Absolute Beginners, With So Much at Stake

A terrifying illness reminded William Bradley that the work academics have done for decades can be tremendously difficult for students just starting out.

June 2, 2017
 
iStock/Jayesh
 

I spent last year’s Halloween weekend struggling with a writing project, as I imagine many people who work or study at colleges and universities all over the world did. Specifically, my struggle was centered on my attempt to find a specific turn of phrase that kept eluding me. Saturday morning, I found myself at the computer, typing an essay that involved superheroes, art and American politics in the 21st century, and I suddenly froze. My fingers stopped moving across the keyboard as something that felt like a traffic jam occurred in my head. The words, to put it simply, weren’t moving.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. Oh, I often decided to rewrite or eliminate words or sentences as I was writing them -- entire paragraphs during the revision process -- but I had never found myself, well, linguistically impotent. I knew the next sentence was in my brain, but it was somehow not moving forward to the part of my brain that would push it into the nerves that would move my fingers along the keyboard.

I could feel my heart speed up, signaling the beginning of a panic attack, and I found myself standing up suddenly and beginning to pace. I think I rubbed my temples as I tried to encourage myself to calm down. Surely this wasn’t such a big deal. I reminded myself that there had been quite a bit of wine the night before. That I was a middle-aged man. That it was simply what some people described as writer’s block, a phenomenon I’d never really experienced. I eventually relaxed, then decided to take the rest of the day off.

Sunday, I found myself back on the computer, working on the same project. I’d written about 400 more words, having mostly forgotten about the concern of the day before. And then, suddenly, it hit me: “Oh, that expression I’d wanted to include!” It struck me as a good one, something clever that I wanted to be sure to plug into the essay. So I moved back a couple of paragraphs and placed my hands on the keyboard.

But then … nothing.

Without any trace of a hangover, I found myself less panicked and more curious about what was going on. I closed my eyes, thought of several words, but then realized none of them were quite what I’d thought I had. Eventually, I simply shrugged, gave up and went back to working.

The phrase came back into my head while I worked on campus Tuesday afternoon. Or so I thought it had. When I went to write it down, I couldn’t. I did find myself writing several words that I would find again months later, when I was able to return to work. But when I looked back down at them after I’d stopped writing, they seemed like gibberish. I was a bit confused by what was going on but not exactly concerned yet.

That night, my wife and I sat on our front porch. It was an unusually warm November night in Ohio, and we thought we’d relax outside and talk about the day before we had dinner. I mentioned that I’d had trouble coming up with this particular turn of phrase and was feeling kind of silly about it, then asked her if she would help me. She said she was game. Our memories of what happened next are quite different.

I remember that I started to describe the phrase I wanted: “It’s like when a person …” And I remember her looking perplexed as she turned her head and leaned toward me. I knew that I wasn’t explaining myself well.

What she remembers was that I immediately started a barrage of words that in no way connected to each other. She thought, at first, I was playing some type of elaborate joke -- that maybe eventually I was going to make fun of something. But I just kept saying things, linking these words that in fact had no connection. And she remembers asking me, “Are you messing with me?” and my reply, “Why would he be messing with you?”

We both remember her calmly saying, “I think we need to go to the hospital. You’re scaring me.”

And then she remembers the seizure that caused me to fall off the porch, then sitting beside me while frantically calling 911 for an ambulance.

Starting All Over

My brain slowly began to heal after the neurosurgeon removed the tiny nodule that was growing against its left side. My parents flew to Ohio to be with us, and I woke up remembering who they were, and who my wife is, and very little else. Our friends Traci and Paul came to visit -- I later referred to them honestly thinking that their names were “Trapeze and Boobs.” Or so I’m told. Another friend, Brent, came to visit us, and I remember telling him, “You’re the lawyer,” which was true but, again, not his name, obviously.

