Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Man In The Mirror -- Terry McKee

Jacob's mother exhaled frustration in a muffled puff; she was fighting a losing battle between reality and her sons denial. Denial was in the lead. "Jacob is nearly ready to go out on his own again," they said; but she was skeptical. This would be the second time she’d have to let go. After raising him twice, (the first time traditionally, the second as an accident victim, from coma back to independence) her instincts screamed "no", fear of him falling again tore at her gut.

Jacob’s brain injury left him snared in a vicious web of what was and is. Different from typical physical injuries, this was a "Catch 22." The better the patient got -- the worse he felt. Jacob’s insight into deficits is not only short lived due to memory loss but disheartening and frustrating, serving only to increase his denial. Caught between strands of truth and amnesia, Jacob’s brain played tricks, allowing for small glimpses of what was while blinding him to what is.

With nearly a year since the accident; everything that could be done was done. His broken neck was fused, there was no paralysis; his shattered legs mended and his sheared mind was healing. Physically rehabilitated, he re-learned everything he needed. Fine and gross motor skills, balance and co-ordination, and the last nine months Jacob spent in cognitive therapy, studying memory strategies, problem solving, reasoning and sequencing. Nearing its end, the therapist proclaimed him ready to deal with the real world. Jacob was ready or not for the second time.

How long would his luck hold out, his mother wondered, how many times can one person survive multiple catastrophes? With two too many car accidents behind him, she thought three strikes and you’re out, the long arm of the law of averages would reach out to take Jacob and next time he mightn’t be strong enough to shake it off. Vulnerability, unpredictability and innocence were stacked against him. With her maternal armor kicked into high gear, it was all she wanted – to protect him from all the world’s ills and himself but it wasn’t her fight to fight.

Her suspicions were further confirmed after this morning’s conversation. Behind Jacob’s steely, divergent eyes, she saw his anger; he was pissed with the world for failing to give him his due. Entitlement flowed through him like a river uncertain of its current; everyone else was responsible for his adversity, which now dictated his path in life. Without permission and culpability, he was subjected to the ebb and flow of its tides.

“Mom, I don’t want to stay here, this state is full of hicks. I want to go back to school in California, because for the first time in my life, I want to study. . .” Jacob’s fist came crashing on the counter, she heard it crack.

“Is your hand all right?”

“Fine, just leave me alone, for once.” Jacob tried to rub the enlarging redness away.

“Honey, you’re saying that because you think that by getting back to California, you’ll return to your old life . . . That will never happen, for Christ’s sake, you’re lucky to be alive. . . When will you realize that? It’s time to face facts, you can’t do the things that you could before, you’ll never be able to take a full load of courses again, you’re going to be in school much longer than originally planned. . . Give yourself a chance; understand that you still need more time to heal. The brain is a complicated organ and no one can tell us exactly when you’ll be fully healed, if ever. . . Did you take your pills this morning?”

Jacob’s emotions seethed just under the surface, like lava boiling inside the volcano.

“No, it’s you who doesn’t understand. . . God damn it! I’m sick of this fricking shit. I’m fed up with all the doctors and professionals, who think they know everything about me, with their useless medications and with therapy, I won’t go anymore. . . Everyday it’s the same excuse, give it time, give it time, I don’t want to give it anymore time. I’m so fucking sick of this crap; no one knows what I’ve been through. I want my life back, I want out from this hell and NOW!”

The self edit top blew, as spit spewed from his mouth, Jacob exploded with all the pent-up frustration that comes from being on the verge of independence. The professionals forewarned of such eruptions.

Moments later, with his emotions quelled, Jacob said, “I think I’ve proven that I can be responsible. And yes, I did take my pills this morning, I take them every fricking morning, I don’t need you to remind me any more . . . When will you get that through your thick skull?”

Jacob stormed out of the kitchen and wobbled up the steps, his gait still awkward and unsteady. Though twice as large, he was a shadow of his former self. ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. . .’ popped into his mother’s head as she watched him climbed the stairs, hanging onto the banister for balance.

