I Can Read!
Reading has always been a huge part of my life. I read for relaxation, entertainment, knowledge or escape. Books have taken me to faraway places or distant times or just explored ideas I would not have otherwise considered. I was the kid under the covers with a book and a flashlight. School reading lists weren’t used just to choose a book from, but were to be completed. I read product labels, medication inserts, and the fine print on travel documents. A life without reading material would be small and desolate. After my stroke, when I suddenly found reading anything at all to be a challenge, I felt lost and locked out.
I grew up in a large family on a farm in rural New Hampshire. Playmates were my brothers and the kids from a neighboring farm; if we took a shortcut through the woods, their farm was only a mile away. I knew a few other kids from weekly Sunday School, but that was about the extent of my social interactions. My mother read to us every night, from books such as “Tom Sawyer” or “Robinson Crusoe.” I was the only girl at that time, and “Little Women” was the only “girls” book I remember her reading. As it turned out, I much preferred the “boys” books anyway. My mother thought that TV was a corrupting influence, so we never had one. I was pretty happy with my life here, and didn’t much look forward to spending time in this thing called school. I was terrified by the thought of a huge (to me) building crammed full of other kids, most of them bigger than me. School was also a bit intimidating because my older brother had struggled with what would now be defined as learning disabilities, and that had created tension in the family. But at age six, first grade was inevitable. The hook my mother used was that I would learn to read! Though she had been a teacher before her marriage, I guess she was too busy with all those kids and farm wife things to teach us to read. So I was somewhat eager to get started. There is a picture of me all ready to get on the bus that first day, wearing a dress with a few too many ruffles and holding a huge bouquet of flowers for the teacher. I guess the flowers were meant to help the teacher like me better, but it never seemed to work. The bigger boys on the bus made fun of me, for the flowers and because my brother was a “r****d.” But I went ahead because I was going to learn to read! I don’t remember much about the day other than waiting for the reading part to begin. It never did. I remember getting home and crying in anger that I had spent a whole day in school and hadn’t learned to read anything!
Four days after my stroke, I was transferred to a rehab hospital for three weeks. The first thing I remember trying to read were some of the many messages on my smartphone. It was hard, and I usually ended up having my husband or daughter read them to me. The words wouldn’t hold still, but I could blame that on the phone moving about and on the words being small. I could read the greeting cards, at least enough to know who they were from. It was hard to read the printed instruction sheets from therapy, but I blamed that on just being tired from all the PT and OT. Not until I went home did I try to pick up a book. My next book club meeting was less than a month away; I had missed the last two and was determined to make it this time, even in my walker or wheelchair. The selection was by an author I do not care for. (I’ll omit her name in case she is your favorite author or your third cousin once removed or something.) I had started a couple of her books years earlier, but had never finished one. There are so many good books out there I no longer waste my time on those I don’t enjoy. So I plugged away at this book, which, by the way, never got better and even the woman who chose it agreed was terrible. After working hard for three days, I was all the way up to page 30! The words on the page fell into holes and I had to visually pull them out. Then there would be a blank spot without words, just indecipherable jumbles. Around the periphery, colored diagonal lines, like lightening, would bounce around. The left side of the page was worse than the right. As I labored away, my reading improved slightly and I managed to finish the damned thing before we met. I was very proud, especially when I discovered that a couple women had given up on it. After a while I started another book that someone told me I should read because it was funny and it might cheer me up. It wasn’t and it didn’t, but at least it was short. For the next months, I managed to finish the book club selections, but not much more. I could no longer claim to be a fast reader, but I was improving.
Just recently I was struck by something: Our next book club meeting is a couple weeks away, and I have not only finished BOTH selections, I have finished two other books as well and working on another! I may even read fast enough to borrow library books again. I feel like shouting from the hilltop “I can read again! Did you hear that? I can READ again.”