A View from BRIDGE – Two Brain Injured Poets

I have in my files a November 1988 newsletter of A View from BRIDGE, acronym for brain injured daytime group extended – a group at Mt. Vernon Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia that my brain injured daughter Jen attended about a year and a half after her accident that twisted her brain stem and put her in a wheelchair. She was about 22 then; she’s now 54.

The program is still in existence, and still “bridges the gap between hospitalization and the multiple services and agencies available within the community.” But it isn’t as it was almost 30 years ago. The staff we knew back then are either retired or died or moved on, and the same goes for the outpatient brain injured young people like Jen, and like John Hiller, a young man who died almost 24 years ago. I never met him, and Jen only vaguely remembers him. But she does remember how the BRIDGE group praised his poetry.

Nor can I find this memorial to him that I once found online. But I did find the John Franklin Hiller Memorial Scholarship for Springfield High School students who excel in poetry.

Memorial Tribute to John:
JOHN F. HILLER DIED Oct. 30, 1993, at his home in Springfield, Va. John showed an early talent for poetry and music … but on his first day of graduate school September 1986 [same year as my daughter’s accident], John suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. After he miraculously awoke from a four-month coma, John began an arduous struggle against near total paralysis and the inability to speak. With the help of his devoted family and therapists, he made slow progress for seven years. He enjoyed outings and concerts, wrote poetry … and finally fulfilled his long-held wish to get his power back when he took his own life.

We don’t what the stressors were in his life during the seven years after his brain injury. The “slow” progress he made is one key; the other, “his long-held wish to get his power back.”

My daughter and I can empathize. Sometimes we both wish she could get her “power” back, though through faith we know this will happen … in the Lord’s due time.

She did once really try to shorten her time on earth. About six years ago she flew into rages almost daily, sometimes if I even sounded annoyed, threatening to make sure I wouldn’t have to take care of her anymore. She would squeeze her neck so hard I had a difficult time pulling her hands away. Sometimes I tried to tell her that she would have to squeeze really, really hard to stop breathing. “The pain would stop you,” I said. Sometimes she would stop and laugh at that, but more often she would just keep yelling and flailing about – a common “agitation fit” in brain injury.

Erratic and out of control she needed help. Five days in our local hospital’s Behavioral Health Ward and some hormone medications leveled her enough to come home. Still, the struggles remain.

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy,” I tell her. Try to stop obsessing. Try to focus on the moment. One step at a time. Look for the bright things in life.

Poetry Brightens My Day

John Hiller was indeed an amazing poet. These two poems, printed in the newsletter A View from BRIDGE, are as excellent as any found in literary anthologies.

Branches

I stare hushed from the stone window,
looking out through layers of branches
which slowly press themselves into a matte
of tangled lines in the wilting light.
The crooked twigs leap out across space
fusing into a single plane
where they become a mass
of jumbled symbols, meaning without meaning.

Like a call in the darkness
a porchlight kindles
through the bark as if in answer
to the passing carolers,
monks chanting canticles
in a vaulted cloister
of twisted, snaking wood–
dead in cycle and sweep.
And I stare
hushed
from the stone window.

Knitting Wool with Needles

The Boston fern swings gingerly, embraced
by wicker, white and stiff
like starched linen. Fronds, petite
with frilled edges, brushed past the rim
and purl patiently in the breeze.

Below, a tiny old woman sits in her caned
rocker, a primrose surrounded
by greenery, and idly clicks her teeth
like the knitting needles crossed
in the lap of her lumpish smock.

She does not dream of her youth
as she rocks in the wind
or contemplate decrepitude
or even reflect on the harvest sun
prancing in feathered leaves.

Rather, a needle slides from her dress
and laughs as it strikes the ground–
slowly at first,
then faster,
softer.

A stranger in passing admires the fern,
its fronds like teeth in the open window,
and as he passes on he hears
faintly in the distance
the creaking of the wind
and the clicking of needles
knitting an afghan of air.

My daughter Jen wrote a few poems when she was in her late teens, about three years before her brain injury that damaged her analytical thinking. Poems that reveal the wit she hasn’t lost, some of her social concerns, and some of her feelings for the father who left us when she was fifteen.

