Memories of Memories

What prompted me to look up the messages people sent me while I was in hospital for the brain surgeries?

I sit here, tears streaming down my cheeks. I’ve read these messages several times already. And each time, I’ve become emotional, inconsolable. I always remain fraginle for the rest of the day. Sometimes it lasts into the next. I’m not sure why.

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PTSD? The outpouring of love and caring from friends and family? My father’s messages, written in the form of poetry, are always the trigger. And my family’s memories of my childhood form a catalyst.

Dad wrote on the day of the first surgery:

Was it anger or pain? We never did really know,
The roll of fat at the back of your neck bright red with rage (or misery).
Today, we would probably be warned of 'lactose intolerance',
But then, we were just told to 'let her cry', and eventually you slept.

As a toddler, you hung on to your 'clobber bag'.
I don't think I ever really knew what was in it, but the bag was always there:
A large plastic bag of toys, treats, bits of paper, pulled along from room to room.
At night, it stayed at the foot of the bed and in the morning
You sometimes found a second bag of treats, so we could sleep

We relied too much on 'big brother' to take charge, forgetting how small he was.
But he really didn't seem to mind: "cummon Deb", he said,
And off the two of you went, up the ladder of life

Simon, my younger brother, sat his office at work at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, waiting for news. He too reminisced.

I am sitting at work staring blankly at the stuff I need to do while thinking of you. Looking at Dad's message set me off with my own memories from our childhood. The first to come up has to do with solid as well as vocal objects being projected from my room to yours over the top of the wardrobe. Next is the scene with the glass door. Hopper throwing you comes after this. More follow.

Jonathan who was with me during the my times in surgery also recalled scenes from our childhood: I have this fond memory of holding your hand and walking around with you during recess at school in Geneva, talk about a lifetime ago.

.

The surgeries took place a decade ago. I am thriving, living a full life. I am a more authentic version of me than I ever was, more comfortable in my own skin, happier than I used to be in my past life. Yet their words still move me. Even now, as I write, the tears continue to flow.

Why? Shouldn’t I be over it by now?

Survival

I reread the poem for the umpteenth time, and like the first time, shortly after my second brain surgery, I teared up.

Mum came to be with me in Phoenix during the surgeries. Dad had to stay at home, across the ocean.

Throughout my hospitalization, he expressed his fears, anguish, and love through poetry. He sent me a poem a day. Each one touched me as poetry never had, bringing him closer to me.

August 10, 2007

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joyland_Wichita_Roller_Coaster_Down_1997.jpg

"Life's funny". "Compared to what?"
The problem is we just don't know.
What 'selfish gene' caused your angiomas
(Or mine, for that matter)?
Can medical miracles can protect the kids?

Months of worry and now, sun through the cloud.
But still no way to put the clock back.
What happens next? What happened then?
Wanting for it all to be over,
But knowing it really can't be,
Still, some respite from the roller-coaster,
These endless waves of hope and fear.

Time never does march on
But only staggers from side to side,
Dragging us from one 'event'
To the next. But what a ride!
"It's good to be alive, as long as you survive."

Omar's Shop

This was my first time striding purposefully through the alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem. During previous visits, I’d always strolled along taking in the sights and smells of the bustling market surrounding me, peeking into a pottery shop here, stopping into a textile shop there, pausing to breathe in the aroma of herbs and spices.

But this time was different—we were headed to Omar’s shop.

Jonathan, my older brother, knew it wouldn’t take much to convince me. “He has fabulous textiles, traditional ones, not like the newer shops—you’ll love it.”

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As an ethnic textile aficionado and collector, it wasn’t a question of going or not going, it was a matter of timing—how soon could we go?

It took a couple of years, but we finally made it to Jerusalem, to Omar’s shop. I waited impatiently at the entrance to the shop as Omar and his brothers greeted Jonathan enthusiastically. Finally, it was time to cross the threshold.

