No one can read your mind. No one can see your brain injury. A cerebellar stroke hits the, well, the cerebellum. My recovery from my cerebellar stroke has been challenging, but people are forever telling me, “You look great.” It can be hard to process especially when I don’t necessarily feel great.
When I say, “No one can see your brain injury,” this includes me. I can’t see it either. I can tell things are different, that I lost weight, the hair on my head is thinner, my eyes look a little crossed. But it doesn’t appear anything catastrophic happened to me.
Something catastrophic happened to me.
“You look great.”
It took some months to be able to stand on my own in the shower. Until then, I sat on a bench. Thankfully, with the help of my physical therapists, that time is behind me. How can I put this? It’s terribly difficult to wash your ass from a bench, and isn’t washing your ass the best thing about a shower? The inability to thoroughly cleanse my own ass was unforeseen but there was not a goddamned thing good about it.
These days, I’m no longer surprised by the pleasure I derive from a lengthy shower. It’s easy to take for granted. The simple act of stepping over the lip of a bathtub and having the necessary balance to stay on my feet while hot water pulsates over me is something I will never again neglect to luxuriate in.
“You look great.” I could answer snidely: “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” “I have a brain injury; you can’t see it.” “It’s amazing what a fresh ass will do for you.”
I stay in the shower for longer than previous, and not just because my balance isn’t what it used to be. It feels good. The next time you take one, feel it. It’s ignorable, because we’ve turned it into a task, we pound it into submission, human vs. nature, like reversing the flow of the Chicago River. Twice. Just feel it.
We’ve all spent our lives rehearsing our habits and getting out of the shower is one of those. A pattern. I push the water closed, click the knob on top of the tub spigot to close the shower off, listen to the gurgles from the pipes and the drain. I still do these things in the way I did before I had a stroke.
I use a towel and wipe away the water. I slowly get out of the tub, first one foot, then I make sure I’m balanced on two feet before I lift the other out. Now I’m out of the shower and mostly dry, so I towel off my hair in preparation for using the electrical hair dryer.
I look at myself in the mirror and I can’t see that anything is all that different. My face looks the same, a little thinner. My beard turned mostly gray a few years ago. It’s hard to know the inaccuracies we see in our mirrors. We see that face every day. Changes sneak up on us, day in and day out. A laugh line doesn’t appear at once, it grows. My beard didn’t turn white overnight; a hair switched over here and there until there was hardly any dark brown left.
“You look good.”
I can tell my hair is thinner; it’s nearly dry just from the towel. It used to be still sopping at this point. It can be hard to take account of the person in the mirror. When anyone else tries to do that for us, we react with anger. Defensiveness. Human vs. nature, etc. We expect to be the first human not to show physical signs of aging. We can’t see our own aging in the mirror, after all.
I reach into the drawer and remove the hair dryer, and then plug it into the wall. My hair is cold and wet. I turn on the dryer, letting its output become warmer until I face the air and run it over my scalp.
I’ve been trying to duplicate David Lynch’s hairstyle for awhile—it’s short on the back and sides, and I try to force the front up. I’m not sure it looks like David Lynch, especially because his hair is totally gray and, unlike my beard, my head has resolutely held onto its dark brown hairs. But I like it, and it makes me feel taller, although I’m a couple of inches above average.
As the hot air escapes the dryer, I use that pressure to pull my longer hair up so that product can help it stay taller once I’m done. I can’t lie to myself and imagine this process doesn’t take a fraction of the time it used to. I don’t. It does. Even so, I still like it.
Now that the front is dried, I turn my attention to the back of my head. We can’t see the backs of our heads. Maybe you have an elaborate mirror setup so you can see the back of your own head. I don’t know. I don’t have an elaborate mirror setup. My left hand holds the hair dryer, and I move it to the back of my head to dry the hair that I can’t see. But I can feel with my right hand.
I can’t be sure I forget about it every day, but I certainly have forgotten about it some days. But I can’t forget any longer on this day. Although I can’t see it, my right hand reminds me every day when I dry my hair that I will forever be missing a section of my skull’s posterior bone flap. It will never be replaced. It’s a literal hole in my head.
“You look great.”
Chris Drabick is a former rock music journalist whose fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows and After the Pause, and non-fiction in BULL and Stoneboat, among others. He is a graduate of the NEOMFA, the northeast Ohio consortium program. His debut novel The Way We Get By, was published by Unsolicited Press in 2020.