A second lesson is the reminder that stuff happens, and it happens all the time to young, healthy people who are minding their own business, getting exercise, avoiding cigarettes -- the whole shebang. And yet any day we can be hit by life's versions of "gotcha" -- cancer, MS, ALS, diabetes. A car can run us over. Our plane can go down. We can pick up a nasty flesh-eating virus in a hospital and lose our leg. Gotcha.
And yet Garrison tells us that her injury was really a "great gift. I say that because I didn't recognize all the blessings I had before my stroke. Back then, I was only looking at the obvious blessings: home, family, and job. Now I know, as I neve r knew before, what a gift from God it is to sit up, to walk, to eat, to drive, to have family time, to be independent, and to share this life with someone who, you know with absolute certainty, truly loves you." Although that sounds right on the edge of chicken soup-book territory, Garrison doesn't offer up her little speech until the final chapter of the book, long after we've grown to love this earthy, unsentimental woman.
You just know that Garrison was probably a royal pain in the ass well before her stroke; hard-headed, fervent, opinionated, strong.
So readers can bring this book to the beach and laugh out loud at the slapstick scenes -- the poor manicurist who tries to paint the nails on her curled hand, and ends up fleeing as polish smears all over. The time when she slips on ice and falls under the car. The time she decides to make Mary Chung's spicy noodles. She decides that choosing to make this elaborate recipe is indisputable evidence of brain damage, aft er all. Well, it's funny in the book.
There are also moments showing Garrison's incredible sensitivity, such as the connection she develops with a woman in the rehab hospital who howls uncontrollably day and night. At first, the howling drives Garrison nuts, but then she asks to meet with the woman face to face. Although the other woman can't respond, Garrison talks to her for a long time.
"Her eyes seem to speak to you, even though her mouth can't. She is listening very closely. You can see it in her eyes. You think you can see her soul in her eyes, too. There is no way you can judge her again," Garrison writes.
Although the very end of the book slips too easily into the saccharine, almost as if Garrison just got tired of being the strong one all the time, it mostly sidesteps the treacle. What we do get are useful life lessons: Make no assumptions about that lady in the wheelchair. Speak up if you need something. Challenge authority. Oh, and never turn down a chance to drink champagne.
Debra Bruno is an editor in Washington, D.C.