Visitors arrived on a daily basis. They wanted to look at me, poke at me a little. “How you doing, champ?” they’d ask, sometimes grabbing my foot like it was a phone they were about to answer. “You feeling better? You doing OK now? We were worried sick about you. You look great! Really, you do. You gave us quite a scare there, pal. Don’t do that again, got it?” Then they’d present an offering of some kind which, nine out of 10 times, consisted of reading material.
Paperbacks, hardcovers, magazines, newspapers—if you could read it, the visitors brought it to me. An ex-girlfriend brought me that month’s Vanity Fair, with the cast of Game of Thrones on the cover. (I’d been obsessed with Game of Thrones before the stroke; post-stroke, I’m much more ambivalent about it.) A colleague brought me a copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter. What these people didn’t understand—and what I didn’t understand, at least not initially—was that I couldn’t read anymore.
I don’t mean that I couldn’t understand the letters—I could. And I don’t mean that I didn’t understand the words. If I looked at a word for a few seconds, I could usually wring some meaning out of it. What I mean when I say that I couldn’t read is this: my now-addled brain would get through a sentence the way that a helpless little ship gets through a dramatic storm in a movie. The ship would be tossed about mercilessly—woosh!—and pummelled by the the absurdly steep waves; the sails would be reduced tatters; one crew member (the one with the beard and the bright eyes) would be unexpectedly swept overboard and lost forever. Yet, against all odds, the little ship would survive.
Translation: I’d get the gist of what the sentence was talking about. But what an unholy effort this was to do so. I’d understand a sentence, and think: OK, I got that one. One down! Then I’d find myself utterly exhausted from the effort. I’d almost always nod off for 10 to 15 minutes after reading one sentence. Let me say that again: I’d routinely fall asleep from the effort it took to comprehend a single sentence.
Worse still, I could not understand more than one sentence at a time. I’d finish reading a paragraph, having understood all the sentences in the paragraph individually. But I couldn’t tell you how all the sentences were connected, or what the essence of the entire paragraph was.
And trying to read an entire page of sentences was futile.
My dad, in an unexpected moment of sweetness, would bring me the Sunday edition of The New York Times in the hospital. He does this even though the idea of spending $10—which is what the paper costs here—for a newspaper is madness to him. I’ve been reading the Sunday Times for the last 25 or 30 years, like a huge, huge asshole. I’m snobbish about it, too. I visit other cities and buy their Sunday papers and I think, YOU CALL THIS A SUNDAY PAPER? GIVE ME A BREAK, SAN FRANCISCO.
Each Sunday during my four-week stretch in St. Paul’s, I’d dutifully read the Sunday Times, courtesy of my dad. I’d set about diligently trying to put the paper’s words and sentences into my eyes—that’s the most accurate way I can say it. I’d put a sentence into my eyes—“The city still draws its influx of eager young people fresh from the farm, the small town, and the university, in search of excitement, employment or love”—and not realize that it’s meaning had already become ghostly, and not realize that what I had just read a few seconds ago was already fading away. I wouldn’t realize it until I was halfway through the following sentence. The words passed through my brain like a spray of pigeon feathers through a dank air shaft. They would circle and spin. I’d lose track of them. They’d finally vanish into the darkness below, lost forever.
Every Sunday, unwilling to accept my fate, I’d hunker down and try again. I’d log three or four hours of paper-reading time. At the end of the three hours, I’d remember virtually nothing of what I’d read.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept doing this. I kept doing this because this is what I had always done. I did it because, at my age, things that I’ve done for so many years—like reading the paper on Sunday—were basically knee-jerk reactions. I do these things involuntarily, whether I can still actually do those things or not.
Once the Times was “read” for the week, I’d arrange the paper on the hospital tray next to my bed. I’d grab my malnourished pillow pal (hello, old friend), and look out the window at the afternoon light. I had a bird’s-eye view of the traffic moving through the busy intersection on Davie and Thurlow.
This is the way it is now, I thought. I will try to read, but I’ll no longer actually be able to do it. My mind hummed with a dull static.
I should have been angry or upset. I should despaired over this—reading had been central to my identity since I was a kid. I didn’t despair. I didn’t panic. It was pointless to read now: that’s the end of that. This is the way it is now…
The next Sunday, dad showed up with the paper. I took it from him, thanked him for doing this.
Then I snapped open the first section and hurled myself into the murk.