Friday, January 29, 2016

Broken-Backed in Puerto Rico

Here’s what I’m afraid of:

1.     Children on bicycles.
2.     The Carnival cruise ship ladies turning the corner at the Pandora store
3.     The sidewalk
4.     Anyone who has a cell phone
5.     My cats

These are by no means the only things: the bathtub terrifies me, for example. But if I leave the list incomplete, it’s really to protect myself, since I cannot dwell on the things that scare me. Yes, I could, I suppose, barricade myself in the back bedroom (closer to the bathroom): my doctor would love me to do that. But however alluring a two month sentence of bedrest may sound, trust me, it's not. Yes, I vowed to read The Brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace, and Don Quixote (again, but this time in the original), but I don’t have the strength.

You may wonder—how much strength does it take to read a book? Well, even Great Expectations—which I read before I was a teenager—proved too much for me: I flinched when Uriah Heep was about to put the screws to Mr. Wickham.

What happened?

Some night in the middle of November, I awoke with a Charlie horse in one of my legs. This was hardly unusual, and I did what I always had done: spring out of bed, grab the footboard, and force myself to stand on tiptoes. It works, though the muscle usually remains sore. But on that night, I fell hard, harder than I have ever fallen, and onto a marble floor.

I remember the sound of it—since a falling body (that is, a human body) makes a quite distinctive thud. I know that I moved myself off the floor, and was able to clamber into bed. What do I know after that? Very little.

I had grown up seeing my mother with her periodic bad backs, and I vividly remember her going on hands and knees to the bathroom during one particularly bad spell. And so she had seen a variety of chiropractors. What had happened to me, I imagined, was the same.

It’s true that the pain was more severe than anything I have felt in my life—but is that surprising? I am lucky to have good health: never to have been hospitalized, never to have broken a bone. Dental pain—yes. Childbirth—duh, no. And never, thank God, migraine.

I remember only fragments: the rest I gleaned from my husband, Mr. Fernández: I got up to eat dinner, for example, but it was he—not I, as it normally is—who went to the grocery store. I know that I took a hot bath every day, and that in the process, I learned the first of many physical routines that I had never contemplated before.

I could describe it: which hand first grips the side of tub, followed by the next hand a bit closer to the front of the tub….but isn’t it tedious? Certainly to write, then to read, and especially to live.

Tedious, but necessary.

I am a restless sleeper: various lovers, bedmates, others have described me as most of the way toward full swirling dervish status. But to turn in bed was an agony. I would stay in one position—ignoring my desire to turn onto my other side, or onto my back—as long as possible. That, of course, was counter-productive: by the time I could longer stand it, I was thoroughly awake. And so, at some point before maximal discomfort, I would grab the headboard, flex my knees, lift my torso, and then plop down onto the other side. There was, of course, one moment of necessary torsion, and that was when a lightning bolt struck the base of my spine. So if I were not already half awake, I was certainly awake now.

The solution, was to focus on my breath, and to keep the mind clean—old Buddhist tricks, but never had I practiced them as I did then: I counted to ten—inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale—for hours, then days and finally for a week. I felt the cool air on inhalation rustling the hairs in my nose. The warmer air of exhalation soothed the top of the nasal cavity. Through it all was a pain that made even thinking about movement an agony.

Let me jump ahead of the story to tell you: my internist asked how I was treating the pain, which she said must be excruciating. Later, the doctor who admitted me to HIMA hospital asked me: “what are you taking for the pain—morphine?”

In fact, I was taking Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen, on the advice of my doctor. Did it work? Not really, but it was something to take—I then, thinking that I was in muscle spasm, sent Mr. Fernández off to beg the pharmacist at Puerto Rico Drug Store for Cataflam.

It’s a secret in everyone’s mouth—or on everyone’s lips—that the local drugstores will happily supply you with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs pretty much on demand. True, you may have to invent a good reason or two—your doctor left for six months to treat the refugees in Greece; you are boarding a plane for Thailand in the morning. The pharmacist will smile, and give you drugs in little plastic bags, one size up from a nickel bag of dope. So Mr. Fernández went off and begged, returning with two bags, upon which something had been scrawled. Was that a problem?

