I have a half smile on my face as I emerge from my car. In three seconds, when I get to my friends’ front door, I’m going to joke about reporting them to the county for not shoveling their sidewalk.
Two seconds later, I’m not smiling. I’m sprawled on my back, head on the ice. It happens so fast that I’m not aware of actually having fallen. I lie there in the Sunday night silence for I’m not sure how long, in deep gratitude that nothing feels broken. Nothing even hurts. I get up and walk inside for dinner, my forgotten joke no longer funny. I don’t know it yet, but I have a concussion.
I wake the next morning, Presidents’ Day, with a headache. I grab a bottle of over-the-counter pain reliever and walk to the kitchen. Minutes later, I notice that the bottle is on the counter, but I can’t remember whether I’ve taken the pills. I call a friend, who suggests taking them again. Another few minutes pass. I wander into the kitchen. Now the bottle is open, but I’m not sure whether I’ve taken the second set. I’ve taken either zero or two or four pills. This is a sign that it’s time to call my doctor.
When I arrive at Dr. Condrell’s office, I sign in. Afterward I peer at the clipboard. It seems I’ve spelled my name wrong. I’ve left the “u” out of Yaqub. I’ve left a space for it, but there’s no letter. I’m used to other people spelling my name wrong, but this is new.
I feel curious rather than concerned. My concussion, it seems, has had a strangely soothing effect on me. It’s not unlike taking a Valium, which I did once before having a root canal. Nothing seems all that . . . pressing. For example, I’m normally within arm’s reach of my cellphone. But now five hours pass before I notice that I’ve left it in the car. Mentally, I feel like roughly the equivalent of someone who has learned addition but is a week away from grasping subtraction. Not like someone who is well paid to edit college application essays (a job for which spelling is required).
Dr. Condrell confirms my concussion, rules out serious damage and sends me home to rest for a week. On the way home, I notice that more than a third of my neighbors haven’t shoveled their sidewalks. Eight houses between my house and my son’s bus stop are unshoveled. This is not okay. In my concussed state, I don’t care about much. But I do care about this.
I will admit that, historically, I am guiltier than the next guy when it comes to shoveling. I usually don’t clear my walk within 24 hours of the end of a snowfall — the law in Montgomery County. Sometimes, I don’t shovel at all. I live at the end of a quiet court, and I’m not located between any kids and their school bus stops. But long before my fall I had noticed a few people cutting through my court on their way to catch public transit. So when last week’s snow fell, I immediately cleared my sidewalk, along with my conscience.
As I pass through the neighborhood, I remark to an unfamiliar neighbor who’s out shoveling that I like his snowman. He replies, “Thanks, but it’s not mine. I live across the street.” Pete is out here shoveling this corner because, he explains, this is a school bus stop, and he’s worried about the kids. This despite the fact that he and his wife don’t have any.
Please, everyone, be more like Pete.
We make such a big deal about sports-related concussions for our kids. I’ve signed countless waivers for my boys’ teams. One son will be playing tackle football next year — with my blessing. I get it. The possibility of forgetting how to spell your own name for a time is a risk you sometimes will take in order to do something heroic — like scoring a touchdown. But it should not be a risk of simply walking through your own neighborhood.
Reshma Yaqub is a Bethesda essayist and writing coach.