Brain cancer: Seeing the world anew

Richard was sprung from the hospital at about one this afternoon. We walked out of the ward, turned the corner and headed down four flights of stairs to the pharmacy, picked up his prescriptions, headed down a hall and then down another flight of stairs and out to the parking garage. He led the way confidently through the rabbit-warren of corridors.

His ability to guide us through the hospital correctly is an example of what’s exciting about the results of this last brain surgery. Navigation was one of the skills that dwindled as the processing power of his right brain faded.

Another endangered skill was fine motor ability (a skill crucial to sculpting), and as you can see in the photo below, that’s back too. He’s cutting his hospital ID band into tiny pieces. His tools? My grandfather’s old penknife and a small pad of motel notepaper, which he drafted as a straightedge and vise. His ability to figure out creative solutions for design problems has clearly returned too…


Watching him relearn the world after a brain re-shaping procedure that seems to have rescued his right brain and its ability to process information is at once comforting and exciting.

What’s most exhilarating though is watching him see again. As we drove out of the parking garage into a sparkling-bright and balmy spring day, I warned Richard that the sunlight might be intense: “You should just close your eyes if they get tired.”

Instead, he drank in everything we passed as if thirsting for it all: the grove of crabapple trees with clouds of pink buds ready to burst into bloom. The black trunks of the old elm trees lining the street and their new seeds, startlingly chartreuse against a Rocky-Mountain-blue sky. The worn red brick of the old hospital buildings, the gray concrete, the tulips thrusting up scarlet buds. The rock pigeons wheeling overhead, the squirrels scampering across new grass, the myriad cars going past…

“Wow!” he said after a few minutes.

“Wow, as in the world is richer and more detailed than before?”

“Yes,” he said.

That’s his beleaguered right temporal lobe coming back online (what’s left of it after last August’s surgery to remove his brain tumors). Before these last two months of repeated right-brain compression crises, I hadn’t grasped how much the right brain–especially the right temporal lobe–is involved in processing visual information. Then Richard’s view of the world shrink as if he was wearing blinders, and I came to realize that as the pressure on his right brain increased, his brain essentially triaged tasks, allocating what functioning it still had to what was critical, and slowing or eliminating everything else.

He never actually lost visual field–we did all sorts of tests to determine that his field of view was intact. But he couldn’t perceive the whole as well as before. Processing each thing he looked at took a while, and when he moved on to something else, the first thing was often lost, so it was difficult put together a complete picture of the world around him.

Now he can.

And it’s a mite overwhelming. After a few minutes of taking in the array of visual details that we all get used to seeing (and ignoring) every day, he shut his eyes and rested. Then he opened them again and gazed around, his face enraptured. 

This evening, when I drove into the parking lot of our motel, he was quiet, looking at this oh-so-familiar place through what amounts to new eyes but is really a newly revived right brain.

“Wow!” he said again.

“It’s all new, isn’t it?” I said.

He nodded.

“Isn’t it wonderful that it’s spring and a new moon, and here you are seeing the world anew?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes it is. I am a very fortunate guy.”

Honestly, I think I’m the fortunate one, watching Richard rediscover this ordinary old world, perceiving it afresh with the processing magic of his revived right brain. It’s all wonderful to him, and some of that rubs off on me.

It’s spring. The moon is new. My love’s brain is working again. No matter what happens tomorrow, I won’t forget today’s gift of wonder.