As soon as we entered, my eyes popped out. Piles of pillow covers saturated with Palestinian embroidery, Druze designed place mats in earth tones. And what was this, suzanis? Pillow covers, wall hangings, embellished with the chain stitch embroidery in the Uzbek tradition. What were they doing in the region, in the Old City of Jerusalem? How did they get here?

After Jonathan told Omar of my interest in ethnic textiles, he pulled me away from the entrance to his shop, to guide me into a well lit interior. I forgot to breathe—wherever I turned, I saw stunning textiles. Even more spectacular suzanis, lively block-printed wall hangings from Persia, Indian mirror-work, and so much more.

Mouth agape, my gaze swept back and forth, not knowing where to start, until a pile of suzani pillow covers caught my eyes and held them. Unlike those in the entrance to the shop, these were silk on silk, the embroidery even, the yarns variegated in color… natural dyes? I was mesmerized.

I turned to Omar. “I don’t understand—these aren’t locally made.”

He smiled and nodded. “Suzani, from Uzbekistan.” then added, “You know textiles. Sit down and I will bring to you.”

And boy, did he. He disappeared into yet another room in the back and came back, laden with a pile of folded suzanis. He spread one gorgeous textile after the other at my feet. I gasped at each one. The colors… the designs…

The bigger ones, the most exquisite ones, cost more than a thousand dollars. Perhaps one of the smaller ones. But no, though less expensive, the prices were in the hundreds. Perhaps… No. I couldn’t. I’d set myself a one hundred dollar limit when we set out on our trip. I tried to rationalize—I could justify two hundred if I promised myself not to buy anything else. But I’d originally come here for Palestinian embroidery… Perhaps... No. There was no way I was walking out of here without a piece of Palestinian embroidery.

Omar saw my struggle. “I have some pillow covers you might like.”

He trotted out to the back room, and returned with his arms laden with beautiful suzani embroidered pillow covers. I breathed a sigh of relief—I’d be happy with a couple of those.

After choosing two of them, Omar unrolled a rug out on the floor. “You know textiles. Where is this from?”

I took a close look. “It looks like a Berber rug from the Atlas mountains in Morocco, but the design is not traditional.”

Omar beamed. “That’s right. It’s a modern design.”

I could see Jonathan beaming too. With pride?

I wandered around the shop, admiring the ikat woven coats from Uzbekistan. I looked at the prices and turned away. Maybe on my next visit.

I noticed a pile of the Palestinian embroidered pillow covers in the front room. I pawed through them but couldn’t find what I wanted. I approached one of Omar’s brothers and pointed to them. “Do you have better quality ones?”

Like Omar, he went into the back room. He approved of my choices. “You have good eye.”

I came away with four stunning pillow cases, a Persian wall hanging, a book about Palestinian embroidery written by Omar’s father, a goofy smile on my face, and the conviction that I’ll be stopping by on my next visit to Israel.

Jersey Shore

I paused at the bottom or the steps to the beach—nostrils flaring, I inhaled deeply, relishing the salt air as it filled me entire being.

Dad contemplated the watermarks on the wall. “Look how high the water reaches at high tide.” I’d heard the waves pounding at the sea wall the previous evening.

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On our way towards the water line, I paused every so often to admire the well defined tracks I was creating in my wake.

We hesitated when we reached the water—to the left or right, cliffs or fishing boats? I shaded my eyes, looking both ways. “The cliffs look more interesting. We can explore the boats tomorrow.”

Gentle waves lapped at the shore, curved under at the forefront, leaving arcs of foam on the wet sand when they retreated. I glanced behind me—the water softened our footprints as it washed over them, once, twice, three times, until they faded altogether.

Tiny holes—“made by crabs,” Dad said—emitted small bubbles as the ocean drew the water back in. Wondering what happened to those crabs at high tide, I turned towards the sea wall. Dark wet sand faded into white. A few clusters of pockmarked rocks, more sand, and then the wall. A wide expanse of dry scrub grew beyond the wall.

Dad pointed further inland to towers made of what? Stone? Concrete? “German fortifications. From when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands.”

Tiny silhouettes of a dog and his person ran along the top of the wall. Another dog ran in the scrub, weaving his way between the shrubs.

