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Life After A Brain Injury: 'I'm Not Terrified Of Death Anymore'

Tim Page, former music critic for <em>The Washington Post</em>, is rebuilding his life after a traumatic brain injury in July 2015.
Maggie Smith/Courtesy of University of Southern California
Tim Page, former music critic for The Washington Post, is rebuilding his life after a traumatic brain injury in July 2015.

Tim Page is no longer afraid of death. That's the one positive takeaway for him after surviving a traumatic brain injury.

Last year, the University of Southern California music and journalism professor — who was also a child prodigy filmmaker, Pulitzer-winning critic, person with Asperger's and father of three — collapsed at a train station. He woke up in an ambulance speeding to the hospital. He's still recovering, still fumbling a bit with the jigsaw pieces of a life a now a little more puzzling, a little more amazing.

Page, 61, has a new book out, Thomson: The State of Music & Other Writings,which isthe second volume of works he's edited by the American critic and composer Virgil Thomson. Over at NPR Music, we had a long discussion about Thomson, his legacy and the state of classical music criticism in America. I should mention that Page was my mentor while he was classical music critic for The Washington Post. He was unflagging in his support of a greenhorn stringer. For two years, I read my reviews to him over the phone before I filed them. Then there were the "Brewtorials," our meetings at pubs to mark up reviews with red pens.

As you can read in our conversation, Tim has lost none of his generous spirit. This account has been edited for length and clarity.

You recently wrote a harrowing and sometimes humorous account of your continuing recovery from brain surgery you had just 13 months ago. First, may I ask how you are doing?

Well, thank you, and I'm really glad you mentioned that piece because I am quite proud of it. [In July 2015] I was in New London, Conn., waiting for a train to Washington, when all of a sudden I woke up in the back of an ambulance. It was as if I blinked my eyes and I was in another world. And I didn't even remember who I was or anything like that. It was like being just knocked off the face of the Earth.

An acute subdural hematoma, a clot of blood in the tissue surrounding the brain, put pressure on Page's brain. Surgery was required to save his life.
/ Courtesy of Tim Page
Courtesy of Tim Page
An acute subdural hematoma, a clot of blood in the tissue surrounding the brain, put pressure on Page's brain. Surgery was required to save his life.

I had what is called an acute subdural hematoma with transhemispheric tentorial something or other. And it turns out that the kind I had kills outright something like three-quarters of the people who have it. The people who survive manage to, some of them, come back as I did, but it's a tiny amount. And a lot of survivors are permanently disabled. I was fortunate enough that I wasn't seriously damaged intellectually.

I don't happen to be religious at all, but I do believe that if you come so close to death and are fortunate enough to be spared, you have a duty to tell what it was like, especially if you are a writer. So many people have had these things over the centuries and, you know, very few people live to tell.

Well I must say it's a beautiful essay about being dealt a pretty bad hand. I imagine that it was, without sounding too clichéd, cathartic to write it. I'm wondering also if you've heard from others who have suffered a TBI?

Yes, I've had a tremendous response to it. I got a lovely letter from the wife of a gentleman who had a terrible traumatic brain injury. And he couldn't write to me himself, but she wrote a letter telling me that he was grateful. I wouldn't call it cathartic to write; it was a real bitch to write. It was the hardest thing I ever wrote. But I will say it was cathartic to finish it.

Another result of your injury is how you fully embraced Facebook, and how much love you got back from your legions of Facebook friends throughout your ordeal.

It was vastly important. It was a chance for me to keep in touch with people. When people would write me something or send a compliment I could just reach out and press "like," which acknowledged my gratitude. And then, every week or so, I would work hard on a paragraph that told my friends what had happened and what was happening now. I'm addicted to it. But in part because it's really all I can do now without a lot of work. I'm not very good talking on the phone now, at least most of the day.

I think a lot of people feel like Facebook is a good place to be validated and, frankly, to be loved.

I don't care that much about validation these days. I care about communication. I do care a lot about being loved and hearing from people who matter to me. But that's not really the main reason I do it. Look, I've been a writer and I've been a radio guy. With Facebook, I can put up a gorgeous recording that I love and let others play that for themselves. Or I can grump about something and get really smart responses from all over the world. So it's for me it's a blast — a great way for a near-recluse to have a public life.

