My relationship to music and rhythm has altered over the past few weeks. One of the bizarre and unaccountable effects of the stroke was that I appeared to lose my musical ear. My Dad is a musician; I grew up playing several instruments, and, in one way or another, music has always played a significant role in my life. Like many people, there is often a song in my head, and when I’m pottering about on my own, I like to whistle or hum it. A week or so after having the stroke, I was in the hospital shower and tried to sing. I was distressed to discover that I couldn’t find a melody and that all that came out of my mouth were tuneless ramblings. I tried to put this problem to the back of my mind: there were more pressing issues to deal with, and an acute ward is no place for singing practice. However, on my first weekend home, I put on Ella Fitzgerald, tried joining in with “The Frim Fram Sauce” and found that I couldn’t sing a note. I also noticed a few other odd sensory effects, which I suppose may have been related to this phenomenon: I often had a ringing or whooshing in my ears and perhaps because of this, I did not really enjoy listening to music at all. Also, my sense of smell was heightened to a most peculiar degree and odours that I would usually have found pleasant to encounter became almost unbearable. Now, I have not read any research about this, but I am assuming that the monkeys at the controls in my head had become somehow confused. Perhaps there was some injury to the sensory, as well as the motor part of my brain, or perhaps the monkeys were too distracted rewiring my leg and arm to pay any attention to my olfactory or musical abilities.
But, unlike re-learning my motor skills, it appears that the monkeys don’t actually have to teach me to smell or sing again. As time has gone on, these sensory anomalies seem to have simply faded away. The bad smells and weird sounds have disappeared; I’ve begun enjoying listening to music again, and I can now sing along to Stevie Wonder or whistle the theme from the Hebrides Overture with no problem at all. Happy day! Yet while my melodic faculties appear to be intact, the same cannot be said of my physical timing. I aint got rhythm.
My gait is irregular and fitful. It has taken me a while to get used to the new brace and stick, and for a good few days after their introduction, my steps with these assistive technologies remained lolloping and camel-like . Once I’d got used to them, I progressed to a kind of ungainly waltz, the stick leading the way on the first beat in the bar. This week’s great achievement is that, after hours of grueling strengthening work on my hip and upper leg, I can now manage to move forward without dragging my left foot. At their best, and for around a hundred metres, the stick and the legs now work together in neater and comparatively natural 2/4 time. So there is some progress here. But, despite many dextrous advances, the gross movement in the left arm remains worryingly uncoordinated. In an effort to correct it, I’ve joined the Astley’s upper body exercise class. It really has taken a great deal for me to do this: I’ve never been to an exercise class in my life and despite the public silliness you see displayed here on a regular basis, I am in reality a rather private person. Throwing shapes in company is not really my idea of fun. Added to which is the problem that, at the moment, my left arm has diminished function, very little strength, and an unfortunate mind of its own. Sometimes it wants to join in with whatever the right arm is doing; other times it just refuses to play at all. Anyway, to be frank about it, I’ve been too ashamed of my left arm’s erratic behaviour to go to this class, despite the encouragement of my therapists and my pals on the ward. But I gathered my resolve and went along for the first time on Thursday morning. It was pretty horrendous. This was not because of the atmosphere: the physios are uniformly brilliant and the usual gym banter is enhanced by the presence of the blokes from ward 1, who are always good for a laugh. The class was so difficult because, however hard I try, I just can’t move my arm in time. As the class is conducted to the sounds of jangly 70s disco, a basic sense of bodily rhythm is pretty much essential.
While everyone else was “mowing the lawn” and “doing the crawl” to the beat of Ra Ra Rasputin, I was flailing about in a manner that was unpredictable and woefully out of time. So I did not enjoy the class at all but however unpleasant I found the experience, I also knew that no one was judging me for not being able to dance like a diva, and that the only way the arm was ever going to regain rhythmic function again was through practice. So I’ve put my feelings of ignominy to one side. I returned to the class on Friday and shall continue to attend this week in the hope that, with the assistance of Bony M, bilateral rhythm will at some point return.
In other news
1. The highlight of my day is opening the post. This generally turns up at lunchtime, and is a far more welcome arrival than the food. I love to read your cards and letters and it cheers me immensely to look at the jolly display they make on my institutional pinboard and shelves. At some point I will say more about the profound effect your correspondence has had on me, but for now, a giant THANKYOU to you all.
2. The grey complexion of institutional daily life has been made immeasurably rosier by two members of ward staff who fully understand my fondness for tea. These women refer to me as the Tea Jenny (a fine Scots moniker) and humour me with the regular provision of a full pot instead of a meagre beaker. If you’ve spent any time in hospital, you will know that there is never enough tea, and that some members of staff (whose approach to ward culture and protocol can be worryingly similar to that of Kim Jong-Il) assert their power by restricting the consumption of tea within strict measurements and guidelines. Is it coincidence that my kind tea givers also happen to be knitters? I think not.
3. Last night, I watched a film that really annoyed me. Though I did not enjoy the film, the annoyance I felt while watching it was strangely reconfirming and really made me feel like me again. Hurrah! I’ll try and write another post about this if my hand holds out today.