After the Fall

By Mark Huntsman

Ten Junes ago I fell off my skateboard and woke up three weeks later. Wait—“woke up” isn’t quite right. I was in a drug-induced coma for a week, then my brain swelling (suddenly, miraculously) reversed course, the doctors at Harborview were able to ease up on the drugs and ditch plans to cut away a section of my skull—which is very much a cut-your-losses maneuver—and then (I’m told) I became cognizant, conversational. But my brain’s ability to make memories didn’t come back online for another couple weeks, and when it did, I found myself amidst circumstances I would’ve described as surreal, if I’d had the cognitive ability to parse the idea of multiple realities. Which I did not.

When your brain is compelled to rewire itself, relearn how to designate something for long-term memory, get it to stick, some weird shit happens. My brain had no shortage of rewiring to do—muscle memory was completely wiped, for example; I had to relearn much the non-breathing/heartbeating stuff your muscles do without having to think about it. The first memory that stuck that summer is the story of my 5-step journey from hospital bed to bathroom, and I can recall how it felt: as though I’d come awake for the first time, everything new but simultaneously familiar, comfortable. I felt completely fine, thought I was fine (and would continue to. My ongoing impression was that, man, a week ago I was messed up, but thank god I’m all good now. A week later, same deal). I shrugged off my buddy Brian’s attempt to help me to the loo, stood up, told my legs to start walking, and instead began melting into the floor. Brian caught me and we eventually resumed the trip. It all took much longer than anticipated, which sucked, because I had a bowel movement melting into my jammies. The rest of that memory is mainly—well, Brian is a very good friend. Other early memories also involve loved ones being good to me. My family was amazing, my girlfriend Erin was amazing, and tons of folks dropped by to visit—even my old friend Laura, who would become the love of my life and eventually agree to marry me. One afternoon I was sitting up in bed, talking with my beautiful, dark-haired girlfriend, when I looked over and saw my beautiful, red-haired girlfriend in the doorway. Had … had I somehow managed to have two girlfriends at once? Yes I had. Yes! I had. And they were both good with it, talking affectionately to me, to each other, enjoying each other’s company, as simultaneous girlfriends so rarely do. Of course, the red-head was my ex from college, who’d flown up to visit. But I had no sense of timeline on which to affix memories of my past; everything existed in the same wobbly present tense. On wakeful nights alone, the floor quiet and dark, I would pad slowly around the recovery floor of the hospital, trying to find the lounge area with the mini fridge with the juice boxes (it kept moving). Some nights felt wakeful even when they weren’t—I’d never had lucid dreams before, but now I did, and a few of my most vivid, tactile early memories were actually dreams, as when I commenced my nightly juice-box search, wandered down a hallway onto an (imaginary) sky bridge over a (ditto) atrium space, looked down, and saw rows and rows of fatally ill kids in wheelchairs lined up in front of a stage, where ‘N Sync was getting ready to perform a Make-a-Wish-type benefit concert. Wouldn’t you know it, there was an empty chair smack in the middle of this sea of sickly children, so I went and sat down. Recall, this is 2001; ‘N Sync ruled the land with Justin Bieber-like ubiquity. I was 26 and white and male, which meant my gathered opinion of ‘N Sync was as a pop cultural atrocity, and in my pre-brain injury life I’d spoken of them only ironically, like referring to them as New Sync on the Block or whatever. But tonight was different. Tonight was about the children. These poor kids, dying before they got a chance to live—except for tonight, because ‘N Sync was here to give them the night of their lives. A night to take with them to heaven. When the show started, I found that I knew all the words to all the songs—all of them, not just “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” but songs I’d heard perhaps once, by extra-accident—and so stood and began to sing along, full-throatedly, while miming the top-half choreography happening onstage. A few songs in, Justin Timberlake pointed to me and beckoned me to come up with the band. Now, whether Justin did this because my talent was overwhelmingly apparent or because the loud, jazz-handed 6’9” dude surrounded by kids with cancer was too painful to watch, perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know is he didn’t regret it. I took stage right, fell in with the choreography, and began harmonizing in all the right places. This earned a few I’m-impressed sidelong glances from Justin, and eventually an invitation to take a vocal solo, which I accepted, dancing my way to front-center stage. I went off, the tiny invalids went nuts, end of dream. I spent the next day with a) multiple ‘N Sync songs I’d virtually never paid attention to running in my head, and b) the conviction that the concert had really happened. It was exponentially more tactile, more real than any other recent memory, and I wouldn’t talk myself out of it for weeks. As I said, weird shit.

