No one can read your mind, and no one can see your brain injury. A cerebellar stroke hits the, well, the cerebellum. My recovery from my cerebellar stroke has been challenging. It took strength I would’ve assumed I didn’t have. People are forever telling me, “You look great.” It can be hard to process what folks mean as a kind comment, but 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 certainly doesn’t appear anything catastrophic happened to me.
Something catastrophic happened to me.
“You look great.”
It took some months after I got home from the hospital to be able to stand on my own in the shower. Until that time, I sat on a bench to wash myself. Thankfully, with the help of my physical therapists, that time is behind me. Frankly, it’s pretty difficult to wash your ass from one of those benches, and isn’t washing your ass the best thing about a shower? Among all of the other injustices thrust upon me, the inability to thoroughly cleanse my own ass was unforeseen but there was not a goddamned thing good about it. It’s taught me to cut the elderly some slack. Who knows what shape that person’s ass is in.
These days, I’m no longer surprised by the pleasure I derive from a nice, hot, lengthy shower. It’s an easy thing to take for granted. When the grid goes down, you’ll know what I mean. Until then, 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 my (much thinner) body is one I will not neglect to luxuriate in. And I don’t.
“You look great.” I have to fight the impulse to answer snidely in any number of ways. “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 a lot 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 wonderful. It’s ignorable, because we’ve turned it into a task in our everyday lives, we pound it into submission, human vs. nature, like reversing the flow of the Chicago River. Twice. Just feel it. Feel it.
Every one of us has spent our lives rehearsing our habits and our patterns and getting out of the shower is one of those. A pattern. I push the water closed, click the little knob on top of the tub spigot to close the shower off too, listen to the gurgles from the pipes and the drain. I still do these things in the same way I did before I had a stroke.
I grab a fresh towel and wipe away the water and probably a lot of skin cells. I start to warm up. I 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 a bit more in preparation for heading toward the mirror and getting rid of the rest of the moisture with an electrical hair dryer, another habit and pattern that will be lost to me once the grid goes down.
I look at myself and I can’t see that anything is all that different. My face looks the same, just a little thinner. My beard turned almost totally gray a few years ago. It’s hard to know the inaccuracies of what we see in our mirrors. We see that face every goddamned day. Changes sneak up on us, all of us, day in and day out. A laugh line doesn’t appear at once, it grows and grows. My beard didn’t turn damn near Santa white overnight; a hair switched over here and there until there was hardly any dark brown left.
“You look great.”
I can tell my hair is thinner because it’s already nearly dry just from the towel. It used to be still sopping at this point. It can be hard to take a real account of the person in the mirror. Whenever anyone else tries to do that for us, we generally react with anger. Defensiveness. Human vs. nature, and all that. We expect to be the first human not to show physical signs of the aging process. We fail to see our own aging in the mirror, so why would we think any differently?
I reach into the middle drawer and pull out the dryer. I remove its cord and plug it into the wall. I can still feel that my hair is cold and wet. I turn on the dryer, letting its output become warmer and warmer until I face the air and run it over my scalp.
I’ve been trying to duplicate David Lynch’s hairstyle for about a year by this point—it’s short on the back and sides, and I try to force the front length up and back. 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 my height is a couple of inches above average.
As the hot air escapes the dryer quickly, 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 dryer, and I move it to the back of my head to dry the shorter hair that I can’t see. But I can feel with my right hand.
I can’t be sure that I forget about it every day. But I certainly have forgotten about it some days by this point. 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 won’t 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, Cow 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 March 2020. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Akron in Ohio.