Friday, March 6, 2009
How I lost my marbles on the Mohawk Trail: Memoir of a long ride
Presented to the Club in 2003 by Richard L. Floyd
1. It’s like riding a bicycle
You can see Mt. Greylock from one of the upstairs rooms of my home in Pittsfield. On winter days the mountain and its surrounding peaks and ridges are often covered with a mantle of snow, even when there is not a flurry to be found in the surrounding towns. It was such a sight that inspired Melville, looking out from his home at Arrowhead a couple miles from here, to imagine a great white while breaching the waters of the South Pacific.
Greylock is technically not even really a mountain, just the largest of the Berkshire Hills. Nonetheless, it is the highest point in Massachusetts. At a mere 3,491 feet it is hardly Everest, but for a cyclist in Berkshire County it beckons, not only because “its there” but because it has a paved road to the top. Riding up, and preferably over, Mt. Greylock establishes certain low level bragging rights. Not, however, if you do it on one of those ubiquitous mountain bikes with 27 speeds and a granny gear. Any reasonably fit person with the time can do that. No, you must go over Mt. Greylock on a road bike.
To acquire some serious bragging rights you must do the Greylock Century Ride, a loosely organized annual pain-fest that attracts a certain sketchy clientele from around Western Mass and neighboring states, and is a regularly scheduled event for a few dozen of the hardest of the hardcore Berkshire cyclists.
I wanted to do it. I had seen the coveted T-shirts at my spinning class at the Y, and the people who wore them were not chopped liver in the local cycling community. The t-shirt changes some from year to year, but typically includes a side view chart of the one hundred mile course with elevations. The line resembles nothing so much as the EKG of a very distressed heart patient.
I had begun to cycle again in the autumn of 1998. I say “again” because I cycled as a child and then as a grad student before family life pre-empted most of my hobbies. But now my children were poised to leave the nest, and I was about to turn fifty. That summer I had started to try to get back in shape. I began with walking and some running at the Taconic High School track, but found that my joints were not as forgiving as when I had been a serious runner during the running craze of the late seventies and early eighties. The current craze for aging boomers was “spinning,” an aerobics class on stationary bicycles, much easier on the joints than running. I signed up for a Cycle Reebok class in August and began to spin three times a week. Soon some atavistic cycling impulse was stirred deep within me. I felt the need to get on a real bike and hit the roads.
So I went down to the local “serious” cycle shop, which is owned, operated and presided over by an amiable but eccentric character named Tom, who is philosopher, local historian, and grease monkey in equal parts. I am the pastor of a Congregational church in Pittsfield and Tom is a life-long Methodist with a theological cast of mind, so not infrequently when I want to talk about bicycles he wants to talk about religion.
Nevertheless, Tom knows his bicycles and is the purveyor and mechanic for many of the serious road cyclists in central Berkshire. Tom is not known for pitching a hard sell, but he allowed as how he might order me a bicycle and gave me a couple of catalogues and a disinterested evaluation of the pros and cons of each one. After picking the brains of my cycling friends I finally decided on a racing (rather than a touring) bike. After all, if what you are doing is getting in touch with your inner 13 year old and trying to forget that you are about to turn 50, a touring bike “with a longer wheel base and more stability” is not nearly as enticing as a racing bike that is “lighter, quicker and more responsive.”
So I ordered an Italian road rocket, a Bianchi Veloce. What’s not to like about a bike named “Speed” in Italian? For economy’s sake I was ordering from the remains of last year’s models so I couldn’t get my frame size in the classic mint green (and actually rather ugly) “Celeste” which is the hallmark of the Bianchi line. So I chose the only choice I had, bright blue. Then I waited around impatiently for my new bike to arrive, like a child who has ordered some trinket from the back of a cereal box and watches the mailbox each day. When my new bike finally arrived I visited it regularly in Tom’s shop while it waited its turn to be assembled.
