Life is at the Curb: John Kawie's Story

Originally published in Stroke Connection, September/October 2003

Comedian, stroke survivor and Life at the Curb columnist, John Kawie

 

A dissected carotid artery caused his stroke in November 1997, a week into his marriage to Marilyn. He’d been doing standup comedy in New York for the previous eight years, and his career was just beginning to see some light when the stroke put him in a wheelchair.

But John loved standup, so on Christmas day, less than two months after his stroke, he took a cab from the hospital where he was recovering to another hospital to do his act for a group of patients. “It was very emotional,” he recalls. “I was still in a wheelchair. When I got on stage, I completely forgot my act. It was depressing.”

He tried again at a comedy club in New York a few months later but his mind went blank once more. “After that I got really depressed because I thought I would never be able to do what I was passionate about.”

You have to be passionate to risk falling flat in front of a roomful of strangers, and John couldn’t shake his desire to make people laugh. He asked his psychologist about going back on stage. The counselor suggested John talk to his old acting coach, Joanna Beckson.

Although he was scared to call, she was very supportive when he told her he wanted to do a one-man show. He began writing monologues, but when he would get to class to practice them, he would forget what he’d written.

“When you forget, it feeds on itself because the more often you forget, the more you think you’re going to forget, and the more you forget.” After several months of frustration, he called his coach to

“I was afraid Joanna would tell me to drop out, that I wasn’t going to make it. Instead she told me that I would just have to work differently than other people, and that was exactly right. I began to run the monologues over and over and over. I even recorded them and listened.” Eventually he was able to perform each monologue individually, but he was still forgetting some parts when he put them all together.talk about his lack of progress.

John joined forces with Jerry Diner, a classmate who wanted to be a director, and he solved the problem. At Jerry’s suggestion, John added deliberate pauses to his routine.

“I tell the audience that, since my stroke, sometimes my brain freezes,” John says.  “That keeps them from getting uncomfortable when there’s dead air. The pauses really worked. It’s like a little joke on the audience. Now I have to act the pauses because I know the show and don’t forget, but they’re still effective.” He called the show “Brain Freeze.”

After more polishing in his acting workshop, John took it to different hospitals, to stroke and aphasia support groups as well as several rehab centers. He’s also done the show in theaters. This past summer (after we went to press), he performed “Brain Freeze” in the Fringe Festival in New York City, a venue that was sure to increase his visibility.

“When I first did it for stroke groups, I was nervous because I didn’t know how they’d take it. But many laughed till they cried,” John says. “They know the highs and lows firsthand — the anger, the loss, the frustrations. I was able to make them see what they go through every day and actually laugh at the situation."

“The show exposes the dark underbelly of rehab. They’d come up and say, ‘When I’m watching you, I’m watching me.’ That’s the biggest compliment.”

“Brain Freeze” is written as a two-part therapy session. In the first part John is talking one-on-one to his therapist, sharing his frustration, for instance, at trying to button his coat one-handed or depending on Post-It notes because his memory is shot.

 

He recounts how the hospital sent a team to “stroke proof” his apartment by taping down rugs and moving furniture: “They put up so many bars in my bathroom, it’s like showering in a jungle gym. I call them the Cardiovascular Accident Feng Shui Stroke Team, or the CVAFSST for short.”

He shares bizarre experiences he’s had with healthcare attendants and includes touching lessons he learned from his friends in physical therapy. These are funny stories about frustration with his own disabilities and other people’s misunderstandings and insensitivities. He ends the first half of the show by checking the Post-It notes inside his vest. “Post-It notes are still my life,” he tells the audience. “I just want to make sure I didn’t forget anything.”

The second part of "Brain Freeze" is a group therapy session where John acts the parts of six characters. They're all memorable, particularly Clarence, the hand puppet that speaks for one of the group members. 

Photo by Sunny S.

John and wife, Marilyn

“Stroke survivors hear a lot of negativity, from healthcare people and others,” John says. “But they should remember that they are not limited by what other people say or think. I’m working in a field where physical perfection is very important, but I’ve broken that barrier with my show — I walk with a limp and my left arm is paralyzed.

“Before I started working on the show, I was adamant about physical therapy. They called me Stair Man because I never took the elevator. I wanted to return to running. I wanted to be physically perfect. But when I started the show, I let go of that obsession.

“I surrendered a little bit to the stroke. I realized I didn’t have to be perfect. The show has allowed me to put myself out there and not hide who I am. I’ve gotten unbelievable responses to the truthfulness of the show. That’s what I’m really proud of.”

John Kawie does what seems on its face to be impossible: He stands up in front of strangers and makes them laugh at what most would consider a devastating personal tragedy. It’s a risky business, but that’s life at the curb.

For information on booking "Brain Freeze, " e-mail John Kawie at jkawie@aol.com or call his service number, 212-969-0542.

This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Stroke Association.

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

See all Life At The Curb Humor Column

The Letter

Comedian and stroke survivor, John Kawie, writes a fan letter to his stroke as the 20-year anniversary of its arrival grows near.

Those Were the Days

Comedian and stroke survivor, John Kawie, shares observations about the challenges early 21st century TV programming carries for stroke survivors.

Ask Me Why

Comedian and stroke survivor, John Kawie, tries his hand at an advice-column – sort of.

New Morning

The good folks here at Stroke Connection offer support and guidance through every step of your recovery. My column offers none whatsoever, but I think it might be time for a change. So let’s begin with that first exciting morning home and what you can expect.

Forever Young

Something arrived from Social Security: “This is to inform you that we no longer consider you Disabled. As of now you are officially just Old. Your benefits will be decreased accordingly.” Seriously?

