A year ago, on October 10, 2019, I had a stroke. And I saw a vision of my future.
It started in the living room, about 7AM. I was in my battered recliner, reading newspapers on an Ipad. Across from me, on our long couch, grandson Calvin was stirring. His mom worked nights at Waffle House, so he often stayed over. It would soon be time for him to head out for the school bus.
I glanced up at him, and then something else stirred to my left: A bright metallic blue curtain had appeared, and seemed as if it was being drawn to the right, across my field of vision.
There was no pain, in fact no unusual sensation at all. But clearly something was wrong. I called out to Wendy, asleep in our bedroom. “I think I’m having a stroke!”
Calvin had to get himself up and out that morning. Shortly I was walking into the Duke ER, which is barely a mile away. And immediately I discovered one of the upsides of my condition. Having spent many bleak and painful hours in that ER waiting room, when I calmly answered the reception nurse’s “May I help you?” with, “I think I’m having a stroke,” it was like waving Harry Potter’s most potent magic wand.
My posterior never even touched a waiting room seat: when someone pushed gently on my chest, I folded into a wheelchair that had appeared behind me, and was at once whisked through the usually locked doors into the inner sanctum. (I made a note to remember that six-word mantra.) Then I was in a cubicle, in the clutches of a medical cyborg that seemed to have a dozen hands, and had been waiting for me all night.
The only needle I recall soon became an IV, pumping strange fluids into my arm. Since I still was feeling no pain, thankfully there were no painkillers in the mix, so my head was clear. The shiny blue curtain still gleamed before me as I was tenderly manhandled into a big cylinder for an MRI, my head held rigid by a skull-shaped gray frame.
They gave me headphones, on which I was offered a choice of music to mask the big machine’s rhythmic whanging. I selected classical, wondering if this recording would be as awful and scratchy as the last one, which had sounded like the tape was bought about the year Duke was desegregated, and not updated since.
It was. The twenty minutes of musical mayhem was as close as I came to agony on this strange day, at least until I was presented with the colorful handiwork of Duke’s kitchens, which looked great but was consistently salt, fat, and flavor-free.
Then I was back in the cubicle, and now among the many hands were two connected to a strapping youth with “Trainee” on his badge or shirt. Someone whispered he was preparing to be a firefighter/EMT, and was shadowing the ER staff as part of that.
Which was fine with me, since he didn’t come bearing a needle.
But when he turned, I noticed something he did have: a phrase in large antique-document letters tattooed on one forearm.
Lying on the gurney, I turned my head til the angle was right and made out the words, which were as I thought: “We The People.”
Wasn’t that—? Hadn’t I read something about it somewhere —?
I wasn’t exactly positioned to go into interrogation mode. But even under ischemic stress, an old investigative reporter retains his curiosity. And once the flurry of emergency aid had passed, and I was left by myself for awhile, my fingers got itchy.
The blue curtain faded into something like a colorless but impenetrable fog. I could hold up and rotate my left hand, and watch it disappear, then emerge from the murk.
My right hand, though, dug for the big pocket in my cargo pants (cargo pants, or shorts, being my version of Quaker plain dress), and retrieved my portable investigative assistant, the IPad. I use the mini version, mainly because it slides and stays in that pocket (I have the distinct feeling Steve Jobs knew that).
Sure enough, I remembered right: the “We the People” tattoo was a logo of the Three Percenters, one of the nationwide right-wing militias.
They were started in 2008, evidently in reaction to the rise of Barack Obama. Among other forays, some of them saw action in the fatal August 2017 Charlottesville riot. That same year, a member named Jerry Varnell was arrested for plotting to blow up an Oklahoma bank with a truck bomb; last spring Varnell was sentenced to 25 years for plotting the attack. In May they were among an armed right wing mob that laid siege to the home of the governor of Kentucky, a Democrat, in protest of COVID virus restrictions.
Now, to be clear, the trainee in the ER cubicle that morning a year ago did not do or say anything untoward. I didn’t have a panic attack on my gurney. But still. As that day stretched into dusk, his presence lingered in my mind, and now remains as an omen.