As kids know there is nothing as exciting as a new bike. This bike was a beauty. First of all it was really big. I am 6’4” and required the biggest standard frame that Bianchi makes, 63 cm. And it was really blue, bright shiny blue, adorned with beautiful Bianchi logos and a “Made in Italy” sticker in red, green and white on the seat tube. It had shiny Campagnola components, brakes, gears, and cranks. These were exquisite little works of art, like fine handcrafted jewelry. At that time, in 1998, every winner of the fabled Tour de France had won while riding a bike with a Campagnola gruppo. Since then a crazy Texan named Lance Armstrong has won (how many is it now?) four! consecutive Tours on a bike with Shimano components made in Japan. But the Campagnola brand still evokes visions of the great European riders, of Fausto Coppi, Eddie Merkx, and Miguel Indurain crushing opponents in the Alps and Pyrenees. Shimano is to Campagnola what Toyota is to Alfa Romeo. The Japanese components are every bit as good as their Italian counterparts, and considerably cheaper, but tradition is still very much on the side of Campagnola. Think Yankee pin stripes, wooden bats, and natural turf. Think Fenway Park. My bike was not only beautiful it was a classic.
I soon acquired the proper accessories to ride this beauty in style: brightly colored shirts with pockets in the back, spandex cycling shorts, cycling shoes to fit into my clipless pedals, fingerless gloves, and last, but not least, a helmet. I was ready, not just to ride a bike, but to be a cyclist.
2. I am a cyclist
Nearly two years later I was a cyclist. By then I had logged thousands of miles. I had joined the Berkshire Cycling Association and proudly wore their distinctive mango and blue club jersey and the club shorts with “Tosk Chiropractic,” our chief sponsor, in bold letters on the sides. I had become a regular on the Thursday Night Ride, a weekly recreational ride through the Berkshire countryside. On Tuesday nights in the summer I often drove half an hour to the East to Cummington to compete against the clock in a 40 k time-trial as a way to increase my speed. On Saturday mornings, if I didn’t have to officiate at a wedding, I would ride a fifty miler with my new cycling friends. I had caught the cycling bug.
At first, my family thought it was amusing. They know that I am an enthusiast, and get caught up in these passions for hobbies from time to time. My wife Martha had been none too keen on me spending four figures for a bicycle. Her fear was that I would soon tire of it and it would molder in the garage along with the golf clubs and the fly fishing rods. Thousands of miles later her fear had moved in a different direction.
That summer I was always going out to, or coming in from, a ride. Even Abby, our dog was on to me. She had been accustomed to lobbying energetically for a walk whenever I came downstairs. She would smile that dopey Golden Retriever smile and vigorously wag her tail and look as if my attentions were the most important thing in the world. Now she had learned that if I was in spandex to forget about it. She wouldn’t even lift up her head as I prepared for a ride.
The truth is I was no longer riding, but training. I considered the leisurely 20-25 miles of the Thursday Night Ride an easy day. Sometimes I would ride my bike to the start of the ride. Once, when I rode to Jiminy Peak to a ride I failed to calculate the hour of darkness and found myself riding home through downtown Pittsfield in the dark with no lights.
Recreational riders just ride, while serious roadies keep logs. I diligently kept a log in which I entered each day’s ride, the miles, the duration, and the avg. speed. My bike computer has an odometer, so I knew how many miles I had done that year. Big mileage carries some bragging rights, and riders compare cumulative miles and talk about their weeks, as in “I only had 80 miles this week.” Or “Whoa, I just knocked off my 200th mile this week.”
The previous year, 1999, I had gradually become fit enough to stay long periods on a bike. I rode my first fifty miler alone in June, then a seventy miler in July with a friend and finally, on Labor Day weekend, a hundred miles in a day with a group of 14. On that first century ride I blew out a tire in Williamstown, and lost about 45 minutes going to the local bike shop to get a new one. A friendly young man from our group name Shaun was deputized to wait with me, and once the new tire was installed he drafted for me all the way to Pittsfield so we could rejoin the group at the fifty-mile mark, before starting the second half. A few week’s later I rode the bike for a team in the Great Josh Billings Run Aground, a bike, canoe and running triathlon that is a Berkshire County tradition. The “Josh,” as it is called locally, begins in Great Barrington, roams through the Alford Hills before wending its way through Stockbridge to the Stockbridge Bowl, where the canoers do several laps before handing the baton to the runner who runs a 10k, finishing at the cool green lawns of Tanglewood. I had the time of my life at the Josh. I had finished off my first full season of riding with a bang, and I couldn’t wait for spring.
On Memorial Day weekend of 2000 I successfully rode my second century ride, and aimed my sights at the Greylock Century in early August. In the weeks before the big ride I rode up Mt. Greylock twice, the first time on a last minute whim with my friend Rik, and the second time in the pouring rain and down the steep North Adams side, which is harder and more dangerous than riding up. The week before the big ride I was on vacation in Maine and rode to the summit of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island. I was feeling good. I had turned fifty without incident in February and I was proud of myself. I was ready for the Greylock Century.
