April 9, 2011
I saw a BBC drama yesterday called Recovery starring David Tennant (Dr. Who) who receives a personality-changing head injury that affects the lives of everyone around him. This portrayal, originally aired in 2007, was so similar to what happened to my father in 1979, that it felt as if it had been written by my mother.
My father was plowed into by a driver heading to our town to face dangerous driving charges. How about that for irony? It was the first snowy day in November and she skidded off the road only to drive straight into Dad’s lane upon correcting herself.
What happened in the TV dramatization was like reading a diary. It was like reliving those days at the end of '79.
The doctors saved my father's life but they didn’t save my “father”. After a coma that lasted three weeks, he was better and recovering but he had lost his “Raymond-ness". Dad was a librarian for a huge swath of northern Ontario. He was an active member of our small town’s cultural community. He was well-liked. People thought he was funny; his British sense of humour won over many.
But people thirty-years ago didn’t understand head-injuries very well. They didn’t “get” what had happened to Dad. There was no psychiatrist in our small town of 5,000; no therapist that could be objective. Despite the smallness of the community I grew up in, people seemed to forget that Dad had been injured. Six months later they expected him to be normal again and couldn’t understand when he didn’t recognize them on the street.
In the dramatization, when Tennant’s character Alan comes home he appears to be fit, but things don’t fall into place for him. He doesn’t understand how to unlock the car. He sets fire to the kitchen because he can’t remember how to use the toaster. Sentimental songs have no meaning for him any longer. He acts inappropriately and his sense of decorum is shot. He's suddenly furiously angry and doesn't understand how this affects those around him.
My father was unable to drive. He set fire to the lawn and had no idea how to put it out. Simple tasks like changing a light-bulb were beyond him from then on. People were backing off of committees he was on because of his sudden temper. He couldn't add much to a conversation. Jokes and puns were strange and esoteric. What he did want to talk about, and he did incessantly, were reminiscences of his life in England shortly World War II.
The thing that affected me most in the movie was the teenage boy. He was exactly the same age as I was when my dad was involved in the accident. Like me, he had enrolled in post-secondary education and couldn’t wait to get out of the tinder-box of tension at home. He was charged with looking after his Dad when his mother wasn’t at home. It's tough situation going from child to care-giver when you’re that age. It’s your Dad for heaven’s sake, he’s supposed to look after you.
Like Alan in the movie, my father could never make any attempt to help himself because he never understood he was different, despite trips to doctors, neurologists and worker’s compensation boards. Alan starts back to work to find that he can’t cope. My dad managed to work for another 4 years with others propping him up until he was given the golden handshake.
Alan’s wife Tricia, played by Sarah Parish, sounded just like my broken-record of a mother. My mother’s incessant cries of “It’s like I’ve been widowed already”, “I didn’t want a third child”, “The man I know is gone” were echoed throughout the film. He was a different, strange Raymond. They never shared a bed again.
Dad wasn’t the most emotional of men to begin with but we were left with someone who didn’t care. If someone was sick, or a long-discarded friend had died or if we had personal trouble, he didn’t flinch. When my mother fell down the stairs he barely looked up from his crossword. Alan in the film left us with the hope that he would try to be a better husband. That didn’t happen in our family. To carry on with this depressing theme, my house was filled with another thirty years of acrimony, cold-shoulders, dinner time arguments. My mother was the worst of all possible "nurses". She never gave up the notion that Dad was doing this to her deliberately.
If anything positive can come of this, I was thrilled to see that my story is out there being told so accurately by others and that I wasn't the only one who had suffered the effects of a brain-damaged relative.