I am normally a fanatic researcher of drugs on Google: am I willing to put just anything in my body?


Hell yes!

You could have given me rat poison, and I would have swallowed it by the bucketful, if I had thought it would have taken away the pain. In fact, even if I had known that it was rat poison, I might have taken it. And here I will say that if there had been a gun in the house? You wouldn’t be reading this.

No one can describe pain—but there certain things that it does. First, your world shrinks: before the fall, I had worried about things that seem insane, now. What was the Afghani army doing keeping sex slaves? Or was it the Iraqis? Whatever, I would have known about it, and worried about it, and perhaps even written about it. I would have known that in December—when everybody was busy and anyway had forgotten about it—the Vatican had at last released the autopsy results of the pederast prince of the church, Jozef Wesolowski. Ah, and how I would have snorted to read that no, there wasn’t a trace of any drugs or medicines or substances—not even a bit of alcohol from a glass of wine—in the ex-papal nuncio’s blood. Nope—he was clean as a whistle, that man who so conveniently had a “heart attack” the night before the first day of his trial, landed in intensive care,  and then had been able to be released from the hospital two days later. (Is there any other explanation than drug overdose that could explain that?)

Yes, I would have worried about this, because I didn’t have a body. Well, I did, of course, but having a body is really sort of a nuisance. One has to wash it and take it to get its hairs cut and feed it, of course, but really, having a body is not interesting to me. I do not make it run with balls to put through hoops or take across white lines in stadia or kick into cages. So what are we talking about? Horrendously poor design, since the only thing I have a body for is to support my brain, and let me play the cello. I contemplated this on those many nights when an antidepressant—Remeron—had driven me to crave Peanut M&M’s. For those of you with healthier diets, it’s the M&M with two little feet, and a bright smile.

Thus, there is NO reason why half of my body has to be legs. And if we eliminated 90% of my legs, everything else could be downsized, too. And consider toddlers—do they fall, those charmers just learning to walk?

Of course, and so close to the floor are they, they barely notice it. And so they get up, take two steps, fall again, etc. Walking and falling are twin processes for them, but for me, at six foot three? I was being dropped from the Empire State Building.

And so, now space—which had included the Vatican and Afghanistan—was whittled down to (for most part) the bed, the bathroom, and (reportedly) the dining room table. And as for time? Well, the dreaded Monday morning of anybody with a job had nothing for me. And so, days meant nothing, nor did day or night: I was just as likely to be awake at 3 in the morning as at 3 in the afternoon. And so I was floating in time and space, and the only thing that tied me to any sort of reality?


In the midst of it, imagining a time—such as now—when I would be without pain was impossible. Even in death, I would be in pain, and I spent that week in a suspension of agony.

Pain is different—I suspect—for different people, and in different cultures. What if the same injury had happened to me on the battlefield? Would I have experienced it in the way that I did? I think not: I would have run in retreat or—adrenaline pumped—continued to charge. And what I were Puerto Rican, and not gringo? Would I have reacted the same?

A nursing instructor had once told us: Norwegian-Americans are stoic. True, they may have their detached arm lying in the fields, and their amputated stump is shooting blood like a Monty Python sketch all over the ER, but “no, Doctor, I’m perfectly fine—you go off and take care of someone who needs it more than I….” So with these patients, you have to ask probing questions, and quite specific, as well. They will grudgingly admit—if you ask them—that they have an elephant sitting on their chest, they can’t breath, they are nervous. Otherwise—they’re fine.

With Puerto Ricans, the instructor explained, this tactic is disaster, because they have anything that you might suggest to them. And if they don’t have it? Ah, well then they will, and it will be the worst, the most extreme, the most horrific of its kind!

To test this, in my irresponsible youth, I had once asked Mr. Fernández if he was experiencing any itching under his fingernails.


This is unique in the medical literature, but did I tell him that? Of course not. And so I simply ask—when he is ill—what he is feeling, and I get most of a medical textbook of symptomology. I then discount by half, ands decide what to do.

