Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Nun's Tale

“We find it so important not to judge the girls,” said Mother Elizabeth. “Here at Seven Sorrows of our Sorrowful Mother, we do our best to receive each young lady as a fellow seeker in Christ. We receive them with open arms, and never cast judgment on them. Instead, we pray daily for their salvation, and that they might see the error of their ways, so as better to fulfill the mandates of Christ, our Lord.”

Mother Elizabeth stopped, and waited as a younger nun poured tea.

“One of our newest novitiates,” she murmured, after the nun had left the room. “She too was fallen, but through rigorous training and great prayer, has redeemed herself in the loving eyes of our Lord…”

“How much will it be,” I said, since I had no experience with nuns. Actually, the whole experience was weird, but what isn’t, when you’re 16? I mean, there was no reason I had to be there: I wasn’t the father of the child. But I was Joan’s best friend, and I had been with her while she had had an affair with an older man.

“Our services are entirely free of charge,” said Mother Elizabeth, “though of course what we do—providing shelter, food, medical services, nursing care until the child is born—is not cheap. And of course, seeing that the baby is received into a good Catholic home, and then following up to ensure that the child is baptized and then given his or her first communion—well, it takes time and money. And so many families, if they can do so, are generous enough to give a suggested fee.”

Mother pushed a brochure towards me: I swore, if there had been a pencil on the table, she would have used that, rather than dirty her hand with anything so crass. Well, I suppose I should have read it later, but I opened it—the cover was a picture of the ghastly statue of the Virgin Mary that we had passed on the way in—and glanced at the prices.

“Wow, 600 hundred dollars,” I said.

Joan kicked me under the table.

It was 1972—that’s about 1200 bucks in today’s money. And we were both 16, so did we have that kind of money? Then I remembered: Joan’s father was a neurosurgeon, as well as a major drunk. The drinking was a problem: the money was not.

“Of course, for those who are unable,” she paused, “or unwilling to contribute, we do expect help with the necessary chores of the orphanage. Cooking, light cleaning, and laundry, which brings us in a bit of additional income.”

In fact, Joan would tell me later: the whole thing was a scam. Because the nuns would leave you alone if you could pop the $600 bucks for the two month stay. But if you weren’t so lucky? If your mother had just dumped you off, pregnant and starting to show, at the front gate?

That’s how a lot of them got there, Joan told me later. The girl would have done what Joan had done: had sex with someone they loved, or thought they did. Then, they would have missed their first period. Right—maybe not so worrisome. Maybe just some fluctuation in their cycle. After all, they were adolescent: they were still establishing themselves, menstrually.

Then came the awful part: the six weeks turned to two months. OK—a skipped period. But what about the morning sickness? And why did some smells—fried food, cigarette smoke—nauseate?

It was the worst fate a girl could suffer. Because would the boy get the blame? Only in the most moralistic houses: every boy was expected to want it, lust for it, do anything for it.

“Getting to first base,” guys used to call it. Which meant what—kissing? Putting your hand on her breast? I seem to remember that feeling her crotch was second or third base, and do I have tell you what “going all the way” was?

Did I do any of it?

No, despite my close friendship with Joan, and several other girls, I had done nothing. I was, in the words of my mother, a late bloomer. Which meant that I could be a gifted cellist, I could get A’s without too much effort, and I could stay at home and listen to classical music, instead of begging for the car to go out with girls.

It was a fiction that we preserved: I would, perhaps after college and after having found a good job, meet a young woman, fall in love, and then marry. Hadn’t my father done much the same thing? After all, he was in his 30’s when he had married my mother….

“It’s wonderful,” said Mother Elizabeth to Joan, “that you have such support from such a fine young man….”

She glanced at me.

“Oh, no,” said Joan quickly. “We’re just friends. I mean, he’s not….”

“I see,” said Mother Elizabeth. What was she thinking: that Joan didn’t know who was the father of her child? That we were lying, even as we were arranging for Joan to have her out of wedlock baby in the orphanage?