She listened as he showered, to the water traveling down the pipes in the wall and thought about his life. The accident happened so quickly, but then don’t they all? Like water running down the drain, his life ebbed from his body until he arrived at the hospital and the tide was turned. Then the rapid climb of his recovery was nothing short of a miracle -- everyone told her. Jacob once told his mother it was because of her he’s still alive, it was her voice that called him back from the gate separating life from death, pleading with him not to enter. He knew she’d be angry if he went through, so he turned back, back to life.

Jacob emerged from his coma changed though, no longer the same boy whose eyes smiled and lips quivered when he lied, instead he was like a toppled tree that survived the storm, he‘s altered but still growing. Slower, more thoughtful, less patient but more compliant, shier but more resolute now, the accident twisted his growth direction to one that Jacob refuses to accommodate.

This uneasy feeling prickled his mother’s nerves, she knew that he couldn’t be with her forever, she wouldn’t be around forever to take care of him but her heart begged to differ. Eventually she’d have to let go to wherever the tide takes him and the fine hairs on her neck refused to lay flat.


Jacob stepped out of the shower and into the vapor, almost as if he stepped out of his body. He felt lost in the fog, like two halves to a whole, both fought for the same space inside him. Torn and incomplete, the bisection left him contrary, nearly negating each other. It was a conflict he couldn’t name, understand and most certainly didn’t like; leaving him feeling disturbed and tired.

As he cleaned the steam away, the other emerged, staring back at him in the mirror. Like a ghost revealing its ubiquitous self to its former owner, Jake stood before Jacob as another persona, his other, better half, watching, waiting, wondering when it would come, exactly when would Jacob realize he was looking at himself, at his new true self, no longer an image of what was but of someone cleansed and entirely whole, not repaired jigsaw pieces of a tattered memory but the recently variegated version that he had become.

”What do you want? Why can’t everyone just leave me the hell alone?” Jacob asked his reflection.

“To remind you who you are.” Jake had waited months and still it didn’t look like it was going to happen, not today at any rate. No matter how he tried, Jake couldn’t get Jacob to comprehend the new reality of him, instead Jacob fervently resisted with his entire heart and soul, wanting only to be what was, before the accident, but would never be again.

“Thanks but I don’t need reminding, I know who I am.”

“So sure are you?”

“Yes, damn it! Now go away, would you?”

“No. Tell me then, why did you lie to your mother about school? You know you hate school and that she’s right. It’s your old life you want, to party and play but remember that’s the spider that caught you.” Creeping further into Jacob’s jungled psyche, Jake searched for lost connections, weaving vines of snapped synapses of yesterday with today’s sprouting neurons, in an attempt to help Jacob to come to terms with who he is, deficits and all. “I would have thought that you’d learn your lesson. . . Your mother hit the nail on its head, too bad she can’t hit you in the same spot. Eventually you’re going to have to face the facts. . . You’re not the same as before, your injuries have made you someone else but obstinacy distorts your vision, so can’t see clearly and you don’t realize it.”

“Fuck you; I don’t need to hear this crap. There’s nothing wrong with me.” Jacob again wipes the mirror clean to better see his goatee; he shaves it off for the third time in three months.


On the train to therapy, Jacob stares out the window with nothing in his mind, it’s kind to him in that regard, some things he forgets very quickly, like a two year old who just had his favorite toy taken away, it’s easily replaced with a new one. Jacob forgot the harsh words with his mother and the mutated reflection of himself. The click-clack rhythm mellows Jacob, rocking him to its continuous motion, keeping his brain empty. The clickety-clack, clickety-clack lulls Jacob to sleep, into a recurring dream that began in his coma.

The sound of brakes applied integrate into his dream, Jacob realizes that the train is coming to a slow, noisy stop at Crystal Creek station; in his vision, he exits with his other fellow passengers. It’s a short walk to the bus stop but it means crossing Providence Blvd, a bustling eight lane artery. Jacob stands at the head of the cross walk, waiting for the light to change.

