My Brain Event, Part II: Dire Straits (& Rolling Stones) | Dire Straits (and Rolling Stones)

When we last saw our heroine, I was checking into the neurosurgical ICU at a hospital in Milwaukee, determined to retain my faculties long enough to sign the contract for my new novel.

It was like being on the space shuttle in there—no difference between night and day, lots of blinking lights and things that beep. I couldn’t just float off wherever I wanted to go because I was hooked up to things.

Perhaps you know, dear reader, exactly what total bed rest means. I did not. For the next few days, whenever I needed to sneak out of bed to use the space-age, full-sized flush toilet hidden in one of the cabinets against the wall, all my cords and lines had to go with me, carefully draped to avoid setting off any disconnection alarms that would call the nurse.

My nurse the first evening was Josh, a very kind and good-looking 30-something, a former college wrestler, he said. (Picture a cross between Brad Pitt and the young John Travolta.) He had two little boys with names like Winslow and Homer, or possibly Fenimore and Cooper. All the nurses in the neurosurgical ICU were young and good looking. Gazing out the glass wall toward the nurses’ station was like watching an episode of Scrubs.

My mother and my sister spent that first night with me, my sister in the recliner, which she repeatedly offered to my mother, and my mother, whose birthday it was, in a straight-backed chair against the wall. (Happy birthday to you!) I don’t remember which one of us said it—powerful stroke-and-seizure-preventing drugs were coursing through my brain already, although I don’t recall feeling woozy, just nicely relaxed—but someone remarked:

“We’d better call John.”

My husband John is a musician. At approximately 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 24, 2009, he was playing a wedding with a band called Twist and Shout at the Moose Lodge in Iowa City, 250 miles from Milwaukee.

“He won’t hear it,” I warned as my sister dug my cell phone out of my purse. I guessed they were doing the dollar dance at the wedding about now.

Storing numbers in my brain instead of programming them into my phone has long been part of my personal campaign against memory loss. I wondered if I was about to lose a lot of valuable data. So far I’d been able to tell anyone who asked me where I was and that Barack Obama was President. (How grateful I was that this had not befallen me the year before!) I had no trouble pushing the right buttons, although something started beeping on the IV tree when I lifted the phone to my ear.

We’d decided that I would leave the message—the news would be less alarming, coming from me. I couldn’t avoid “hospital” and “brain,” but ended cheerily with “I feel fine” and “Call me.” Nurse Josh came in to see what set off the IV alarm.

An hour passed. My sister called my daughter Liz, who lives in Omaha. Liz consulted her “EXTRA SPECIAL Twist and Shout FULL ACCESS BACKSTAGE PASS”–-a laminated card handily strung on a necklace of gold plastic beads—to find phone numbers for the rest of the band. When they finally took a break at the Moose Lodge, TJ the drummer gave his cell phone a quizzical look. Kevin, the guitar player, did the same.

It was almost 11:00 when John called. I told him I felt fine and asked, “Did my contract come?”

“Contract?” he said.

For my novel! Was it in the mail today?

“The mail,” he said.

“Don’t forget to bring it when you come!”

Five hours later, John poked his head into the gap in the curtained wall beyond the foot of my extremely comfortable air-cushioned bed. (More than once it has occurred to me that it’s too bad most people in the neurosurgical ICU are in no condition to appreciate the beds.) I could only imagine how I looked to him—better, I think, than his worst fears. His face downshifted quickly from stoic good cheer to something more genuine. We kissed, of course. He said, “Well, this is a heck of a deal.”

I shrugged, setting off another alarm.

The contract was not in the mail. For all I knew, people were sitting around their editorial offices in New York, regretting their offer and hoping I’d been run over by a bus before I could sign anything.

In the morning, I had my first MRI. It was a noisy business—a lot of clanging and banging at close quarters and unpredictable intervals, now a ringing “A” note near my right ear, then a lower tone growling on my left. It was so much like a Philip Glass symphony on jack hammer and electric drill that I laughed, right there in the machine.

For the cerebral angiogram I was nervous, I admit. The thought of a very thin tube traveling up through my femoral artery and around my heart to my brain was not a relaxing thought. Happily, the lovely sedative they give you right before they start actually puts you in the mood for such a thing. I was told that I wouldn’t remember the procedure, but I recall not only the Dire Straits medley playing on the radio (followed by the Stones), but also the cold hands and the warm blankets and the road map of my brain’s arteries projected on a screen for all to see.

Like the MRI, the angiogram was inconclusive. It just so happened that my “small stable bleed” had occurred in the vicinity of a rather “bulbous basilar summit.” (You’ll have to trust me on that.) The bulbousness could be the normal non-threatening shape of my artery, or it could be trouble. Although I was impressing everyone with my total lack of stroke symptoms—even my headache was minor—I’d have to stick around another whole week to find out what was up.

By now I’d been away from email long enough that people were looking for me. Concerned about my blood pressure, my husband almost didn’t tell me when my editor’s area code showed up on my phone. Her message—“Trying to get in touch. Call me!”—was cheerful with a hint of alarm. She didn’t sound like someone calling to say she was sorry but they weren’t going to publish my novel after all—too bad I hadn’t signed the contract already!

I did my best to keep from kinking up the IV line while holding the phone to my ear. Indeed, Alane was delighted to hear from me. She had already edited the manuscript, she said, and wanted to send it along for my approval.

Did I mean to mislead her when I told her I was unable to respond to her emails due to being “at the hospital” in Milwaukee, where my mother lived? Yes, I did. The truth was that I had too many lines and electrodes hooked to both arms to manage a keyboard. Unaware that I was the patient in this picture, my editor agreed to overnight a hard copy to Milwaukee.

She hoped we could turn it around in a week.

“Sure, why not?” I said. The blood pressure monitor beeped.       

To be continued:

My Brain Event, The Final Episode

Also see Part I: My Brain Event, Part I


Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.