Charlie Cunningham Medical/Rehab
In early August, 2015, Charlie Cunningham, bicycle builder, inventor and all around amazing person, fell off his bike and sustained several serious injuries.
Charlie suffered broken bones, bruises, and trauma to his head. At the time, he didn't feel his head injury was significant. Unfortunately, seven weeks later, the head injury manifested into a subdural hematoma, a life threatening condition that resulted in emergency brain surgery. Having been about two minutes from death or complete vegetative state, he endured a hell period of about six months, beginning with two months in intensive care, followed by months of doctor's visits and rehabiliitation. His days of getting around by bike were over, or so we thought.
Currently, Charlie is at the "plateau" level. He has no sense of direction, nor much vision (his brain was affected, leaving the upper half of his visual field empty, as well as the periphery). But he is walking, speaking normally, with very little aphasia, and still working on learning the alphabet. he can read a simple news headline after about five minutes of careful study of each letter. We move about Marin on a gorgeous tandem, which will soon get a motor so we can go offroad, away from traffic.
His 'genius' resides now in his efforts to recover what most of us take for granted: balance, literacy and agency, the will to do things and make things, which seems to have disappeared when the brain bleed happened. Your donations will help to offset the costs of his rehabilitation and the visits to UC Berkeley Eye Clinic, and the weekly respite care visits. Thank you for your generosity.
A bit about the fund: it was dreamed up by Caroline James, a good friend of Charlie and Jacquie's since the 1987. She's an artist, web designer and was an early Wombat. Since the end of the first year of the fund, I have taken over most of the administration. Grant Petersen of Rivendell renown, and 1,200 donors like you have helped move us along, for which we're ever grateful.
I can’t help the remembering. I wasn’t in Marin that day, I was deep into my Japanese immersion fantasy camp at Middlebury Language School. It took me a couple days to realize I should come home (Charlie insisted he was fine, even though he was in the hospital) and hang up the schoolin’.
This was followed by 7 weeks of lots of doc visits, but no brain injury had manifested….all the way til late September, when the lethal brain bleed felled him as I was swimming happily along a secluded Honolulu beach at Pearl Harbor. All the Kaiser docs had said he was fine, and I was free to leave for a month or so.
So, as I tell folks now, having won the Bad Luck Lottery, things could have been worse. That’s what people told us those seven difficult weeks, which proved to be child’s play compared to the post-brain bleed months and years.
It not only could have but did get worse.
So, the way my brain works is: twice bitten, three times phobic.
There is simply no way to close off, compartmentalize the dread of Charlie with a Broken Neck, Rattlesnake Bite, or worse, JP Creamed by a Texting Murderist and Being Rendered Helpless.
Last week he came home to announce he’d bumped a very long rattlesnake with his foot. The ensuing rattle alerted him to the hazard hovering above his foot and he stepped back and shoved the animal off the fire road (Concrete Pipeline, the easternmost part of it which gets nearly no traffic since it ends abruptly ). Walked home and promised to ‘keep an eye out’ for any rattlers.
This is the season.
I’ve encountered one in our yard twice in as many years, and get our snake-grabber, plop the snake into the pillowcase and trot it up to the open space lands beyond our place to let it slither into someone else’s terroir. Sorry. Territory.
We had a guest last night. She gave a talk at the Museum on Thursday evening, and I had a friend slip her a postcard inviting her to Offhand Manure if she wanted to prolong her stay in Fairfax. Her name is Jenny Graham, and she’s the 39 year old Guiness record-holder for Fasted Woman Cycling the world. Although it’s ‘legal’ to have a team following the person attempting the record, she believed it was more sporting (and a shitload less complex to organize, never mind less expensive) to just carry a minimum of gear and be prepared to bivvy anywhere, which proved to be in urban pipes (not active sewer pipes, but that’s the size we’re talking about.) She added that it was quite snug to be out of the rain and semi-enclosed that way.
Four months it took her, riding 15 hrs a day on average (hope I got that right)… Jenny (who’s from Inverness Scotland, with a semi-understandable accent) began and ended at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. At the Museum it was tough to grasp all the great jokes and asides, so the two hour yak session last night and equally thorough one this morning allowed me and Charlie to fill in the blanks a bit. You can google her, she’s the real deal, and clearly up for years more of these insane self-supported long haul competitions. Which have a cohort of people just like my single-speed peeps. They all know one another, and cheer one another on.
