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One of memory’s slyer tricks is to colour things with a sense of foreboding. When I think of that night in Siena, the details seem prescient. The moon against a clear sky, knots of people on the piazza, the way the bricks stayed warm from the day, my palms pressed against them. They were slick from centuries of wear. Later in July, the city would crowd into the square to watch the Palio. For now, Marco and I drank grocery store wine, his frame lanky in the moonlight. “Something’s on the horizon,” he said, watching the scattered stars, “something big.” Who was I to dispute that?
Our string quartet was in Italy on a summer program, fresh off a performance of Mendelssohn’s op. 44 that evening. Marco and I were graduate students and violinists. When we left the piazza that night, we wandered through a maze of stucco homes in tight alleys. The houses and apartments were stacked in such a way as to easily climb them, which is what we intended to do.
In the following weeks, I’d take interminable walks in the Denver suburb where I grew up, where my parents still lived. I’d contemplate the starkness of my luck – horrific, miraculous. Mostly, I tried to divine this: what was that ominous aura on the piazza and in the rooftops? That night was like many others: the theories proffered, wagers taken, the floral smell of summer air against the Gothic walls. Only days prior, I had gone cliff jumping in the Mediterranean, leaping blindly into a patch of dark water some 30 feet below. Yet somehow, critically, that night was the night.
We scaled the terraced apartments. The tiles were loose, clinking as we navigated between them. We reached a dead end and sat there, dangling our legs, a vertiginous fall to the alley below. Two young girls were smoking by a street lamp. After some time, we turned back.
As we retraced our path along the roofs, Marco noticed an alternate way down. Let’s try this, he said. I nodded – why not? I balanced myself onto a small ledge beneath us. As I prepared to descend to the next level, shifting my legs under the ledge and my weight on my palms, the entire structure gave way. I remember coming away with fists of rubble. I landed several feet below, striking my temple on the next rooftop.
As news of my accident spread in the months to follow, my rumoured exploits became more exotic. Many of my friends were under the impression that I had slipped while mountaineering in the Dolomites. Even the story that I fell off a building is misleading. More accurately, I told them, I fell onto a building.
Where my memory restarts, I’m sitting on a foreign roof. This is what I knew: I was alone, my head hurt, something had just happened. Most of all, I knew that I was no longer with Marco, and I needed to find him. When I saw a neurologist in Rome two weeks later, he told me that my case was textbook: I’d experienced something known as a “lucid interval.” On those somnambulant nights back in Colorado, this is what I most often contemplated: my brain had set a timer when I fell. Two hours. I had two hours to get to safety, two hours of lucidity, before the bleed in my brain became lethal.
This isn’t a story about my injury; nor is it a story about my stay in an Italian hospital, my weeks recovering at home, my relearning to identify left from right, to play the violin again. It’s a story about the brain – not from medical knowledge, but from my observations under duress. Call it my lucid interval.
The first thing I learned was that when you wake up on a strange rooftop with a sharp headache, you might forget where you are, but you won’t forget your best friend’s name. I sat there, dazed, and whispered for Marco into the empty night. I called louder. Marco was the only thing my spinning brain could latch onto. I could sense the precariousness of my situation, even if I didn’t have the words to describe what had happened to me. The instinct to seek help filled me – a clanging urgency. Eventually, I saw his silhouette slink around the corner.
Just as my recollections leading up to the injury are tinged with a sense of omen, this tenuous intermezzo has a quality of purpose. During my recovery, I would lie on the hardwood floor in my bedroom and alternate listening to two pieces of music; the Prokofiev F Minor Sonata, and the Schubert Fantasy for violin and piano. The former seemed to have that quality of inevitability, of doom. The latter had all the subsequent strange lucidity. For months after my fall, this music precipitated a prickling feeling in me, rising in a column up my spine, settling in the jagged pink scar that bisected my head. Schubert’s bubbling piano, the soaring violin above it, seemed to crack me – gently but firmly – like an egg.