Dad suggested we explore the tide pools.

We scrambled over the rocks, searching for sea life in the pools. Dad smiled. “We used to do this with Granny. We usually found something, minnows, small crabs.”

The only evidence of life was seaweed swaying in the almost imperceptible current. Dad and I gave up after peering into half a dozen pools.

We trudged back towards the water, our feet sinking into the dry sand. Dad proposed that we head back to the hotel. Loath to end our time together, our easy companionship, I turned towards the cliffs. A black maw caught my eye, the entrance to a cave. “I bet we could climb up to it with no trouble.”

Dad hesitated. He had an odd look to his face. He seemed… reluctant? I was puzzled—the Dad I knew would have been eager to explore further, especially if it involved climbing rocks and investigating a cave. I looked at my watch—we had plenty of time before we had to get back for breakfast.

And then it clicked—he would have trouble with the climb.

I’d forgotten. He was in the advanced stages of macular degeneration—he’d reached the point when he could only see fuzzy shapes, colors and contrasts.

Wandering Jew

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A lush Wandering Jew plant dominated my kitchen window sill. A dusting of silver on the leaves lent a light sheen to the stripes of deep magenta and pale teal. The plant kept sending magenta tendrils up and down the window and cabinets. I was constantly working to discourage it from spilling into the sink and sneaking into the dish rack.

After having forgotten to water it for a while, the plant started shedding dry leaves and stems. I finally remembered the plant, I over-compensated and watered it too much and the debris became slimy.

The plant was no longer lush, nor beautiful.

Shortly after I returned from a trip to Israel, when I was clearing the dish rack and sink of slimy debris, I gave up. I decided to reclaim my windowsill—I removed the Wandering Jew from the kitchen.

My kitchen windowsill was detritus free, no longer hidden by a curtain of leaves.

And there it was, my life, me. A Hanukkiyah (menorah) that I brought with me from Israel when I moved here, another that Bill, my now-ex-husband bought me when we traveled over Hanukkah to see his family, an empty jar of marmite, imported from England, an empty jar of lemon curd also imported from England, a glass prism with a dragon carved into it. Symbols of my past life—growing up in Israel, where I am still firmly rooted, my marriage, now dissolved, England, where I was born, a continuing influence throughout my life and the source of my accent, and dragon boating, the bridge between my past life and my life post-brain injury—the path that led me to the person that I am, that I am only beginning to understand.

Flying High

From Morocco, to Hungary, then on to Japan. Next came China and India. From there I traveled to Estonia. My next trip was to Scotland, later to Panama and Thailand. Zimbabwe followed, and from there I went to the Philippines, then to Bhutan and Ghana.

Here I sit in the U.S. at my computer, yesterday my thoughts were on Ghana, today, I dream of Haiti.

I researched weaving in Morocco and the Philippines, and studied embroidery in Thailand and India. In Scotland, I learnt about kilt hose, and in Panama I found molas, the colorful reverse applique of the Kuna Indians.

When I mentioned a couple of my trips to a friend, he asked me when I got back. I laughed—I don’t travel in person. I wish I could.

I write articles about textile techniques from around the world. And now I’m working on a book, each chapter based on one of those articles. I have fabulous photos of the textiles. But I have none of the artisans at work. I want, I need such photos. For the book. For myself.

I wish I could travel as much as I do virtually. I would like to go to Morocco and hang out with some of the Berber rug weavers. If I could only watch the Jalq'a weavers of Bolivia in person, there's so much I want to ask them. To be able to get an up close look the double ikat weaving in Patan, India... I’d love to visit my friends in Bhutan, one of whom was a weaver to the king.

Marilyn shook her head. “But the altitude...”

But— But— I’ve wanted to go for so long. I was planning to go within the next few years. I hadn’t thought of the altitude. That ruled out Ayacucho and Cusco in Peru as well, both places I wish I could explore, where I have friends.

I was in the highlands of Guatemala when I suffered my acute brain bleeds. According to many members of the Angioma Alliance, high altitudes can trigger bleeds. Some members won’t travel by plane for fear of hemorrhaging.