And so I was in bed, but I was also a gringo, and also a nurse. Or rather, I had been a nurse, so that meant that I was completely capable of making clinical decisions, right? I mean, if I needed to go to the doctor, I would, right? Or maybe the ER? Or maybe call the ambulance?

I did none of these things, because I wasn’t a nurse. I was, instead, as trapped in my pain as the deer is in the headlights, and just as immobile. The nurse walks into the room and takes charge: I was in bed, and no one was in charge.

And what about Mr. Fernández? Well, guess who tends to make the health decisions in our house? Who says, “OK, we gotta get to the hospital!” And remember that good stoicism that the Norwegian-Americans exhibit. Yes, I told him I was in pain, but in his context, if I had been aching, I would have been screaming.

And was it something else? Pain is accompanied by fear, and fear breeds denial. Was I prepared to admit that I should have been taken, siren screaming, to the best hospital on the island? You know, the one where they take the worst car crash victims to?

Reader—are you still there? Because if you are, it’s a miracle. Yes, that you carried on to the (temporary) end, but more…

…that there would have been anyone to write this.    



Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Childhood Remembered

(Note--proceed at your own risk, and I have no idea what this is about....)

There were ghosts everywhere, within and without, waxing and waning in the basement especially, but also under my bed. The ghosts within were better than the ghosts without, and so were much more to be feared. For a ghost within can lurk in the hidden places of your body—in the grape-like sacs of your lungs, the space between cuticle and nail bed, and more terrifyingly, in the synapses of your neurons.

You know them when you see them, the ghost-possessed, the ghost-afflicted, the ghost-ridden. Or perhaps the ghost-drenched, since they had taken me and thrown me into a pit of ghosts, who caressed my face and lulled death songs into my ears.

Yes, one day I would be one of them—I knew that. I too would fade and flare into the minds of the living, sucking at the life sap that surged through their veins, that sap that fueled the rage, excited the loins, made men mad-blind with power and women quiver-faint with love.

Ghosts, so many ghosts in my childhood. There were the basement ghosts: one put his hand on my chest as I was sleeping, in the improvised room that was never finished. The carpet—a cheap remnant from a seedy store. The fireplace—red brick. All very good for ghosts, but it was in the back of the basement, where light was shunned, where the dust bunnies could strangle cats, where every demon on earth came, on starless special nights, to mingle and consort—the back of the basement was the very evilest. Mother, my mother—why did you keep the food you had canned back there, on the scratched-together shelves that, by themselves, would have been a magnet for ghosts? Didn’t you know that that’s how they got into us? Infinitely tiny, they slitthered through the Mason jars, moved through the stalactites of the glass and sand and water. Tiny, yes, but then they grew engorged by sugar and water and all matter of nutrients.

The applesauce you made—it was laced with ghosts. The green beans—not so much. The beets were irresistible, and so full of ghosts that they even came out of our urine, the next day. And so we became ghost-filled.

Filled with ghosts, we moved like ghosts—from the green sofa where my father lay after breakfast, trying to cast the ghosts within into the ghosts without. Mother, in the kitchen, waiting for father to leave, so she could sneak a forbidden cigarette on the porch outside. She crashes the cheap, plastic dishes together, and scolds them into the drainer, the anger and the power tidal-waving out of the kitchen, all the better to wake him. To get him to leave, so she can expel the ghosts in smoke.

We were three, my brothers and I—and all of us had ghosts that crept along the sinews of our muscles, and roller-coasted down our nerves, exploding into the synapses.

Ah, a ghost in a synapse is fearfully bad, for the ghost tears from one nerve ending to the next nerve beginning, and then back again. No other message will get through—and none did. The feet moved, of course, and the mind worked well enough, enough so that I can tell you: Lansing, state capital of Michigan. Principal products of Idaho: potatoes, wheat, and livestock corn.

These facts were important, since they could occupy the spaces not yet afflicted with ghosts. But each day, the ghosts grew more numerous. They flitted through our brain and played Frisbee in our guts, nor did they hide or flee when any ghost removal specialist, sent from the Department of Ghost Affairs, came by. No, the ghosts stayed at the street corners of our minds, leaning against lampposts and jeering.

