Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

Crash. Boom. Opera. (Or: my bike crash in the clear light of day.)

Thump. Thump. Thump. The sound of a kid doing basketball drills, bouncing the ball in that monotonous way. The picture of the afternoon sunlight on a driveway, the passing of time marked by the mundane. The beat. The beat. The beat.
The beating of my heart. The yellow foam earplugs I’d been given amplified the rhythm. Even my breath: in and out, in and out, an inside-my-head soundtrack for my post-head-trauma recovery. And the movie inside my mind, as my eyes were closed, covered: a menagerie of images (I remember animations in light blue line on navy blue background?), places, colors, practicing Spanish, working on art. You can take the activities away from the girl, but you can’t take them out of her head. For the first couple days in the hospital after I crashed my bike, I was on “strict brain injury protocol”. No sound. No light. No nothing. Just me and my brain. And painkillers. And they thought I was resting…. .
I remember a lot from the night of the accident, interspersed with a few completely blank chunks. It seems like every healthcare worker during my entire hospital stay made me retell the story. Didn’t they already know? Were they rushed between patients, no chance to read the charts? Did this asking for the story have something to do with working my memory, a kind of brain exercise, was it for my wellness? Perhaps a check to make sure the trauma wasn’t from a domestic crime? Or did they just want to hear how much I’d say, how much truth I’d tell, did they want my mea culpa? Was it a social test? Along the way, I’d regret the compulsion to tell every person the whole truth. Couldn’t I massage the truth a little? Control the judgements that were sure to come? These were questions I had despite the cloudiness of my super medicated state.
I looked clearly at each individual who walked in my dark hospital room to take care of me. I wasn’t unaware that they’d have their own perspective, their own prejudices, and that I was just a character (not even a supporting actor, more like an extra-extra) in a life story that has each of them as the center. I similarly carry my own story, my own main character: Me. All of us, strangers, we are these life stories that pass each other by, we circle each other, sometimes criss-crossing at innocuous moments; other times, it’s so much more. So here’s what I sort of hyper-remember from the night of the accident, with a whole cast of important people who I wouldn’t recognize if I saw them again.
I was riding my bike, not going that fast. I saw the wall of the tunnel. I felt my inability to stop the bike, the handlebars turned left. I said to myself (while noting, to myself, my resigned unsurprised tone) “Well, I’m going to crash.”
Then nothing.
I don’t remember the tumbling, the bike crumpling, the head bashing the whatever, the cut, or the bleeding. I don’t remember the strangers who talked to me and who called 911.
I opened my eyes to guys looking down at me, helping me. I saw busyness. Professionals. Crowded. The ambulance. They may have said “You’re going to be OK.” They asked me, “Do you know what happened?” No, I said. “You were in a bike accident.” I started to cry. What about my sons? Where were my sons? I could picture their young faces. I didn’t think of their names. I kept crying. I couldn’t remember I had been biking alone. I wanted to know where my sons were, I wanted to know they were okay. With my eyes closed, I kept crying. “Where’s her helmet?” I heard. “She’s dressed in bike gear, she must have had a helmet.” (I didn’t.)
Someone held my phone. “What is your husband’s name?” I told them. “She knows her husband’s name” I heard them say, happy. Had they asked me my name? Had I not known? I don’t remember them asking, I don’t remember answering. “What is your password?”, some guy asked. I told them. “That’s my password!” someone laughed. I closed my eyes. “We need to apply staples” I heard them tell me. I opened my eyes then closed them again. I didn’t feel pain but I heard, felt the thuds on my left temple.
I remember arriving at the hospital. The bright lights. I cried more. My stupid helmet! They started to cut apart my clothes so they could run the tests, take the x-rays. I cried as they cut my American flag jersey, the one that had been made in honor of my nephew killed in Afghanistan. No no no! My nephew! My nephew! I cried more. They laughed among themselves, “She’s crying about her clothes.” “Ma’am, you will get new clothes.” My nephew! I cried. I pointed to the band I wear on my arm, with his name, his birthday, the day we lost him. Someone read the band. I closed my eyes. I was a Jane Doe.
I cried as they wheeled me to the CT scan. I was so stupid! I said out loud, I forgot to wear my helmet! “We’ve seen worse, believe me”  the technician said. I closed my eyes. They took one earring off. Couldn’t get the other off. Told me to stay still. I couldn’t move anyway.
They brought me back to the ER. Someone cleaned the blood off my head. I heard someone remark, “You cleaned her up really well.” The nurse responded with the technique she’d used. The doctor came in. I saw my husband and oldest son walking in behind him. “Sir, her bike is right over there” and they gestured behind him. I started to cry. The doctor said, pending results from my CT scan, if there was no internal bleeding, I’d be sent home that night. I cried to my husband and son, I’m so sorry I forgot my helmet! He assured me he was just glad I was okay. My son walked around to the side where I was cut on my head, then he backed away, nauseous he said. I closed my eyes.
The doctor came back in and told us the results of the CT scan showed I’d need to be admitted into the ICU. The Neurological (or something) ICU. I closed my eyes.

It took a neuro specialist to see the bleeding, but I guess it was there, tiny but there.

