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Golf Saved My Life

The Game Cured My Amnesia

August 2012

Waking up from a coma felt no different than waking from a night's sleep. I had no headache or pains, only a faint tingle under one ear, which doctors had carefully sewn back despite no assurance I would look in a mirror, or do anything, ever again. I had been unconscious for 13 days.

I asked the nurses questions, and their answers were gentle and clear. My wife and I had been in a car accident. Barbara was at a different hospital because her physical injuries (15 broken bones) had necessitated an airlift. Though badly banged up, she would survive. And she would soon delight at the news that I had, too.

My son walked into my room. It made perfect sense that Court, our ever-kind and capable only child, should now oversee the selling of the house we hadn't even moved into, and ship our stuff (much of it still in boxes) back to Long Island where we could recover among a network of family and friends. So much for our plan to retire in coastal North Carolina, where Barbara and I had vacationed many times in our long careers as educators. So much for our dream.

The driver who missed the red light and T-boned the driver's side of our car (Barbara's side) was quite shaken and had been inquiring regularly about our conditions. He was a veteran of the Gulf War.

To cheer me up, Court said, "Don't worry, Dad. I've got your golf clubs."

"What are you talking about?" I said.

I didn't know this word or what he was talking about.

"Your body is fine, and you're going to play golf again," Court said. Without being dramatic, Court explained the basics of golf--how it was played and that I was very good at it. Then we talked about baseball and fly-fishing and our relatives, which were all familiar.

My head had slammed into the top of the passenger's side door frame, absorbing the entire force of the accident.

Court arranged a rental house for us near him in Syosset, N.Y. While Barbara recuperated, I read, but the experience wasn't the same. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there were connections and associations I was missing.

I'd always considered myself intelligent. During my career as a social-studies teacher I was department chairman and held other positions in which I felt secure. Now in a group of people, I struggled to follow a conversation. I grew very depressed. Scared to drive because of my inability to make quick decisions, I became housebound. I'd lost my mind, and I knew it.

Court dragged me to the driving range. By this time I'd seen golf on TV and was cognizant of the fact I'd played but had no desire to resume. It was awful: the noise of the ball dispenser and all the people and the confined space of our bay.

The grip felt foreign. I wiggled my pinky out of the interlock grip Court had shown me and into an overlap. Something clicked. This felt right. I swung back and stopped to see my left arm was straight. It seemed it had fallen in place like the action of a gun.

Figuring out the game became my project. To avoid the range, I would walk to the school athletic fields at dawn. Alone, in the great flat space, I shagged balls. Draws, fades, hooks, weight shift; all the causes and effects were fascinating. The ball's flight became the flight of my mind.

I continued my therapy at Transitions of Long Island. With other brain-injury patients I'd play Scrabble, and counselors would amiably challenge us to arguments on any topic. Rebuilding the brain was like rebuilding a muscle, they said. The synapses needed reps to repair themselves.

This therapy was indispensable, yet talking about how my mind was improving paled before the incontrovertible proof I got from the golf ball.

I'm now 81. The accident is 12 years behind us. I regularly drive myself to Indian Island Country Club in Riverhead. Memories of my life in golf--caddieing at Bethpage as a kid, playing on the high school team, the 5-handicap I carried in my 40s--have returned. Although some of my current forgetfulness is surely attributable to aging, deep down I know I'm not the man I would have been. But I reconcile each mental mistake as a bogey. You can't get upset, because they're bound to happen.

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