I refuse to give up on traveling. It’s an important part of my life. I fly to visit friends and family in Israel at least once a year. Colorado is another of my regular destinations. A few months ago, I was in New Mexico. My brother lives in Massachusetts. I’m long past due a trip to England. And Iceland sounds good, as does Laos, and Ghana, and New Zealand, and, and...

Yes there’s a danger of a bleed, and travel is beyond exhausting fatigue exacerbated my deficits. But…

Maybe I won’t go to Peru, and hold off on Bhutan. But I will go back to Santa Fe in February, and Israel in March, and Iceland… sometime. I just have to watch myself, to pick and choose.

Most of the time I'm fine about giving up on my dreams of travel, but whenever I work on one of my textile articles, I feel a brief twinge. Then I remember the shemagh (or keffiya) that Ghofran brought me from Saudi Arabia, the piece of Assisi embroidery that Matteo found for me in Italy, and the gorgeous shawl Poonam sent me from India. And I realize, that really I'm very lucky. When I travel vicariously through friends and family, I feel fulfilled, especially when I know they've been thinking of me. I can feel the goofy smile on my face as I listen to them recount their adventures as they searched for the glorious textile they just presented to me.

There's something about a thoughtful gift from a good friend accompanied by a story that counteracts all the twinges in the world.

Attention Span

I remember watching an episode of the show “Charlie's Angels” with my grandmother, Bubbe.

Throughout the show, Bubbe kept peppering me with questions. “Why did she shoot him?” and “Where are they now?” And whenever the villain made an appearance, she interrupted our dialogue with “Wicked, wicked man.”

I knew that Bubbe, though naive in some ways, was not a stupid woman. I was amused by the her behavior,butI was also puzzled. It was only years later I realized that she had a very short attention span.

During the first week after my brain stem surgery, I discovered that I was unable to read. I didn't forget the mechanics of reading—I identified and understood each word separately, but I couldn't string them together into a sentence. When my occupational therapist asked me to explain the meaning of a sentence, I had no answer.

II was terrified I would never read again. I struggled to keep my fear deep down in the recesses of my mind, but every so often it would surface--before the surgeries, I'd been an avid reader.

At the time, my occupational therapist theorized that my difficulties were due to a combination of short attention span and appalling short term memory, both very common side-effects of brain injury.

Within a couple of days, the situation improved. I was able to comprehend sentences, then paragraphs, and by the time I left the inpatient neuro-rehab center, I was able to read entire chapters.

After I returned home, I discovered I could no longer read densely worded books. But once I acquired an e-reader, where I could limit the number of words per page and the density of the print, I once again became an avid reader.

But I still have trouble keeping track of plots and characters in long books. I often have to reread parts of a book, sometimes more than once. There are times when I give up because no matter what I do, it doesn't work. (I never had such issues before the brain bleeds.)

It's the same with movies and TV shows—throughout, I constantly pepper Daniel with questions, trying to understand the plot. I used to ask him to remind about the roles of some of the characters as well. But I've stopped--I've reached the conclusion that if I can't keep track of the characters, it's not worth the effort. It's certainly not worth interrupting the flow to the point to make matters even worse.

I have to keep reminding myself that my difficulty is not due to stupidity but because I have a short attention span, like Bubbe's.

Unlike Bubbe, I don't interrupt the movie with “Wicked, wicked man.” whenever a villain makes an appearance.

Hamsa

Hamsa—a Middle Eastern symbol of protection against the evil eye.

My maternal grandmother believed in the evil eye, as did my mother, though to a lesser degree, or so she tried to lead me to believe. I, of course, did not. I just found hamsas aesthetically pleasing. I loved the hamsa that hung above the entrance to living room of my childhood home. I was delighted when I found a hamsa charm in market in the Old city of Jerusalem—I made an earring out of it and wore it frequently when I was a teenager.

Before I underwent brain surgeries, several friends presented me with talismans.