It may have been that they, our parents, wanted us to have the ghosts—and why shouldn’t they, since they themselves soldiered on with ghosts, while the dreams of power and love slowly greyed—the color of ghosts—and then faded, and then turned into a wisp, and at last ceased even to be a memory. Yes, that can happen, I can tell you—I come from the land of ghosts, and I know.

Miss Cairns
Kindergarten teacher
Died the summer after my Kindergarten year

Miss Warren—first grade teacher.
Room 148.
Referred to only as SHE.

The rest? Ah, the ghosts had gotten to me: the names and the faces and the individual quirks all forgotten now. Shoved away by the ghosts, who only got more numerous as the minutes dragged in those leaden days when the holidays themselves refused to come, and summer was a place like Paris. A place for other people, who would know how to order the café au lait and chat with the waiter. Yes, the holidays kept receding even as you approached them, so that Christmas day was an impossibility, a figment of the mind, something occurring—if at all—just after the Second Coming.

The little desk with the chair attached, and the desk top that comes up and reveals last week’s math homework which you were afraid to hand in, so riddled with mistakes it would be, and now your name is on the blackboard, under the heading of “Pending Homework” so that everybody can see. And whose fault is it? The ghosts, of course, who have come up through the hole in the desk and turned the sevens into threes, and have twisted subtraction into division, and have rolled all the sixes down to the bottom of the page, where they are learning how to invert and become nines.

I should have put tape over that hole, that stupid, meaningless hole at the bottom of the desk—did you know that’s pupitre in French? That’s the kind of fact we hurled against the ghosts, only to have them hurled back at us—why else can I, age 59 and with a broken back (so heavy have the ghosts become), tell you this silly fact, that even the French don’t know?

It was a conspiracy, that’s what it was: they knew that Mindy Peckham (future Harvard alumna) had gotten to the desk first thing in the morning of the very first day of classes, and she had PLUGGED that hole, dammit, so that actually doing homework was unnecessary. All that was needed was to lift the desktop, and poof! The homework assembled itself, and then the grade appeared, and then was entered into the fearsome book (grey, of course—though sometimes red, for failure) that the teacher alone could see. Yes, the grade-book, filled with checks and marks and letters and numbers—all the better for the divination of the calculation of the sum and subtraction of the products of the square roots that would be you, on a June day that will never come and that cannot be escaped. Well, by merely lifting her desktop, the numbers in the grade-book are soaring, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Midvale Elementary School hitting the highest notes of Joy To The World, which is what Mindy is, and why John Harvard is salivating bronzely from his perch above the slab of marble in Harvard Yard.

But the ghosts had gotten to me already, and befuddled my brain and fogged my vision—so I didn’t, like Mindy Peckham, who would become the spiritual consort of John Harvard—I didn’t see the hole. And then, all the papers and erasers and pencils and books and notebooks got all crammed together, and then the pens exploded, and it became a SURGING MESS, and that’s when the teacher announced—desk inspection!

I can’t open the desk because the ghosts will come out—you can see that, can’t
 you?—and Miss Steensland will look at the ghosts and know: I am soiled and polluted and dirty and filthy and ridden with ghosts. More ghosts than a dog has fleas. More ghosts than a leper has sores. More ghosts than all the piranhas in the Amazon swimming siren songs to all the snakes in the steaming jungle.


Thursday, January 21, 2016


A stranger I came, and a stranger I left—so begins the most famous song cycle of all, Schubert’s Winterreise. But who am I, and where had I come to?

It’s often said: Puerto Rico hits you from the moment you step out of the airport. Yes, the very air is different: I have lived through a Chicago summer when it was above 100 degrees at two in the morning. Will that ever happen here? Never—the goal is to make it to sundown, and then crack that first beer.

That said, the humidity soaks the air completely—you move as if in water. And I, despite two and a half decades living on the island, still arrive to any destination soaked in sweat. The café where I write, in fact, simply hands me paper towels when I walk in.

I first came to Puerto Rico in 1990, and I hated it. I told my Sonia: “I’m a man of hills, not mountains, and lakes, not oceans. But it was more than that: the sheer electricity of the place unnerved me. Consider—Raf picked me up with his sister, but everyone else? Whole families—from the 92 year-old abuela to the month-old nephew were out in full force, and the greetings were loud and joyful. Tears were shed, pictures taken, hugs abounded, songs were sung.