He hates crossing such a busy road, the whoosh of the speeding cars, the honks of impatience and heavy bass from booming radios thumped in his ears. The sounds emanate from everywhere, he turns his head right, then left, looking for a pause in the river of vehicles. At the height of morning rush hour, there are a few lulls in the onslaught of deafening traffic.

Jacob spies his bus down the street, then looks to the scheduled stop. No one is waiting, anxious that it won’t stop; he presses the button for the light again. When it finally does, he steps cautiously into the cross walk, he wants to run across to catch the bus but fear holds him glued to the ground. He’s stuck a few feet from the curb, unable to move in either direction. A car screams passed, blowing through the red light. Another driver sits on his horn and screams out the window, the shrill is matched by the pulse in his ears.

Sounds swirl around him from all directions, seeping into his brain, crashing and colliding into each other, buses, cars and trucks, engines revving and brakes screeching, confusing and confounding him. Uncertain of when, Jacob knows he should go but something holds him still. Jacob feels as if he can’t move, stuck in a vortex of sound, it winds around him, coiling around his body, starting with his ankles, the cord moves up his torso before finally reaching his head, pulling tighter and tighter on his brain, holding him captive.

The bus pulls up to his stop, he watches several people get off. No one gets on. Jacob waves, in an attempt to get the driver’s attention, hoping he will remember him from yesterday, he doesn’t. Jacob just began taking the bus three mornings ago, why would he. As he watches the bus shut its doors, Jacob cries,” Wait, wait for me.” He wills his legs to move but they’re paralyzed, bound to the pavement in terror.

Another honking car screeches to stop just inches from Jacob. “You stupid ass, what the hell are you doing?” the crazy driver shouts, adding some hand gestures for good measure.

Panic rises in his throat and wet runs down his legs; he must move now or stay permanently where he remains. The choice is before him, so Jacob shuffles clumsily across four lanes of traffic, weighed down by large boulders attached to each ankle and it takes all his strength to drag it across the road. As the bus pulls away from the curb, the driver is so busy looking over his shoulder; he doesn’t see Jacob until it’s too late.

The blood drains from his face, turning him ghostly pale, Jacob sees the bus come head-on into him, striking him down yet picking him up at the same time, in one smooth, painless sweep. Finding a small lip in the grill his fingers hold tight, Jacob is lifted from the street to a place he remembers.

The noise and cars are gone; the bus rides a golden road. Instantly, he feels light, free of the weight that held him down, as if the bus has lifted him to a higher plane, releasing him from the expectation and trepidation. The gate appears at its end; Jacob sees his choice, slightly different from before but nonetheless important. He must cling to this side of the gate with all his might or fall.

He knows now that while the others were trying to help, ultimately it was he who had to take the next step and pick wellness over disability and exchange today for the past, just as he did before. As acceptance replaces fear, a small smile creeps at his lips and a floaty, airy sensation, like he’s flying through the sky on the wing of an airplane surges through him. Jacob looks through the window to see the driver, though he already knows who it is. Jake sits behind the wheel smiling; he mouths ‘I told you so’.


‘Fort Lauderdale, next stop Fort Lauerdale’ comes across the train’s PA system, rousing Jacob from his nap. Disoriented and damp, Jacob realizes he missed his stop. It takes him a few moments to gather his thoughts before he decides to get off.

Once on the platform, he reaches for his cell phone, “Mom, I had a small accident but I’m ok. I missed my stop but no worries; I’ll change when I get to therapy.”

“Jacob, are you all right? Do you want me to come down there? Oh, I just knew something like this would happen!”

“No mom, I’m fine -- and from now on, please call me Jake.”

Photo Credit: Paul Keller at Flickr.

About the Author: Terry resides in south Florida with her husband, two horses, three dogs and several hundred lizards.