On Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 1:55 am, my father Frank’s right hand went numb. At the time, Frank was upstairs alone in bed watching his TV favorite, Seinfeld. It was episode number 16, The Chinese Restaurant.
For better or worse, the Seinfeld series was and is the primary allegorical reference for Frank’s social and personal life. It powers his conversations and defines his dilemmas. Mention annoying dogs to Frank — he’ll recall Seinfeld episode 111, The Engagement — Elaine can’t sleep because of a barking dog. Kramer says he knows someone who can "fix her problem." So does Frank. Mention Crab Bisque or Mexican Chicken Chili — episode 116, The Soup Nazi. “No soup for you,” Frank will say. Tight underwear? episode 33, The Fix Up. "My boys can swim."
As Elaine tried to steal an eggroll, the numbness crept up Frank’s arm. Things garbled. Frank took a deep breath. All the signs of a stroke followed: Numbness in his face, arm and leg; confusion, trouble speaking; loss of balance; trouble seeing. And then like a “favorite moment” episode gone over under sideways down, the Seinfeld series jumped from Frank’s TV screen into the bedroom proper, projecting itself in multiple screenings over the dresser, on the pillows, through the shutters, on the ceiling.
“I saw every Seinfeld episode ever made at once,” Frank told me. All 180 — from Good News, Bad News, to The Puffy Shirt, from Fusilli Jerry to The Finale — even episode number 28, The Alternate Side — Elaine cares for her 66-year-old boyfriend who has a stroke. Now, the stroke was buzzing in Frank’s brain — Seinfeld incarnate — insufficient blood supply. Jerry rents a car. Frank falls to the floor.
In an effort to combat his cerebrovascular accident, Frank attempts to mentally stuff all the projected episodes back into his TV— back in box, back to The Chinese Restaurant. When that doesn’t work he manages to dial 911.
Today, the most pronounced after effect of Frank’s stroke is what neurologists call apraxia of speech. It is a kind of stutter. Frank stops mid-sentence. He knows what he wants to say. He sees a word in his head, but he can’t get the word out of his mouth. It has no voice. His mind, instead, struggles with syllables and plays a game of nonsense Scrabble. Circumlocution and malapropisms are his conversational norm. Comparisons are odorous. Don't get historical. Patience is a virgin.
With apraxia, my Dad went to a senior center performance by Debbie Rentals, had a lunch of Karioke meatballs, met a nurse from Guacamole, visited a neighbor in Parasite Cove and got a hairfuck. In a way, apraxia is the consummate ailment for a Seinfeld disciple —absurdist nihilism. Meanings fail. There’s no objective value. Frank still has a sense of humor and Seinfeld remains his sign post.
Now, he thinks of apraxia as a sitcom writer’s block caused by a thrombosis of ideas — a thought clot episode. It seems as if nothing will come. And then it does. But it’s not what you expect. The cure is in the peripheral arteries. Frank continues to tell stories in the framework of a 1990’s sitcom and the blood finds its way.
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