On 9/11/01, I’d been out of the hospital as long as I’d been in. Evenings at my parents’ place were regularly passed much as they’d been those last few weeks in the recovery ward: watching baseball. The Seattle Mariners were my friends, were familiar faces, and they behaved as good friends should, by winning. Like, all the time. Me and a plate of snacks would retire to the upstairs TV room, put the game on, and routinely watch the M’s put the contest away in the first few innings. This began a week or so into August, when the team was 80-30, for a .727 winning percentage, which, in baseball of all sports, simply doesn’t happen—maybe for a few weeks, but not for a whole season, and certainly not for the Mariners. In case you’re unfamiliar with the pro sports pathos in Seattle, here it is: all good things will end prematurely, and will be followed by a greater number of bad things. It’s that simple. All bright dots of winning will be attached to a long tail of losing. Ken Griffey Jr. will demand a trade in his prime. Randy Johnson, the Big Unit, will demand a trade shortly after. A-Rod will flee for Texas shortly after that. The NBA will have a lockout, and when it ends, Shawn Kemp, the most exciting dunker in the game, will show up fat and on coke. Kemp will be replaced by Vin Baker, who will be fat and alcoholic. Howard Shultz, aka Mr. Starbucks, aka Hometown Business Hero, will buy the Sonics. One five-year plan later, Howard Shultz, aka Mr. Starfucks, aka Judas with a Cappuccino, will sell the Sonics for $350 million to Oklahoma tycoons, who will move the team and take Kevin Durant with them. The 2001 Mariners will win 116 games. The 2002-2011 Mariners will redefine losing, will become the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games, will set the bar for all-time woeful offensive production—where “set the bar” means “put the bar on the ground, and nonetheless manage to trip on it.” That’s being a Seattle sports fan: every brief pleasure is followed by protracted pain.

The final critical piece of sports context is that I hate the New York Yankees. Why? Because fuck the Yankees, that’s why. Granted, we’re far away from New York, and far newer to baseball—it’s not like the Mariners traded Babe Ruth in his prime to the Yankees. But rest assured that if the Mariners had a) existed and b) had Babe Ruth on their roster, they would’ve traded Babe Ruth in his prime to the Yankees. The Seattle Mariners organization is more adept at rationalizing destructive decision-making than your most boozy family member and your most controlling family member put together, and has always been so. Out here, the Yankees are the most hated team in pro sports (although the Red Sox are doing their damnedest to catch up). Another significant factor in New York’s hatability is that Seattle plays in a division (the AL West) perennially lacking teams worth hating. Do you hate the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim? No you don’t. The Angels annoy you. But they’re too boring, too Disney to elicit actual sports hate, and so it is throughout the ranks of the AL West. The Yankees, meanwhile—and this bears repeating—are the fucking Yankees, and the summer of 2001 found them still riding a wave of successive World Series championships that made them roughly as welcome around the American League as Dr. Drew is in the Lohan household.

That said, in August and the first ten days of September 2001, I wasn’t worried about the Yankees, nor any other team. The Mariners were unbeatable in a series, and six times a week they provided a three-hour bright spot in my day. I loved them all, not just Ichiro and Boonie and Edgar and Buhner, but Paul Abbott and Aaron Sele and Dan Wilson and all the rest—they were all playing out of their minds, all playing their part in making the most improbable season ever happen to perhaps the most middling team in the history of America’s Pastime, and I felt deeply connected to them. A World Series championship felt inevitable, and man, when it got here, it would be overdue. Everybody felt this way. The rookie Ichiro was a wunderkind, his every at-bat a must-watch. He was so sharply different from any other player, which made him perfectly suited to be the face of the team that in a matter of months became the face of a city that prided itself on being different. Even in my Simple Jack-like state of mind, I understood—deeply—that the recovery from my traumatic brain injury was every bit as improbable as and a good bit more miraculous than the baseball season I was getting to witness. I’d fallen off my board and onto my head on a lonely road on southern Vashon Island, and subsequently God had reached down and said not yet. Aslan had licked my forehead, and by sheer grace here I was, dressing myself, laughing at jokes, improving by the day, none of which I was predicted by doctors to able to do. I knew in my bones that I’d continue to get better, just as I knew the M’s would keep winning. This was our time, theirs as much as mine.

Baseball ground to a halt on September eleventh, you’ll remember. Games were cancelled. When play resumed, fans sang along to a string of patriotic anthems to begin every game, and there was a wholly new sense injected into the proceedings, that playing and watching baseball was a way to be together, find strength in numbers. There was a pervasive fear that any large number of people in one location was a possible target, and so just attending a game was a way to proclaim defiance, that we were alive, that we would not be defeated.

When the Mariners lost to the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, it felt right. It didn’t feel great, didn’t make me happy, but you could feel the loss coming as the series went on, and when the last out had been made, the words I said to myself were simply yes, good. New York needed it, and more than anything else I did in the weeks following 9/11, more than waiting for hours and hours to give blood, standing patiently in line with hundreds of other folks hungry for a way to be of practical use, losing to New York made me feel that I was being helpful. By being there to experience the losing, I was letting New Yorkers experience winning. How’s that for a rationale? That Mariners baseball season—something I had zero impact on—was somehow the most I had to give, and, once surrendered, the giving felt good, a proper sacrifice; a prized animal slaughtered at the altar. The killing stroke stung, sure, but even as the blood ran I felt the conviction that it was right.