The sister drove us through Condado—the same tourist area where the hospital was located. It seemed at the time an old thing to do: her own apartment was in the opposite direction. But perhaps she was signaling: see the hotels, the neon lights, the gaudiness and the action? We’re no backwater here! At any rate, we got to her apartment, and I asked, in my tentative way, if there was a bathroom.

“Yes,” she replied, “we do have running water here….”

I was horrified, of course, and apologized profusely. But it was my first introduction to the strange combination of a superiority complex that, in a flash, can morph in to inferiority.

“Puerto Rico does it better,” is the official tourist slogan of the island, and in many ways its true. Daily, I see it. Half an hour ago, the good Santana, patriarch of the clan that will rule the café soon, told me that papaya smoothie that I forgot to pay for was free. Why?

“It was medicine.”

This presents a problem, since I currently want another one—but how can I accept free smoothies? The solution? Put five bucks in the tips jar—and make sure the staff sees it. Then ask for the free smoothie.

It is an island where everything is personal. Perfect strangers call me mi amor, and any interaction of more than two minutes means that you kiss the woman on her right cheek. Once, walking with my friend Sonia, we passed a record store—remember those?—with music blasting out the open door. Sonia began to dance in place; a man approaching did the same. They drifted toward each other, clasped each other, danced for several minutes, until the man danced Sonia in the direction we had been heading. I stood still, watched—of course gringos can’t dance—and then rejoined Sonia, the man having kissed her and gone his way.

“Who was that,” I asked.

“I have no idea,” she said.

In gringolandia, we tend to rely on systems. The government will provide adequate transportation, some sort of schooling for the kids, water that can actually be drunk, police who respond to calls. Does that happen here?

Yes and no. I took the yellow bus from Caguas to San Juan every day for years, and it never failed me. Well, once a car crashed into the bus, and left us all stranded on the side of the road. But then the gods stepped onto the stage: the sent a former student of seven or eight years past who made a U turn, escaped the horrific traffic jam, picked me up, relearned my name, and drove me to San Juan. Then he went back and did the horrific traffic jam again. This act of kindness must have taken him at least an hour and a half.

There are drawbacks, of course. When I worked at Walmart, one of my coworkers was handicapped: she walked on the side of her right foot, though really, it wasn’t walking but lurching. She had a well-deserved reserved parking space, and anybody who dared to park there would have suffered a shunning unto the fifth generation. The very same people, however, would cheerfully park on the sidewalk, forcing me to walk in the street. Not a problem, perhaps, except when the sun was setting, and the light blinding my eyes. Oh, and since I was carrying a cello around frequently during those days, it made me a bit pensive. We can afford to lose a cellist to the on-coming traffic, but my instrument, made in 1835? I’d hate to see it splintered on the pavement.

There is, however, a steep learning curve for the gringo living in Puerto Rico. I once called a government office, and inquired where, on the main drag, the office was located.

“Stop 17 ½” I was told.

I asked for a street number, and the person was completely confused. The answer finally came back: I was to go to stop 17 and walk half a block up.

Time is different as well, since the meetings that were supposed to start a 8 AM tended to start at 8:20. This brought withering scorn from the head of Human Resources, and the meetings started on time—for a while. But it was a constant battle, and not often won.

“You don’t know these people like we do,” said one gringa to me shortly after I came to the island. I was stunned, of course, since the line seemed almost a parody of a skit for the Ugly American. But it lies deep among some ex-pats, who live in enclaves where English only is spoken, and who never learn the language.

They will tell you: the roads are terrible, the politicians corrupt, the schools are shameful, the government bloated and completely ineffective—and will they be wrong? Of course not, since any Puerto Rican of any stripe will agree. The woman who works behind the counter of the café is sending her children to a public school, but that was no problem, since it had been “adopted” by the wife of the governor. But for an entire semester, there was no English teacher: since it was the fall semester, the children had been without English for more than half a year. And so the children cannot speak English, but not to worry, because the governor’s wife? She made a charming appearance, complete with shovels and gloves, and healthy young vegetables. And what did she do?