3. From New Ashford to Florida
The Greylock Century started that year at the Brodie Mountain ski area on Route 7 in New Ashford at the foot of Mount Greylock. I arrived early for the eight o’clock start, took my bike off the car rack, paid my registration fee and received a t-shirt and a commemorative water bottle. I took a last minute trip to the men’s room and set off with a group of a couple dozen riders. Before we had even gone a mile we saw a rider changing a tire, but he soon rejoined us as we headed south for a few miles on Route 7 before turning left on North Maine Street in Lanesboro to enter the Mount Greylock State Reservation. Mount Greylock itself is but the high point of a vast outcropping of rock that is nearly eighteen miles long from North to South, or about one third the length of Berkshire County. We were coming at it from the South. There is a visitors’ center near the entrance to the park. From there it is about eight miles to the summit along Rockwell Road. The early climbing, just before and just after the visitors’ center, is actually the steepest grade and the hardest part of riding to the top of Greylock. Once you make it up to the ridge the road undulates beneath you until you come to Greylock itself, where there are some switchbacks before the road suddenly climbs, and meets up with Notch Road, which will take you to North Adams. From this junction a short road to the summit climbs, winds gently around the mountain with open views and takes you to the summit. At the top there is a great stone tower, the Veterans Memorial, and Bascom Lodge, a rustic building until recently run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, where you can fill your water bottles, buy food and drink, and use the facilities.
It was a clear bright day, a perfect day to spend on a bicycle. From the top of Greylock you get good views of Pittsfield to the south with its two big lakes, Pontoosic and Onota. To the West you can see the treeless ski runs at Brodie Mountain, and behind it the Taconic Range and New York State. To the East you can see the town of Adams and the Hoosac Range, which is where we were headed. It is hard to see to the North from the summit, but from a nearby overlook you can see Williamstown, with its college buildings and church spires and Vermont’s Green Mountains set behind it, a picture postcard of a New England town.
Part of the appeal of cycling is the scenery. You enter a place under your own power, unobtrusively, without the clang and clatter of an internal combustion engine. On a bike one sees birds and beasts that you would never see from a car. I have come noiselessly upon deer feeding in a field and once, a great blue heron standing by the side of Route 7. I have seen numerous foxes and wild turkeys. It is hard to explain to someone why you want to spend the better part of a day on a bicycle riding a hundred miles through the Berkshire Hills. The scenery is part of it, as are the bragging rights I mentioned earlier. There is too, the pure physicality of the act. The body reacts to such strenuous exercise with a flood of endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s own natural feel-good drugs, which make you feel, well, good.
It is true that the full benefits of cycling come only to the patient. There is a break-in period for your bottom which scares away many novices, and the new cushy comfortable seats that are so popular with recreational riders are too big and create too much chafing for long rides. There is no getting around it; the enjoyment of cycling is directly proportional to the shape you are in for it. The more you do it, the more fun it becomes. A century ride sounds hard, but in fact it isn’t. It is challenging and strenuous, to be sure, but if you have trained properly for it and are careful with your nutrition and hydration during the ride it can be very enjoyable. There is, too, a special camaraderie you experience with the other riders. At the end of the day there are war stories to tell. One of our riders writes a lengthy account of each day’s ride, with humorous anecdotes and observations about the roads and the views and the company. Each chapter is e-mailed to the list of riders at the end of the day, and the ride isn’t complete until you have read our Homer’s daily narrative.
That day I found myself on the top of Greylock with three other riders: my friend Shaun, who had rescued me on my first century ride, another young man I didn’t know, tall and wiry, from Bennington, Vermont, and a hefty man about my age from Rhode Island who had driven up for the day. My usual riding buddies were a little bit behind us (wisely pacing themselves) and they arrived as we were finishing our break at Bascom Lodge and about ready to descend.
