War Stories

I’ve decided to include this post in the “Great British Strokes” section of the site. I had it in my head that – given his transatlantic aspect – Robert McCrum might not be, or define himself as, British. Maybe he doesn’t. His resumé does put one somewhat in mind of that of Bill Bryson, who seems very confused about all that stuff.

No! Bryson! And Part Iowan!

As it turns out, some cursory research reveals that – like your blogger – Mr. McCrum is a former Thouron Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania from Britain. He’s in my mind this week because today and next week  his two-part programme Brain Attack will be airing on BBC Radio 4. No doubt it will also be available on catch-up in various forms on the BBC website, the BBC iPlayer, and so on. In part one, he’ll be in discussion with former subject of the blog, Andrew Marr. It will be interesting to hear whether Marr’s  perspective on his stroke continues to evolve.

In anticpation of the broadcast, McCrum (author, associate editor of The Observer, and former editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber) has written a long piece reflecting of the stroke he suffered 20 years ago for The Observer. It’s a great read for people affected by stroke, and anyone interested in the condition.

“Stroke interest” flashes

It’s particularly interesting to me because I’m finding myself reflecting on aspects of the stroke experience that are common to survivors. For example, I always find an echo of my post-stroke experience in Friendoftheblogandy’s weekly pause for reflection and preparation on Facebook.

Like me, many fellow travellers develop an interest in all aspects of neurology. A large number find themselves feeling a great deal of anger. I’ve been lucky, through some fortunate combination of the exact nature of my haemorrhagic stroke, the care and support I’ve received, and my particular circumstances, to avoid pulling that card.

Who are you calling “easy-going”, pal?

It looks like, given the title of the programmes and the introduction to the Observer piece, one of the things that McCrum will be focussing is the relationship between “heart attacks” and “brain attacks”. That’s been another topic of interest here. I’m going to be very interested to hear of his experience of his stroke, some twenty years into the journey.

Beth and I are almost two-and-a-half years in. I was cut down two-and-a-half years into our relationship. So the experience of my stroke and how we faced it – both at the time and as time has passed – will always be a big part of our relationship. It’s changed my life in all sorts of other ways, too, from leaving me unable to return to my former career, to being the catalyst for our move to Scotland.

Again, why would anyone do that?!

In I Survived a Brain Attack, McCrum gives some idea of what it might be like to be a long-term survivor of a stroke. Already, this seems to strike a chord:

Today, memories of my weeks on the front line of ill-health – the aqueous blue blink-blink-blink of the ambulance, the muffled sounds of the intensive care unit and the cement-mixer roar of the MRI chamber – have faded to the texture of an old nightmare. I will, however, never cease to be a veteran of that conflict.

My experiences in intensive care have been retold to my and by me so many times that the nightmare aspect of it – the terror – is a given. But when we talk of the time that I lay in bed with my bedpan beneath me, fascinated by the quality of the evacuation encouraged by the laxatives and staring at the mess covering my hands, I’m told it’s really the story I remember, not the event. The details are all wrong. I’d forgotten those within minutes.

That feels like the quality of the crazy, staring eyes, though

But the article doesn’t focus so much on the long-term experience of the stroke survivor, as the revolutions in treatment since McCrum went through his stroke. Given that the nature of the treatment in those early minutes, days, weeks, month, is so important, that makes sense. And our experiences will diverge, even among the subset of “50,000, the lucky third, [who] will go on to lead fairly normal lives.”

Andrew Marr’s story has concretised: he continues to ascribe the quality of his recovery to his nature as “a stubborn bugger”. I continue to shoose to ascribe much of the quality of mine to the two-and-a-half years I had spent in the company of Longsufferinggirlfriendofthegblogbeth, and the crazy, ridiculous dream of trying to get back there again. While at the same time, remembering that none of myself, Andrew Marr, or Robert McCrum, would be part of “the lucky third” without exactly that – pure, dumb luck. Someone being present at the moment of brain attack, a quick ambulance, the exact location of the attack, any one of hundreds of more variables.

And so, life goes on, and the stories become exactly that. McCrum describes his book, My Year Off: Discovering Life After Stroke, as “a kind of war memoir.” And these stories become like war stories. At first, too horrific to discuss except in the company of those who understand. Then wheeled out occasionally, when asked or when it seems pertinent. Then, increasingly, fading into the background as life, for the lucky third, regains something of a normal aspect. As evidenced by the increasingly extra-curricular nature of the blog.

But, always there.

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5 thoughts on “War Stories

  1. I’ll take the “anything else” prompt option this week.

    Exactly one year ago today you and I stood on stage at the bongo club and performed the world premiere of the treacherous brain, to a response best described as “they laughed in the right spots at least, and some cried in the right spots too”

    That wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t both a stubborn bastard and one of the lucky third.

    So I’m starting monday thankful for the support, the science, the determination, the tenacity strength and humor of lsgfofbb, and our friendship.


    1. Aw, you’re lovely when you’re creating art!

      Thanks so much, pal. Is it really a year?! It seems like longer. And less. I’ve kept the fake-blood-stained bandage from TTB. One of my most treasured possessions.

  2. There’s something in a Scot’s way of phrasing…. Anyway, almost six years post, I finally know, through McCrum’s words, how to describe the sound that I used to hear in the driveway (we used to live in a neighborhood of row houses with long, at times never-ending driveways) as compared to MRI’s chamber: cement-mixer roar. Such great writing. Him. You.

    1. Ha! That is brilliant, isn’t it?!

      But of course, the Germans have a term for it – and a band named after it – Einstürzende Neubauten. The sound of “Collapsing New Buildings”. In an entirely different context, and a pretty, non-confrontational mode, they make an appearance at the end of this old post: The Sound of Buildings.

      I have to admit, I love that post. It’s very NYC.

  3. No wonder you love that post. I read it and I love it, too. And one more thing: don’t kid yourself. ALL New Yorkers are mean. The reason? They are destined to be–the depressive snow in winter that starts a chain of worry in the fall and unbearable heat in summer that starts a chain of worry in the spring.

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