I’m going to finish with a link to a poem by Kay Ryan, it probably came on the Poem-A Day thing… she’s very compact:
Every day shows improvements.
While I think longingly of our outrageous RAGBRAI (ride across Iowa, last weekend of July!) this time last year, I realize that such things do give structure to the year, and I had better come up with something for 2020.
Like, pray for a solution to hemianopsia?
Or, simply take Charlie on a road trip to Oregon.
Last Tuesday I got the impulse to take a mini-trip, thanks to the generosity of neighboring friends the Petersens who would be “glamping” (camping with all the amenities of home, hand-built forest kitchen, four-entry mosquito pavilion, fine folding and lean-back chairs, including a couple extra for us) up at Juniper Lake.
As it happens, this is a mere 15 mile dirt road away from the much-loved Bodfish of Chester town. Chuck and Lisa Jo are the ‘bodfish’; he was assigned that funny byline by an editor of a paper that ran his California Outback bike columns.
So, after tossing a couple of sleeping bags and mats and a ‘perfect pillow’ or two and even a tent from a neighbor’s free box—I’d never assembled this one. Tis called “Walrus” and I knew that I’d have a few hands to help if I couldn’t figure out the construction. Luckily most modern tents are self-explanatory, and with those shock-corded anodized hollow struts, they’re a walk in the park.
SOOO…into the car, and I was astonished not to be overcome with the usual thirty minute warning of impending sleep. This sleepiness is why I so seldom drove for the last 4 decades.
Well, it never fogged my alertness. Through a gnarly traffic glut (Highway 37 toward Vallejo is always about 4 mph for nearly an hour) in 94 degree heat, we sailed along, with an every five-minute spritz with my trusty ‘air conditioner’ : a clean water-filled plastic spray bottle.
Somehow Charlie bore with being nearly immobile for six hours at roughly 70 mph (once you’re out on hwy 505 and 5, you move along like everyone else and ignore the scary high number on the odometer).
The car is fifteen years old, with about 60k miles, and brand new tires. The traffic fatality statistics that usually swim through my consciousness were conscientiously moved to a box I never use—the ‘compartment’ that people who ignore catastrophes have, where they stash What Can’t Be Changed and similar inevitabilities. See, I’ve only been in one (minor) traffic accident. I was in the back seat, but no damage to my (or the other 3 people’s) spine. 1991, in Italy.
So, I’m already uh, ‘due’ for something, since nearly everyone I know has been rear-ended. Some, with permanent damage.
AUUGGGHHH GOD, where’s that compartment again? Why is it so small?
So into Chester we sail, and Chuck and Lisa Jo are very gracious to let us crash chez eux while I come down from the long time in the car.
And the easy drive up that dirt road? I made our neighbor drive our car since I was having a brief Zone of Doubt about my Competence.
Suffice to say that after 2 days of gorgeous days, no mosquitos (!), fine sleeping because we didn't’ have to stuff into the freebie Walrus. The Petersens had a huge four man tent that they’d already erected for us.
I took Charlie part-way round Juniper Lake, first to the left, where he complained about the difficulty of the footing. “It’s exhausting, Jacquie. My sight is so bad, it’s all I can do to keep from falling over”.
This is a ‘cassette tape’ that I hear at least once or twice a week.
Suddenly though, I got it.
My fear of driving exhausted me, and the driving fatigue that overwhelmed me every time I took the driver’s seat was…..exhaustion from being tense for thirty, forty, sixty minutes, looking all directions for the deliverer of my inescapable doom.
So on the ride home, I repeated a completely New Story (since we tell ourselves such convincing, self-fulfilling stories about ourselves).
It’s called Driving on the Open Road with no Errand in Sight is Easy, Fun, and Relaxing.
Mind, it’s just a slight variation from the Story I hammer into my offroad women who come to me to learn techniques, ‘tricks’ etc to overcome the supposed common knowledge that offroad cycling is Difficult, Dangerous and best attempted by gnarly people, preferably men!
The drive home was a piece of cake.
