The trouble with Gary is that he's too many people at once.
There's the Gary Farnum his friends and colleagues used to know, a top performer who excelled at everything he tried. That Gary is the brilliant one, the family patriarch and Chesapeake Energy attorney with a vocabulary sharpened by crossword puzzles and a muscular body shaped by endurance bicycling.
There's the Gary who emerged from a coma without the ability to talk or walk, the one whose brain broke in a moment, ending his career and making him reliant on other people for help. That guy, who relearned how to move and work and speak, who refused to surrender, isn't precisely the same man he was before.
And then there's the Gary who lives inside his head, still smart as a whip, remembering everything — every scrap of legal minutiae, every dusty detail of days long past — but unable to connect his thoughts to words. That's the Gary the world can't see.
“I know he gets frustrated because he can't communicate,” said his daughter, Audrey Farnum. “He's really intelligent, and he does understand what he's missing. That's what's so hard for him to take.”
That he's alive, mobile and articulate at all is amazing. Many who experience a system crash like his never get a chance to reboot.
Gary was, in all likelihood, born with a poorly wired brain. All human brains require oxygen-rich blood to function properly. In the normal scheme of things, arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the brain, and veins transport blood with less oxygen back to the heart. It's like a two-stop train, endlessly carrying passengers to and from the heart.
In Gary's head, though, the train tracks don't always go where they're supposed to. His condition is known as arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. His brain contained a tangle of blood vessels that were deformed and poorly connected. As he aged, those messed up vessels grew weaker, and at least some of them dilated or ruptured in October 2009, causing bleeding in his brain.
The Gary everyone used to know was gone in an instant, replaced by a helpless, grievously injured stranger. He lay unconscious for weeks and awoke with neurological and cognitive damage.
“It was kind of a cross between a stroke and an aneurysm,” his daughter said. “It was a bad deal. The doctors told us it happens in Oklahoma maybe three or four times a year, and most people don't survive it. …
“He couldn't talk. He couldn't walk. He didn't have much movement on his right side at all, but that came back pretty quickly. The talking and understanding has been the biggest struggle.”
As he slowly made his way back, Gary, now 58, realized that he couldn't be a lawyer anymore. That bothered him. He'd excelled at his job.
“If the company gave raises of 2 to 10 percent, I always got 10 percent,” he said. “Every job I've ever had, everybody said I was the best guy there.”
Now he needed something to do. He'd never been much of a handyman, but he had fond memories of a day he'd spent volunteering for Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity some years earlier.
“I wanted to go back there and become a volunteer,” he said. “I knew it would be hard for them to tell me what to do because I wouldn't understand the words. I thought I may work one day and then they wouldn't want me to come back.”
The Habitat folks welcomed him. He learned how to frame houses and work on interior construction. He developed friendships with the other volunteers and the charity's staff. Communication was difficult, but those around him realized that all they had to do was show Gary how to do something, and he'd be able to make it work.
“When Gary sets his mind to something, he's going to figure it out,” said Rick Lorg, the charity's volunteer coordinator. “It's been cool to get to know Gary and have that relationship because he's someone who is always looking for opportunities to help out.”
Gary has volunteered two days a week for about 19 months. His efforts haven't gone unnoticed. In August, he was honored by the Oklahoma City RedHawks, who presented Gary with the 2012 Chesapeake Energy Community All-Star award.
“Out of 9,000 volunteers who come through here every year, we had the chance to nominate one person,” Lorg said. “We chose Gary not because of his (health) issues but because of his commitment and work ethic. He's always on time. He follows directions. Even when he doesn't understand … once he gets it he does an amazing job.”
Earning that recognition wasn't the most remarkable thing Gary did this summer.
Before his brain injury, Gary stayed in shape by exercising and lifting weights. Biking, in particular, was something he enjoyed because it gave him a chance to spend time with his daughter. Like her father, Audrey Farnum is an attorney. Like her mother, she is blind.
She and Gary shared a tandem bicycle. He'd sit in front and steer. She'd help him pedal from the rear seat.
Bicycling seemed like something else that was lost to the stroke — but Gary wasn't willing to stop.
In August, he and Audrey completed the Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred, a 100-mile bicycle race in Texas.
“It was really tough,” Audrey Farnum said. “There was a really strong wind that day, and we had some trouble, but crossing that finish line was amazing.”
It would've been easy to surrender, but this Gary, the one we're lucky to know today … well, that just isn't in his nature.
“A lot of people would've just given up,” his daughter said of Gary's struggles, “but he never did. He won't quit.”