For the most part, my wife says I was pretty calm, even funny, except for when I cried when I realized I couldn’t remember her name. The doctors spoke to her about what they had found, what the long-term prognosis was, and what would come next. Tests, radiation, chemotherapy, perhaps more surgery. But the good news was that most of them seemed pretty optimistic. As it turned out, the seizure -- terrifying as it was at the time -- was actually a good development, bringing my doctors’ attention to a very small cancer before it was fatal. I might have lived for months, maybe even years, with this malignancy growing inside me without any warnings or symptoms. And then I would have died.

Yes, any way you think about it, I was quite lucky. But that’s not to say I felt particularly lucky at the time. I had these Frankenstein’s monster-esque staples in my partially shaved head (and I had been so pleased about reaching middle age with such an awesome head of hair!). I was very, very tired. My wife had to help me bathe. I lacked the attention span to read anything significant or follow even the simplest of television shows. I even had trouble writing coherent tweets and Facebook status updates.

Most of these things got better as I recovered from the surgery and began to receive radiation treatment in my head. Writing still remained hard, though. In the past, I had taken a certain amount of pride in being a relatively quick writer, usually able to finish at least a first draft of any given project in one sitting, regardless of length. In the month of December, I wrote a very, very short essay -- about how much I appreciate and love my wife -- over the course of a couple weeks.

But otherwise, I found I really couldn’t do it. It was difficult. I would sit in front of the computer, and every sentence was like that sentence I couldn’t come up with the weekend before my seizure. And even when I got something typed up, when I looked up the computer screen I was frequently surprised to find grammatical errors and dull prose in front of me. “That wasn’t what I meant at all,” I would think as I deleted what my fingers had belched out from my damaged mind.

I announced to my wife that I was going to retire from essay writing. I’d published a book and appeared in most of the magazines and journals I liked, I figured. I could do something else for a living, then come home and live a quiet, normal life. “I just want to be with you and the cats,” I told her. “That’s all I care about.”

My wife does love me -- I’ve never doubted it, and I’ve been especially certain of it as I have continued to get healthy and she has been endlessly patient. She loves the cats, too. You should hear this woman talk to them when she doesn’t think any other human being can hear her. But the truth is, she does want more out of life then just coming home from work and sitting on the couch with her husband and cats. What’s more, she knew me well enough to know I needed more than just love and cats, too.

My wife and I met in graduate school, working on our Ph.D.s in English. We have taught both on and off the tenure track at quite a few institutions over the years. We have both, occasionally, found ourselves frustrated with our jobs. We have struggled to help students who were struggling themselves. We have both experienced how difficult it can be to work with students who have become frustrated to the point of giving up.

That is to say, we have both known how challenging it can be to work with someone like me.

Granted, the students we have worked with didn’t necessarily have seizures or brain surgery or lesions or cancer. (Although maybe some of them have; none of us really know what our students have gone through or struggled with, after all.) Still, they know what many of us who teach or counsel them often forget: writing is hard. Making sense of literature is hard. Doing the real work that a college education demands is hard.

Education involves skills that require a great deal of training from a teacher who is devoted and peers who are encouraging. As patient as we try to remind ourselves to be, it’s far too easy to forget that this work that many of us have been doing for decades can be tremendously difficult for those who are just starting out.

As I said, I’m quite fortunate. Not only because I can realistically hope to live for a long time, but because my wife was so patient and dedicated to my recovery. After a day of talking about literary theory, King Lear, logical fallacies, John Dewey and Virginia Woolf with her students, she would come home to recommend short stories, poems and -- most important, in my case -- personal essays she had recently read and thought I should read. Or she’d simply play Scrabble to help me recover the language that was still in my head, just harder to retrieve. And gradually, I began to relearn what I had once known. At this point, six months after the seizure that started all of this, I have nearly reacquired the skills that I used to take for granted.

I have known for a good 15 years that my wife is a dedicated and talented teacher, but I didn’t really know -- or hadn’t remembered -- how important such a teacher is until I needed one again myself. As I finish my recovery and continue my own career working with students, I hope I always remember to put this lesson to good use.

Bio

William Bradley is the interim writing center coordinator at Heidelberg University. He is married to Emily Ruth Isaacson, an associate professor of English and associate dean of the honors program at Heidelberg University as well as the president of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Their cats pretty much just sit on the couch.

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