The Shore Dimly Seen
Reflections on the mysterious life of the mind
By Tom Chaffin 95PhD
On a Saturday morning in August 2006, I was lingering in bed, listening to NPR and reaching for my first sip of coffee, when an overwhelming, shaking sensation on a tectonic scale rumbled through my skull and entire body—an experience not unlike being dragged by wild horses down a darkened gravel road. I came to in a hospital, surrounded by equipment and strangers. An attending doctor told me that I’d had a seizure caused by a brain tumor—a benign tumor of a type called meningioma. I was headed for brain surgery.
After the operation, during my first moments of renewed consciousness, I realized I was not the same. The right side of my body was numb. My right leg, arm, fingers, and toes all refused orders, ignoring synaptic cues from my brain. The tumor had been on my brain’s left side, which contains the motor nerves that control the body’s right side. Then a physician approached. “Name for me,” he said, “all the animals you can think of.”
“Dog . . .,” I began. “Cat . . .” I think I managed four. Beyond that, I was in excruciating pain. I was given morphine.
Two days after the operation, according to a notebook my wife, Meta, kept, a speech therapist asked me a series of simple questions. “Do you peel a banana before eating it?” she asked. “After,” I answered. About a week later, Meta tells me I managed my first complete sentence: “I miss . . . my dog.”
Then about a day or so later, while working with a speech therapist, I found that I could recall the first dozen or so lines of a favorite poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”:
“Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.”
I soon discovered that I could repeat—and find solace in—other bits of cherished poetry and song lyrics long committed to memory: shards of Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, and others.
Otherwise, despite the gifted and empathetic medical professional, there wasn’t much progress. My days became an exasperating game of charades. My interior thoughts remained fluid, but the words to express them had vanished into some neurological Bermuda Triangle.
I was in the hospital for a week, stayed in a rehab center for two weeks, and pursued outpatient speech and physical therapy for another two months. After I came home, as I wandered, doped up, through my cloud banks of aphasia, I felt oddly estranged from my past. A phrase I recalled from Jean-Paul Sartre, about foundering on “the reef of solipsism,” haunted me.
I found myself organizing my papers and other worldly possessions into the wee hours of the morning. I devoted all-night sessions to compulsive sorting of books, papers, CDs, and anything else that could be alphabetized. I gathered photos and other souvenirs and ultimately had a friend frame and hang them in my study. They included snapshots of me taken over the years in fondly recalled places—China, the French Alps, Cuba, Gramercy Park, Paris, Walden Pond, South Dakota, and other locales. At the center of the collection, I placed a framed cartoon clipped years ago, in which two men are seated at a bar and one is proposing a Whitmanesque toast: “I celebrate myself.”
Eventually, slowly, I came back. I recovered the use of my body’s right side, as well as my verbal abilities. And the day came when a psychologist asked me again to name as many animals as I could think of. This time—feeling cocky and drawing on years of bird-watching—I tore into a litany of avian species: the Carolina chickadee, the yellow-rumped warbler, the belted kingfisher, and on and on.
I’ve since learned that an ability to repeat memorized passages from poems and the like is a common trait among patients with expressive aphasia, the neurological disorder from which I suffered. Even so, I can’t help thinking of those words and images of my interior life as essential landmarks in finding my way back to the outside world. Those lines that came back to me, when all other words failed, provided me with a geography of hope, like some distant but clearly visible shoreline.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and a longer version appeared in Oxford American magazine’s 2007 Best of the South issue. Tom Chaffin 95PhD, a visiting scholar at Emory, is the author of Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah. His next book, The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, will appear in October.