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Only the Eyes Say Yes
Chapter One: The Explosion
One morning in July 1990, as I was walking through the Paris suburb of Neuilly toward my office, I heard a gigantic explosion. Strangely, no one else seemed to have noticed it. My legs, shaking frantically, somehow managed to carry me as far as the terrace of a nearby bistro, where I tried to communicate with the waiter. After some hesitation, he agreed to pass on my haltingly expressed message: to phone my wife and call an ambulance. I could feel myself losing control of my arms and legs. Then I began to lose all sense of time. Everything around me was becoming blurred. Someone handed me a glass of water. I have no memory of the ambulance, but I do remember Stéphane's arrival at the hospital. And also my shouting that I didn't want to die and ... for God's sake, take out my contact lenses!
Two months in a coma, then a long awakening during which I gradually came to understand the full extent of the damage.
I am absolutely paralyzed. Only my heart continues to beat and my lungs to breathe. The physical sensations?heat, cold, pain?are also very much with me. And my senses?sight, touch, hearing ? are intact.
But as for movement, none. None whatsoever. It is as though my body were encased in cement, except for my head. I am no longer able to lift a finger, even to make the simplest gesture, such as scratching my ear. And though I understand, I cannot speak. I am like a well-preserved mummy, minus the bandages. I have even lostthe newborn's capacity to swallow.
My brain? It functions exactly as before!
In America, this rare condition is called locked-in syndrome. The description is apt enough, with the difference that the walls of this prison have large windows without any bars, through which all the sounds of life can enter. Those felled by locked-in syndrome rarely survive.
Sometimes children close their eyes for a few seconds to try and imagine what it would be like to be blind. To play the game of locked-in syndrome, you would have to learn to have no reaction when someone steps on your toes, learn to see your own clothes catching on fire without being able to do anything about it, watch a truck barreling down on someone you love and be completely incapable of shouting any warning. Having locked-in syndrome also means learning to accept the fact you can't make the slightest gesture of affection, such as running your fingers through your child's hair.
On the positive side, my eyelids seem willing to respond to the only orders I can give them: to blink. And even that takes an incredible effort.
It's not much, but it will have to do.
But do for what?
Can you imagine living, or more precisely, wanting to live, as a quadriplegic, mute and buried alive?
Now, almost ten years after my "accident," I want to tell about my long road back. Now I am able to write these words, after years of only "yes" and "no," like a painter with his palette and brush bringing dabs of color to his canvas. In my case, the canvas is a computer screen, and my paintbrush is the pupil of my eye, picked up by a camera, which scans the alphabet (my palette) for the letters it needs.
I want to describe my long rehabilitation, which has been punctuated by stages of hope and despair, tears of joy and pain, and inchingly slow progress.
I want to show how, if your will is strong enough, it is possible to survive. To go on.
And finally, I want to express all I owe to those who have never stopped thinking of me as a living, sentient human being.
Chapter Two: A Coma Is a Dream
Two months in a coma is a long, gentle hiatus, during which the person experiencing it obviously has no sense of time. Two months of which nothing remains but a memory of many dreams, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, often violent. I was aware that I had received some kind of serious bodily injury, and I sensed that enormous difficulties lay ahead of me.
Everything that had been on my mind before came back to me in a jumbled way: my wife and daughters, my sister, my parents, specific places and concerns of mine at that moment in early summer, our vacation plans, which I knew would have to be postponed.
What struck me was the lack of any logical link among my dreams. I saw myself as a golf-course designer, busily designing a course on the island of Houat off the Brittany coast, an island I know like the proverbial back of my hand. I was also attending a Michael Jackson concert on that same island, but it was being held not on the beach but on the square in front of the church, which was much too small to contain the tens of thousands of spectators who were arriving from all over the country. The island had been invaded and ... paralyzed. Therefore I had to leave it immediately. To my surprise, I did not head directly for the Quiberon Peninsula on the mainland directly across from my island, but to the town of La Rochelle, where I had never set foot in my life! The sea was very rough and the spray was drenching us, and I was wondering why there was no roof on the boat. The night, which was very dark, enabled me to admire the fireworks that followed the concert.
What was actually going on around my bed at that moment?
Had someone hooked up a radio? Were they moving my body?
At the port of La Rochelle, my childhood friend, whose name is also Philippe (a.k.a. Chewchew), was waiting for me. Had he just come into the room where I lay comatose? We boarded the train for Paris and ran into Bruno, another close friend. At that time, was he also sitting at my bedside? They had settled me in the far end of the baggage car; I would be more comfortable there.
Then I turned into a building contractor, constructing a magnificent house in the Basque region, a part of the country close to my heart. I reinforced the mansion walls by spitting copiously on them. Was this a premonition of the subsequent dysfunction of my salivary glands?
Even the design of the house seemed to take my paralysis into account, with wide doorways and the rooms all on one level.... Could it have been that my wife was talking to me at that very moment about house plans?
Another friend, who was doubtless visiting me in the intensive care unit at the time, invited me into his car, and I found myself all tied up with ropes, meanwhile trying to figure out why it was necessary to tie up a paralytic. Then we were at our house in the Bourbonnais region. As I was incapable of climbing the spiral staircase leading up to my room, I was relegated to an outbuilding near the house. A further premonition? Today that same shed has been converted into living quarters.
In July 1990, the World Cup soccer matches were in full swing. What could be more natural than to have Diego Maradona living with us? And I was extremely upset with the Italian team, whom I suspected of having embedded an object in my brain that made it impossible for me to move. Had the Italians just scored a goal on the French team?
Aware of my disability, I haunted hospital emergency rooms, where I met famous soccer players who had also been injured.
Then my sister Pascale appeared. She was going through difficult labor, giving birth to her daughter. My grandmother was giving her an incredible number of injections, each injection reducing the remaining principal of a loan my grandfather had recently made to her husband. That was probably my way of dealing with all the transfusions I was receiving!
Did I ever wake up? Even for an moment? I have the horrible memory of a dull-eyed male taking care of me in a perfunctory manner, the way you might fill up a vase with fresh water to extend the brief life of cut flowers....
Once again I had become a building contractor. First I had a hospital built at the far end of our little street in the suburbs.
It was still too far away, however, so an apartment was built right next to my hospital room. At times it got so hot there I would slip away to share a beer with some friends.
Finally, I was caught up in a nightmare in the Tronçais forest, where I know every single trail and footpath. I fell into one of the many deep mine shafts that are scattered throughout the forest. The sensation of being dragged down into the abyss is one that still haunts me today....
On several occasions I wanted to give up. My wife was always there to talk me out of it. Was this how I translated to my comatose self the fact that she had been at my side throughout this long voyage?
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