November 6, 2017: Gills and Lemon

At 10:32 a.m., Matt and I were sitting in the car in the parking lot of the Kessler Outpatient Rehabilitation building. Physical therapy started at 10:30, but Matt hadn’t finished his cognition homework.

Over the weekend, he’d sat with the pile of papers on his lap more than a dozen times and scribbled answers next to the lines asking for a word that started with the letter “G” and meant the breathing organs of a fish, or for the name of an acidic, yellow fruit of a citrus tree that started with the letter “L”. (These were exercises for the word-finding portion of his brain.) I’d sat beside Matt as he worked on the papers, silently filling in the blank spaces for him. Maybe trying to will the answer to him via some psychic connection. Maybe just to gauge whether the therapists were asking too much of Matt. Maybe simply checking to see whether my own overtired, overextended brain could answer the questions.

Matt didn’t finish the assigned work. Every time he picked up the papers, he stopped after a few minutes of concentration. I don’t truly know why. He never said and I didn’t ask. But sometimes, when he’d finish working, he’d sit on the couch and hold his head in his hands and breathe deeply. Sometimes he’d close his eyes and nap. I don’t know if he was frustrated, but I imagine he was. I hope he wasn’t dispirited, although I imagine it was hard to be anything else. The words “gills” and “lemon” should be easy. It shouldn’t have taken him more than a few minutes to finish all the sheets. But should had gone out the window more than two months ago.

That morning, Matt was trying to organize an imaginary garden plot based on a series of eight instructions. As I drove us to Kessler, he read aloud and underlined and crossed out answers he’d already written. He made notes in the margin and brought along extra paper just in case. We parked and he still hadn’t finished. I told him we had to go inside; the therapists would not add the missed time to the end of the session—they couldn’t, not with a room full of patients waiting for their turn. He was determined to finish.

I don’t remember whether Matt finished or whether he eventually agreed it was time to go in. I remember that whatever he handed in, complete or not, was completely incorrect. I remember biting back the instinct to help. I remember thinking we were in for a long and bumpy road.

That night, one of Matt’s closest friends drove to our house to take Matt out to dinner—when hope comes to you. The friend and I chatted while Matt got ready upstairs. After a longer than usual time, we called up to him. Matt walked to the top of the stairs and said he’d forgotten why he was up there. He’d just been hanging out, reading his phone. He laughed at himself and we laughed, too. Sometimes the only choice we had, the only way we knew to move forward into the next moment, was to laugh at the absurdity of our reality.

When Matt came home, the friend told me he’d never heard Matt laugh so hard.

Looking back, I see that we were on an upswing and we didn’t know it.I thought we were still climbing–inching, crawling, hobbling–to the top, but we were actually peering over the jagged edge into our next down cycle, the bottom of which was even deeper than the one before. I don’t know that we made it out of that next down cycle. Possibly, these days are the last upswing days (but I could be wrong.)

Looking back at the depths to which we’ll sink, it makes it all the more remarkable (to me) that we managed to find hope, even then.

4 thoughts on “November 6, 2017: Gills and Lemon

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