She must have seen a lot, the Mother Superior. The girls who trudged up the long driveway: the orphanage had been a farm, before the founder had had her first vision. And so they arrived, tears streaking down their dusty faces. Their parents—more often their mother—had dropped them off at the gate. Sometimes, it had been rigid silence that had been their farewell: often as not, it had been a hissed reproach.

“I never thought I’d see the day when a daughter of mine….”

Curiously, it was often the fathers, and not the mothers, who came into the orphanage, waited nervously outside Mother Elizabeth’s study. No matter what time they arrived, or how early or late, she kept them waiting for at least ten minutes before she saw them. And she made sure to have plenty of Kleenex, since both father and daughter would be in tears after she was done with them.

“She’s a good girl, Mother, she just made a mistake….”

“I swear, Mother, if I had known….”

“We go to Mass regular, Mother. It’s not how she was raised….”

The more they spoke, the less Mother had to say, or chose to say. No, she sat there in her black habit, with the white wimple, and she radiated peace and sanctity. When the tension became unbearable, she took control.

“I’m sure you’d like to hear a bit of our story,” she would say, “since you’ll be with us until the wee one comes. And I think you’ll find it inspiring. So many do.”

Inspiring? Even then, I thought it was lunatic, but it was a different time. People still believed, in the early seventies, in the holiness of the Roman Catholic Church. Priests were still God’s representatives on earth; nuns were the brides of Christ, who had given up the most precious gift on earth—motherhood—to follow their vocation.

But even the most devout would have had a hard time with this story: Mary Ann van Hoof, the founder of the orphanage, had had a vision from the virgin, who out of convenience was referred in their writings as the BVM, of Blessed Virgin Mary. And the BVM was wonderfully up to date on things. All right, she was a veritable dragon for chastity, for modesty—there were shrines all over the grounds, but one had to don special modest clothing, kept on hand, to get near them. No, the BVM had several messages, such as the allegation that 30,000 priest in the United States were Communist spies. Then we got to the Vatican II reforms, which were heresy, of course. Instead of the mass in the vulgate, the mass should have been given in Latin, as Jesus had done.

Jesus gave mass?

And in Latin?

But such trifles were easily brushed aside. As were the scoffing of the ostensibly faithful. For Mary Ann van Hoof had gone much further. She announced the dates on which the BVM had graciously agreed to come, though she preferred to make invisible appearances. And then, van Hoof had gone further: she claimed that she suffered the stigmata on every Good Friday after some point. Of course, nobody had seen the stigmata, since she suffered it, in the way of the BVM, invisibly.

But how she suffered! She writhed in her bed, she shrieked, she yowled as the spikes were driven into first her right hand and then her left. Then it was her feet, and we could all see the sinister in invisible hands driving the nails them. At this point, van Hoof would be howling, twisted in pain, sweating, even in the cool April afternoon.

At last she pulled off her greatest feat: she announced that the Virgin Mary—sorry, that’s the BVM—would be stopping by on August 15, 1950. And so great was her fame that nearly 100,000 people had crammed into her farmyard, and all were waiting for the miraculous event.

And did she disappoint—either van Hoof or the BVM.

Ah, for those who could see, she did not. For van Hoof appeared at the theatrically correct moment, and shouted to the multitude to lift the faces and gaze upon the sun!

There were those who reported being blinded.

There were those who saw the sun spin.

There were those who saw nothing.

I knew, of course, into what camp I would have fallen. For even as I sat and listened to the wonderful stories—and they were to be wondered—I knew that I would have seen nothing, and believed nothing. That said, however, I didn’t know why, since the word hadn’t been created. Why name something that didn’t exist? It was only later that I could say…

…that I was gay.                

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Old Man and the Rope

You never know when disaster might hit, and is the average man prepared?

Hell no, the common Joe goes through life thinking two things: it’ll never happen to him, and if it does, well, somebody will take care of him.

Well, screw that!