I mentioned that I had gone down the north side of Greylock previously during a rainstorm. I thought today would be a piece of cake by comparison. What I didn’t envision was the peculiar problems a sunny day brings to a leafy wooded road. The uneven road surface was dappled with sunlight coming through the leaves, making it hard to see. In the best of times the road over Greylock is a minefield of holes and bumps and buckles. The north side of Greylock is so steep it is where the hardcore Berkshire cyclists train for the Mount Washington Bike Race. Notch Road is much steeper than Rockwell Road. It is a series of sharp and steep switchbacks, and when you are descending you are playing with your brakes the whole time. Gravity, normally a rider’s ally on a descent, goes over to the enemy and tries to kill you. This was the one part of the day I was dreading because I really do not feel entirely safe doing this. But this day the four of us managed it without incident and found ourselves spilled out onto the streets of downtown North Adams.
North Adams was once the industrial center of North Berkshire, but, like many New England mill towns, has been in decline for many years. It lies just East of Williamstown, which calls itself “the village beautiful” and is the home of Williams College. The contrast between the two towns is dramatic. But North Adams is making a comeback, centered around its new Museum of Contemporary Arts, MASS MOCA, attracting artists and craftspeople to its inexpensive housing and spacious lofts in the old commercial center.
It was through North Adams that we now road, along Route 2 for a brief urban interlude between more idyllic rural settings. Route 2 comes over from the New York border East of Troy and makes a bee line across the northern part of Massachusetts as it heads to Boston. This Western portion of the road is called “the Mohawk Trail,” and as one heads east on it toward Greenfield there are a couple Mohawk Trading Posts that seem like they are out of another era, roadside shops where you can buy moccasins, beaded belts and other assorted knick-knacks. But to get to Charlemont you must first climb up and over the Hoosac Range and then drop down its other side. So just East of North Adams Route 2 suddenly climbs quite abruptly, and snakes up to an overlook where you have spectacular views of North Adams and Mt Greylock. This section of road is known, for obvious reasons, as the Hairpin Turn, and nearly every year some poor trucker fails to negotiate it and loses his load or his life or both. Our band of four managed to get to the top of the turn, and had our first official fuel stop provided by the high school cross-country team. There was Gatorade and cookies and fruit.
After our short stop we climbed gradually higher to the hill town of Florida, Massachusetts, first to one summit, then to a second, and then began a long descent that would take us to Charlemont and the dreaded Hawley Hill, a climb shorter than Greylock but with a steeper grade. But I wasn’t worried about Hawley Hill. I was ready for it. I had just conquered Greylock and the Hairpin Turn and I was feeling good.
4. Gravity isn’t just a theory, it’s the law!
There came a moment when I quite suddenly realized that I was about to hurt myself, but it hadn't happened yet. There were seconds, or parts of seconds, (who knows?) when I knew I was no longer in control of my bicycle, and that one way or another I was going to go down, and at a pretty good speed on a pretty steep hill. Somehow I had inadvertently managed to drift off the road into what I later learned is called “a paved waterway,” a grooved drainage ditch alongside the shoulder designed to keep the snowmelt off the road. If you drift off the paved shoulder you drop down the steep pitch of the waterway, as I had just done.
How I got off the road I don’t know to this day, but off the road I was. I recall a weird sense of every thing slowing down, as if I was watching this happen to somebody else in slow motion. My adrenaline was pumping but I was strangely detached even as I fought in vain to steer out of the paved ditch and ride back up to the safety of the road. Finally the moment had come to fall, and I fell, something I recall only as pure sensation, without any visuals. Perhaps I closed my eyes. I hit hard on my right side and bounced, and then almost immediately my head thumped hard to the ground, and I thought, “I've hurt myself.”
Soon, or so it seemed, I was curled up in a fetal ball on the nearby grass, and a stranger's voice was asking me if I was “All right?” to which I could only moan. An ambulance arrived. By then, I was bathed in the soothing juices of shock, and gabbed with the EMT's as they put me on a backboard, and to the circle of worried cyclists that had gathered around me. My riding buddies were there, having come upon the scene and seen the ambulance. My friend Shaun was there. He had been in front of me, but was heading down the long hill when a trucker started to blow his air horn at him. Shaun thought he was harassing him, but when he turned around to look he saw the brake lights of a line of cars back near the top. And he didn’t see me. So he turned around and started to climb the hill he had just descended.
He reassured me that he would call Martha on his cell phone. Tell her “I'm OK!” I implored, meaning it, though it was as absurd a thing as I had ever said. I said some silly things. I wanted to get up and finish the ride. I wanted to take my bike with me in the ambulance. I was feeling no pain.
