96: Giving Voice to TBI

96: Giving Voice to TBI

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

Giving Voice to TBI

My home is in Heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.

~Billy Graham

Whenever I think of traumatic brain injury, I listen to a recording of my first husband, Dale, singing. Having grown up singing in his father’s Baptist church, Dale’s baritone voice rose above most singers. His voice was powerful, yet also buttery soft. People compared him to Glen Campbell, the reigning crooner of the late 1960s. When I met Dale in a private high-school singing group, everyone knew he was destined for greatness.

I was a vocalist too, in a family of musicians. My grandmother had been a music teacher for forty years. But I had no designs on becoming a star. My soprano voice was nice enough, but I wasn’t much of a soloist. Why would I need to take center stage while a talent like Dale was around? I was content to sing harmonies for songs like the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” or sing backup for Dale’s powerful vocals and solid guitar work.

Besides, my first goal was to date this heartthrob! With a shock of golden hair falling across his eyes, his easy smile lit up my teenage heart. It wasn’t long before we were a couple. We dated, but I was most content when we sang together, whether sharing the stage with the likes of stars like Trini Lopez and Robert McRae or just making nursing home folks happy with our songs.

Being young and in love, we married after high school. But performing music together wasn’t enough to hold our marriage together, even after he got a job as a telephone worker—just like Jimmy Webb’s famous “Wichita Lineman” song. After three rocky years, we parted and went our separate ways.

Life happened and we both remarried. Years passed and I seldom even thought of those heady days when Dale and I thought he’d be a famous singing sensation. But on New Year’s Eve in 1993, I dreamed of my former husband. In the dream he told me, “We should have just been friends, not spouses,” and for me not to worry. “I’ll be all right,” he said. The dream seemed so real that it stuck with me. What did it mean?

Several weeks later, Dale’s mom phoned me. A year or so earlier, she said, Dale had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He’d moved to Nashville Tennessee, to “make it” as a singer, and during a storm, a strong wind had knocked a telephone cable across the road. Dale had the lineman experience, so he attempted to move the cable to the side of the road. But it whipped around, slammed into him and he fell head first onto a concrete slab.

He survived, but barely. He had to relearn all sorts of basic things such as writing and reading. But the most tragic aspect of his TBI was that he lost his ability to sing. The day his mother phoned me, it was to say he’d passed away of an accidental drug interaction, just as he was beginning to put his life—and his music—back together. Dale’s mom sounded heartbroken. “He was just starting to get back the things he’d lost,” she said. “He was starting to remember how to sing again.”

I wasn’t a family member any longer, but I was so overcome, I couldn’t speak. I still admired my ex’s voice and his resolve to “go for it” in the Nashville country music scene. I asked, “When exactly did this happen?”

She paused a moment, and I thought I heard a soft whimper. “New Year’s,” she said. “They found him on New Year’s Day.”

I remembered my dream, and although it could have been coincidental, I believe he was trying to comfort me. My former mother-in-law agreed and asked for my mailing address. “There’s something he would have wanted you to have,” she added before we said goodbye.

For a time, I was angry that traumatic brain injury had cruelly shortened this man’s life. He was too gifted, too dedicated to his art. But then I remembered my grandmother’s major stroke, suffered after she’d retired from teaching music. The stroke took away her ability to speak. Yet when she needed to communicate, she could still sing. The sound of her singing without words spoke volumes about her love for me. Perhaps some good would come out of Dale’s tragedy too.

A few days after Dale’s mom called, a small package arrived. Inside was a professional demo recording Dale had made in Nashville before TBI robbed his voice. I rushed to play it and there was that beautiful soaring baritone, belting out a country song. I sang along and smiled—TBI stole his voice but not his spirit.

~Linda S. Clare

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