Have you ever been in a burning building? I have, decades ago, in Milwaukee. A disgruntled former tenant, who had been kicked out of the building, decided to take revenge by torching his former apartment. So there I was, early on a Sunday morning, and the fire alarm was ringing, and I figured it was just a joke, and I could ignore it. And I would have, too, if I hadn’t noticed a plume of smoke—escaping like the Holy Ghost—wisping out of my stove.

How could that be? Still don’t know, but I knew what I had to do, because the Old Man had told me a thousand times. In a possible fire, you put the back of your hand on the door before you open it.

These are things kids need to know. And who is gonna teach ‘em if there’s no father around? You think a woman can?

No, guys are what we need.


Men who know how to do things, like get out of the building when the asshole next door to you decides his revenge is worth more than your life. Well, fuck that!

So I put the back of my hand on the door, wondering as I did why it had to be the back of my hand, not the palm. Was the back more sensitive? Less likely to be sweaty? No matter, the Old Man was telling me: so I put the hand on the door, and it was cool.

So I get out—and what do I see? Nothing, since there is billowing smoke all through the hallway, and that’s where the Old Man failed me. Or I failed him. Because I should have retreated, called 911, gone to the window—I was only on the second floor, for God’s sake—and waited.

Fact—most fires aren’t big enough and hot enough to burn through the average wooden door.

So I should have waited—that’s what the Old Man woulda done. But did I?

Fuck that—I was getting’ outta that damn building. So I charged down the hall—not knowing where the hell the fire was, and how stupid was that? And that’s when BAM! I hit the damn wall.

Whatever idiot it was who built the building had put a curve in each end of the hall. So simple enough when it’s your average Sunday morning, and you’ve gone off to the get the bagels and cream cheese and Sunday New York Times. Right—those Sundays you see the curve, veer off 30 degrees, and think nothing about it. But me? That Sunday? I’m flying down the hall, except not, since the air at 6’3” is pretty damn hot, and I hunker down without thinking. And so I’m hurtling toward the goal line in the first game of Apartment House Football of my life, and that’s when I go headfirst smack into the damn wall. And damn, does that sucker tackle me!

So I’m flat on my ass—all right, my side—and there’s not much of anywhere else to go but out, so now I’m crawling on my knees towards the staircase, and I find it, too. Or rather, it finds me, because now the smoke has gotten bad, and I’m gagging and about to vomit but I can’t, because there isn’t time. So fuck that—I’m getting the hell out of the building, and that’s when the staircase happens before I happen, or rather, before I think it happens. Which means I’m going down headfirst. OK—I could probably do that on a good day, but a day with a fire? Well, that kinda puts a kink in the day….

So if having a belly full of smoke didn’t make me nauseated, now I’m doing cartwheels down the staircase and is it a straight shot? Of course not, because now I get to the landing, where I’m supposed to turn right and go down the other set of stairs. (Remember that curve in the wall up there? Well, that’s where the cheap bastards who built the building got the space for the second flight of stairs! Sons of bitches!)

So now, BAM again—‘cause there is a certain momentum to falling down stairs, so the landing that was was the landing that wasn’t. Which is to say that the stairs landed, but not Marc, and I hurled myself against the wall, which I swear all but pushed me off, and down the second set of stairs.

Fortunately, smoke goes up, and I was going down, and so the air is cleaner down there, and I can see the door outside, which some asshole has left open. Or was it the guy who torched the apartment next to mine? Anyway, the fire is getting plenty of oxygen now, and I will be too, or would have been if I’d been able to get out. But now the damn firemen are coming in, and they’re doing it with all the grace of the Packer’s defensive line, which is also the way they’re charging. Think elephants stampeding. Oh, but they stop to throw some obscenities towards me. I mean, did they think I just drifted in, curious to see if there might be a fire? Well, screw them!

So I’m outta there—but fortunately I’m young and supple, and hitting a few walls and rolling down stairs my body can take. And that’s when I call the Old Man up, and he cusses me out, ‘ cause that’s how men tell their sons they love them. Asked me what kind of damn fool I was, living in an apartment without a fire rope!

Fire rope?