I mentioned that I am tall, and I weigh two hundred and fifteen pounds on a good day. My bike is 63 cm high. I had just crested the second summit and was heading downhill at about twenty miles an hour (in another half mile I would have been going near forty), and the sheer physics of mass and velocity meant bad things were going to happen to me.
The early inventory of those bad things included something obviously wrong with my right shoulder, for as I tried to raise myself the mechanics were weird and I had no strength. On the way to the hospital, I swapped old EMT stories from my days on the ambulance in Maine, and did my best to assure my rescuers that I was really fine, and that this whole episode was an embarrassing mistake of some kind.
Now my ride began a strange reversal. The ambulance took me back down the Hairpin Turn to the North Adams Regional Hospital. I was wheeled into the emergency room and my BCA jersey cut off me. A kind redheaded nurse offered me pain medication, but I refused it, since I wasn't in any real pain, although I could see now that I was pretty bloody and had nasty looking road rash on my knees and elbows and hands. It was only later, when I had to stand up for a CAT scan that the pain announced its arrival, and I felt a wave of nausea roll over me. Not long after that I accepted the offered morphine.
After awhile, Shaun’s mother-in-law Nancy came in to see me. I had never met her, but Shaun had been unable to reach Martha so he called her, and she drove the twenty miles up from Pittsfield to check on me, just one of many kindnesses I was to receive at that time.
Before too long Martha and my daughter Rebecca showed up and looked more concerned than I felt they ought to have been. I found myself involuntarily crying. I learned later that Shaun had called Martha, but she was at our church Blueberry Festival. When Shaun went to leave a message the tape on our answering machine ran out and the message she heard was “Martha, this is Shaun, Rick has had a crash.” BEEP, END OF TAPE. She had frantically started calling emergency rooms. On the second try she found me.
The scan came back. I had a broken rib, a contused lung, and a triple separation of the AC joint in my right shoulder. What I didn't know then, and didn’t discover for some time, was that I had lost my marbles on the Mohawk Trail, or to put in more clinically, I had a traumatic brain injury on the left side of my head from the big thump I felt. I had indeed hurt myself. Nothing has been quite the same since.
5. If one emergency room is good, two must be better
If you ride enough sooner or later you will fall. The number of miles a serious road cyclist logs makes falling statistically probable. Most falls are minor events, you wipe out on some gravel going around a turn or you are careless crossing the railroad tracks and your front wheel is swallowed and turned abruptly to one side. One mark of a really serious cyclist is shaved legs, which facilitates the placement and removal of adhesive bandages. The nasty abrasions resulting from a slide across a hard surface are called “road rash.” Every cyclist acquires some and in time it heals. Cyclists break collarbones and wrists, crack ribs and separate shoulders. My injuries were not unusual. There are also 1300 deaths a year from head injuries on bikes.
I had never fallen before, at least as an adult. I had never broken a bone in my life and never had surgery. I was entering terra incognita in my life’s journey, and the mode of conveyance that day was no longer a bike, but an ambulance. I had been five hours at North Adams and they seemed to be done with me, so I was shipped by ambulance to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. Was it the same crew who had brought me down the mountain from Florida? I think so, but that could be a trick of memory. I was no longer chatting. It all seemed unreal, as I lay strapped on to a gurney watching the road behind me through the back window. I certainly was not prepared for the sight I was to see next. On Route 8 as we were coming into Pittsfield I saw six or eight cyclists with our familiar mango and blue jerseys laboring North toward the Berkshire Mall. It was my riding buddies, hours later and still on the bike making their way to Brodie and the finish. I was now on a different ride.
The EMTs and the emergency personal at both hospitals had asked me if I had lost consciousness. I said I didn’t think so, but as my neurologist later said, “Why should they have believed you? You had a head injury.” I was kept overnight at BMC, and discharged the next afternoon with a big bag of Percocet and Ibuprofen, and an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon in a few weeks to look at my ruined shoulder.