Rhonda gave me a small lead sculpture in the shape of a saguaro cactus. “They're survivors in the desert, like you are. You'll be okay.”

And Sara sent me a necklace with a three dimensional star of David, a Jewish symbol of protection. “I first thought of sending you a chai, but changed my mind.”

Many Jews wear the Chai symbol is usually worn as a charm on a necklace. In Hebrew, chai means “alive.” It is a common gift for bar mitzvas and for people in life-threatening situations.

Mum gave a broach in the shape of a bee. “Given their physical characteristics, it's a miracle that bees can fly.”

 My hamsa tattoo

My hamsa tattoo

None of these talismans meant much to me, but since I was about to undergo brain surgeries, I figured that I could use all the help I could get—they certainly couldn't hurt.

I felt very differently about the bracelet my sister, Rachel, sent with my mother. It was a made of a red cord with a hamsa charm. I took great comfort in wearing it and felt uneasy whenever I was separated from it. I wore it during my stay in hospital, only taking it off for the surgeries and when I took a shower.

I lost the bracelet a few months later. I was distraught until I found another bracelet with a Hamsa to replace it. But it didn't give me that same feeling of safety when I wore it. If anything, I felt an emptiness. I bought a silver hamsa from a fiend who'd got it in Morocco. Though I wear it at all times, even when in the shower, it still doesn't feel quite right.

A couple of years after the surgeries, Mum wanted to buy me a piece of jewelry of my choosing. I picked a hamsa bracelet made of gold. Though I love it, and also wear it all the time, again, it doesn't bring me the same level of comfort Rachel's did.

I've acquired several hamsas since then, a ceramic one from my sister to hang on a wall, even a hamsa tattoo on my shoulder. The one that brought some semblance of comfort is one that my daughter, Sarah, gave me. But it's not the same.

I continue to search for one to replace the bracelet Rachel gave me, one that will bring me solace as hers did.

I'm still not sure why. Why hers made me feel so safe, and why I continue to search.

Superstition

I am not superstitious--I don't flinch when a black cat crosses my path, nor do I bother to skirt a leaning ladder instead of ducking under it.

Sara, a Jewish friend, gave me a necklace with a three-dimensional Star of David charm. I appreciated the gift, clearly because it was a gift, but also because I'd never seen one before, it was cool. Also for me, like for many people, the Star of David represents Judaism, my heritage.

On the other hand, I'm sure that she gave it to me as a protective amulet, a token that God is watching over me.The Star of David in Hebrew is referred to as Magen David that translates literally as David's shield, a reference to God. I was a bit uncomfortable about the whole protection thing. I was also puzzled--why would Sara think there was a real chance I wouldn't survive?

Bill and I dropped Daniel off for dragon boat practice a couple of days before our departure to Arizona for my surgeries. My teammates crowded around me to say their goodbyes. I, was all smiles--though I couldn't join them in their practice, I enjoyed their company.

 Rhonda had been away in Arizona. She presented me with a small lead sequoia. “They survive under the harsh conditions of the desert.”

It was nice of her to bring me a gift fro her travels, though it was an odd choice. I thanked her and moved on to talk to the rest of my friends, though I had an uneasy feeling that there was a significance to her message I was missing.

Full comprehension only struck later, when I examined it in the quiet of my bedroom.

On the eve before my first brain surgery, Mum handed me a pin in the shape of a bee. “A friend gave it to me for you. It's a miracle that bees can fly.” She shrugged. “It can't hurt.” She added, “When you come out of all this, you're supposed to pass it on to someone else who might need it.”

This time, I immediately understood the significance behind the gift. Also, bees hold a special meaning to me, since my Hebrew name, Dvorah, means bee. But this one was so ugly, quite appalling—what on Earth would I do with it? Where should I hide it?

I decided to take it with me to hospital after all. I wanted to be able to tell Mum that I had with me. I didn't put much stock into any of the talismans I'd been given—I'm not a superstitious person. But like Mum said, they couldn't hurt.