Damn straight, he says, ‘cause you gotta get ready beforehand, ‘cause you won’t have time in the emergency. Any damn fool knows that! So I should have had a fire rope, and it should have been tied to the radiator, which was under the damn window. And speaking of which—did I know that I could get out that window? What kinda asshole doesn’t check the window, push the screen gently to test its stability, and then estimate the drop to the ground? Then, dammit, the very first day you go out to the hardware store, and you buy twice the length you need, cause it doesn’t matter how much football—and how many ten-yard lines—you’ve played. Most folks don’t know how long—or short—100 yards is….

Then, he finished up, then you can go to sleep at night, because you know: anything happens? Why, you got your fire rope!

Well, he reamed my ass out good, the Old Man, and then why wasn’t I surprised when I got the package three days later? Because he knew I had called my brothers, to inquire: were they just as damn lacking as me? Surely, my brother, in his sixth floor prewar Manhattan apartment building…surely he checked his fire rope every night! Probably had a checklist—or he damn well shoulda—and if his damn wife had made him put it in a little box, which she had decorated with Martha Stewart faggotry, well, at least he had it! And my other brother? The one who so resembled my Old Man’s younger brother? Remember how he took the boat out for a ride in Lake Monahegan, and forgot to check the damn boat hitch? Plus, he never put the supplemental chains on, either, so there he was, going up the hill. And the boat? Going down!

Well, it was probably trying to get away from the damn fool, and serve him right! Except, of course, that the sheriff was coming up the damn hill too, and right behind the boat that was coming down!

Well the Old Man told me—I wasn’t much. Never learned a thing in my life, and never listened to anyone, either. That’s the problem: I think too much. No common sense. So dammit, if he had to, he’d go to the damn hardware store and buy the rope, and he had half a mind to drive 80 miles over to Milwaukee and attach it, too. ‘Cause I was too much of a smart ass to listen to the Old Man, and hadn’t he been right?

Well, I thought of him, as I lay on my bed hurting with a broken back, these last several months. I though about the fire ropes I had, and the fire ropes I had left behind, tied to rusting, wheezing radiators. The fire rope I had given to lovers long passed, no longer missed. Men who needed a rope for whatever reason, and I had one, and the Old Man? Would he know, sitting as only he could in his damn chair by the fire?

No, he wouldn’t come, and he’d never know. Couldn’t, really. He’d stay right at home, thank you, and let his sons go off to those damn cities, where they’d learn to eat Focaccia and pita bread, dammit, instead of the good white bread they were brought up with. White bread, and you take a bite of it and mix it in with the meatloaf, and is there anything better?

That’s the thing about pain: it’s elemental.  Time and distance change, but a man long gone came in the room again, sat down by my side, and told me to lie on my side.

That’s what he did, summer nights in Wisconsin, when I was a child.

That’s what he did, those hot January nights in San Juan, when I was paining.

So he was scratching my back, and the crickets decided to sing half a century into the tropical air, and he was talking softly and about nothing much, since he never did have much to say. Well, he did, but what Old Man says it? So the pain goes on, but the scratching is nice, and I’m drifting off to sleep, when I can tell he’s got up.

“Where are you going,” I ask him.

“To the damn hardware store,” he tells me.

He checked, you see….      


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Four Months On

“But how did you manage the Antabuse-like effects?” asked my doctor.

It was only then that I realized: Flagyl, the medicine that the doctor had given me, reacted to alcohol in the same way that Antabuse did. And so, unwittingly, I was flirting with a constellation of symptoms, none of which was good. There was sweating, rapid heart beat, thirst, nausea and severe vomiting, and, especially….

…light headedness.

How much of any of this did I have? In fact, I have no memory, although whatever happened must have been insignificant: the next morning I went to the pharmacist, and came home to search for a list of gastroenterologists, which I sent to myself by email. So I must have been functioning, however much the subsequent pain may have erased my memory.

But her comment stayed in my mind since a lingering question remained: why had I fallen? And why had the fall been like nothing I’d experienced before?

