My Year Off by Robert McCrum
Robert McCrum was forty-two when he suffered a debilitating stroke which left his left side totally paralysed, his speech impaired, and his sense of self radically altered. He was then editor-in-chief at Faber and Faber.
I liked how he described his brush with death: “I have not lost my respect, of course, but I have lost my fear. I know what it feels like to be carried away, helpless, towards oblivion and finding by great fortune the current slow and swirl towards the bank, leaving me sprawled, quite helpless, on a new shore.” It reminds me of John Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud. Or that 1 Corinthians passage, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
We usually think of a heart attack as fatal but stroke, as not so. He says: “Everyone, for instance, knows about heart attacks, but a ‘brain attack’ or stroke, can wreak just as much havoc, and in many different dimensions. The heart stops in only one way, but the brain has several ways to remind us of human frailty.” Indeed, a fully-functioning brain underpins the flourishing of the mind, and the mind is me.
I can’t believe that at the time he had a stroke, neuroplasticity was yet undiscovered. I don’t know how my hope could have fanned out if all the experts knew then was that the mind was immutable. Immutable essentially meant immobile, among other deficits. Who would have known that my country would have made a consequential contribution to my recovery through the Silver Spring monkeys, despite the controversy surrounding them? It is hard to believe that physiotherapy was seen as akin to water divining and herbal therapy when it is seen as the cornerstone of recovery now.
A lot of time has passed from when he had his stroke up to now, but the insight to human experience remains as universal, stark, and true. Perhaps through the commonality of experience, I sped through this one. A hare kind of read.