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A Million Stories in My Head

The family dog ran for cover as the keyboard hit the floor. "Arrgh! I don't know where to start!" I screamed. Two hours after sitting down to write my first novel; I squirmed in the hard kitchen chair I'd chosen because I heard that hard chairs support hard thinking. "It just makes my ass sore..." I mumbled to myself as I bent to retrieve my abused keyboard.

"I'm sorry, you can come out now," I said to Pringles, an overly sensitive toy poodle, who, though purchased by my wife, Martha, had become my constant companion at home. Pringles was cowering under the telephone stand near the front window, looking very dubious. "Have it your way, you wimp!" I laughed at the worried look on the poodle's dusty gray face. Not for the first time, I wondered if all poodles turned gray as they aged.

Figuring I might as well take advantage of the distraction, I padded in my stocking feet to the kitchen to make pot of tea. There was something very literary about a cup of Earl Grey on a cloudy morning, especially as one embarks on the Great American Novel. Besides, I could spend the next twenty minutes brewing the tea and hunting up a couple of those ginger snaps I like so much. It was 10:00 am, and Martha was still in bed, so I decided to heat the water in a sauce pan to avoid a whistling kettle.

As I stood by the stove, waiting for the water to boil, so I could pour it over the aromatic leaves, strong with Bergamot orange, and wait the obligatory six minutes for the tea to brew (Six to Brew, Longer to Stew...), I pondered my dilemma. I had a million ideas for my novel, and thousands of places to start. Not one of them appealed to me at the moment, and I was rapidly becoming frustrated with my inability to choose a place to begin.

I turned left to reach into the cupboard for the tea tin, and stepped on Pringles’ right front foot. Pringles squealed like a pig being slaughtered as I overbalanced, tipping the pan of hot water on the floor. I shifted my weight to my right foot to avoid stepping on Pringles again, but my right foot was in the hot water. The water was very hot and instantly soaked through my sock. I roared in pain, slipped and fell backwards.

All moved in slow motion, and my awkward kitchen ballet was about to end in a heap on the floor. I was wondering if all the noise would frighten Martha, when my head hit the edge of a kitchen chair I'd used to reach for the tea pot - the plain brown one that looked so British. Pain lanced from the back of my skull out through my eyes and I heard a loud crunching sound. The lights went out, and I never felt my body hit the floor.

Slowly a dark gray haze became a light gray haze, and finally sharpened into the darkened interior of our bedroom. I was standing by the bed, watching Martha struggling to climb up off the floor. Apparently, in her haste to get out of bed, she'd slipped on the carpet or something. She was shouting my name, and yelling as though muffled and far away, "What happened, Brian, what was that noise?" She ran from the room and down the stairs to the entryway adjacent to the kitchen.

As I wondered what she was racing down to see, I was suddenly there, standing in the kitchen directly below our bedroom, watching Martha's face contort in sudden panic and pain, as she screamed my name and dropped to the floor next to...me! Well, at least it looked like me, though I didn't remember my butt being that large, or the love handles protruding from under my T shirt. I wasn't moving and my right leg looked sunburned and blistered down the outside and the back of my right calf. I was drifting over to watch, when I suddenly remembered where I was supposed to be, and an instant later, my life was all about pain in my head and the fire in my right leg.

Just as suddenly, I could hear Martha's panicked cries in exquisitely painful clarity, because she has shouting in my left ear, while cradling my head in her lap. "Brian, Brian! Wake up, please! Oh God, please help me! Jesus, help him, help me!"

I opened my eyes and tried to tell her to please shut up for a minute, and I would be okay. All that came out was, "Shaddub." I tried again, "Saw right, caw nine one," I stammered and gave up because I was having trouble getting my mouth to do what I wanted. Fortunately, she understood immediately, calmed down, and dialed 9-1-1. She told the dispatcher her husband fell in the kitchen and needed an ambulance because his head was bleeding and his leg was par boiled. At this last comment, our eyes met, and she started laughing — laughing with large tears running down her sweet face.

When the paramedics arrived, they strapped me to a back board and put me on a gurney. Martha huddled against the kitchen sink, still in her flannel night gown that was all stained with water from the kitchen floor, and quite a bit of red stuff that had to be my blood. I didn't realize I'd been bleeding so much. I tried to smile, but it must have looked like a grimace of pain, because her eyes teared up again, and she shouted, her voice very husky with emotion, "Don't you die, you clumsy ass. Don't you die and leave me to clean up this mess."

They must have given me something to make me sleepy, because I was drifting away to a place without pain, and I was considering the awful olfactory experience of oil of Bergamot mingled with my own blood. Just before I passed out, I saw Pringles jump into my wife's arms and throw me a dirty look.

I woke up with the feeling of a toothache, but in my left eye. I could smell antiseptic and the background odor of too many humans in a closed space. So, I was in the hospital! I made it alive to the sick person warehouse, and now would have to endure the usual tests. With trepidation, I opened my eyes, and, "Ow!" I cried out in pain as the lid of my left eye slid ever so slowly over the eyeball to reveal a stand holding a couple of bags of clear liquid that were obviously connected to my internal plumbing somewhere on my left arm. I shifted my gaze to the right, trying to open my right eye. I thought I felt it open, but I saw nothing on that side! I felt panic rising inside as my wife's face slid into view.

