My father-in-law had a stroke on Tuesday. It apparently turned out to be a "minor stroke," which is simultaneously a relief and an oxymoron. We visited him at the hospital last night.
So far, I have been fortunate enough to experience hospital rooms mostly from the vantage point of a visitor. Every time, I feel empathy to the point of nausea for the person in the bed -- not only for the physical ailment, but for having to face a circus of people at precisely the time socializing is the least desirable thing. It seems almost cruel until you consider the alternative of having no one there at all.
Even worse, the bed occupant is often completely out of it, so he is forced to witness everyone standing around and talking about him as if he isn't in the room. How bizarre, to have people talking about what you've been up to in the last 12 hours right in front of you, as if you're not there. Odder still, you're generating a fairly substantial activity report, given the fact that you're just lying there: Did you eat? Have you spoken? Have you slept? Have you walked? Have you taken any medicines, and which ones? Are you taking fluids? Are you in pain? Who has visited you? Who has treated you? What happens next? A lot is going on.
One of the immediate effects for my father-in-law, a very pensive and witty guy, was that he had trouble coming up with certain nouns and pronouns. When they asked him if he knew where he was, he resourcefully answered, "The place where babies are born." The wing where he ended up staying happened to be labeled "Intensive Care Nursery," which was both poor signage and a bad joke. From babies to the sick to the broken, consider how many people wake up in hospitals and find that the word for where they are, along with their own bodies, fall outside their command.
This week in The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who was struck by lightning and suddenly became obsessed with hearing and playing piano music. Sacks specializes in these stories of neurological mystery, which are irresistible not only because they involve unexpected twists in a brain's fate (the blind person sees, the catatonic patient awakens), but because the events often precipitate a personal transformation.
The most marvelous Sacks accounts, this recent one included, tend to follow a similar arc where something terrible, such as contracting a tumor or being struck by lightning, becomes the catalyst for some wonderful new capacity. It seems like the stuff of comic books, hardly real. In the hospital it becomes plain that such reconfigurations happen, on a smaller scale, all the damn time. Then we have to cling to the hope that the hero comes out on the other side, if not with a special new power, then at least with newfound strength.