They only kept me in the hospital that one night. Back home, I had plenty to deal with. For one, I had to get used to being partly disabled: my diminished vision was like wearing a blinder on one side: I began bumping into things on my left, a lot. Perhaps more important, that one brief ”episode” put an end to my driving career, after just shy of sixty years. So I also had to get used to finding rides. Travel was not ruled out, but plans had to be re-thought & scaled back, even pre-pandemic.
And there were physical effects. The stroke docs told me it was common to have less energy, and often took months, or even a year to recover. And there were expensive new pills to take.
Further, a development nobody told me about was soon evident: hallucinations. Visual hallucinations began appearing in the field of the eye-fog: strange plants grew there, and were replaced by intricately geometric multicolored objects. Nonexistent people walked across the expanse. Columns of human arms popped up like skin-colored mushrooms, their long fingers waving like palm leaves in an imaginary breeze; and so on.
Fortunately, the images were non-violent; no brain-eating zombies or stalking serial killers. And they were silent. But was I going crazy? Had the stroke ripped a hole in some deep cranial cache of images, leaving them leaking out continually? That was one of my lingering fears afterward.
I was tempted to keep quiet about this. After all, what sort of conversation-starter is is it to tell a friend, “Gee, I had the weirdest set of hands waving at me today. Some of them had pretty garish nail polish too. . . .” Umm, no.
But on a visit to a Duke eye doc, I just took a chance and laid it out. Might as well know the worst.
But the knowing wasn’t so bad. Turns out I wasn’t a freak, or sliding down the tubes. The eye docs knew; they even had a name for it: Bonnet Syndrome, after the Swiss scientist who identified it about 250 years ago (and whose work was completely ignored for 200 of those years).
There wasn’t any cure, they told me, but many people learned to ignore the images. A few even said they liked them. The studies had found no evidence they were signs of creeping insanity, delirium or dementia. (And after another scan, the Duke Neuro docs assured me they had seen no signs of incipient Alzheimer’s in my brain; which means I’m just naturally forgetful.)
Then sometimes, the images simply came and went. Which is what happened to me. After several weeks, the hallucinations began to fade. By Christmas, they were pretty much gone. Now I only have occasional streaks of color.
I’m no scientist, and mine is an unrepresentative sample of only one, but if you must squeeze a treatment regimen out of one experience — and lots of people seem to want to do that these days — here it is:
1. Move to Durham NC;
2. Join a Quaker meeting;
3. Eat whatever you want, EXCEPT kale; and
4. Vote Democrat.
If you’re not satisfied, I’ll refund every penny. (And you’ll still be mostly better off.)
Joking aside, I have a theory about why they went away. Or at least, a hypothesis. It is:
They didn’t disappear; they just migrated. Somehow they drifted out of my brain and got mixed up in the crazy maelstrom that has filled the news, our politics, and even the White House for what seems like every waking (or even sleeping) hour of all of 2020.
And as they did so, they lost their harmless character. Maybe that reflects the twisted shadows of the “We the People” tattoo and so much of its ilk, which have joined with the pandemic to inject a full measure, and then some, of psychosis, delirium and dementia into our public spheres.
Nevertheless, as this private anniversary approached, I have often been moved to feel gratitude. Not for the stroke itself, but for where it stopped, what it missed: it left most of my vision, so I can still read and see flowers and all that.
It didn’t slice off chunks of memory, my voice, or disconnect me from various limbs (though now two of my fingers can’t seem to finish a word without a typo). Writing projects have been resumed, proceeding perhaps more slowly, but several have been completed. Not least, I now know (what had long been suspected), that there is life, even in the USA, after driving, especially once one learns the key survival skill of turning wait times for rides to arrive into periods of meditation. (Doing that in the rain still needs some work, however.)
And not least, it left me with the thought that, as the post-stroke images faded with the ending of 2019, we may yet be able to banish some of the harshest images of 2020 by its much-anticipated end.
For that, I believe there’s maybe even more than a three percent chance.