6. The Prisoner of Lazy Boy
I had been due to begin vacation that week, so the segue from active ministry to convalescence took minimal arrangements. Martha had called Luther, a retired minister from our congregation, to fill in for me on Sunday. I was soon comfortably ensconced in my old tattered Lazy Boy, and provided with meals, painkillers, company and an endless stream of videos, which I enjoyed indiscriminately, probably because of the painkillers. Because the controls to the chair were on the right side, and I couldn’t use my right arm, I had to call for help when I needed to be escorted to the bathroom. I had an unsettling glimpse of future geezerhood as I hobbled on the arm of my 18-year-old son, Andrew. When Martha was out on errands she left a bell on the table next to my Lazy Boy. One day she asked Rebecca to keep an ear out for Dad. I rang the bell and no one answered. I rang and rang and rang. Finally I turned over onto my bad side and found the controls with my left hand. I released myself from the chair and hobbled upstairs to Rebecca’s room where the door was closed. I knocked. No answer. Finally I pushed the door open and began to laugh at what I saw. There was my minder on her bed reading, with the headphones to her Discman on. She was singing along to the silent music in her head and bobbing her head along with the beat. I bellowed at her and she took the headphones off, “Did you need something, Dad?” You are only sixteen once!
Andrew was due to leave for Pomona College in Claremont, California, in a few days, and since I couldn’t be left behind alone, I was brought along, my ride continuing now in a wheelchair. In some very real sense I viewed everything that had happened to me as one event. I had left Jiminy Peak on August 4th for a long ride and somehow I was still on it. Sleeplessness, pain, and painkillers put me into a state of consciousness far removed from the ordinary, and I had never really gone back to the life I had before the day of my fall.
Now my ride took me to California, where I spent my days in a chaise lounge by the pool at our motel, while Martha and Rebecca helped settle Andrew into the dorm. I had brought some books I needed to read for a pastor-theologian program, but although I could read the words, I didn’t seem to be taking any of it in. It was like when you read before bed and find yourself reading the same paragraph repeatedly, realizing you have been reading the words but not taking in the meaning.
Back in Pittsfield my vacation ended and I prepared to return to my ministry. I had a full schedule for the fall. I had just had a book published and I had a number of public events scheduled. I drifted through a book signing at Barnes and Noble. When asked what the book was about, I realized I wasn’t quite sure. Later I discovered I couldn’t even read my own book (although I suspect others found it unreadable as well, for altogether different reasons.)
All the same, I looked all right, and I seemed all right. I showed up to work and attended to my business, though everything seemed more complicated and took longer. It took me twice as long to prepare a sermon, and where before I had often left my printed text to extemporize, now I clung to my manuscript for dear life.
My friends told me I was repeating myself. I have always had an exceptional memory, but now every day was a foray into forgetfulness. I missed appointments. I bumped into my friend the rabbi and congratulated him on his anniversary, which had happened while I was in California. He looked puzzled and said, “But I saw you last week, Rick, at your 25th ordination anniversary.” “Of course you did,” I said, for now I remembered. After church I would greet parishioners that I had known for nearly twenty years and be unable to remember their names. I would be headed in the car for someplace and drive to someplace else. I dropped things. Objects felt peculiar. My glasses didn’t seem like mine anymore and I was constantly taking them off to see if they were the right ones.
At home I was increasingly a hazard. One of my longstanding hobbies has been cooking, and I discovered I couldn’t cook. I tried to stir-fry chicken with no oil in the wok. Cooking, once my joy, was now a nightmare. I would search wildly for an ingredient while the dish was burning on the range. At breakfast one morning I put the cereal in the refrigerator and the orange juice in the pantry. These things are amusing now but they were disturbing at the time. I had always relied on my wits, and now they seemed strangely unreliable. It was unnerving.
I tried to talk to people about my problems, but most just reassured me I was OK. I told Martha that I was getting “the halo effect.” If I put on a tie and didn’t drool, people just assumed I was Rick Floyd and that I would behave like Rick Floyd. Part of the loneliness of a head injury is trying to explain to people what you are going through. You look OK, and you can talk OK, so what’s the problem? If I talked about my sudden memory problems people would often tell me how their memory wasn’t as good as it used to be either. If I complained of my hearing loss they would recount how their hearing had diminished with age. But not in one day, I wanted to say.
7. Dealing with deficits
It was clear to Martha that something was just not right with me. We had chalked up my erratic behavior to the painkillers and chronic sleeplessness, but there was more going on. Martha is an RN specially trained in the care of Alzheimer’s patients. She didn’t like what she was seeing in me. So we began another leg of my long ride, the chasing of a diagnosis.
If you have interfaced with the health care system recently you know it is a frustrating process trying to see the people you need to see when you need to see them. I love my doctors, every one of them, and believe I got the best of care. But I hate the process. I am convinced that the delay in diagnosis and treatment caused my family and me a great deal of extra and unnecessary suffering.