Planted a garden, as the assembled parents stood by, looking on and being filmed by the television crews.

“Did you ask her about the English teacher,” I asked.

Elizabeth just gave me a look.

Or consider this: there is just across from the University of Puerto Rico an elementary school built in the early 1900’s. The name? Hawthorne—since the gringos who came to Puerto Rico were determined to put their stamp on everything. The school is charming, yes, but there is a drain with sewage running out of it immediately in front of the front door. I mentioned this to Mr. Fernández, and he instantly knew which drain I was speaking about, because it had been spewing sewage even in his days, thirty years past.

“But where are the parents?” I asked.

“The problem is when it rains hard,” said Mr. Fernández, but is Puerto Rico the only place suffering from torrential rains? Of course not. And so it is assumed: whatever stopgap solution the water utility might employ today, the next heavy rain will wash it away. And so the problem continues even today.

The resilience of the people is amazing: situations that would drive a gringo into an utter fury are accepted, dealt with, and forgotten. Zorba, Lady’s brother, recently went to have his license renewed. Could he do so? No, since his car had been reported as stolen. By whom, inquired Zorba. It turned out that the culprit was Zorba himself: he had stolen his own car.

“That’s crazy,” said Zorba. “I’ve been making payments every month since 2013!”

The solution? It involved going to the police, to the insurance company, to the bank for cancelled checks, to the government insurance agency—and all of the visits required a piece of paper that Zorba didn’t have, so the whole thing was a bureaucratic tangle, since there was no place to start the process. How did it get resolved? No one, not even Zorba, is quite sure.

For the simplest affair, a pala is needed. I once told a student working at the governor’s mansion that I had been waiting for weeks to get my telephone installed, even though in Chicago it had never been necessary for the company to come at all: they just activated the box from the office. But the student called the president of the company, and what did I find, when I walked back home? It was less a crew of telephone installers than a convention of them.

Puerto Rico, they will tell you, is in the direst of straits, but did that stop the half million people or so who came into the old city last weekend to party? Of course not—the politicians got us into this mess, the politicians will get us out of it (or so the thinking goes).

It’s an island that embraces the absurd, that cherishes the ridiculous, that revels in inanity. When the rumors of the chupacabra (the mythical creature which sucks the blood of animals and leaves their carcasses strewn about) arose, the mayor of Canóvanas knew just what to do. He and the boys went scrambling around the back of city hall, and came up with some rusty old rejas (the iron bars that go over the windows, here). These they fashioned into a sort of cage, into which they placed a bemused goat. They then spread out and—armed to the teeth—prepared to lure the beast and kill it. Fortunately, the creature didn’t show, since the boys had been drinking quite a bit of beer, and would probably have killed each other rather than the chupacabra.

Such stories abound—another mayor conceived the idea of bringing over an enormous (and supremely ugly) statue of Christopher Columbus. It was over 350 feet tall, and was in the flyway of the airport. Well, it had been turned down by three other cities, but did that deter the mayor? Of course not: he got the statue and he got it free! Of course, the sculptor had learned a retailer’s trick or two, since he got the mayor on the shipping (it was well over a million bucks).

Indeed, the island’s mayor constitute a sort of national treasure. Who can forget Doña Fela, the first female mayor of a major American city, and who ran a tight ship, greatly aided by all her nephews, nieces, and extended family. Churlish tongues tasked her about nepotism, but she was quick with the answer. Who, she pointed out, could you trust, if you couldn’t  trust your own family? Well, that took care of that!

García Márquez once said that you couldn’t live long with Puerto Ricans, but it would be impossible to live without them. My mother-in-law, however, has a different take, at least as far as I am concerned.

“You’ll never leave Puerto Rico,” she told me, “you’ll just stay here and laugh at us!”

“I beg your pardon, Madam,” I told her, “I pay homage to Puerto Rico through laughter.”  



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hospital Daze

“So write about the pain,” said Lady, who regards the lack of a blog post as a sort of betrayal. And does it matter that I can barely sit up? Of course not, because ever resourceful, she has the answer.