"Sssshh," she whispered. They've taped a bandage over your right eye. You splashed some hot water into the eye, and they've treated it. However, they don't want you rubbing it. As soon as she said this, the eye began to itch and burn. Funny how that happens.

"You've got a gash on your head and second degree burns on your right leg, but everything still works — even if it hurts to use it," she said with a worried little smile. I heard another voice asking if I was awake, and as she turned to answer, I tried to move my head to follow. That was a mistake. My reward was wave upon wave of nausea and a feeling of plunging down a very turbulent well, filled to the brim with a tornado. Tears filled my left eye as I saw a hand reach to adjust the valve on one of those clear bags. I heard bees swarming around my head and the lights slowly went out again.

I could smell tea, probably pekoe from the odor, and something that smelled like boiled bread. I opened my eyes without pain, and happily realized I had binocular vision again! Happy that is, until I saw the bowl full of what was obviously Cream of Wheat sitting next to one of those stainless steel tea pots with a Lipton tea bag string hanging down the side, and arranged with a couple of slices of white bread that might be toasted on a lovely aqua plastic tray. I had graduated from the province of pain to the land of bland. Joy...

Slowly, I tried to move my head, and found I could move it without much disorientation as long as I moved slowly. Martha came in the door and beamed a great smile. She looked at the tray and laughed a great laugh. I frowned a great frown, which resulted in new gales of helpless laughter from my wife. She knew of my history with Cream of Wheat. Martha knew I abhorred it because I could never cook it without creating the world's largest and stickiest lump. My famous breakfast dumpling.

I was still very tired, so Martha fed me the cereal. She was having great fun, whooshing the spoon in the air, saying, "Here comes the airplane, now open the hangar doors...bbbbrrrrrr..." I glared back and tried to talk, but only nonsense came out of my mouth, and a whole lot of stammering. Martha's smile disappear in an instant, and tears welled in her eyes. She covered her mouth and fled the room, leaving the spoon in my babbling mouth.

Something was very wrong, and they didn't know what it was. CAT scans showed nothing, and blood tests were negative. EEGs showed normal brainwave patterns, and the MMPI showed no psychopathology. Okay, why couldn't I talk?

The doctors finally settled on something called a vascular migraine, a cerebrovascular accident that leaves no trace, other than damage to some system - that may or may not be treatable. They discharged me, and scheduled me for speech therapy. I spent the next six weeks learning to talk in broken and halting sentences. Most distracting and frustrating was the tendency of my family and friends to finish my sentences for me, as they grew impatient for me to finish.

As I have often done in the past, I fled to St. Catherine's and had a long (and difficult) conversation with Father Thomas Aquinas Carlysle, my anchor in times of trouble. He commiserated with me, and offered some prayers. He also offered to relieve me of my lectoring responsibilities three weeks hence, on Palm Sunday. I refused, and indicated that I still wanted to do my readings - no matter how embarrassing or difficult it might be. He cringed, but felt the Lord would understand (even if the Parish Council didn't) and agreed. "But," he added, "You and I will drill on the readings for the whole week before. I want to get Mass done during the morning hours!" I grinned and left.

Over the next three weeks, I struggled with the readings and stubbornly insisted on pushing through, despite the discomfort I was causing in my friends as they listened to my halting speech. But, I was going to do my job on Sunday if it took an hour.

Palm Sunday dawned clear and bright. The church wasn't packed (it seldom is these days), but a lot of my friends were there, ready to suffer through the ordeal with me. It made my heart swell with gratitude to see them all. I pulled Father Carlysle aside and indicated as best I could that I didn't want to make them suffer for my stubbornness. He would hear none of it. They were granting me the grace and the great gift of their support in my trial. I must let them give it. I nodded my ascent.

As I placed the Scriptures on the Altar and returned to my pew, I felt every eye on me and the wonderful warmth of their earnest prayers on my behalf. As the Liturgy of the Word progressed and I rose to begin the readings, I felt a lump in my throat and fought back tears. Supported by the love of my wife and my friends, I made it to the ambo and turned to begin the readings.

The first reading was from Isaiah, 50:4. I opened my mouth and began to read, "The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear...." The words flowed from my lips like liquid fire and I realized that no one was breathing. My wife was crying again. Father Carlylse was smiling broadly and nodding his head to continue the readings.

Somehow I managed to finish the readings and made it back to my seat. Quietly, I sat with my eyes burning with tears and silently wept for the pure joy of reading those words.

The rest of that Palm Sunday was a blur of smiling faces, hugs, and handshakes. At home, I said nothing, and only hugged Martha very hard, lay down on the sofa, and slept until Monday morning.

Monday night, I sat in front of my PC, and started typing A Well Trained Tongue, the story of a man who didn't know what to say until he could no longer say it.

Story by Mick McKellar