That was two weeks ago, April 8th, I had a trifecta of things that went wrong, my own bad decisions. I was in a hurry. I had a video project in mind, and I wanted to take it with my phone, something simple before the sun went down (the light was so warm), I wanted to get cycling images, it would be so easy. I dressed in bike gear from shoulder to toe but forgot my helmet. I’d never forgotten before (and made a habit of mocking people–in my mind–when they didn’t wear helmets.) There I was, the picture of ridiculousness. Why bother with all the gear but no helmet? I grabbed a jersey I’d never worn; later, I didn’t have the reflex to find the pockets easily mid-ride. When I had finished taking video and went to put the phone away, I couldn’t find the pocket, so I held the phone in my right hand. When I decided to slow my bike down, I used only my left hand to squeeze the brake (fyi: don’t do that.) My handlebars veered left. I saw the wall of the tunnel. And that was it.
The thing is, my phone was still recording video. I hadn’t pressed stop while the bike was moving (eyes on the road, duh! safety first I always say! heh heh). The video shows scrambling and then my arms and the ground. Not moving. I was breathing. A cyclist came upon me and asked if I was OK. No response. “What happened?” No response. He asked more questions “Did you crash?” and I finally responded “I don’t know…?” with a singsong confused who-are-you-where-am-I voice. I don’t remember him or his questions or answering him. The video shows strangers calling 911. And then someone picked up my phone, said “Hey this was recording the whole time” then click, it was turned off.
Had I not hurried myself, careless in my creative urgency, would I have forgotten my helmet? And what about taking video at all while I rode? I knew it was risky but I’d never crashed before. Once I realized I didn’t have my helmet, I made some effort to be more careful. I wasn’t even going fast, but it didn’t take much. Because without a helmet, with a direct strong hit to my head, my left scalp above my ear split open and a blood vessel indeed broke in the lining under my skull that covers my brain. (It started to resolve by the next morning, and I was out of ICU within a day or two; two weeks later I’m well on my way to recovery). But the story of how I got there, and that I had culpability, it was something I wanted to obscure for others’ retelling of what happened to me. So I was in intensive medical care. I felt for the people who care about me, hearing about what happened, knowing they’d worry as I would for them. But what I wanted to control was the part of the story that owed it all to my stupidity. Sympathy, compassion: the connectors between myself and the circle of friends around me, the web that would hold me in place. I didn’t want it paired (tainted) with a simultaneous knowing that had I made better decisions, it wouldn’t have happened at all. It was one thing to tell my loved ones (and cry) about how sorry I was. But having my stupidity discussed in my absence? Make. It. Stop. How could I tell the story in a way that removed me as the villain of my accident? How could I reverse time and tell everyone, while I was still unconscious, that I didn’t want to be embarrassed by the truth?
Here I am two weeks later. I do have an amazing community around me, great health insurance, I’m married to a partner who shares everything with me including the burden, his job allows for flexibility plus doesn’t change his income, and my mom lives with me (she happens to be healthy enough right now to flip roles and take care of me). Without each of these supports, I wouldn’t be recovering so completely. I have a vague understanding that without these safety nets, life would be so different, especially right now. I have so much that I have offers for help that I don’t need to collect on. I’ve had meals delivered to my family every night, coordinated by my friend who went through a terrible inconceivable loss a few years ago. My husband is the parent for everything including the one to take my younger high-need son to extra doctor appointments, in addition to driving me to my follow ups. I’m starting to wonder, do I really need this much help, this much sympathy? Maybe it’s time to take the burden back. So I have a plan in mind. This week, it’s getting to the point that I can wake up like I used to, before the boys go to school, helping them along and making their lunches. Yesterday I woke up at 10am, and today I woke up at 8:30, so I’m almost there. I did a load of laundry and plan to have a parenting task today: teaching my boys (again) how to sort & put their clothes away. Two days ago I walked two blocks with my husband while I held tight to his hand so I wouldn’t fall. As of last night, I still wear earplugs and noise canceling ear phones when my boys are home (their yelps, hollers, and antics pierce my mind). Maybe this afternoon I can just wear earplugs. When should I tell my friends to stop bringing meals? I don’t know. I don’t like cooking anyway. (Truth). But the hours and hours of quiet, in which I am reading, writing, researching and sometimes watching movies or TV (the steady sound, even if it’s people having conversations on the telly, is so easy to process compared with the overwhelmingness of trying to follow the conversation of four laughing adults; I know this now, thanks to a brief encounter with my friendly neighbors when we went out for that walk)… the time I have to immerse myself in subjects I’ve never had time to do before (I’m looking at you, pro- & anti- Social Practice Art articles, and your extremes that I found equally irritating)… the time to delve into things that I usually don’t have because I’m trying to be all the roles that make up my life (woman, daughter, spouse, friend, mother, artist, project leader, faith practitioner)… so I can’t say I’m not enjoying myself. (Truth).
So what’s wrong with a little more truth? I decided to choose happiness when the truth is told. A nice refreshing cold splash of water. I was stupid. If it wasn’t for me, this might not have happened. I might not have had a (minor!) traumatic brain injury. I might not have scared people I love, burdened them with supporting me, and gotten time off doing things I dislike (morning parenting, school drop offs & pickups, dinner, most homework supervision, bedtime “go to bed!” battles) while doing things I quite enjoy instead. (Yes, I had some intense pain but that’s pretty much past now.) I’ve decided that a dose of truth, and humility, are good for me: always. The twinge of pain that accompanies embarrassment that’s owed to truth? I take it gladly now. (Well, that is, for now. Who knows what embarrassment tomorrow holds?) No more aiming for an angelic heroic byline when the truth is I’m a sum of all sorts of pieces that I’d rather not admit to. Whatever truths make their way into the clear light of day, let it be. I’ll be happy.
I have just one reminder, Self.
Wear your stupid helmet, Stupid.

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