I rest my cake.
At breakfast on Wednesday, I noticed Charlie carefully drawing four parallel lines on the open newspaper, with his cherished fat-line Sharpie.
Later I asked what he was doing. I’d never seen him spontaneously draw something (in the Post-Crash Era).
“It’s a design to keep our antenna pole from tipping over” he replied.
For a week, we’ve tried to get better reception by affixing a pole with a halo-like apparatus to bring in the good vibes.
But since it was held on by mere hose clamps, and the two things were both cylindrical in form, the tiny contact area was unable to withstand our roof’s exposure to the steady breezes in our canyon.
So I said nothing more, but thought, “Hm it just looks like a letter H….wonder how he’ll do it…”
The following morning when I was doing yoga, his best friend Scott came over and verily they DID fabricate an h-shaped thing (made of two sizes of aluminum square channel) held to gether ‘using pop-rivet technology’ as Scott soberly intoned. And damn if the pole wasn’t snugly held in its channel, just like the stub of pipe poking out of our roof was held snugly, and the double hose clamps—big beefy industrial types—held them.
So now instead of running up to the roof every few minutes during a good KPFA show, I can relax in comfort at our (new-to-us) Danish expanding dining room table.
Project censored is probably my favorite show. A local college, Sonoma State, inaugurated it in 1975, and it is more relevant than ever, now in the ‘post truth’ era.
The flowers are the local wild ones, currently blooming on Charlie’s route: Sticky Orange Monkey Flower, California buckwheat, and Tritellia laxa (Ithuriel’s spear)…he carefully writes their names, then practices I.D’ing them on the walk.
And it's very Jacquie to warble about his progresses, much like the mom notes the child's progresses. I will NEVER be judgemental about people crowing about their kids.
I get it now.
Charlie is one of half-a-handful of modern bicycle geniuses and personal heroes of mine (and I am basically "anti-hero"). Everything I know about him, I love. Everything he's ever designed or made or innovated on his own personal bike, I admire and wished I was that smart. I'm so sorry to hear of this accident. Of course we all want him back on his superlight plastic saddle, held by the seat post that also holds a pump. Go, Charlie.
This is a tragedy and a wake-up call about head injuries and getting them checked out and monitored for a long time afterward. I was just thinking about Charlie last week; I was riding on Mt. Tam since 1981 at Thanksgiving when I rode it with Charlie and a number of other friends. He is creative genius, and a great human being to boot; I hope he gets his full faculties back soon. Get better soon, Charlie, and hang in there, Jacquie!
Jacquie, while I absolutely love his thoughts on greeting age, something many of us are currently doing, my favorite thing is when he talks about the "milky silver finish". This finish is what I always thought was SO beautiful about Campy (you should excuse the expression!) equipment. As far as your personal struggle with responsibility, most of us have been there...we travel a path that is comfortable for us, where we can make the most of our abilities, and then when the situation changes, radically in your case, the flexibility we all develop allows us to change directions. You can do it. You have your friends in your area, and hundreds outside of that. We are all breaking as much wind for you both as is possible. Actually, that's maybe not the best choice of words...
OMG! I am kinda the Cunningham FP, having provided care for Bruce, Charlie's fighter pilot and custom home builder dad, and his tiny book and social antiquarian mom Carol. As a late comer to the world of off road biking, and having been privileged to visit Charlie's shop, I just wanted to confirm the need for this kind of funding effort. For all the closed head injuries that our lifestyle generates, we have a very unsupportive neuro-rehab environment here in the US and A. Maybe the rising tide of reality about football injuries will help, but not in time for Charlie. Any contribution you can make will really make a difference in his recovery.
i can NOT wait to see that footage!!! I think of charlie every time i ride up Tam - and the other day i saw a gentleman with a cunningham racer - WALKING!! - i should have taken it away from him ; ) - still my holy grail of bikes - until then my 88 merlin will have to do - sending you love & strength
Yep. And "death-grip somersault " can be a lovely metaphor for how stuck we get in our own heads and fears, sometimes. Make that time to meditate, soak in a tub, walk in the woods, breathe, even write for 15 minutes or an hour: you've got to take care of YOU to be able to carry on. Peace and strength, Jacquie.