It’s now been three years since my last “normal” day — July 25, 2015. That evening, I enjoyed myself with friends at a party as — unbeknownst to me — my brain was imploding and filling with unwanted blood. The next morning, I collapsed waiting for a train on the platform of New London train station.
What had happened? To be technical about it, I was brought down by an acute trans-hemispheric subdural hematoma with herniation and midline shift. It falls into the category of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and it’s astonishing that I’m still alive, let alone able to walk by myself; talk with my friends, family, and strangers; and teach two days a week. When I was beginning to recover from surgery, I asked the assistant neurologist what kind of danger I’d been in. She thought for a moment and replied that on a scale of 1 to 10, I had been “a very high 9.”
My injury had begun to announce itself a week or two earlier, in the guise of a stabbing headache and piercing sensitivity to light that I foolishly researched and pegged as my first-ever migraine, a pain that simply had to be borne till it went away. (As it happens, you can get your first migraine at the age of 60, but it is extremely rare.) I was very lucky that I fell in that New London station. If I’d made it onto the train, I would likely have passed out immediately — looking like just another elderly commuter dozing in his seat, not to be disturbed until New York. There is a good chance I never would have awakened.
Instead, I collapsed spectacularly and, comatose, was taken to Hartford Hospital. There, I was diagnosed with my hematoma, a gathering of blood in the tissues between the brain and skull. It was unclear what had brought this on — probably some minor trauma that had ruptured ancient veins — and at first, the doctors thought this might stabilize and resolve itself with bed rest and rehabilitation. But instead, it intensified and thickened to the point where the resultant pressure was squeezing my brain as though it was citrus, displacing the right hemisphere a full two centimeters across the midline.
So they drilled me open, and my neurosurgeon, Dr. Brendan Killory, saved my life by removing the clot. Only as I grew stronger did I realize how badly damaged I’d been. In the morning, it took me an hour or more to understand that I was actually expected to get up, and then at least another hour to dress myself. I reached for words that were not quite there, and some of them never arrived. When it could be accessed, my brain functioned like a capacious hard drive, but my “software” was tangled beyond belief.
One of my best methods of self-defense became the simple admission that I didn’t understand. Unexpected travel routes, allusive jokes, sudden interruptions, and emotional outbursts upended me, and sometimes I needed to ask questions or even protest. More often, patience and an enigmatic smile carried me through until I was back on familiar ground. I started making very few advance appointments; better to gauge the day’s energy level before committing to anything. How terribly boring it is to be sick, to be thinking always about bedtime!
I was especially grateful for Facebook, which allowed me to communicate at whatever level my capacity permitted. Whatever may be said about Facebook, it is an unparalleled method of communication from the sickbed. Personal letters were out of the question, and phone calls exhausted me after two or three grunts. Moreover, I didn’t want to tell the same story again and again. Still, distanced, I could dictate — and later type — a couple of sentences for general distribution. A rudimentary but easily negotiated system of communication was established: I could simply push the “Like” button to acknowledge notes I received — a way of thanking friends for their care, of reciprocating their affection without wearing myself out. Crafting paragraphs of updates took more time and energy than long articles had once demanded.
And now it has been more than three years, and I still do most of my socializing on Facebook, as I like being able to share jokes, pieces of music, film, memories, and outrage with my friends. I’m doing pretty well, all things considered. I adopted a terrier puppy from the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter, and she gave me something warm and friendly to care for that obviously cared back. I’ve always liked dogs, but I have more respect for them than ever and am ever astounded by how much they seem to know.
I’m back teaching a full schedule at the University of Southern California, writing occasionally for The New York Review of Books, and planning some sort of sequel to Parallel Play (Anchor), a memoir I published in 2009.
I fade dramatically as the day goes on, and I hardly want to talk with anybody after dark. I sleep at least 10 hours a night and am happier with 12.
I’ve necessarily grown rather strict in my self-protection. I can no longer listen to loud music or attend any sort of concert at night. Multiple conversations confuse me, so I avoid parties, groups of people, and noisy places. Chronic tardiness is bothersome, as I have to build my schedule very carefully and can no longer multitask, meaning that if somebody is late, all I will be doing is waiting, with increasing anxiety. When the time comes that I have to go home, I have to go home, and I really can’t argue about it or provide “reasons.” I risk sounding misanthropic here, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so full of goodwill toward my friends and family and general sympathy for the human condition. It’s just a lot harder to participate in the world than it once was. I hope that anybody who reads this article will take what I consider urgent advice — if you have a severe or extended headache, see a doctor immediately, for much of what I’ve gone through could likely have been avoided.
But I don’t spend much time on regrets. I’m mostly very grateful — not just for the chronological extension that nobody had any right to expect, but also for a surprising side effect of my illness: a curious sense of calm and inner repose that was never before part of my nature.
I’m no longer afraid of death, which is a profound relief after some six decades of abject terror. I have an innate sense that I know what it will be like and that it will be nothing too terrible, a dreamless sleep. With this realization has come a certain lessening of my professional ambition but a greatly enhanced appreciation of life as it happens — a reunion with a childhood friend, delight in my children, a funny movie, a fine autumn afternoon. And I want to enjoy these as long as I can.
Tim Page is a professor in both the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for The Washington Post.