How I (Almost) Lost My Mind

Last year I was carded at an airport pub. For a thrilling millisecond, before the waiter explained that he carded everyone, I supposed that my jean jacket and cargo pants had fooled him into thinking I was too young to order a glass of wine. I must have been out of my mind.

Being carded at our grocery store would be truly thrilling. I don't know its definition of senior, but on Tuesdays when I say "We get the senior discount," no clerk has, alas, ever questioned me. That week the store was offering a 10-percent discount to its "valued customers," which on Tuesday made a combined 15 percent for "valued" seniors like my husband, John Fischer, and me.

I don't think of myself as a senior or even old. But a recent accident made me wonder if I've been kidding myself.

It was about two months ago, after a week of rain, and John and I had eaten lunch at the new Asian fusion restaurant, where I had tasty seaweed rolls, each tied neatly with bows of bamboo shoots. Afterward we went to the grocery store, where we stocked up on meats for the freezer, cans of soup, jars of peanuts, bottles of condiments for garage shelves and cleaning supplies for the basement. Back home, when John was unloading the trunk, I put the newspaper on the steps going up to the kitchen and scurried to the back of the house to rescue some basil plants from their waterlogged pots on the deck. Then I rushed back, holding up the bottoms of my cargo pants so their loose ties wouldn't drag in the mud. I took off my boots and took a bag into the kitchen, hoping to make quick work of the groceries so I could get back to my writing. When I came back for the rest of the stuff on the stairs, I remember slipping, grabbing for the newel post, and screaming.

I recall John's rushing me to the emergency room, and then being put on a rolling bed, which an orderly pushed into one room for a CAT scan of my head and then another for an X-ray of my hip. Careening along halls and around corners was so dizzying I threw up my lunch. Someone gave me a pill to put under my tongue, but I couldn't remember how to do it.

I heard John lamenting, "Panthea needed this like a hole in her head," and a woman, the ER doctor, replying, "She has a hole in her head." Numbing needles hurt but kept me from screaming when a needle threaded in and out, across my skull. The doctor said I had no internal bleeding and no broken bones, just a big cut and a bad concussion. "We were lucky," John said.

When he got me home, I went to bed and stayed there. I did not feel lucky. I wanted to hear no news, see no television, hear no talk. I just wanted to sleep, grateful for John's concern—and our cat's, who hopped up by my pillow to watch over me.

The next day I did a few mechanical chores—there were bloody shirts and jackets, towels, sheets, and pillowcases to be washed. I paid some bills, but I found myself adding when I should have been subtracting. I didn't want to cook, so John fed us fresh Jersey corn and tomatoes and takeout eggplant parmesan. Nights were torturous: I couldn't lie on my left side because my left buttock, bruised purplish-black, hurt. I couldn't lie on my right side, where the stitches pulled my scalp into what felt like a miniature mountain range, because my head hurt even more. When I turned over in search of a comfortable position, I felt I'd keep rolling until my head hit the floor. I was scared.

I could not remember words or phone numbers or dates. I could not think about abstract issues. I read a story or two but could not face news from Iraq. I did not want to talk, especially on the phone. I was afraid I might tumble forward going down stairs or tip over backward going up them. I did not exercise. I did not stand up straight.

In short, I was old. I had blown my mind. For a retired professor of English, this was hard to accept. I needed to work on my book, a biography of Tillie Olsen, the American feminist writer who died this New Year's Day, but I was too dimwitted to do anything more complicated than cutting and pasting bits of information from her life into chronological order. I couldn't remember words like depreciated or concatenation. Olsen had written about farm workers in a California valley in the 1930s, but all I could think of was "silicone valley" (yes, spelled wrong).

Back in the ER, waiting to have the stitches removed, I heard chatter that got my attention. Everyone was talking about a handsome local ophthalmologist in his 50s who line-skated in the afternoons. Flying along quiet neighborhood streets without a helmet, he had seemed invincible, until he broke a wheel, hit his head on the pavement and died.

I was lucky after all.

The mountain range on my scalp finally settled down to a craggy scab. I could bear to brush my hair there, gingerly, though I have yet to give it a hard combing.

One warm afternoon, while tackling the weeds in front of our house, I recalled the "hole in her head" discussion in the ER. Then my still-addled brain came up with the first words of this essay. I left the weeds behind and hurried upstairs (holding the banister) to begin writing this article.

I finally had the presence of mind to examine the scene of my accident. It looked as if, hurrying, I had stepped on the newspaper or a loose wet tie on my pant leg and slid onto the tiny apex of the top triangular turning step. Reaching for the newel post, I had flung myself down and around. (Only a forensic physician could figure out how I bounced both on my left hip and the right side of the back of my skull.)

One evening I began exercising, stretching myself over an inflated support ball on the floor of my study. When I tried to get up, I was so dizzy I fell, hitting the other side of my head on the corner of a bookcase. I crawled to the doorway and found our cat Maggie there, looking as worried as a cat can.

The next day was Sept. 9, and I was sent to an ear doctor. When I filled out the sign-in form, I wrote the date as Aug. 6. Apparently I had lapsed back into dimwittedness. This otolaryngologist looked into my eyes and actually saw dizziness—or rather, after he twisted my head, he could see my eyes darting about trying to situate me. He explained that little crystals in my inner ear had gotten so dislocated by the concussion and the second fall that my inside antennae could not tell up from down, stop from go.

To repair my postconcussive vertigo (called "benign paroxysmal positional vertigo"), he turned my head one way while a nurse helped me roll over, sit up, and lie down, like a good puppy. (Her strong hands and hefty size calmed my fear of rolling off the table.) This procedure maneuvered the crystals back into the utricle of my ear. Afterward I had to keep my head up for a miserable 48 hours (sleeping on many pillows), but it was worth it, for this awkward process helped stop dizziness and reclaim language. I began putting together paragraphs about Tillie Olsen's life. I remembered Imperial Valley. I compared the 1930s and the 1970s. I learned to say otolaryngologist, and I kept revising this article.

I'm a bit older than the baby boomers, but for too long I shared their notion of imperviousness. People in their 60s, like me, should know not to line-skate or ride horses or bikes—much less motorcycles—without helmets, run down stairs, or leave strings untied on shoes or pants. We'll get old soon enough.

When I get up the energy, I'm going to sew the leg ties on each of my three pairs of cargo pants into steadfast bows, as precise as the ones on those seaweed rolls.

I'm grateful that writing this matter-of-fact account of a near-catastrophe has helped heal the hole in my head. I hope I've retrieved enough brain power to invent metaphors and finish my biography. Maybe after another three decades I won't object if a waiter thinks I'm too old to drink a glass of wine.