How am I? Well, after a brief hospital stay, I spent the last three months learning how to read again. While I’ve learned an awful lot about myself during the process of regaining my own literacy, it’s living in a pandemic for the last month and a half that has shown me the danger of others’ illiteracy.
On the afternoon of February 4th, I had a hemorrhagic stroke. It wasn’t massive or anything – I didn’t even realize what was wrong until the next day when an urgent care doc informed me he’d just called an ambulance because there was a “brain bleed” on my CT scan.
You might be curious as to how a person could miss the fact that they’d had a stroke. The only physical symptom I suffered initially was a piercing headache. In the hours afterward nothing else seemed wrong . . . until I noticed I couldn’t read.
As I explained to my friend who drove me to urgent care – I could see just fine; I just couldn’t read. To be more specific: I couldn’t distinguish letters, recognize words, or make sense of sentences at all. I was unable to decode any symbolic language via sight. Even the illustrations of a cactus and a feather the nurses used to test me each morning in the hospital bewildered me. I knew what they were (“it’s in the desert and prickly”), but I couldn’t for the life of me call up the words to name them.
Half my life had been devoted to teaching literature and writing and now I was illiterate.
Truth be told, I can’t remember ever learning how to read. In my mind, I had always known how. Now I had to start over from scratch.
The process was both frustrating and fascinating. I improved quickly, but the progress was often imperceptible. It wasn’t like I went to bed reading at a first-grade level and woke up the next morning in high school. Mostly I would find myself able to do something each day that I hadn’t been able to do the day before. Sometimes friends or family would notice it before I did (“Hey, did you just read that sign?”).
At first, I felt isolated and alone. I couldn’t send an email or read social media. I couldn’t read a text. I didn’t even know that people were trying to contact me. But friends, family, and colleagues got me through. In addition to sending food, flowers, and cards, they made audio recordings and videos so I could hear and see them. My little nieces sent “Letter of the Day” videos two or three times a week. They were showing me I that I wasn’t alone.
By mid-March I’d made enough progress that my speech therapist told me he thought I only needed one more appointment instead of the four we had scheduled.
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s much more I can help you with,” he confessed to me in his tiny windowless office.
Four days later he called to explain that he would have to cancel our final appointment. He’d been called in to help in the hospital and would be getting special COVID 19 training on that day. Could we postpone the appointment a week?
“Naw, it’s fine,” I said. “I think I’ve got this under control.”
The shelter in place began here in Minnesota about a week later.
Since then I’ve been homebound for weeks, teaching a single class over Zoom (yes, I went back to teaching with the help of my department chair just two days after getting out of the hospital), engaging in speculative food preparation, dropping seeds onto the ground all over my yard in hopes of a future harvest, patching fences with wood some previous homeowner stashed in the garage rafters, and yes – reading as much as my recovering brain will let me.
I’ve had the security of friends, family, and home to protect me, but out in the world it’s a little more complicated. Out there all bets are off. The pandemic would quickly remind me that the reading skills I regained are not the only ones we need.
Since the lockdown the only time I leave the house is to go to the grocery store. I don’t like grocery shopping and I’m not big on crowded spaces so I put it off as long as I can. Eventually, we need eggs, and milk, and a case of diet Sprite like anyone else, so I have to go.
I make a plan to go to the least busy store I can think of at the earliest time I can drag myself out of bed: that’s a Cub Foods in the suburbs. It’s 9 am.
As I make my way through this mid-tier Twin-Cities staple I begin to feel anxious about the time I hit the deli. I can, thank God, read all the signs and packages now, but I can’t read the people. Even worse – they can’t read me.
We regard each other suspiciously. I have no idea what they are thinking about me. We are supposed to stay six feet apart, but I feel like I’m the only one obsessively adhering to this order. I venture aisles out of my way trying to avoid my fellow shoppers. I feel disconnected from them, partially because I’m not allowed near them. I can’t communicate with them, and I feel like I’m acting as if I don’t want to communicate with them.
I’m a black man with a mask on in a grocery store.
I try to signal that I’m not a threat, but I’m not really sure what message they are receiving. I feel like I might inadvertently be telling them I don’t care about them. This depresses me to no end because it couldn’t be further from the truth.
I push my clean-wiped basket up and down the aisles looking for items to cross off of my list – items that have been picked, packed, prepared, shipped, unloaded, unpacked, sorted, and stocked by “essential workers” – which is to say, people whose jobs don’t involve offices or the internet.
In my mind I identify with those workers, but they don’t read me either. I’m just another walking virus vector they need to dodge in order to make it home safely. I try to smile, to tell them thank you and I see you and I’m with you, but then I realize I have this damn mask on so none of them notices.
I’ve spent three months learning how to read again, but how much does it really matter when you yourself are an inscrutable text?
I imagine a brown student sitting in a car in a lot trying to access public wi-fi, an Asian woman standing on a train station platform, a black man jogging through a neighborhood he doesn’t live in. Each wants to be read as a person with a life and a family to return to. Each is dependent on the willingness and ability of others to read them.
The truth is I’m afraid to be misread in a pandemic.
As a person of color in America, reading is a skill I’ve had to master to survive. We have to read people in case they don’t bother to read us – or worse yet, in case they misread. I don’t know exactly how or when I learned it. Sometimes it seems like I’ve always known how.
But maybe this pandemic is showing us we all need to start over from scratch.