A Day in a (Rehab) Life

And there it was, my old Rusk Institute Outpatient Rehabilitation schedule that I carried like an extra appendage for the better part of two years. It contained therapy class times, room numbers, Access-A-Ride information ... everything I needed to navigate Planet Rehab. It was my pre-smartphone stroke GPS, and without it I was adrift like George Clooney in “Gravity.”

Slow Down

In this edition of John Kawie's award-winning Life at the Curb column: As Ferris Bueller wisely said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while you might miss it.” This is true, unless you happen to be a stroke survivor.

I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)

I had something in my back pocket…the stroke card! And much to my wife Marilyn’s dismay I pulled it out every chance I got.

Ticket to Ride

That blue and white guy in the wheelchair is the Beverly Hills of parking lot real estate where the three most important words are “location, location, location.”

On The Road Again

If you witnessed the exact moment of my stroke, you’d be surprised how underwhelming the event was … no dramatic collapsing or keeling over. In fact, I was asleep at the time.

Comedian Stroke Survivor Celebrates Column's 10th Anniversary

Many of our readers think the only reason we publish Stroke Connection is so they can read John Kawie’s column, "Life at the Curb." This issue marks 10 years that John has succeeded at what seems impossible — making stroke funny.

Light My Fire

My tour director cousin and her husband Ray were anxious for Marilyn and me to get to stop No. 2 on our itinerary: The Yankee Candle Shop. Plus, they had the car.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

When you’re wobbly on your feet and you’re slammed broadside by a half-pint human, you go down like a sumo wrestler on a balance beam.

Camarillo Brillo

John shares the story of his first post-stroke haircut.

Let’s Get It On

I peeked at the title of the brochure I'd been given — “Sex After Stroke.” Oh goodie, something else to worry about. It might as well have said, “No Way You’re Having Sex After Stroke.”

Sharp-Dressed Man

When John is invited to a wedding he discovers his nice Italian suits are a lot more convoluted than my stroke-friendly wardrobe of crew necks, polos and jeans.

Stranger in a Strange Land

After two months of medical incarceration, the powers-that-be decided I was ready to face the outside world…or my insurance ran out. Either way I was a free man.

Isn't It a Pity

The North American Pity Association had been on high alert. Their motto is "If it's not perfect, we feel sorry for it."

Riders on the Storm

If I end up with eyeglasses the size of a Hubble Telescope lens, you can blame it on the six days Marilyn and I did everything by candlelight. It was an early evening in November and Hurricane Sandy was pounding the East Coast.

Please Mr. Postman

I don't know if you've ever tried to get to the roof of a skyscraper by clambering up a fire escape, but even a mountain goat would have slipped a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue after reaching the top.

Starting Over

In comedy, timing is everything. Apparently my stroke didn't get the memo, because mine was shot.

Jive Talkin'

I was constantly interrupting, spewing out a barrage of senseless, choppy, tweet-like phrases.

Always Something There to Remind Me

In order for me to find anything on a shelf, it has to be wider than a 747.

Stormy Weather

I developed a plumbing problem. It would have been tolerable if the pipes were in the kitchen. But alas, they were inside of me.

Those Oldies But Goodies

We were headed to the antique equivalent of Lourdes: The Brimfield Antique Show in Massachussetts. The size of 23 football fields with 6,000 dealers selling from tents. To paraphrase Dante, "All hope abandon ye stroke survivors who enter here!"

Time Is On My Side

A stroke survivor has to operate on the theory that stroke time is like dog years. You have to multiply by a factor of 7. What once took five minutes now takes 35.

Tracks of My Tears

Director, Joel Schumacher, was shooting his latest film, starring Robert De Niro as stroke stroke survivor, "Bob would like to work with and videotape a stroke survivor to prepare for his role." So I said, "Sure!" - I'll admit I shed a tear or two watching the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials, but I wasn't expecting the floodgates to open in front of Travis Bickle.

Can't Judge a Book by Lookin' at the Cover

I floated like a cinder block but could verbally sting like a bee.

Come Fly With Me

Nothing, except perhaps crossing the interstate blindfolded, is more dangerous than the combination of stroke and sleep deprivation.

The Way We Were

I wanted to shave, shower, get dressed and start writing right away, but it took me two hours to find my pants.

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

I get along with umbrellas about as well as Harryp Potter gets along with Lord Voldemort.

Get Back

Before the stroke my old haunt would have been a "Cheers"-style watering hole, "Where everybody knows your name." Post-stroke, it's the Rusk Rehabilitation Institute of Medicine, where everybody forgets your name.

I've Just Seen a Face-book

John succumbs to pressure and creates his Facebook profile. Sort of.

Only the Lonely

Marilyn has been on business trips before, so being left alone after the stroke to fend for myself was nothing new. What was new was the length of time she’d be gone.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Departments

Stroke Notes

Stroke-related news you can use about new scientific findings, public policy, programs and resources.

Readers Room

Articles, poems and art submitted by stroke survivors and their loved ones.

Life Is Why

Everyone has a reason to live a longer, healthier life. These stroke survivors, caregivers and others share their 'whys'. We'd love for you to share yours, too!

Everyday Survival

Practical tips and advice for day-to day living after stroke.

Life At The Curb

A unique perspective on survival by comedian and stroke survivor John Kawie.

Simple Cooking

Cooking at home can be a daunting task, but a rewarding one for your diet and lifestyle (and your wallet). Making small changes in your diet is important to your heart health. Here are simple, healthy and affordable recipes and cooking tips.

Support Showcase

Our new department highlighting the good work being done by stroke support groups from around the nation. If you are part of a successful support group we should consider featuring, let us know!