By Marcia Muller
Hardcover, 304 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List price: $24.99
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
Coming back was the hardest thing I've ever had to do.
First the speech: trying to make coherent words out of the gibberish that spewed from my lips. Like learning English as a second language, only as if I had no first.
"Mescatal," I said to Phoebe Williams, my speech therapist at the Brandt Neurological Institute; I'd been a patient there since I was shot in the head in early July by an intruder at Pier 24½. Phoebe had asked me what abilities I'd normally lacked before I spent two weeks in a coma.
In spite of the scrambled word, she knew what I meant. "Mus-ical." She accented the first syllable, using a long U slowly, showing me how she moved her mouth and tongue.
"Musicattle." At least the first two syllables were right.
"Mus-i-kit. Mus-i-cat. Mus-i-cal. Musical!"
It was the tenth word I'd finally gotten right in the past half hour. Now I was tired. Who would have thought that simple speech could be so exhausting?
Regaining motion was another effort entirely: flexing my fingers, toes, and feet. Making them strong and able to do my bidding.
"Can't be my sinature! Like a first-graver's."
"You're doing fine, Sharon. Let's work on signing your name a few more times." Jill Hughes, one of my physical therapists, was annoyingly upbeat.
"You ever a sheerleader?" I asked.
I paused and shaped my mouth to make the word come out right. "Cheerleader."
"What's that got to do with – "
I shook my head and picked up the pen that I'd thrown down on the table. "Try sinning again."
Jill's eyes met mine, and we both started to laugh.
And so it went, until the day when my words made sense, but the voice and inflections didn't sound like my own.
"Better today," I told Phoebe after she'd returned from a long weekend. It was a flat statement that didn't reflect the excitement and hope I felt inside.
"Been practick . . . practicing those speech exercises you gave me." I demonstrated shaping words with exaggerated mouth and tongue motions. "Nighttime, maybe three hours." I felt as if a stranger were talking through me.
"You've made a lot of progress. Are you ready to work even harder?"
"Then let's get started. Why don't you read me the lead article in the Chronicle ?"
I picked up that morning's newspaper with fingers that no longer fumbled. " 'Yesterday Presh . . . President Barack Obama . . . unequiv-ocally stated . . .'"
The news, at least for today, was good.
I spent hours toning my long unused muscles until I had control over them.
"Let's turn over on our side," Mark Ito, physical therapist, said. From my position on my back on the padded table I stared up at the ceiling and sighed. My breakfast had been oatmeal, which I'd despised since my childhood when my mother insisted I start every day with it. I'd accidentally looked at the bathroom mirror and seen my nearly bald head. A phone call from Elwood Farmer, my birth father who lived on the Flathead Rez in Montana, had annoyed me: he was doing what I thought of as his mystical Indian shtick today, quoting Shoshone proverbs that didn't have much to do with my current problematical situation. I asked him not to try so hard to be a father at this late date — we'd only discovered each other a few years ago — and instead of taking offense, he'd waxed more eloquent and philosophical. I'd hung up on him. Later I would have to mend fences.
Mark Ito repeated, "Let's turn over on our side now."
"Whose side? Yours or mine?"
"Testy today, aren't we?"
"I am. I don't know about you."
"On our side, please." He motioned but refrained from helping me.
I thumped onto my side, feeling as a walrus must. God, was I gaining weight? That would add the final insult to injury!
"That's good," Mark said. "Now let's raise our right knee. . . . Very good. We're doing fine."
"Maybe you are. This hurts."
"Testiness is a sign of healing."
And then there was the walking: a halting step; an assisted journey down the hospital's corridor, clinging to a railing.
"What's this thing around me, Mark? A harness?"
"So you won't fall. I've got you. Grasp the bar on the wall and stabilize yourself. Then take a step with your right foot."
"Not our right foot?"
"I got your message weeks ago: no PT speak. Step, please."
I stepped, teetered some. Mark pulled on the harness to steady me.
"I feel like a toy poodle being taken for a walk."
"One more step."
I took two. "Betcha I can outrun a toy poodle."
"Try two more."
I took three.
Finally I walked slowly on my own down that same corridor.
"Hey, look at you, Shar!" Mark began applauding. "Hey, everybody," he called to others in the hallway, "look at McCone!"
Two orderlies, a nurse, and a patient in a wheelchair joined in Mark's applause.
"Thank you." I made a slight bow. "I'm stepping out."
As I made my way toward the lobby and the bench outside the front door, where my nurse had frequently wheeled me in my chair, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude for all the Institute staff had done for me.
Eventually there was a day in December when I heard myself talking as I always had, and the two halves of my verbal ability became one.
"I've been thinking, Ripinsky," I said to Hy. We were relaxing in front of the kiva-style fireplace in the sitting room at our Church Street house. Home for good, at last.
"I ought to start putting in appearances at the office, if only for the staff meetings." McCone Investigations had been in the hands of my capable employees for nearly five months now, but I missed the day-to-day involvement. "Things're okay, but they need me."
"I thought you weren't going back till after the first of the year. You don't want to overdo it."
"Dammit, Ripinsky, I'm sick of being an invalid! I want my fuckin' life back!"
He grinned widely, white teeth flashing beneath his bushy dark blond mustache. "I'd say you're well on your way, colorful vocabulary and all."
When the Brandt Institute released me from their therapy program they referred me to a rehab center in the Inner Sunset district. It was quite a distance from my house and the pier, but I went six or seven days a week, and gradually I became more and more the person I used to be.
It would be over six months before the state of California would allow me to operate a motor vehicle: people who have had seizures and brain damage must serve a probationary period after recovery. It would be nearly a year or more before an FAA-certified doctor would sign off on my medical status and even longer until I proved my abilities to their examiners and my pilot's license was restored.
But all of that would happen. With hard work and determination I'd come all the way back.
Others, I knew, were not so fortunate.
Excerpted from Coming Back by Marcia Muller. Copyright 2010 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust. Reprinted by permission from Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc. All rights reserved.