We began with my primary physician. We described my memory problems, my frustration over simple tasks, my headaches, blurry vision, tinnitus, and constant fatigue. “You could have a concussion,” he said, and ordered an MRI. After a very frightening attack of claustrophobia in the MRI tube, I was sent to a neurologist. She said, “You have brisk reflexes and a tremor. You have sustained a traumatic brain injury. It should clear up in time, but you should get tested for cognitive deficits by a neuro-psychologist.” So that is where we went next. Each succeeding appointment took several weeks, so that by the time I got tested it was Thanksgiving, and by the time I met with the neuro-psychologist to hear the results it was December, five months after the trauma.
I expected the neuro-psychologist to say I had tested fine, and everything was OK, but she didn’t. She told me I had a series of significant measurable deficits, and they were consistent with the limitations and frustrations I was experiencing. My biggest deficit was in the area of multi-tasking, doing more than one thing at once. She explained it like this: “In the past, you could cook dinner, talk to Martha, and listen to NPR all at the same time. Now you can’t. You will be taxed by doing one of those things and it will demand your full attention.”
“What should I do?” I asked her. “Try to reduce stressful situations. The big danger with a brain injury is depression as a result of bumping up against your deficits daily. I recommend you consider medication. Depression itself has some memory loss, and if untreated could add on to your deficits.”
Martha and I left this appointment reeling. It is easy to say avoid stress, but the ministry is a stressful job, and being a parish minister is “multi-tasking.” Both the neurologist and the neuro-psychologist couldn’t believe I was working. Nobody told me I shouldn’t be.
In January I finally received medication, almost six months from my injury. At the same time I had surgery to repair my separated shoulder, which required me to be in a sling and a swath for 10 weeks. Once again I was “the Prisoner of Lazy Boy.”
8. Back on the bike on the wrong side of the road
I managed to work through Easter, after which I was scheduled to go to Cambridge University In England for a sabbatical through the summer. In January I wrote the principal of the college explaining my limitations and he had written a gracious letter back telling me to come along and do what I was able.
My arm came out of the sling and I had months of physical therapy. After the accident my bike had ended up in the Florida Fire Station. My friend Arthur went up and retrieved it, and my son had taken it to Tom’s shop. There it had been an object of curiosity, as the handlebars were turned under from the weight I had put on them going over the bars. Before we went to England I had Tom repair the bike. I purchased a new helmet. The old one had been completely crushed on one side.
I was intent on getting on the bike again. I asked Tom to box it up for airplane travel, and I bungeed it to the roof of my Jeep before we headed to Logan. Martha was strongly against me taking the bike to England, and we had a tense negotiation in the driveway. In the end we got the bike and ourselves to Heathrow, then by bus to Cambridge, and by cab to our flat. I took it by bus and foot to a downtown bike shop to be unboxed and assembled and I asked around for a group ride. So the ride I had begun in New Ashford was continued on the wrong side of the road, through the green and pleasant countryside of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia.
I was blessed to have that sabbatical for a period of convalescence. These were anxious times for us. We wondered if I would be able to return to work in September. Martha accelerated her work on her master’s degree in case she might have to become the breadwinner. In Cambridge I took walks and photos and soon began to be able to read again. I returned to work in September and preached my first sermon on September 9. It felt good to be back. I thought I might be able to manage. Three days later terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
One of my doctors told me about the concept of ”new normal.” She said, “Don’t compare where you are to where you were before your injury. Compare where you are to where you were after the injury.” In that light I have done well. I didn’t lose all my marbles, and some of the ones I did lose I have since got back. My shoulder works fine and I am pain free. I am able to work, though many things are harder that they used to be.
In truth every day is “a new normal” for us all. There is no secure, untroubled place or time where we can avoid the changes that life brings. We are always adjusting to changes, some in our own bodies, and some in the events of our lives. Some of these changes bring us joy; others bring us sadness and sorrow. Sometimes these changes are sudden, a bike goes off a road, a test comes back with hard news, terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center. Sometimes the changes are a matter of course, woven into the very fabric of things. Our kids grow up and leave home and go to college. Our parents become infirm and die. You cannot avoid these changes anymore than you can deny turning fifty by taking up cycling. They are all part of the daily journey through life. They are all part of the ride, and I am thankful for each day of it I am given.