Lea Wait, here.
Mystery writers work to perfect the first line of their book or story. Is that sentence intriguing? Does it hint at challenges to come? Is it perhaps … scary?
Well, today I’m writing a very scary first line.
One week ago my husband, artist Bob Thomas, had a stroke.
A roast chicken was in the oven, we were talking and getting dinner, and he dropped the dishes he was taking out of a cabinet. As they shattered on the floor, he turned to me. His mouth was distorted, and he drooled as he said, in amazement and anger, pointing at the broken dishes, “My hand doesn’t work.”
He spent five or six hours at our local emergency room having tests, and then was admitted to an intensive care room where he could be monitored. Fifteen hours later his speech was better, although, normally left-handed, he couldn’t hold anything with his left hand, and he couldn’t eat, because he couldn’t swallow.
Thirty hours after the stroke he had another episode. His speech slurred again. He had another CAT scan.
And we both started to be educated.
His (thankfully, small) stroke had destroyed connections between his brain and both his left hand and the muscles in his mouth and throat. Speech and occupational/hand therapists immediately started to work with him to re-learn those skills; skills that had been automatic hours before. He could hold a spoon as long as he focused on holding the spoon. As soon as someone spoke, or came into the room, or he thought of something else … the spoon fell. He choked when he tried to swallow.
His major worry was that he wouldn’t be able to paint again. How could he hold a paint brush?
Seven days after his stroke, Bob’s now home. He’s determined to regain the functions he lost, and he’s making major strides. Despite dropping his brush several times, he’s even completed a painting he’d been working on before his stroke — completed it well. He’s eating, small bites, in a quiet room, as he focuses on the process of swallowing. His voice is normal.
He’ll be seeing therapists and doctors for a while. But he’ll recover. It may take some time, but, with continuing work, his body will come back to close to what it was before his stroke. We are thankful and hopeful.
Bob and I have both learned a lot in the past week. We’ve learned that we’re ready to tough out what will come. We’ve learned not to take our bodies (or our lives) for granted. And we’ve learned the power of focus.
When Bob didn’t focus on chewing and swallowing he choked. When he didn’t focus on his hand, he dropped things. When he did focus, his body worked – and each time it worked he retrained it to work better the next time.
Which brings me to the third part of the title of this blog — “words.” Because, like our bodies, our words can also be taken for granted. We speak sloppily, using whichever words come first, whether or not they reflect exactly what we want to say. We don’t worry about this because, we assure ourselves, “people know what we mean.”
But the truth is, often they don’t. They don’t hear the nuances behind our thoughts. And those nuances can lead to major misunderstandings. (Think: voters who believe grandiose political promises without specific, credible, plans to turn those promises into realities.)
Those of us who write are guilty of the same thing: we write hurriedly, casually. We excuse incorrect grammar as “too formal.” We use the same words over and over because they’re the easiest, the most common. Not because they best reflect our thoughts.
Editing does for writing what focus is doing for Bob’s body: it retrains us to recognize when our writing is imperfect; when it doesn’t reflect exactly what our brain intended it to do. (It may mean realizing that our thinking is also sloppy.)
This kind of focus takes time. It means not assuming “people will understand.” It means writing precisely what we mean; choosing the perfect word and sentence construction, and, ultimately, putting together tightly written paragraphs, chapters and plots.
If we don’t take the time to convey our thoughts in the best possible way, we are letting our readers, and ourselves, down. We are leaving our brains in the “idle” position.
Focusing is exhausting. But it’s also strengthening. It keeps our minds and skills in peak condition.
Because we need to do our best today. We can’t take for granted that we can put it off until tomorrow.