Dad and I spent the next few days communicating without my being able to speak. I had terrible double vision. As a result, I would attempt to point at the correct letters and often point to the wrong ones. So even with this method, it would take several minutes longer than it should’ve to complete each individual sentence. Moreover, since I hadn’t used my right arm in two weeks, it would become tried after a half hour. So though I was overjoyed to be able to express myself finally, the intervals at which I could do so were very short. And it still pained me to not have the power of speech.
I had always enjoyed talking, so the idea that I might forever be mute was horrifying. Many nights I would force air through my throat, desperate to produce a sound. I would do this for perhaps ten minutes. But nothing would come out. I would be crestfallen, having strained so much to just say one word. It felt like I was enduring a fate worse than death.
Then about a week after I got to Select, I felt someone fiddle with my neck for a few minutes. I didn’t know what happened after that, but within a couple of minutes, I was talking! (I would later realize that I’d had a tracheostomy, but it felt pretty instantaneous, as opposed to the protracted medical procedure I had expected it to be.) I can’t remember anything else of the operation, but afterward I did kept saying, “Okay” with the final syllable being drawn out. I would even tell others that I sounded like Stephen Hawking, because my voice was so robotic. But I just couldn’t shut up. I finally had a voice again. And it was beautiful because it was mine.
The speech therapist came to see me. I still wouldn’t shut up until she yelled, “Stop talking!” She began teaching me how to swallow air and release it gradually to form multiple syllables. It was exhausting, and I could only say a few words before I was out of breath. My lungs would hurt, but I was so happy that I could cry. After a while she released me, as my younger brother and his wife had come to visit me from Texas.
Jonathan and Candice were people I had been dying to see. During my delusional period, my father had placed the phone to my ear so Jonathan could speak to me. In my irrational state, I thought my father had played back a recording several days in a row, just to calm me when I acted out. I would hear Jonathan rave about a Gofundme account and how excited he was to see me. I had stopped believing a word of it, because I couldn’t trust one-way communication, knowing that I was dealing with a warped brain. Seeing them there and speaking with them made it more real. Once I could interact with him, I felt like it was real.
We spent hours laughing and talking. Then Candice and Jonathan went to the house to relax for a while. A few hours later, they came back to watch the NBA Finals. Jonathan said that they had seen Golden State play in Dallas that season, and that the Warriors had the best team ball he had ever seen. I was completely oblivious, having not paid attention to professional basketball in years. Instead, I was just thrilled to simply be surrounded by family. Knowing that I would be alone afterward, I hoped that the game would continue all night. With my terrible double vision, I could scarcely even follow the action. I couldn’t even see the ball; I merely pretended, so others wouldn’t get bored and leave.
Later that night, I was reciting “A Farewell” and “The Eagle” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson over and over and over again. The night nurse, a kindly Thai woman came in and told me to stop speaking and get some sleep. I told her whatever I had to get her to leave. Then I continued reciting British poetry to myself. The simple rhyme scheme and the incessant meter were powerful mnemonic devices that allowed me to recall poems, some of which I hadn’t read since the twelfth grade. Reciting poetry was a practice I would repeatedly return to on nights when I was lying in the hospital, bored and lonely.
During the intervening weeks, I had also been without my phone. I had dreamt about my phone countless times. In my dreams, it had always looked new and unblemished. Since I still was unsure whether or not I was dealing with reality, I reasoned that if the phone had any wear and tear on it, I would know that I wasn’t dreaming. When my father brought it to me, my phone looked a little battered. So I knew it was the real phone, and that I wasn’t dreaming.
When my father handed me my phone, my vision was so bad that I had to squint in order to see the display properly. Even with that effort, it hurt my eyes to focus. I tried to enter the unlock code. Inevitably, I punched the wrong buttons due to my compromised depth perception. I tried to enter it several times, and I couldn’t get it right. So, I handed the phone to my father, telling him the code. For some reason, he couldn’t figure out how to enter it. After he couldn’t unlock it, I took the phone from him and tried several times until I successfully unlocked it. Once I was able to see the home screen, I pulled up Facebook. Again my eyesight was so poor, that I was only able to read the two most current messages. Dizzy, I handed the phone back to Dad.