“You can just dictate into the phone, and it will record and format, and automatically upload to the blog, as well as any YouTube videos you want to include!”

I have no doubt that my cell phone can do this. But its user? The guy who couldn’t figure who the three missed calls were this morning? Yes, maybe on a good day I could do it, but not when I had a famished Hannibal Lecter salivating at the base of my spine.

But all that is beyond the point. Pain is another country, and to go beyond it, into the land of health, you first travel through the checkpoint of amnesia. And worse, you traverse the same checkpoint on entering.

Consider, for example, how I spent my days: reading, writing, playing my cello, and teaching. Was any of that worthwhile? What should I have done, that last day before all that taken from me?

I had been to the hospital and suffered through seven or eight hours of institutionalization, and had escaped it all by meeting a Puerto Marcus Welby, who instantly realized that the doctor treating me was either a quack (she wasn’t) or having a bad day (she was, but so was I). She had, in fact, come into my—well what was it? It was neither a room nor a cubicle—rather, it was a space containing four beds and four people. So she entered into what I began calling and “no man’s land” and addressed the IV bag. Like a fool, I thought I had priority, and asked whether she had seen the results of the CT scan.

I had spent two hours drinking barium, and then had promptly been taken off to get a scan of my abdomen. The very nice radiologist had told me that he would read it, and then deliver the results to the nurses’ station.

That had been three hours ago, during which I had frozen silly, since the ambient air temperature is a weird feature of all Puerto Rican hospitals. You readers up there in Wisconsin, on this January day? You ain’t felt nothin’….

So I was there, covered by—and could I make this up?—a large piece of paper, which yes, was in the shape (roughly) of a blanket, but there all the similarities ended. Oh, and since no one has invented a paper pillow, I was also getting a stiff  neck. Anyway, there were three other people in our corner of the ER, and then Raf came into the room. (He being Mr. Fernández, and also my husband, since I’ve gotten tired of writing “friend” on forms. Look, do I wash my friends’ underwear?)

So he gave me a look that I’ve seen on those horrible days at the vet, and that’s when I realized: I definitely wasn’t ready for my screen shot, Mr. DeMille. So we had chatted and held hands, and then we had agreed. The sensible thing to do was go home and feed the cats. Why hang around doing nothing? I was within spitting distance of discharge, I am a former nurse, I can play systems: didn’t I survive for seven years in corporate America?

And so he left, and oddly, seeing him go, I got tears in my eyes. He was living, you see, in that other world, where cats are important and a problem is that you forget to pick up the laundry.

So he left and I waited. And waited. And then—completely lacking in imagination, this time around—I waited some more. I waited for perhaps three hours, periodically checking to see if the doctor was in sight. Was she? Of course not. So I went back to the default mode, which of course was…waiting.

I’ve said it before: Puerto Rican doctors are excellent, but the hospitals? Well, my mother-in-law had spent three months in one of the best hospitals on the island, but what happened when she needed  an X-ray? Well, the doctor wrote the order, the nurses sent it down to radiology, and then the excuses began. Pedro (the X-ray guy) had an emergency. Then he had lunch. Then—and finally the truth finally emerged—Pedro was…well, nobody knew for sure.

The sisters were enraged. And no one can fault Mr. Fernández’s sisters for lack of energy or (especially) character—they embarked on a search for Pedro. Remember the search the Boston Bomber? That was a summer’s day picnic in comparison to the quest for Pedro. True, the sisters lacked high power weapons and helicopter support, but everything that could be done was. The sisters charged through doors marked “Authorized Personnel Only” They not only looked into dumpsters, they overturned them. They corralled staff and interrogated them, in an attempt to learn not where Pedro was, but where he lived or liked to drink. Finally, Pedro was found, and two sisters stayed with him to make the voyage to mother’s bed; the other went to bring the glad news to Mother.

Oh, and they were good enough to turn his pager back on!

I saw all of this, but did I remember it, as the hours passed in the ER? Of course not, and so I looked around, and began to get gloomy. I am still young, comparatively, but the when I get older? When being in doctor’s offices and hospital beds is less than an oddity but rather a parallel reality? How will I fare? Because it was not just I, waiting for Dr. Godot, we were all waiting for Godot. And with just the same results.