In this first poem, “My Father?” (1983), she uses the poetical technique of repetition to heighten the underlying emotions:

Who is this man, My Father?
I know him not.
I see his face – his mask –
What is behind it?
I know not what.
What does he think?
What does he feel? (It is concealed)
I know him not.
I want to love him,
Yet I don’t know him.
Who is this man, My Father?
I know him not.

She has always been horrified by the Hitler-led atrocities of World War Two, and is proud of this verse that she wrote when she was a teenager.

“Accomplices” (4/13/83)

Why the Deaths?
Why did they follow one mad men?
Are we not one and the same?
Yet we are individual.
Each no better than anyone else,
Each a person.
How can you look at anyone and not see
That he is also?
Why the Deaths?
Why did they follow one mad man?
(He did not do it alone)
Why?

From the Witty Jen:

It’s hunting season once more.
Hunters flood to the woods in score
To drop the biggest deer they can.
Whoops! One of them shot a man.
(In the canyons in Utah Valley where she grew up
hunting season is every Autumn)

Happy New Year people dear.
Everyone is full of cheer –
Especially when they’ve had a beer!
(January 1984)

PEACE to Jen and John

Coping with Suicide – a Personal Story

On a cool November evening in the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains, Gae walked through her house rearranging knick-knacks on shelves and dusting furniture that didn’t need dusting, every so often glancing anxiously through her living room window.

Daylight faded and the gas lamp in the front yard flamed on. She also made certain the garage light was on for her son Dean when he got home.

Her husband Monty was in their bedroom in his favorite lounging chair, tired from a long day’s work at the shop, reading the newspaper. It was almost eleven o’clock when he said, “We need to get to bed.”

She sat on the bed’s edge, stretching her legs that ached from wandering about the house, and from tending her little granddaughter that morning, a cute little toddler who had kept her running for over four hours. She wasn’t as young as she used to be. She was exhausted.

“I don’t know why I feel so uneasy tonight,” she sighed.

“I feel a little uneasy too,” Monty said.

After thirty-two years of marriage, they could sometimes read each others’ thoughts.

Now, looking at her husband, the words fell into her mind. Dean’s in trouble. Shivering, she wondered where he was. He was usually home before midnight.

In bed, her husband was finally asleep, but she wasn’t. She watched the digits on the clock change to 12:00, 12:12, 12:35.

Finally, she got up and went into the kitchen. She unloaded the dishwasher, wiped off the counters that didn’t need wiping, sat at the table with her hands clasped, and stared at the wall, waiting.

She was about to give up and go back to bed when she heard the familiar sound of a car engine and the back door that creaked when Dean opened it. She could go downstairs and say goodnight to him but then thought no. She could talk to him in the morning.

She slid onto her side of the bed, careful not to disturb her very tired Just go to sleep said a voice in her head.

She closed her eyes and was drifting into an uneasy sleep when suddenly she heard what sounded like a shot. Instantly awake, her heart pounding in her chest, she wondered, Is this what I’ve been expecting for years?

Her husband and son were hunters. There were guns downstairs, locked in a cabinet. They both had keys to the cabinet.

She pressed her hand against her husband’s shoulder and said in a loud, urgent voice, “Monty. Wake up. Wake up!”

He struggled to open his eyes.

“I think Dean’s shot himself,” she said, the words strangling her throat.

Instantly he rolled from the bed, threw on his robe, and headed for the basement. “You don’t go down there,” he called out to her. “Get on the phone and call 911.”

She did, then sank into the living room sofa, hands clutched in her lap. It seemed like hours before she heard her husband’s footsteps and the flick of a lamp switch that shot dim light into the room.

He slumped beside her, half-facing her, clutching her cold hands in his.

“Is he … ” she began, the unspoken word “dead” a presence between them.

“I don’t know. I started to pull the door open when I felt a hand. It pushed me back so hard I turned around and stumbled back upstairs,” he said.

A hand! But it was after the shot. It couldn’t have been Dean’s hand that pushed his father back.

Gae and Monty both believed that the spirit world is very near; that ancestors watch over us.

They knew someone had watched over them that night their son died, and were grateful for that hand, whosever it was, and for the women from their church who cleaned up the blood..

They were very grateful that they didn’t have to remember their son the way he would have looked if they had seen him in his room. They could remember him the way he was those good years before his older brother’s fatal accident, and before he started taking the drugs that damaged his mind and body.