I had plans for this piece. Was going to send around different versions, each tailored for a specific audience, like Grantland (smart & sports savvy), TheAwl (smart & skeptical),McSweeneys (smartypants), etc., and see what happened. I’ve sat down to write a first draft about ten times in the last six weeks, but the words yielded by those efforts look nothing like a draft of anything except maybe a grocery list. No—a crazy dude’s grocery list. Let’s say a crazy dude starts a list of things to get at the grocery store. But he soon swerves into the broader topic of material things acquire, and then to nonmaterial things he desires—states of mind to achieve, experiences to experience—and from there it’s a short leap into the arena of things to accomplish before death, and this goes on for pages and pages, these fat run-ons with adorable bullet points in front of them, until the end result is a high-minded bucket list that also happens to say things like almond milk and bananas. That’s what the “first draft” of my essay about 9/11 looks like. So, now it’s Friday Sunday (9/9 9/11)afternoon night, rather retardedly too late for anything to come of this list of jumbled half-ideas, and you know what? The mental acuity that birthed this late baby is a chief characteristic of how I’ve changed post-TBI, how I haven’t managed to navigate life as I did before, how I steer the ship differently now. To be clear, there are other byproducts of my injury that are here to stay, that I just have to live with: I can’t smell. I sweat unholy amounts. I get headaches in waves. I struggle with addiction. I blow my fuse sometimes—all those are parts of me that didn’t use to exist, then one day they (or the promise of them) did. All got mention at some point of outpatient therapy. But the new trait that didn’t get brought up is also the one that’s caused the most bullshit—really it’s two traits, but it happens in combination, left jab right hook—and it took me a long time to identify. I’ve yet to find a succinct name for it, but here’s what happens: I overthink my plans directly on the heels of underthinking my responsibilities. I will naturally let shit slide—bills, even when I’ve got money to pay them; dishes, even when they keep me (read: my patient wife) from cooking; writing, even when I’ve got something good going—and then, instead of doubling back directly to fix the oversight, I’ll sit down and make a list of ways to change my life so as to prevent this type of thing from happening again. And when that’s done—hey, I’ve made a list! It looks good, too, really detailed in parts. Time for bed, and then in the morning nothing will be fixed, but I’ll have this list to ignore. That’s how the underdo/overplan combination works. On a daily scale, it prevents me from writing at the pace I want, as I’m forever forfeiting momentum. On a bigger-picture scale, it can be existentially discouraging, as it amounts to one of my faults being the way I assess my faults. Ten years later, I still catch myself wanting to go back, to have never been like this.

This weekend, the episode of This American Life, Ten Years In, was a follow-up to an episode done in the wake of 9/11—they caught up with people they’d interviewed ten years ago, asked them what’s changed, what’s the same. Lynn Simpson was in the first tower to get hit, on the 89th floor where the power and lights went off at impact, and the smoke started filling in immediately. On the episode in the tragedy’s wake, she talked about how she was no longer living in New York City, and mentioned how she still had the clothes shoes and socks and hair clip she was wearing on 9/11; she hadn’t cleaned them, couldn’t bring herself to, but neither could she bring herself to throw them away. They were tied up in a plastic bag and sat in the corner of the room. I just can’t quite let go of them. Now? They’re in the little bag, but it lives on the top shelf of her closet. She just recently sold her apartment in NYC, after years of renting it out—she didn’t want to sell it, because she thought the time would come when she’d want to move back. I fought selling that apartment. But you can’t go back? asked Ira. You can’t go back, said Lynn. One day, something can happen, and it can change you permanently. It’s very hard to admit that you’re not gonna be back to your old self, she said. You’ve changed. September 11th changed me. And no matter how much I try to convince myself into the fact that I’m gonna go back to it, I will get back, I will go back to the person I was, it’s not going to happen. And once I accepted that, it’s okay.

In the aftermath of my TBI, I had a hard time with emotional complexity—I didn’t have the ability to unpack my feelings, to sort through layers, and that made having a complicated emotional response fairly impossible. I could be sitting there failing to experience a moment of sadness (via conflict with a loved one, say) or joy (via my job as best man at Brian’s wedding, say), and honestly the best I could do was to recognize that the people around me had emotional things happening inside them that were a) important to them and b) not fully happening inside me. 9/11 marked the first time I felt my emotional response was on par with that of folks around me, because while paralyzing shock is intense, it’s also defined by its lack of complicated feeling; the emotion has been shocked out of you. The emotions eventually return, though when they do, they’ll feel different. You’ll be different.

Mark Huntsman got his MFA in Fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2008, and is hard at work on the third draft of his novel. (The first draft was his thesis.) He loves dogs and likes kids but has neither, which perhaps has something to do with why he and his lovely wife named their Roomba (Studs Terkel) after watching him roll around for all of 2 minutes.