I began to think—can I grow old here? It was bad enough for my mother, up there in Wisconsin, whose only complaint of the hospital was the staff’s use of the expression, “go ahead?”

I asked about this.

“Well, everybody who enters the room says something like, ‘well, let me just go ahead and change your sheets. ‘ And it’s beginning to bug me. Why can’t they just say ‘may I change your sheets?”

Obviously, having been an editor for years, she had carried right on, and was practicing in the auditory realm. I will say, however, that after an hour’s time, it was bugging me.

The point—and my mother would have deleted that digression—is that having a problem with the use of “go ahead” is, well, not a problem. One could safely call it a quibble.

Some people—were they bribing the staff?—did manage to leave, and then, as quickly as the orderly was able to rip the paper off the gurney, other people arrived. And that was when the gods who rule over Puerto Rico intervened.

It was a gentleman who clearly wasn’t well; it was his wife who clearly was worried but also very practiced in the emergency room arts. Why, well she came with all the luggage of Edwardians embarking on a transatlantic cruise. Blankets? She had three. Pillows? Impossible to count. Oh, and the snacks? Had she held up Zabars?

(For those not familiar with Zabars, well, the cheese counter alone is as big as your average living room….)

So she was well travelled in this land, and she heard the terrible words of one who was not. That would be me, and that would be the doctor, just returned from her facial, pedicure, and deep Swedish massage—complete with heated stones from the mountains surrounding Uppsala, but I digress—she appeared, looking ten years younger. And we had not a conversation but a clash.

How did it happen? I don’t know, but I must have asked about the MRI, she must have responding brusquely, and I snapped.

“Listen, if the report doesn’t come soon, I’ll check out AMA.”

For doctors, AMA is their professional organization; for patients, AMA is “against medical advice.” A better writer could make something of this, but I am Pooh, not Owl.

And so my cellmate’s wife had heard these fatal words, as well as the doctors, hissed over her shoulder as she stomped out of the area: “Fine! Go right ahead! You’ve had excellent care!”

Here, the limitations of the written screen are glaring, because there should have been the sound of a thunderclap, or maybe French horns, or anything that the studio could rustle up to indicate an ominous sound. It was clear: I would never see that doctor again.

Yes, it was over, and so I was going to have to wait until her shift was over, and then start in on the next doctor. Here my fellow traveller stepped in, especially after seeing the radiologist, come to collect her husband and intercepted by me. What had he said?

“Oh, I left the report at the nurse’s station a couple hours ago!”

She was good enough to turn around, put a restraining hand on the radiologist, and tell me. “I’d go to the nurse’s station and gently inquire. Oh, and never go to the ER alone….”

She had reminded me: direct confrontation is impossible in Puerto Rico. What’s needed? The ay bendito, which is impossible to translate, but which you can read below.

I went to the nurses’ station and waited until someone made eye contact. This is important because, well, if they refuse to look at you, why would they help you? So an older man, looking very much like a doctor, looked up and greeted me. I returned the salute, inquired about his family, saw pictures of his latest grandchild and also some Paso Finos (he was a horse enthusiast) and then—after getting his address so I could send him a Christmas card –I started what I needed to do.

“Listen, I’m really sorry for the bother, and I know how busy you are, but I’m a little confused. You see, the radiologist told me that the MRI were at the nurses’ station, but the doctor says she hasn’t seen them. Could they have been misplaced?”

 It worked: the doctor found the lab results, read them, explained them, and told me he would discharge me at once. The ordeal was over.

I got a prescription for an antibiotic, paid the fifty-dollar deductible, and then called Raf and told him I was on my way. No problem—I would take a cab, since it was Condado, only 11:30 or so, and the place would be hopping. I mean, it’s a tourist area, and popular with the young crowd….

It wasn’t. Either the vogue changed, or the whole island was attending an AA meeting, but even the ghosts had deserted this town. So I walked the empty streets—I was hoping they were empty, because something told me that anybody I encountered on this street would make me long for the emergency room—until at last I hailed a cab. It was, thought, bad but over.

Wrong. It was starting, and about to get much worse