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A Ghost in the Machine

Brian Cullman

The stroke I had, at least the after-effects of that stroke, are really kicking my ass.

Sometime in March, I woke up and found the ring finger and little finger on my left hand were numb. And so were the lips on the left side of my mouth. Not painful. Just….sort of numb. Not novocaine numb. Numb, like I’d just swallowed a spoonful of wasabi by mistake.

My wife was in Australia. My son was at university in Scotland. Nothing to do. I mostly shrugged it off.

My doctor is a friend, and I was meeting him for coffee that morning, so i mentioned this. He looked puzzled, then took a teaspoon and tapped my left cheekbone. Then did the same to my right. Did that feel the same? Yes, more or less. He had me touch the tip of my nose with my right hand. Then my left.

“Could be nothing. But let’s find out.”

He set up an MRI for me, then meetings with a neurologist and a cardiologist.

The neurologist was a sturdy, humorless woman who had been having a serious disagreement with her hair. She studied me and performed the same teaspoon routine my doctor had earlier, though she used a yellow #2 pencil.

“It seems you may have had a very small stroke. A micro stroke.”

“Like a micro brewery, but with less beer?” I asked.

She stared at me and shook her head. Not impressed.

“Do you believe in God?”

I didn’t like where this was going.

“Am I about to meet Her?”

“Whatever God you believe in, you should thank them for letting you off this easily. This is not much,” she shrugged. “Pfffft. A blip. Your blood pressure is a little high, but in the normal range. Same as your cholesterol. A little high, but normal. You can speak naturally. Your face isn’t drooping to one side. Can you write your name?”

She handed me a red ballpoint pen that had been chewed on.

“You can write your name. There are no serious aftershocks. You’ll be fine.’

She brushed me off with a wave of her hand. Class dismissed.

The cardiologist I talked to was equally unimpressed. My case just wasn’t very interesting. But he had a kind face and seemed to like his job, so I kept his number handy.

“Call me if you have any questions.”

I did. After a while.

My acupuncturist advised that I stop drinking coffee, at least until the numbness subsided.

Back when I was recording much of the time and lived in the studio, I would drink 8, 9, 10 cups of coffee a day. Not now. But I’m used to starting my day with a large hot cortado, flat white or machiato, if possible served by an attractive young waitress with glasses who has read Denis Johnson and Murakami. And has opinions about them and about caffeine.

So after 87 days without coffee, I called the cardiologist back to ask when the numb sensation would stop. It wasn’t just my fingers and my mouth. The left side of my face feels sunburned, as if it was sunburned from the inside. And my left foot feels cold and leaden and seems to splay out to the left, making me walk even more like a duck than usual. It feels like there’s a ghost in the machine. And the ghost keeps whispering things, messages I don’t understand.

The cardiologist sounded only mildly concerned.

“You’ve had an incident,” he said. “Not a serious one, but it’s shaken you a bit. Whatever happened, there’s been an interruption of your neural pathways. A roadblock. A detour. The flow of information has been disrupted. It’s like there’s a new mailman in your part of town. You live on, what, Grove Street? The old mailman knew you, knew your address. Mail got delivered pretty much on time. This guy….well, he sees Grove Street there on the envelope, but maybe it doesn’t register. He tries Grove Place. Grove Avenue. North Grove Boulevard. He’s trying to get to you, but he’s got the address all muddled. Elmgrove Avenue? Grover Drive? Eventually he’ll figure out the right address, but for now you just have to wait for the mail to arrive.”

And that’s where things are still.

I’m just waiting for the mail.

Brian Cullman is the Journal's West Village Editor.

A recent New York Times article reported on research indicating that successive bouts of Covid are linked to stroke. Read our roundup of the recent Covid news, Ladies Love Outlaws, with a guest appearance by Waylon Jennings.

Brian's Ghost in the Machine Playlist

Comfortably Numb ::: Pink Floyd

Numb ::: Gary Clark, Jr

Feel Flows ::: The Beach Boys

Can’t Find My Way Home ::: Ellen McIlwaine

The Lord Is In This Place ::: Fairport Convention

Everything Is Broken ::: Bob Dylan

Sick Bed Blues ::: Skip James

Dead Souls ::: Joy Division

Please Mr Postman ::: The Beatles