67: Singing My Way Through Adversity

67: Singing My Way Through Adversity

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Singing My Way Through Adversity

If music be the food of love, play on.

~William Shakespeare

I first met Shahida Nurullah while recovering from a bad accident where I slipped and fell on treacherous, winter ice in Detroit. I had flown in from sunny Southern California to surprise my hometown friends and my mom. That accident temporarily stopped my life. For six weeks I used a walker; for six more I was on crutches. My jazz singing career was put on hold. Worst of all, I was losing money every day and I was depressed. I had to call and try to save all my upcoming scheduled concerts by sending substitutes. As a self-employed singer who was in perfect health before this accident, I wasn’t prepared for illness and I had no health insurance.

One day, concerned friends told me about Shahida Nurullah and suggested I talk to her about my depression. They said Shahida was a woman who had beat the odds and like me, was a successful, working jazz vocalist. That prompted a telephone call and we’ve been friends ever since. I soon realized that my broken ankle and ultimate bankruptcy were nothing compared to what Shahida Nurullah had gone through.

“I don’t really remember, but I’m told I was hit by a car while crossing the street,” she told me over the phone.

Shahida’s voice was warm, melodic, but tinged with the pain of remembering a traumatic time.

“I awoke in the hospital with no idea what had happened to me. When I first regained my memory, I had problems speaking. I had no idea if I would ever sing again and I said, ‘This just won’t do! I’m a singer, so I have to be able to speak. I have to be able to sing.’ ”

“I know you’re frustrated right now,” she told me empathetically. “Why don’t you come over and visit me?”

The next day I went to visit my new friend. I found it so amazing that after her accident she couldn’t even speak clearly, because now she was very articulate. Shahida put on a pot of tea and invited me out to her yard. She said she was going to feed the birds. I followed her to a small, lush back yard. She had a beautiful, hand-carved, African cane and she walked proudly, but carefully.

“They expect me to be out here at a certain time,” she told me.

I watched as she sprinkled birdseed into her palm, set the big bag of seeds down and then stood motionless in her yard under a lovely shade tree, arms outstretched. A black-capped Chickadee appeared, landed on her open hand, then trustingly fed from her palm. That did it for me. Anyone whom wild animals trusted had to have an open and loving heart. After feeding the birds we settled down on her sunny patio to sip our tea and talk. She continued sharing her miraculous story with me.

“It was a cold, January day in Detroit. I was on my way to my job at Gayle’s Chocolates in Royal Oak, an affluent suburb of Detroit. I was humming a song in my head. You know how we singers do it, girl. We’re always hearing music in our heads. It was 1989, just two years after I had recorded as part of Geri Allen’s Open on All Sides band. Our recording got good reviews. Did you hear it? Do you know Geri? She’s a critically acclaimed pianist from Detroit, but now she lives in New York. Anyway, my career seemed to be climbing a golden staircase to success.”

Shahida reached underneath her small tea table and pulled out a folded paper, handing it to me. I read the review.

The tour de force “I Sang a Bright Green Tear For All Of Us This Year” is stunning, featuring the wonderful vocals of Shahida Nurullah, insistent rhythm, haunting refrains from Allen’s keyboards, and shifting dynamics that are compelling. www.murfie.com.

“I was rushing across Van Dyke and Kerchavel Streets to catch my bus,” she continued. “They say I was struck by a speeding Cadillac. My injuries were extensive. When I finally awoke from a coma, two and a half weeks later, the doctors told me I had a broken arm, leg, knee, and shoulder and a brain injury that affected my speech and memory. Shocked and frightened, the first thought I had was ‘has my voice been affected? Can I still sing?’

“Then I thought about my brother. I became a surrogate parent to him after we lost both our mother and father at a young age. What would happen to him if I didn’t heal? I was his protector.

“It took months of rehab and I still have memory issues. I don’t limp, but my walk is different and I have to use a cane.”

She pointed to an umbrella rack full of artistically designed walking sticks. “I have one for every occasion, even the stage.” She laughed, letting soft, red-painted lips spread across her face like bright sunshine.

“But look what I’ve accomplished. Despite my challenges, I’m working. I’ve released a solo CD and it’s gotten rave reviews. I’m teaching vocals at the University of Windsor and I was nominated for the Kresge Eminent Artist Award in the Performing and Literary Arts. Last year I sang the national anthem at Tiger Stadium and I’m reaching my biggest audience currently, through radio and television ads for Detroit Medical Center. They’re celebrating their brand new Neuroscience Unit in the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. I’m singing the Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There.’ I sing it my way; a jazzy way.”

I sat there with my crutches on the floor near my chair and my foot wrapped knee-high in a blue boot, blatantly reminding me of my own injury.

“You’re blessed.” Shahida saw me staring at my leg. “Your ankle will heal and you will sing your way through this, just like I did. You have the strength of character, the love of your art and the determination to keep going,” she affirmed and took a sip of her tea.

“Like me, you have dreams. We have music. Music is healing. It wasn’t easy, but the DMC Rehabilitation brought me back with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. They gave me back my voice. They gave me back my life. More than twenty-three years later, I still go there for therapy. Brain injury is no joke! But I believe every experience is a blessing, a lesson of life, and helps us grow stronger and wiser. In a few more weeks, you’ll be good as new.”

When I left Shahida’s house I felt stronger, a whole lot more positive and tremendously encouraged. Six weeks later, I was back in shoes and writing a musical play. Shahida Nurullah became one of my stars and guess what? Like everything else Shahida seems to touch, the play became a critically acclaimed event. We sang our way through it.

~Dee Dee McNeil

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