Friday, March 25, 2011

The Brain Injury Songbook

Sue’s grandpa was a sheet metal worker, “A heating and air conditioning guy,” she says. He owned Cedar Crest Heating. Grandpa and grandma lived in the big white house next door.

Sue was one of 27 grandchildren. Sometimes grandpa let some grandkids come into the shop and collect the slugs, as he called them, “pieces of sheet metal about the size and shape of nickels,” says Sue. "For some reason we thought this was great fun."

Grandpa retired in the early 1970s. And then he had a stroke. Sue was about age 12. She remembers grandpa walked around with a right leg brace after that. And about all he ever said anymore was "Yeah! Yeah! Oohh, yeah!!!" or “NO!"

Over time his mobility declined and he ended up in a nursing home. But up until then grandma took charge and grandpa followed. She drove him around and made him martinis. She talked at length to grandpa but who knows how much he understood. Sue says it was hard to know what was sinking in with grandpa.

And then one day there was a family birthday. There were a lot of those with 27 grandchildren buzzing around. Everybody sang "Happy Birthday." And grandpa sang along!

Holy crap! Grandpa could sing!

So for subsequent family gatherings, everybody sang old songs like “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.” And grandpa sang along!

A light bulb went off in the idealistic mind of young Sue. If grandpa could still sing, she thought, why not teach him how to sing out his needs and desires to the tunes of popular songs?

What a brilliant idea! A songbook for people with brain injuries! Songs for all occasions!

Maybe grandpa could sing something like:

(To the tune of “Help” by the Beatles)
I need a urinal!
It is very urgent!
I’ve really gotta pee!

Or maybe they could even adapt “Swanee River” for him:

“I want another gin martini
Dry with a twist.
And after that I’ll have another
I wanna get real pissed.”

Hell, my friend Rafferty did something like that. Rafferty was a crusty old Irish guy in a wheelchair. He couldn’t talk either. Well, he could talk but nobody could understand him because he had cerebral palsy so his speech was all mush. So Rafferty had a board with the alphabet on one side and he pointed to letters to spell stuff out. On the flip side were his frequently used sentences. One of them was “Bring me a Southern Comfort Manhattan.”

But I digress. Back to the songbook. After grandpa went to the nursing home, maybe he could have used the songbook to sing out his grievances:

(To the tune of “Stormy Weather”)
"Don’t know why
You pulled my underwear up so high
Got a wedgie."

Or :

(To the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”)
"Nurse, this food taste like rat shit
Boiled in puke.
I wish I had a bomb I’d
Blow this place to Dubuque!"

And grandpa could also have busted people with condescending attitudes down to size, in song:

(To the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”)
“The way you talk down to me
You must think my age is three.

Just because I had a stroke
Doesn’t mean my brain is broke.

I’m not some hick from Oklahoma*
And I’m not in a fucking coma!”

The possibilities were endless! Sue’s idea was a medical breakthrough potentially worthy of a Nobel Prize!

So she let her dad in on her idea but dad gave her a typically adult, buzzkill response, something like, “Oh honey, the memory of old songs and the speech centers are not the same place in the brain,” etc.

Thus, Sue learned a harsh lessons of childhood. “I felt a little bit gypped because remembering how to sing stupid old songs didn't seem like much consolation, you know? Like, who really cares? It wasn’t communication, but the adults kind of hung on it. It was a bit sad to me.”

And the moral of the story is:

The human brain is really fucking weird.

(*Apologies in advance to readers from Oklahoma. I love you, but you have the misfortune of living in the only state that rhymes with coma. If it’s any consolation to you, I also considered using Arizona, Barcelona and even Babylonia. Apologies also to readers from Dubuque for rhyming your fine city with puke.)