It bothered me not being able to use the phone, because I felt truly disconnected from the outside world. If I’d had my eyesight and the simple ability to hold the phone in my left hand, I could have seen what I was doing and manipulated it with my right. This would have allowed me access to all of the friends I missed so dearly. They had to be worried sick, and if I could just use Facebook or text messaging, I could assure them that I was safe. But as it was, I was having the worst double vision of my life. All of the letters I tried to read either bled into the words above or next to them. This made reading messages next to impossible and composing them out of the question. So, I was only able to communicate with the people who came to see me for the time being.
My sight had still been messed up when Candice and Jonathan arrived. So I had Jonathan send messages to a couple of my friends. I had bad reception in the hospital, so he’d to gone outside to text. A few days later, they had to return to Dallas. Before they left, Candice increased the font size to the largest one possible. I would miss them, but at least I could start using the phone to connect with the outside world again.
When I was alone at night, I would return to the practice of speaking to myself. I would recite the Declaration of Independence, “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, or anything that came to mind. I was still lonesome, but merely being able to use my voice was a comfort. Overnight, when they had to clean out the hole in my neck, they were supposed to keep the speaking coil out. I discovered rather quickly that I couldn’t speak without it. The silence traumatized me once more. It paralyzed me with the fear of being isolated all over again. I was afraid to be without it my speaking coil. Somehow, I eventually convinced them to let me keep the speaking coil more nights than not. Now I could practice speech repeatedly, until I was tired enough to fall asleep.
Speech therapy was a welcome yet difficult task. My therapist cautioned against polysyllabic words, because I was still learning to speak again, and the strain of trying to sustain longer streams of air would wear me out. Instead, she would give me short lists of words to recite back to her. The words had no consonant combinations and were easy to pronounce. So rather than having to concentrate on the task, my mind would drift, and I would imagine my words being read back to me in the voice of a computer. This was what I thought my voice sounded like – cold and electronic – since I had not yet developed the ability to hear it inside my own head. It was a constant fight to do what the speech therapist demanded while trying not to get distracted.
Concurrent with learning to speak, I also began physical therapy. This was very difficult. Every part of my my body seemed to have atrophied and was sore. My physical therapist was a young, black guy from Brandon. A few months earlier, we could have been gym partners. Now, it hurt my entire midsection when he told me to sit up. Next he would have me swing my legs over the side of the bed, and place them on the floor. From there, he would have me lean in all different directions in order to strengthen my midsection. We would work for several minutes. Then, mercifully, he would help me to get back into bed. I would collapse, bathed in sweat.
After a few weeks, the sitting up became less painful. We then progressed to rocking forward to lift myself off of the bed. From there, I began standing. The following week, I began transferring to a wheelchair. This hurt my backside tremendously. I would be expected to sit in the chair for a set number of minutes. Always, whether sitting in the wheelchair or standing, I couldn’t wait until I could collapse back in bed and sleep.
In addition to my muscles having atrophied, my left arm was useless. Pain radiated from my shoulder to my fingertips. The arm was so sensitive that letting it hang at my side hurt, yet trying to rest it on a hard surface hurt just as bad. One of the workers advised my dad to tap my closed fist for five minutes at a time, to keep the blood circulating. His fingers tapping lightly felt like ice picks jabbing my hand. Many times, it would hurt so much that I would snatch my hand back after a few minutes. Later on, the occupational therapist began coming by my room to work with my left arm. She would stretch my arm and fingers. This pained me even more than the sitting up and standing. Whether it was my father or the occupational therapist, I dreaded anyone touching my left arm.
Toward the end June, a lot of the constant pain had subsided. They began wheeling me down the hallway, just to get used to being in different environments. I realized that I had not seen the outside of a hospital room in over a month. During the last week I was there, they even took me to the therapy gym once or twice. An intake representative came from Methodist Rehabilitation Center to talk to my father about the next phase of my treatment. Staff members began to periodically enter the room and tell me that I had to go to Methodist, work hard, and make them proud.
On the last day before I left, Dad helped me to get dressed. It was the first time in about six weeks that I’d been in street clothes. I felt so much more normal being in something other than hospital gowns. When he tried to put my shoes on, my left foot was stuck in the pointing position. He had to take several minutes trying to force the shoe on. I was afraid that my foot would always be like this. After he left, the last thing I did was eat lunch with the speech therapist. I could only eat things like gelatin, pudding, and pureed meat. We chatted and laughed about my progress.
Afterward, my dad helped me sit in a wheelchair. He wheeled me out of the front door. I needed help transferring from the chair to the car. As usual, the air outside was balmy. We drove the short distance from Select to Methodist, which would be my fourth hospital.