I know what I believed: that I had woken up at three in the morning with a severe charley horse, which I had been having frequently. Always before, I leapt out of bed, grabbed the footboard, and stood on tiptoe leaning forward on the affected leg. That forces the extension of the contracting muscle. And that’s exactly what I did—or thought I had done.

The next thing I knew was the sound of my body hitting the floor.

My mother once told me: there’s no sound like the sound of a body falling dead weight to the floor. And my initial reaction—beyond the shock—was anguish. Did I say, “Oh, NO! I’VE FALLEN!”

I think so, and I knew it was no little fall. But did I know how bad it was? No, because I should have called for Raf, I should have gone to the hospital by ambulance, and I should have (I suspect) had surgery. But I only knew that I had to get back in bed; I had, I imagined, merely strained my back.

I now think that, perhaps due to the light-headedness of the Flagyl and alcohol, I blacked out. And since I was leaning forward at the time of the fall, that would explain why my lumbar spine, normally inclining inward but then exposed somewhat outward, took the brunt of the blow.

In fact, the neurosurgeon whom I saw recently questioned: what is a guy of 59 doing with a compression fracture? Normally, it afflicts older people with osteoporosis, or people who suffer traumatic injury like a fall from a height. He advised a bone density test; I wondered whether what was essentially an unbroken fall would have been enough to account for the fractures.

At any rate, I reacted to the fall with unparalleled denial. If I sneeze, I will Google every condition from allergies to hay fever to tuberculosis. But even after I got the MRI results, did I look up, “burst fractures,” about which Mt. Sinai says:

Burst fractures are much more severe than compression fractures. The bones spread out in all directions and may damage the spinal cord. This damage can cause paralysis or injury to the nerves, which control the body's ability to move or feel sensations.

In fact, my dread over the long San Sebastian Street festival was not unfounded: shards of the broken vertebrae can lodge in the disc, and may lodge in the spinal column itself.

But did I look up any of this? Of course not, since I knew instinctively that I was on the thinnest of ice. The only thing to do was to take each day at a time, rest, and make sure I didn’t fall again.

If I had looked everything up, I would have known: the little brace from CVS which I wore for two months (and which I am wearing still, mostly to remind me to sit up straight) was entirely insufficient. In fact, I was supposed to be wearing a prescription, tailor-made “molded turtle-like shell brace,” that spanned my entire spinal column. I should have gotten physical therapy. And of course, I should have gone for follow-up visits immediately, and not waited two months.

Nor am I sure how much help any of that would have been. In fact, I had treated my injury in much the same way an animal would have: I withdrew, away from any stimulation or any potential harm. And I waited. But in all of that time, did I reflect on what particular meaning this experience had for me?

No—because doing so would have made me face what I could not face: the severity of the injury, and the utterly amazing fact that I was still up, still walking, and increasingly without pain. The day came when the brace became more trouble than it was worth: I took it off. Weeks passed when I no longer needed pain pills: I took them off the cutting board and put them in the drawer.

Am I out of the woods?

Maybe—but not so out of the woods that I don’t still remember that crushing pain, that agony of moving in bed, and perhaps worst…

…the sound of my body hitting the floor.     

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               The moment I put my tennis shoes on, I realized it: the simple pressure of tying on my shoes was enough to shift the blood back into the veins. And I was wearing, as well, relatively tight and high socks. All of this, plus the movement of walking around from place to place—going into the kitchen to make coffee, the bathroom to wash my hair, back to the bedroom to collect the pillows I had forgotten—all this made the sensation return to my feet”

‘Of course, I thought. I’d been lying in bed all weekend. Dammit, I was a nurse! How many pair of Supp Hose have I put on patients in my life?”

You may have seen them—the long, of waist high white stocking that are called Support Hose, or maybe just Supp Hose, and which are put on bedridden patients. Why? Because the heart pumps blood through the arteries, but what gets the blood back, through the veins? By the time the blood enters the venous system, the force of the heart is no longer stronger enough to return the blood to the heart.