An Afternoon with Gae Hill

The summer of 1997 I was looking for stories about coping with the suicide of a loved one. My oldest daughter knew Gae’s daughter-in-law, and through her I met Gae who told me about the experience that I dramatized above.

She still lives in her home in Utah Valley, a beloved mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and a life-long active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Gae’s left arm was almost useless, but to her it was a mild disability that had honed her into a faith-filled, resilient, and realistic woman who directly confronted her trials. “She’s such a good lady” and “a wonderful example to my children and grandkids” wrote her daughter-in-law on Facebook.

On that long-ago day in Utah Valley, Gae told me, “One of my favorite scriptures is be still and know that I am God.”

“One of mine too,” I said.

“The day you feel the very worst you just say to Heavenly Father I can’t do this today. You’ve got to help me because I can’t handle it. Would you take my burden just for a few hours, or just for today?”

We both knew that He doesn’t remove the burden forever. That wouldn’t be good for us. “We only grow in hard times. We don’t grow in easy times,” Gae said. “In easy times you just float along.”

I told her I could empathize especially with the emotional aftermath of a loved one’s suicide. I was sixty-four years old when my alcoholic second husband shot himself. “Suicide isn’t an easy thing to deal with,” I said.

She adamantly agreed.

“My husband and I have had a lot of deaths in our family,” she said. “Our son Dean was sixteen when his brother was killed in an accident. They had been inseparable. They did everything together. Dean never recovered from the shock. He began going with an older group of kids and started drinking. My father had been an alcoholic and so I recognized the behavior. For eight years after his brother died, Dean tried at least twice a year to kill himself, but God really and truly intervened in each situation.”

She paused, walked over to her living room window, staring out at the bright blue cloudless sky as if trying to plumb its depths as she had tried to plumb her son’s.

She came back to her chair and continued.

“Dean ran with the older kids because he was out in the working world. We weren’t going to let him quit school and just sit on his hind end at home. He had to get a job. So for a while he was a bricklayer. I was certain he was going to do something with his life work-wise because he was always looking for ways to make money.

“But he kept drinking. He got a DUI and went to jail, then to a drug/alcohol rehabilitation program. He went thirty days without a drink. His personality always had real highs and then real lows. It was up and down all the time. That’s a sign of chemical imbalance, whatever the cause. The doctor said we should have him checked. He should go to a mental hospital for analysis. It would take a few weeks. Dean said okay. He’d do it in December when work was slow. I hoped he would. Then, he killed himself in November.”

“There wasn’t anything you could have done to stop it,” I said.

“I do know that now,” she said in a brighter voice. “Since that awful night, God has revealed to us what he said to Dean. `All right, my son, if you’re so anxious to come back here, I won’t intervene anymore.’ We know God knows how sick Dean was. Chemical imbalance is a frightening thing. Addictions are powerful and destructive. But God still loves us, each one of us, no matter what our weaknesses are. He seeks to magnify our goodness, to help us all he can. His love for our son and for us has sustained us through our loss.”

When I Am An Old Woman

How did I get so old? Not as old as my 94 year old aunt, last (half) sister of my late mother. At 78, I hope I have a few healthy decades left to take care of my disabled daughter. But more and more I think about all the departed parents, friends, and siblings. I feel old, yet sometimes not so old.

Like today as I’m thinking about poetry, triggered by the memory of a poem I discovered over a decade ago. When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple by Jenny Joseph, a poem I happily discovered, among the many, many links, on the fantastic Late Bloomer website of Debra Eve. She writes that Jenny Joseph’s poem is second only among poetry lovers to Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (he’s at the top of my list).

You can read Jenny’s Old Woman poem on Debra’s site, where Jenny’s publisher gives Debra permission to post it. A poem that triggered memories of her mother.

A memory of my own mother once triggered this poem that won third place, long ago, in a Virginia state poetry contest. A friend said it made her shiver.

Near the Source (c) Ann Carbine Best

At ninety-seven my mother died.
Near the end she was clumsy
tapping a white-tipped cane,
touching and touching, her hands
as fragile as the baby sparrows
she fed that long winter. Why,
I wondered, did she bother? The cat
would snap their delicate bones.

Yet what remains is more than flesh
and bone. She told me how the x-rays
shot out light whiter, more brilliant
near the uterus. I feel it burning
the farther I walk, my hands
touching hers, restored to flight.