‘Life. Support. Music.’ is one heart-touching tale
September 24, 2008
ASPEN ” One night in August 2004, Jason Crigler was playing a gig in downtown Manhattan, a scene that was most familiar to the New York-bred guitarist. Onstage, the 34-year-old felt woozy and weak; he went outside and collapsed from what was later diagnosed as the bursting of blood vessels in his brain. Over the next 16 months, Crigler’s body shut down, most visible in his clenched-up hands and mouth.
He was transported from New York to a care facility in Boston. Doctors gave him, at first, only fair odds of living, and then, little chance at recovering his verbal, motor and musical skills.
Perhaps it was a blessing that his brain also went on hold during the long episode. Crigler has few vivid memories from the period, and doesn’t recall the birth of his daughter, Ellie.
“I can’t piece it together,” said Crigler by phone from Boston, where he now lives. “Everyone says it’s better that I don’t know about it.”
Whether other people should be exposed to the story, and the sight of an immobilized, helpless Crigler, though, is another issue. When he had sufficiently regained his faculties ” Crigler says it was around Christmas of 2005 that he gradually began to piece together his memory ” he came up with the idea of turning his experience into a book, possibly involving his sister, Marjorie, a writer who had been instrumental in his recovery. But he had a friend, Eric Daniel Metzgar, who was a documentary filmmaker, and Crigler thought a movie ultimately had a far better chance of reaching a sizable audience. And Crigler wanted his story witnessed by as many as possible.
“Life. Support. Music.” tells the heart-touching tale of the recovery, which turns out to belong to his family as much as it does to Crigler himself. The film follows Crigler from a New York hospital ” where his insurance ran out and it was suggested that he be placed in a facility that would do little more than keep him alive for awhile ” to Boston, with his family close at his side. Seemingly without hesitation or regret, his parents, long since divorced; his pregnant wife, Monica; and his sister put their lives on hold to care for Crigler. Their devotion is inspiring; the absence of despair is remarkable. “Life. Support. Music.”, which shows today at 8:45 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, in the opening day of the 30th Aspen Filmfest, becomes not so much a tragedy as a victory for hopefulness.
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“It’s such a crazy story: Guy goes to play a show, wakes up nine months later with a little girl, in a different place,” said Crigler, now 38, speaking clearly, and having set to play the release party for his new CD, “The Music of Jason Crigler,” that night in Cambridge, Mass., where he now lives. “But it’s also such a positive story, that I got through that despite what all the doctors said. The way my family comes across in the film, it’s deep and beautiful, and really admirable qualities in there that anyone could learn from. It’s one of those stories people should know about ” it’s happy, it’s hope.
It’s important. It has to be told.”
Crigler and his father are expected to be in attendance for tonight’s screening. Crigler said his appearances at screenings have confirmed for him that the film has a powerful effect. He notes that with so many American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injuries, and the high-profile brain injuries suffered by Sens.
Tim Johnson and Edward Kennedy, many viewers are seeking information, and inspiration, relating to the topic.
“We realize how many people are going through things like this,” he said. “People have been moved, and thanked us, because it’s such a powerful statement on what’s possible in recovery.”
“Life. Support. Music.”, which features a pair of songs written by Crigler, leads to the conclusion that recovery would not be possible on one’s own. The film vividly makes the point that the people who love you will do things you could probably not even ask them to do.
“In the moment, there wasn’t a question of, What are we going to do? We just did it,” said Marjorie, who was visiting her brother, from her home in upstate New York. “We just had faith in his ability to recover. For me, I thought, as long as he’s not dead, he’s got a chance for recovery. It was just, Why not think this is possible?”
Marjorie added that the key was paying vigilant attention to her brother. In the film, virtually every scene has Crigler surrounded by family members trying to reach through the fog of brain injury.
“We would see some little glimmer of him, and there was always someone there to catch that moment,” she said. “That made a difference in our belief that he could make a recovery ” that there was someone there to respond to it, someone who knew exactly where he was.”
The family was also on the giving end of sensory input. “We bombarded him,” said Marjorie, who had moved to Boston during her brother’s illness. “A doctor told us, the brain is lazy. It gets injured and doesn’t want to respond. So we talked to him, played music, had family conferences around him. We were constantly looking for, how could we bring the world, and specifically his world, to him in his room.”
Crigler takes a philosophical approach to his emergence from his shadow existence. “I’m just not ready to leave yet,” is how he explains his defiance of medical opinions.
“Family, the people I love, music. Ellie. All the things I’m grateful for, brought me back. You become acutely aware of how grateful you are when you go through something like this, those dark days.”
He is just as equanimous about his ongoing recovery. He is still dealing with issues regarding his hands. He can get frustrated, since the improvements now are more gradual than they were in the early stages of his recovery.
“But if I’m having a bad day, at least I’m here to think, OK, I’m having a bad day,” he said. And his guitar playing, he says, has become even better than it once was. “Or, at least, I’m enjoying it more.”