In fact, it is the muscles of the legs that exert pressure on the veins: that pressure alone can be enough. Remember what you did the last time your foot fell asleep? You almost certainly, and instinctively, began moving your foot up and down, stepping in place. Or you simply got up and walked for a bit. At any rate, the numbness went away, and you thought nothing of it.

You didn’t, however, have a broken back. Nor were you essentially confined to a bed for a weekend, since the bedroom was at the back of the apartment, farthest away from the chaos unfolding on the streets outside.

And so I was already on edge, already besieged, and I took to my bed, shortly after venturing out early in the morning g to get food and wine. And then, when the blood began to pool in my feet, did I think like the nurse I had been? Of course not, rather than have the objectivity I would have in any hospital room, I was feeling the terror of the sickbed. The nurse would have sent Raf out to get Supp House: the patient was returning in terror to the emergency room, sure that a slow paralysis was spreading.

And so, I had acted like a complete fool. Should I now call off the trip to the ER? I decided not to, partly out of pride, and partly to be absolutely sure that nothing was happening. And indeed, despite the pillows and the blankets and all of the other accouterments I had brought for a lengthy stay in the hospital, I was seen buy a perfectly nice doctor who shot me up with muscle relaxants, and sent me out the door with prescriptions for more. His one question, really, was whether I was urinating, and that became my touchstone: if I was pissing, I was OK.

It had not been the first time that I had failed as a nurse. In fact, the most colossal failed had been what had started the long, tedious journey into the broken back itself.

Remember—I had been treated for a stomach infection in mid-November. I had gone to the emergency room of a once famed hospital, and had been treated brusquely and very slowly: two or three hours went by before I had even seen a doctor. And the doctor and I had clashed within minutes. From then on, I had undergone a series of treatments, none of which had been explained to me.

A phlebotomist appeared, drew blood, and then left the catheter in my vein, of IV fluids. Shortly thereafter, a nurse came and hung the first bag of IV fluid, with a smaller bag of Cipro piggybacked into it. OK—that made sense, and in fact, I went to get oral Cipro the day after I got out of the emergency room. Cipro attacks a number of bacteria, but what about the other possibility: intestinal parasites? And so I wasn’t surprised when the nurse appeared, and still unspeaking, hung a bag of Flagyl to be given IV as well.

I knew Flagyl, in fact, from decades ago, when I had worked in a venereal disease clinic. In fact, I had taken the drug myself, as we all did in those days of relative promiscuity—it was effective against trichomoniasis, which while common is often asymptomatic. And so we gave Flagyl out left and right, and patients undergoing the treatment were said to be being “flagylated.” And so, for every patient given Flagyl, I had counseled: be sure not to drink alcohol during the treatment, and for three or four days afterwards. Yes, it had been as much second nature as asking a patient if he had ever had an allergy to penicillin, and to making him wait for half an hour after taking the first dose, to make sure he wouldn’t go into shock.

So I had known all of this, decades ago—but what happened as I got released from the hospital, after completing the treatment? Remember, I had scuffled again with the doctor, and then managed to convince another doctor (who probably knew how impossible the first doctor could be) just to release me. He had read the CT report of my abdomen, and essentially told me it was normal. And then he sent me on my way.

Did I ask any questions? Did I do what every patient should do, such as asking about any possible drug reactions or side effects? And di I go home and Google the two drugs I had been given?

Of course not. I left the hospital and discovered that I was in a distinctly chilling ghost town. What had once been a thriving night spot was now deserted: a mugging seemed no likely but inevitable. In desperation, I hailed a cab half a block in front of me: miraculously, he stopped and waited.

So the long ordeal was over: I relaxed against the back seat of the taxi and breathed, seemingly for the first time in hours. I rolled down the window, and smelled the salt air from the ocean as it battered the rocky shore yards away. At last, I came into the old city, where there were people, where there was life, and where I was safe.

Raf, who had seen me briefly at the hospital earlier, and whom KI had incorrectly sent home to feed the cats, was waiting for my with a cheering…

….bottle of wine in his hand!