You say you're better in public than in private. And that resonates in the book that you wrote called Parallel Play, which is a frank account — again told with a mix of anguish and humor of living with Asperger's syndrome. You were 45 years old when you were finally diagnosed in 2000. In one passage you wrote, "It would be easier for me to improvise an epic poem before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden than approaching an attractive stranger across the room and strike up a conversation." Do you still feel that way?

Absolutely. I'm not sure about the epic poem. I think I was exaggerating. But very, very definitely, because I've spent pretty much all of my life in public, from A Day With Timmy Page, which showed me as a filmmaking prodigy when I was about 12.

I was always used to being able to talk to a group. But I'm still paralyzingly shy if I'm just talking to somebody who attracts me and I don't have anything immediately to talk about. If they're interviewing me or if they're in my class or if they're old friends that's a very different matter. I never go to parties. I'm pretty much a recluse. And yet I have this urge to communicate and to reach lots of people.

You must have been relieved when you got the Asperger's diagnosis.

It explained a hell of a lot. And after that I learned how to prepare myself for things. There are times where I have to go to concerts or parties with strangers and basically I can sort of make a deal with myself like, "Well, this is only going to take an hour, and so I'll just act for an hour and then I'll be fine."

And you know, it's funny — one of my early friends and mentors, Glenn Gould, who I swear was on the autistic spectrum, was the same way. He used to talk about the years before he quit performing live when he was 31, and he said the only way he got through those last years on the concert stage was a recognition that this was bringing him acclaim and was gradually preparing for him to do what he wanted. And then he finally got to a point where he didn't have to do it anymore. And that's sort of the way I feel about my own arrangements with myself. I remain convinced that Asperger's syndrome is responsible as much for my triumphs in my life as it is for a lot of loneliness and a lot of unhappiness that I've also experienced.

Do you feel any differently since the brain injury?

Not a whole lot, really. I don't have the energy I once had and can't work as hard as I once did. I am damaged, you know, and I'm very upfront about that, and people accept it. But I'm still pretty much here, intellectually speaking, and there are still things that I want to do and can do, however slowly. I want to collect the writings of Seymour Britchky, the greatest of all restaurant critics, whose articles sum up the New York City I loved in the 1970s and 1980s better than anything else. I'd like to record the suite I created for the St. Louis Symphony from the Musica Poetica of Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman. And a lot of other things too.

Still, if I don't get to do these things there is now a side of me that is resigned and pretty much says the hell with it. I wrote or edited more than 20 books. I gave radio premieres to hundreds of new works. I founded a record company that made some interesting discs. I put Glenn Gould's ideas into a book and helped rediscover Dawn Powell. I have three wonderful sons and I've helped set some brilliant young people on their paths. I'm not trying to brag, but if I want to rest now and spend time mostly with the people I love, that's what I'll do. I've earned that rest.

One of the only really good things that came out of this catastrophe for me was I spent almost all my life terrified of death, and I'm not terrified of death anymore.

Wow. So what's making you happy these days?

The same things that always did: people, music, film, literature. Teaching at USC is the best job I've ever had. Despite my troubles over the last year, that capital-D depression that affected me almost all of my life isn't really there anymore.

I thought maybe you would mention your little puppy.

Page says that having his dog Mila to care for has been restorative.
/ Courtesy of Tim Page
Courtesy of Tim Page
Page says that having his dog Mila to care for has been restorative.

Mila! I got my little terrier when I was just not able to do much of anything last fall. She came from the South Los Angeles pound. And to have something to care for and something that so obviously cares for me has been so restorative.

I have to say that I have a greater and greater respect for dogs than ever. I am astounded by how much they seem to know. I traveled across the country alone for the first time since my brain injury almost exactly a month ago. And somehow when Mila got her service dog uniform put on, I don't know how she knew it, but she knew she was now doing a duty, and just sat on my lap and looked out for me.

Another thing that interested me in your essay about your brain injury was what you call your music therapy.

[Music] requires intense concentration now, whereas for years it was something I could listen to but I could also do other things. Back in the day I never had any trouble multitasking. These days, I have a fair amount of trouble even uni-tasking. I'm finding myself often with my eyes shut listening to music that I know a little bit but not that well and becoming profoundly interested in where it will go. It's kind of a way of putting the world together. It reminds me of when I was a boy and wandering in the woods and finding a road and then finding a path and then a road and finding, eventually, my way home.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.