Memories of early life with brain injury conjure the feelings of unwanted, orphan children making the best of their childhood; swinging awkwardly, unwatched, unguided, yet nonetheless playing on a rusted swing set among the overgrowth of a condemned playground. But time is money, and we all know that cash is king! The memories of old become polished, understandable, and okay as we move through the stages of recovery. I will share one quick memory that made me smile today. At the time, no appreciation or lifting of my anguish occurred. Now, with the payments afforded through months and months or growth and reflection, I know this thirty seconds of memory reaffirmed whatever it is that makes people everything they can be along the spectrum – from cruel, psychopathic, and all the way through the gradient to the act I experienced that seems almost saintly.
Perhaps four-six months post moderate TBI, I was on my own, as usual, tasked with at least making it on my own to routine appointments. I even had a notebook with a decision tree. What decision came next was in writing for my review. I took the Bay Area Rapid Transit BART train system from Richmond, CA, to downtown San Francisco for my twice weekly psychotherapy appointments with my longtime psychiatrist. Being out of work and living in the SF Bay Area on SSDI made money a constant threat to my wellbeing. One impulsive decision and I could not afford groceries – you know the story. Back to the story at hand, I left for my trip into San Francisco and deposited my last 20 dollars, saw it had loaded on my train ticket, and knew it would get me there and back without a hiccup. Except with brain injury there is always a hiccup. Mine came on my return ride home. BART charges the fare according to the length of your trip, and if you do not have adequate funds on your ticket, an agent will prevent you from leaving the station until the issue is resolved. I passed my ticket through the gate and the red alert of “insufficient funds” flashed. Twice. Then a third time as I moved down the gates, assuming the card reader was the problem. When a shoulder of mine was pulled with the force enough to turn my body 180 degrees, I looked into the eyes of a weary station agent at the Richmond, CA BART station; Richmond, and I assume it’s BART station, have seen and heard it all. So, seemed, from the look of this agent that no “story” or promise I had paid earlier when departing would be met with unquestioned trust. I plead my case; I was certain my 20 dollars had been added, and confirmed to be loaded on my ticket that very morning. I do not ride BART alone often, and this is my habit – the machine must be stealing my money. “You have one dollar and forty cents. I need you to load the balance onto your fare before you can leave the station.” My emotional lability teetered between shock, anger, fear, and finally settling on the threat that I was being taken advantage of – again. That was my twenty dollars, please fix this ticket. I have never been more certain before. Please, I grunted, people try to take advantage of others all the time, and I am not having it. “Yes, but I am running your ticket’s history and you never loaded anything on it this morning. It was last used weeks ago, and the balance is just over a dollar. You did not put twenty dollars on this ticket.” My body language and speech must have begun to deteriorate noticeably, as they do when I am cognitively taxed. I knew I was right, and said so again. After the same explanation, I again stated my memory was correct; that twenty dollars had been taken from me. “Do you have any problems?” The agent asked, stepping back and relaxing his tone. “I have a brain injury. Why?” I said loudly and defensively. The agent sighed, knowing this was going to be a difficult time to have to involve the BART police. I wasn’t asking for money, I was asking for my money back. No measurable amount of seconds passed before a lean, late-thirties aged man simply stuck twenty dollars in my hand and walked through the gate without a word. Even more, he did this without even a look back towards us; his action was automatic, thoughtless, part of his being and not a calculation between altruism and a chance to preen his pride. I couldn’t appreciate what a kind gesture this was at the time. I felt my stolen money had been returned by a passenger who decided to end the public bickering at the gates I was blocking. Or perhaps he had the money to give, and not the time to spare intervening and simply paying my six or seven dollars fare.
Today I thought about how this was the first time I was asked if I had a brain “problem” by a stranger. I thought my deficits, if they even amounted to much, were not perceptible. They were clear as the day, but concealed most of all to myself. Second, this stranger who passed through without a break in his stride, understanding I felt owed twenty dollars, not simply the fare, knew without more than seeing and hearing the way I carried myself, interacted, repeated questions and answers, and bore a look of confusion that I poorly powdered with a layer of independence and pride. He knew what a human being is; it is a life exposed to the elements of hate, joy, ecstasy, awe, inspiration, loneliness, wonder, indifference, humor, anger, compassion, and pain of the greatest heights. I wish him the greatest of heights in his journey walking this earth.