There are lots of things that I don’t do anymore, things I used to do without hesitation, but now I just don’t do them. One of those things is talking.
Everyday conversation can be extremely difficult for me. It does not come naturally anymore. When I was in rehab, my cognitive therapist spent hours role-playing with me. We would pretend to see each other across the aisle in the grocery store and practice casual encounter conversation. She would say “Well, Hi Gatewood, how are you?” And, I would freeze, not knowing how to answer this simple question. At my worst, I could not even find the words to answer this question that we throw around multiple times every day. Usually I would just smile, nod and keep moving. On a good day I might have answered “Fine” but I would not have known to follow it up with “and how are you?” Instead there would just be awkward silence because I didn’t follow up my response with the expected question. So, in that awkward moment of silence I would think….nothing….I was thinking absolutely nothing. My mind was blank. I wanted to call the person by name but I couldn’t match the face with the name. Johnny constantly reminds me that he can’t remember anyone’s name and it’s ok. Actually, he says that my brain injury just caused me to have a man’s brain, but he has had 39 years to adjust to life with a man’s mind, so I’ve still got some years of adjustment ahead. But here’s the thing that causes me endless frustration, before my noggin got knocked, when I saw someone I knew their name, the names and ages of their kids and the schools they attended, the names of their parents, their spouse, sometimes even their address or their phone number. I realize this is a lot of unnecessary information, nonetheless, I knew it, I could recall it quickly and use it frequently in conversation. Post noggin knock, I recognized the faces but I was never sure that I would call them by the correct name, so instead of a personal conversation, my response was a nod in their general direction and then as if I had picked up the “Pass Go and collect $200” card I would dart off in search an aisle without a shopper that I may have to make eye contact with. At my worst, I would do my shopping very late at night when hardly anyone shops. This allowed me the necessary quiet to focus on my list and the peace of knowing I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone….and I really loved the self checkout line. Now that was sheer bliss, I could even get through the checkout without speaking to a soul! Loved that!
I’m much better now. Not where I once was, but definitely leaps and bounds from where I have been. For those of you who get me to talk, you must know that you have touched some part of me that few people reach. You give me that peaceful place, that peaceful acceptance, that peaceful space that allows me to speak slowly. I need time to think through my thoughts, assign the correct words to each specific thought and them string those words together in the right order so that a solid message can be conveyed. If I’m really comfortable then I might even talk a little bit faster and not feel like a deer in Johnny’s crosshairs when my speech abruptly stops because I have mixed up my words, lost my words or started my sentence with the end of the thought instead of the beginning of the thought.
This leads me to “The Little Gatewood that Could”. There are a lot of things that I can do. I can take care of my family, I can take care of old ladies, and I can run 26.2 miles. But I don’t do conversation well and I certainly do not want to speak to more than about four people at any given time. I hardly want two eyes peering at me waiting for me to speak, much less a dozen or more eyes waiting, watching and listening. At this point, most people would say they would rather run a marathon than whatever else, but since I’m clearly not like most people, and I would rather run the marathon than talk I can’t say that here, but you get my drift. I don’t do speaking. A couple of months ago, after my Mom announced her retirement, a group of her close friends and colleagues began planning the retirement party to end all parties. This was no small “thanks for the memories” event. Michael Scott’s party planning committee had nothing on this group of folks and they had big plans for Mom’s special day. So I get this call from Mom’s dear friend Kathy and she mentions the people who are going to speak at Mom’s party…and she says “and of course you”. I think I may have checked the volume on my phone to be sure I heard her correctly and that the phone line was actually still connected. I was sure I had not heard that I was going to speak in front of a group of people…and about a topic as emotional as my mother! Oh dear Lord, come quickly, more specifically before 4pm on June 27th, because I can not figure out how to pull this off. After we finished talking and I realized that I was no longer interested in that great bargain find at Habitat that had caught my eye, I got back in my car and thought it through. Obviously my 95 year old Grandmother was not going to speak, my brother was in Colorado and I couldn’t see propping a 12 year old and a 7 year old on stage either. So, yes, I was the obvious choice, and indeed it was appropriate that a family member speak to Mom, about Mom, for Mom, but seriously, did they really want me to talk….to actual people? So like everything I do, I talked it out on a Tuesday night run, with my running buddy Mari. She had read some of my writing and told me I could definitely do it, I just needed to start writing down my thoughts and my speech would piece itself together. Well duh, it have never occurred to me that I could write something down, rehearse it and use that as my guide to speak.
Fast forward through days of jotting down thoughts, a lot of miles run while thinking about what to say, random notes on my computer….and a couple of hours pacing in the backyard under the 97 degree sunshine while I rehearsed reading aloud the final copy of my speech. I needed to convey the words of my speech without my legs wobbling out from beneath me, without the paper shaking violently in my nervous hands, without my neck turning red from fear and without sobbing uncontrollably and irrationally as I spoke personal heartfelt words about the woman who raised me. Again, dear Lord, I’m really serious, Please come before 4pm this afternoon, you have about 1 hour left to arrive and save me from this! No dice, the appointed hour arrived. The kids and I arrived with my Grandmother in tow, well actually I was in tow I guess, since I was pushing her in the wheelchair. The room was packed with Mom’s friends from as far back as her days in Elementary School. People had flown in from all over the country to be here for Mom. This was certainly not the local grocery store aisle, but somehow I needed to pretend that it was and that I could do this. As the show unfolded and Mom was seated on stage a couple of heavy hitters opened up with their thoughts on Mom. I reached into my purse and pulled out my speech, slid it onto my lap and fitted my glasses firmly on my face. (I’m 37, give me a break, of course I need glasses now). I knew I was about to be introduced…and then…there it was…the words I had feared for so many weeks…Dr. Barton said “Now Wookie’s daughter is going to come up and share a few words about her Mom” at which point I thought my mother was going to fall off the stage. Her eyes bugged out of her face and her mouth dropped when I stood up. I think she thought it was a joke, but, speech in hand I walked on stage. Ok Lord, you didn’t come, so I’m counting on you to give me the strength. So, I looked at Mom, I looked at a gazillion eyes staring at me, listening to me, anxious to hear what I had to say. Many faces looked at me with love and pride, as if channeling their own strength to me, knowing me well enough to know that this was a big, a bigger than big step for me to speak in front of this group. My legs didn’t give out, my shaking hands were hidden by the podium which held my papers, and I had a nice suntan to hide any red that might have popped up on my neck. Yes I cried, but I think I contained it enough that people could understand what I was saying, and my eyes weren’t so blurred with tears that I couldn’t read my words. And then, it was done. I had conquered about 6 years of demons in about 6.5 minutes flat! I was supposed to keep my speech to 3 minutes, but I am my Mother’s child so I wasn’t really so concerned about a time limit. I figured since I was the daughter of the star of the show I could get away with breaking the rules anyway. I’m not sure if it was the words that I spoke or the fact that Mom knew just how far I reached outside of my comfort zone that meant so much to her. Maybe it was a combination of both. For me, I really didn’t think I had it in me to pull this one off, but I did. Just like Kathy told me weeks ago, it would be worth it. And it was, in many, many ways.
© Gatewood Campbell, June 2011