Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 30, 2013

Brain-injured singer clings to her faith

BY NATHAN PAYNE npayne@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Jessica Hoover won’t be the headliner when she steps on stage with her acoustic guitar Saturday at the Bayside Festival. But the four-song set she plays will be the most important of her life.

Jessica, 23, will rely on her faith to carry her through and calm her nerves, just as it has for most of the past year.

She won’t recognize most of the crowd before her, but there will be a few familiar faces, ones she wouldn’t have known just nine months ago.

Jessica vividly recalls the day that nearly silenced her voice. It was Dec. 16, 2012, she said as she glanced down and nervously rubbed her hands together.

It’s still hard to talk about, hard to think about.

There was a lump on her head and a man stood over her with a concerned look alongside doctors and nurses when she awoke in the Munson Hospital Emergency Room. Somehow Jessica knew the man was her father, though she couldn’t recognize his face or voice.

The man who had been a pillar of comfort in her life was no more familiar than a stranger on the street.

“She was smiling at me, but there was nothing there,” said Carolyn Hoover, Jessica’s mother. “You see things like this in movies, but it never really happens, does it?”

Jessica knew the man was her dad, but didn’t know his name and couldn’t recognize his face. He tried to calm her, to explain that sometime that afternoon, while working at a retail store where she was a manager, an accident occurred. Something struck her head. She suffered a traumatic-brain injury.

Her memory was gone, maybe forever.

Doctors told Jessica and her family that there was no way to tell when or if she would regain her memories. There was no more they could do but send her with her family to their Williamsburg home to recuperate.

“So, they sent me home with strangers,” she said. “I felt like I was a burden.”

People told Jessica she was a talented musician, one who had traveled to Nashville to record a single that was released on iTunes in August 2012 and had sold well. They said she recently had been asked to audition with a record label. And she had grown up singing in services at New Hope Church.

The reassurance was overwhelming, her life was overwhelming. Jessica’s family removed all pictures of her from her bedroom and tried to limit the constant reminders of what she had been.

Someone showed her a video of her singing the song she released that year.

“I watched this girl who was singing,” she said closing her eyes for a moment. “I kind of felt like that girl died. I felt like I had taken that girl away from them.”

She spent months repopulating the wall of her bedroom with the pictures of people she once knew. They helped her remember their names, but brought only hints of the past.

A white board hung on the wall; written on it was her name and the date. It was a reminder she needed everyday.

Still, she couldn’t sing. Jessica tried several times, but her voice wasn’t the one she heard in the videos.

Then, she began to play piano. It is an instrument she’d played since she was six, Carolyn Hoover said.

“I was good at it,” Jessica said. “I would stay up for several hours during the night just playing. Everything else was just so out of my control. It was the one thing I was good at.”

Her memory didn’t return as the months wore on.

“My husband and I came to a place where we said, ‘if we don’t heal her, it’s OK,” Carolyn Hoover said. “That was one of the worst things.”

A woman of faith, Carolyn Hoover prayed every day that someday she would once again hear the voice that made the soundtrack for the past 22 years of her life.

“She sang all the time,” she said. “Then there was this silence. I thought this was the way it will be for the rest of our lives.”

Then, it happened.

In late February, while reading a book in her bedroom, the memories began to rush back.

Jessica ran into the hallway screaming, “I remember,” waking her family.

“I just kind of re-lived my life, like a movie,” she said.

The 2008 Elk Rapids High School graduate sat awake all night talking about the memories with her younger sister. During the days and months following her memories became clearer, but occasionally would fade without warning.

Six months later, Jessica, living on the edge of her life and one she wouldn’t recognize, she tries not to look back.

“I’ve got to just go for it,” she said. “The doctors couldn’t tell me why I’m alive. If that’s not the wake-up call of a lifetime, I don’t know what is.”

So she’ll take the first and biggest step toward following her dreams Saturday, because Jessica refuses to look back at her life wondering “what if.”

“I’ve just got to go for it,” she said.