Imagine for a moment, waking up in a hospital to find yourself paralyzed from head to toe, unable to move or even speak. That was the fate of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of French Elle, when he suffered a massive stroke that left him a victim of “locked-in syndrome” at the age of 42. He would never leave the hospital, never eat except by tube and never have a regular conversation again. And yet, it was during this time that he wrote his bestselling memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Left with a fully functioning and brilliant mind, but able only to blink his left eyelid, he wrote and memorized entire paragraphs in his head. His speech therapist designed a system by which someone would read the alphabet and he could blink when they came to the letter he wanted. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself, pecking away with thumb and index finger at the rate of nine words a minute in the comfort of my own home. Bauby dictated an entire novel from his hospital bed, letter by painstaking letter. I think of him often.
His memoir, published in 1997, received critical acclaim and its beautiful prose is testament to the power of the human spirit. Bauby’s mind is the butterfly, taking flight from his physical body, the diving bell. A French film, directed by Julian Schnabel, followed in 2007 and was nominated for four Academy Awards in the areas of directing, cinematography, writing and editing. In the film version, the subtitled words for Bauby’s thoughts appear, “I’ve decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination…and my memory. They’re the only two ways I can escape from my diving bell. I can imagine anything, anybody, anywhere.”
Bauby died of pneumonia on March 9, 1997, just two days after the publication of his memoir. This coming week, as we approach the anniversary of his death and I continue to use words to try and cultivate my own butterfly garden, I feel grateful for two things. My imagination…and my memory.