The Music Plays On
©Dave McGettigan July 2011
I used to play flamenco guitar. But now I can’t even hold a pencil or a coffee cup. I used to play soccer, ride a motorcycle and even parachute. But that life is over. I wish this one was too.
I have accomplished sucking on a straw. The doctors tell me this is the first step in my recovery. Pardon me if I don’t hold my breath, but that one small feat has taken me eight months to master.
The so- called specialists say that soon I will be able to make a wheelchair move, or even communicate just by sucking or blowing in a tube. They didn’t tell me this of course. They don’t want to get my hopes up. They told Lily, my wife. Sometimes people talk as if I am not even in the room.
When people do talk directly to me, they seem to think my brain has stopped functioning as well. The brain is an organ however, not a series of muscles. The brain continues to work even if the spine has been damaged affecting all muscles below the top of the neck. Some people talk very clearly to me, enunciating their words so precisely as if I can’t understand otherwise. It reminds me of how people shout at the deaf, or speak slowly, loudly and clearly trying to make a foreigner understand what they are saying.
I was a lecturer at the University of Sydney Conservatorium. I have a Master of Arts, majoring in music performance. I also hold a doctorate in Spanish literature. I am intelligent and don’t need to be spoken at in simplistic language.
Although I can no longer teach, or even hold a plectrum, music fills my mind. Since the accident I have composed five songs. It’s just that I can’t physically write them down. I have memorised the chords, so perhaps one day I can communicate them and someone else will again enjoy playing my new music.
Lily brings the children in twice a week to see me. Every Wednesday and Saturday I look forward to enjoying the company of eight year old Emma, who will become a world famous ballerina like her mother, and Jeremiah who is in the middle of youthful conflict that plagues every teenage boy.
It bothers me that I lose count of the days. So when I think it is time for a visit, I am somewhat disappointed when Lily comes in alone. I have no calendar to refer to, and the sedatives the nursing staff sometimes give me black out hours at a time, so I don’t know what day it is.
I am not sure who does it, but at least once per day I can hear the sounds of a flamenco guitar playing. Sometimes, if I am affected by the drugs, I think it is actually someone playing my music. When I become fully aware however, I can tell it is one of my old recordings. I am sure that the person who is playing the recording is hoping it brings good memories to me and has a calming effect. But in fact it does the opposite. It reminds me of what used to be, and a tear will involuntarily slip down my cheek.
Without the stable income of a lecturer’s salary, we will struggle to maintain the lifestyle that we once enjoyed. Lily is still dancing but my contribution to the household is now limited to the ever dwindling royalties from my previous albums. Lily tells me that the record company is planning a best of album; which should bring in some extra income. Even so, with no further recordings our savings will soon be depleted.
Each day, at 11am, I am given a bed bath. All areas of my body are vigorously rubbed to keep the circulation flowing to the extremities. Each muscle is massaged to prevent atrophy. I feel none of this. With a spinal injury such as mine, nerves are shot as well as the muscles.
Some days my wife comes to bathe and massage me under the supervision of the nurse. I am sure she enjoys it as much as I do. Even though I can’t feel anything, just knowing that it is Lily who is caressing my body makes me feel good inside.
I was surprised yesterday by Jeremiah coming in the middle of the day. He arrived in his school uniform and sat by my bed just looking at me for a while. Then he started to sob. He proceeded to tell me all the things that I was missing not being there for him. He reminded me of the pressures of being a teenage boy without a father there to guide him through the rough times.
Jeremiah told me he was angry at me for being so careless as to get myself so badly hurt. At the same time he assured me that he was doing his best to not only behave, but to assist his mother in the running of the household and being a good brother to young Emma.
When he looked up and saw my face was wet with tears, he was astonished. “You really can hear me and understand me cant you dad? I love you so much and I just wish you would get better and come home soon.”
That visit was the motivation I needed. I am now determined to recover and be there for my family in the years to come. Before today, I was struggling to stay focussed on recovery. I wanted to be able to communicate enough to convey my desire for a compassionate nurse to assist me to end my life. I kicked myself and decided to begin from this day to try to communicate, in some way.
I realised now that opening my eyes each time I wake and closing them when I am sleeping is using the muscles in my eyelids. I am also conscious that I can blink.
When Lily came in this afternoon, I began by blinking furiously at her. First both eyes, then the left and then the right independently. She recognised what was happening and was soon screaming with delight. The nurses mistakenly thought something was desperately wrong, but once Lily explained, they too were extremely excited and nurse Suzie Bradshaw went directly to the phone to inform Doctor Fitzgerald, my specialist, of my progress.
The good doctor came in to see me this evening. Lily was still sitting by the bed, her smile beaming and her eyes shedding tears of joy. My wife has never looked so beautiful.
“Well, well,” he said “decided to get in touch with life again have you?”
He looked into my eyes to check responses and asked me to blink. I did so purposefully.
“Very good Eli, very good indeed. Now you will be able to answer yes and no questions by simply blinking your left or right eye or both once or twice”.
I smiled inside.
“You must promise me though, not to overdo things”. He continued. “If you are getting tired, just close your eyes for a few moments and people will know to stop asking you questions”.
Lily has spoken with the nurses and rehabilitation people. She is eager to learn how to care for me so that, in time, I will be able to return home. Even though I may be a lot of trouble right now, she is willing to sacrifice and struggle to include me back into our family. I am sure the kids will want to help as well.
And so begins my recovery. My mind is spinning with ideas for the future. Even now I am thinking of ways to transcribe the new tunes. The doctor says I should gain use of my tongue soon, which means I will be able to make sounds. I still won’t be able to breathe or eat without assistance though, as my gag reflex is still not functioning.
Now I also am looking forward to coming home and spending time with the children. Already I have missed so much of their lives. My goal is to be able to attend Jeremiah’s football finals and Emma’s end of year recital.
I have about four months to learn how to move in a wheelchair, not to tip over or fall out. It would be great if I could breathe independent of equipment. I am imagining it would be easier to transport me if I wasn’t attached to breathing apparatus. I know that my bladder and colostomy bags are portable and can be hidden behind me in the chair, and the feeding tube is not clearly visible.
My major concern is that I would be an embarrassment to the children in the state I am presently in. But I think this is far outweighed by the benefits of having their father present.
The house will need to be adapted to accommodate me, or we will need to move to another residence. A house which is all on one level would be best, so I have access to all areas. I would hate to be limited to the ground floor of our current house when my daughter or son is having a crisis on one of the upper floors. You know how kids are, when they tell you to “Go away… they don’t need comforting” that is the time they need you the most.
Now I can hear the voices and laughter which I recognise as belonging to my children. They bound into the room with my mother, the epitome of the Spanish Madre, following close behind nagging them to “be quiet, this is a hospital”.
“Daddy!” Emma squeals “here, we picked these for you from the garden”, as she places a bunch of beautiful peonies on my chest. Their perfume is exquisite. I then receive hugs from both of my loving children.
I realise with the flowers, it must be spring. This is the season when new life begins.