Jack's Book: A Journey in Progress
"I hate quotation. Tell me what you know."
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Journals (May 1849)
Life’s cruelest events, those with the most enduring consequences, often spring from the most mundane moments. May 6, 1989 was a case in point.
That Saturday dawned as a day of celebration because Patsy and I were invited to back-to-back weddings. Neither of us could remember ever having attended two weddings on the same day, although I suppose it’s not that unusual. But for us, married just a year ago ourselves, it seemed an omen, an affirmation of our own commitment and love.
The first reception promised to be a gala affair at Tallahassee’s Capital City Country Club. It was a fine spring day, just this side of too warm, and wedding guests with cups of champagne spilled out onto the club’s spacious porches and its wide stone stairs. Spring azaleas had come and gone, but the winding green fairways of the golf course, bordered by massive, twisted oaks, provided a properly Southern, lush backdrop. It struck me that F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that scene: beautiful people in expensive clothes, sipping champagne in a luxurious setting. Call me decadent if you must, but I liked it.
I remember little else about the reception. I don’t know if the club provided televisions for watching the Kentucky Derby, although I imagine they did. Several years later I looked up the results of that race; Sunday Silence won by two and one-half lengths. For some reason, I felt it was important to know that.
I must have retrieved our car from its parking space shortly before 6:30, because the accident report states that the ’88 Bronco struck us at 6:53 p.m. I later learned that the boy was driving 55 miles per hour when he sped through the red light; the speed limit was 35. The impact spun the Bronco around and it hit us again, that time propelling our car more than sixty feet. The Bronco itself flipped and rolled a couple of times, tossing its female passenger out a window onto the street.
Several people witnessed the crash and rushed to our aid. Police were on the scene in minutes, and we were soon driven by ambulance to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Everyone did their part, and the response went smoothly. People later commented that we were lucky no one was killed. I don’t blame them for not knowing that someone was.
TBI is more scary than terminal cancer because you died when you were injured but nobody knows this, not even you at first. Then as you start to realize the differences you learn some of them from the reactions of family and friends and especially if they will not take you as you are, and then you have to bury the old Jack all by yourself, and to try to learn your new self without any help.
Journal, April 25, 1990
I would like to remember more about that day, but I don’t. I do know that I wore a pastel paisley tie because the paramedics cut it from my neck and returned it to me; I still have it. Other accurate details were stumbled upon by accident, related to me by someone else, detailed in the official accident report, or, as with the Derby, later looked up. Many of my memories are similar to the results of an old-fashioned barn-raising – constructed with the help of others.
What does one remember of a TBI when amnesia often rules your life for months, and years? What does Patsy remember? Her memories might contrast with my ‘studious reconstruction’ thru evidence and interviews.
Journal, March 17, 1991
I’ve had a lot of years to wish things had gone differently, to play various scenarios in my mind. But each time I take the route I chose that day, each time the Bronco speeds through the red light at 55 mph, the results are the same.
A ninth-century Arabian Sufi story, re-told by Somerset Maugham in 1933 as “The Appointment in Samarra,” concisely depicts man’s futile attempt to outwit death. A merchant’s servant, frightened by Death in a Baghdad market, fled to Samarra. The merchant went to the market and confronted Death, demanding to know why she had scared his servant away. Death denied frightening the servant: “I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
In popular culture an “appointment in Samarra” has become synonymous with any inevitable event, one’s fate or destiny. Since that May Saturday in 1989, I’ve sometimes wondered if the corner of Adams and Gaines in Tallahassee, Florida, was for me a personal Samarra, or whether changing one or two small details earlier in the day might also have changed the rest of my life.
God help anyone who has even 1 per cent less ability to function than I have, or who does not have the tremendous experience through work with the state social services department that I have and the doggedness to pursue his own best interests. God help those who have to rely upon the medical and legal community to care for their rights.
Journal, February 21, 1991
The Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) I suffered in that accident stole from me my memory, some of my senses, whole swatches of personal history, and, eventually, my marriage. And my efforts to reclaim any of myself were frustrated time and again by the medical, insurance and legal establishments.
I hope that by writing this book, I can spare current and future patients much of the insensitivity, frustration, disappointment, and mistreatment I encountered. I also hope that, for me, the act of writing will eliminate those residual traces of bitterness that the passing of time has so far failed to erase.