Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Bowling trouble just the first sign

"If there's anything I can do to help, please just let me know."

-- Every human being I've talked to in the past two months.

*   *   *

I took a picture of the scoreboard and put it on Facebook.

I knew my friends would get a chuckle. After all, when was the last time I bowled a 99? Twenty years ago, maybe, after a few too many Mr. Pibbs?

Even better, all three of my teammates bowled better than 200 that mid-December day. That made the 99 at the bottom -- the one next to "AM" -- pop like fireworks. The joke was obvious: Ha ha, I stink.

But in some ways, I knew this wasn't funny. Why was I drifting to the right every time I approached the line? If there were a cluster of pins on the right side of the lane, how could I be throwing the ball in the left gutter?

Oh, well, I thought. Bad day at the lanes, nothing more. Certainly no reason to see a doctor.

"What seems to be the problem?"

"I bowled a 99, Doc."

"Take two of these free-game vouchers and call me once you've practiced."

Things got worse at Virginia Tech's bowl game in late December. I held up other passengers on the plane to Orlando when I couldn't lift my carry-on bag into the overhead compartment. I tripped and fell on one of those people movers in the Charlotte airport, drawing the hands of kind strangers to help me to my feet.

Basically, I looked, felt and acted like a drunk man. But I hadn't had a sip.

"Hey, if there's anything we can do," said my pals on the Virginia Tech beat, growing concerned, "just let us know."

The drive home from the Lynchburg airport was terrifying. I kept drifting over the yellow line. I realize now how lucky I am that I didn't hurt anyone. I had a feeling I wouldn't be driving again for a while, and I was right.

Rest, though. That would do it. A few sick days spent in bed watching Netflix would take care of whatever this was.

When that didn't do it, I saw a doctor. He ran all the blood tests -- all fine. He ruled out Lou Gehrig's disease. He ruled out diabetes. Must be some nasty virus, he said. Those happen sometimes. Just take it easy for a week, and if things don't get better, we'll refer you to a neurologist.

Things didn't get better. I could barely get out of bed. I tumbled down a flight of stairs and broke a $500 laptop. It was a chore just to sit up straight.

Remember that old commercial: "I've fallen and I can't get up?" Yeah, I used to laugh at that ad. I never will again, because those are the exact words I used Jan. 12 when I called my wife to have her take me to the emergency room.

An MRI revealed the problem: hydrocephalus. There was a blockage in my brain that prevented fluid from flowing to my spinal cord. They would need to remove the impediment, pronto.

And that's how I had brain surgery on Jan. 17 -- two days after my 36th birthday, and one year to the day after I bowled my second career 300 game.

The procedure went well. The doctors and nurses were fantastic. But what happened next blew me away.

Cards began arriving at the hospital from readers. My blog and Twitter timeline filled up with prayers and well wishes. Colleagues came to visit, offered to cook my family meals. I received more chocolates than a man could ever eat.

"Anything we can do," everyone said, "just let us know."

I've been out of the hospital about a month now. I've had good days and bad, just as the surgeon told me I would. Headaches come and go, but I can walk. I can talk. I can read. And the support has never wavered.

For the past few weeks, I've been working part time, writing the blog and occasional things for the paper. I saw a physical therapist. I took neurological tests. I underwent another MRI -- this one much more promising than the first. Hair began to grow back over the incision on my head. I recently was cleared to drive again.

On Monday, I will return to full-time status for the first time since the Russell Athletic Bowl. On Tuesday, I will go bowling with my buddies in the King Pin League. On Thursday, I'll go to Charlottesville to see UVa try to knock off Duke. On Saturday, I'll go to Cassell Coliseum for Senior Day.

These will be my first visits to arenas in 2013, and I couldn't be looking forward to them more.

Most importantly, to all those kind folks who've asked if there's anything they can do for me? Yes, actually, there is. Please read this, and know that I mean it from the bottom of my heart:

Thank you. For everything. I will never forget.

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