.