Marco guided me down from the apartments gradually. Back on terra firma, I began piecing together what had happened. When Marco asked if I knew where we were, I answered that we weren’t in the United States. While this was, gauging by his response, an alarming answer, it was a useful breadcrumb. “Are we in Italy?” I said, pleased with myself. “Why are we in Italy?” But I would interrupt him before he could answer. By the time we were back to the apartment I shared with four others, I was an expert in my own situation. How embarrassing, I mused, that I had to explain this to the administrators, to my parents. In fact, it was the program director, let’s call him Gregorio, who offered my second bit of lucidity. On the phone, I told him what happened, wondering aloud whether I should go to the hospital.
Gregorio – a perfume dealer turned impresario – struck me as untrustworthy from the first. He was a man given to florid speeches and sweeping hand gestures, commanding an audience in charmingly accented English. In two weeks, he’d be claiming that he insisted I seek medical attention, that he ensured the best care for me that provincial town could offer. The reality was a shared room in a grimy neurosurgery ward and my medical decisions negotiated via Google Translate. And what he actually said was that it would be best if I didn’t go to the hospital. It was probably nothing, and a good night’s rest was the best thing for me. These words sparked something; I felt an odd elation. Triumphantly, I told him no. I’d be going to the ER, after all.
In my mom’s telling, my stubbornness toward authority saved my life. I think what happened was subtler: as the man downplayed my peril, I saw a glimmer of something. It was silver and sharp like a compass needle. As I listened to that man, my brain whispered softly in my ear: Not this way.
After traveling across Siena, checking into the ER (using my high-school Spanish – the front desk didn’t have an English speaker), and waiting under observation, I got up to use the bathroom. I fumbled with the button on my pants; my hands wouldn’t work properly. Marco – loyal companion into the small hours of this adventure – was recruited to do up my fly. It takes a genuine crisis to drain the awkwardness out of such a request.
Back on the hospital bed, my coordination deteriorated, then my speech. It’s difficult to describe my schismatic, kaleidoscopic impressions of this final gallop toward the abyss. My body seemed to secede, piecemeal; I lay there, an arm, an eye, a few toes. None of which bore any relation to the others. I sensed Marco’s frenzied recruitment of medical help, the nurses buzzing around me, a conversation I could almost, almost, understand. The last thing I learned, near the end of my lucid interval, was this: dying isn’t half as philosophical as I might have expected.
I’ve spent so much time leafing through these memories, hoping to unearth some new aspect, some detail I’ve missed. In all probability, this habit only risks fabrication. Reading too much into our histories. The outright falsehoods we sometimes teach ourselves. I don’t think that’s possible for me. As I trace the contours of this experience, I reach dead ends. The first, when I awoke on the rooftop, unburdened of my sense of place and time. The second was in the ER, my world dissolving into its constituent parts. Each of these episodes had emblematic thoughts, simple ideas that reflected and refracted like a house of mirrors. Despite my imperilled brain, maybe because of it, these cul-de-sacs are moments of total fixation. I was left with the people who are most important to me. In the initial instance, it was Marco. Here, it was my parents.
In those final moment, a phone was held up to me. My mom was on the other line, eight time zones away. She chanted into my ear, “We’ll be there right away.” I nodded, my aphasia like a lead sinker on my tongue. Blood was ballooning a cavity between my brain and skull, and within moments I was out cold. This was my brain’s parting gift: a fear you never knew you had.
But in my left ear, I heard my mom. I knew who she was and what she was saying right until I dipped into a place without recollection. Better than that: I knew what she meant as perfectly as if I were the one thinking it. Only then, and again when I woke 24 hours later, my parents miraculously manifested in that Italian ICU, did I realize this about the brain: greater than the fear, greater than the hematoma, was the love that follows you right until the end.
Robert Herbst is a writer and violinist based in Chicago. His work has been published or it forthcoming at Witness, The Offing, HAD, New World Writing, and other publications. He is a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and he enjoys the company of his dog, Reba, who is a very good girl. You can read more fiction at robbieherbst.com.