I felt differently about the gift from my sister Rachel—a simple bracelet made of a red cord with a charm in the shape of a Hamsa. I took great comfort in wearing it, and felt uneasy whenever separated from it. I kept it with me during my stay in hospital, only taking it off for the surgeries and when in the shower.

Did I feel that way about the bracelet because it came from my sister? I certainly didn't feel the same way about the tiny book of psalms she also sent me.

The Hamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol of protection against the evil eye, and the color red is also associated with luck and safekeeping. Could it be that I am superstitious after all?

But I have opened umbrellas indoors, though I hesitate beforehand. I didn't place a coin in the wallet I gave my daughter. But that was because I forgot. When I remembered I took it back and tucked a penny into one of the compartments. I do occasionally knock on wood... Maybe more than occasionally. And I do own a couple of hamsas...

Maybe I am bit superstitious. Maybe a tad more than a bit.

Cure?

That elusive other shoe finally dropped on my last day in Israel. When did the headache start? In the morning before I left? Or was it the afternoon? I was certainly in bad shape by the time I said goodbye to my parents in the evening.

Unlike the rest of the headaches I suffered throughout my trip, this was a real killer. I knew at its onset that there was no appeasing this one, that no amount of meds or ginger or turmeric, or anything, would prevent it from escalating into the screaming red zone.

I had hoped for the best case scenario, where the inevitable other shoe would wait to drop until I returned home. I suspected it would happen during the trip. The possibility that it would drop en route was unthinkable.

Not only did the unthinkable happen, but it got really bad at the worst time possible, when there was absolutely no hope for any form of respite until I reached home, more than twenty four hours later, when all it could do was worsen.

My ability to function through my headache became iffy before I left my parents' house. But I held it together, somehow. I had to. I didn't want to worry them unduly. And I still had to manage the taxi ride to the railway station, then the train ride to the airport, then passport control and security and boarding the plane.

At various points along the way the odd whimper of pain escaped before I managed to stifle it. Focusing on holding myself back from bursting into tears intensified the pain. It also caused an odd ringing in my ears, which exacerbated it further, as did moving and thinking.

I had mixed feelings about boarding the plane. On the one hand, once in my seat, I'd be able to settle in and relax a bit, which would probably bring me some relief. But on the other hand, I dreaded sharing a confined space with this particularly cacophonous crowd of passengers, which included several screaming babies and an exuberant youth group.

I had no choice. And it was bad.

I'm not sure how I functioned through the trip. I only remember it in hazy snatches. Waiting in line for the bathroom, pretending to be relaxed and pleasant while urgently needing to pee, incredulously watching a young mother getting up to rummage through her stowed carry-on while we were taxiing for take-off, trying not to gag visibly at the smell of cheesy feet newly released from the confines of plastic footwear. The pounding in my head in sync with the youth group's loud countdown until the New Year, the jagged pain as we went through some turbulence, and the searing agony whenever I woke up from yet another fitful nap.

Somehow I survived and made it on to the next flight. By the time I reached Pittsburgh, my entire body felt bruised and battered from the inside out. My progress through the terminal was slow as I tried to avoid exacerbating the pain. I felt as if a veil surrounded me, separating me from the world. Everything seemed foggy, sights and sounds muffled, as were my thoughts. The one thing that kept me going was a vision of myself crawling into bed.

Finally, after a bumpy car ride and a draining climb up to my bedroom, and sank into bed.

I stayed in bed, dozing on and off, for more than twenty hours, rising briefly less than a handful of times to eat and go to the bathroom. Once my headache waned to the point where I felt alert and could move without wincing, I returned to my normal level of activity, or at least as normal as one could be with a bad case of jet lag.

Except that I wasn't jet lagged. Not really. Yes, I still had a headache, but it was at a level that I could easily function and think through. But at no point did exhaustion hitting hard out of the blue as usually happens to me upon my return from trips abroad. I went to bed at a normal time and awoke the next day at a normal time. At no point within the next few days did I have trouble staying with a normal sleep schedule.

Could that twenty hours of sleep on my return have something to so with that? Had I found a cure for jet lag? A horrific headache that conks me out for a good day or so?