I was still groggy when Raf’s cousin came, kissed me, told me that she would be releasing me from the hospital, if it weren’t for the fact that I’d refused the X-ray.
“But I’ve already had one,” I told her.
“This is a special one—we have to make sure that nothing is compressing on your spinal cord….”
“Well, no one told me that….”
“That’s OK,” she said. “I told the spinal guy that you weren’t difficult, just really intelligent, and he understood….”
It developed: even being a neurosurgeon is not enough: the spinal column is sufficiently long to allow for sub-sub-specialties. So while she works with the skull base and neck, there’s another guy—unseen—who’s looking at my spine.
Well, sort of looking, because the curious thing is that no one, absolutely no one, has looked at my back. The have CT’ed it, MRI’ed it, X-rayed it but not, in fact, looked at it. And that’s weird, since I could swear that I can feel the place where the fracture is. Granted, I presume the lack of bleeding means that I don’t actually have bones sticking out of me, but shouldn’t some look and see?
At any rate, no one has touched me except to take vitals signs and draw blood. So whatever happened to the laying on of hands? Well, if it’s taking place, it’s taking place internally, since I have remembered the monastery in Chicago where I spent a bit of time, recovering from my mother’s death.
A monastery—ancient buildings, steeped archways, quiet gardens, contemplation—right? In fact, it was none of these things, and I never saw the cells or rooms where the monks hung out. Nor did I have the stamina to wake up at three in the morning—or whenever it was—to hear the monks sing the first office. But in the days of the worst pain, I remembered the monks, remembered the ancient chants, and formed the oddest image an old atheist could concoct.
I was lying face down on the altar, facing the cross. The prior was kneeling at my side, with his hands on each one of the two fractured vertebrae. Around me, in a circle, were the monks—holding each other’s hands, and singing. And so I spent hours of pain-time, feeling the energy of Gregorian chant warming my spine.
Did it work? I have no idea, but I do know that there was no energy for music, and none for serious reading. For I had decided to join the ranks of the elect: to emerge from this enforced period of inactivity having read War and Peace, as well as Anna Karenina….oh, and throw in The Brothers Karamazov. But the energy to listen to music, or absorb serious reading, was too much for me. I lay in bed with my pain, and with six or eight once seen but now-imagined monks.
During this time, I was as likely to be asleep at 3 PM as I was to be awake at 3 AM. And so, in the twisted logic that a pain-ravaged brain can conceive, I decided to eat as much shrimp as I wanted, because do you ever get enough shrimp? Of course not—whatever dish you order comes with just three or four shrimp artfully distributed across the plate. Well, screw that! Because if I was going to be assaulted with this kind of pain, and if at the end of it I might after all stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life….
….and so I was—on my one daily journey out—buying a pound and a half of frozen shrimp, at, yes, an obscene price. I would gorge myself on shrimp in the middle of the night, and then stumble back to bed. In the morning, I would take the plastic bag with the shrimp tails out to the trash—like a drunk taking out his nightly bottle.
Through it all was the fear—one false move and it would be over. A cat, rubbing up against my legs at three in the morning, could provoke a fall, and then it would be a wheelchair for life. So I began to leave lights on, in the bathroom and kitchen. That was fine, but what about all those unthought-of, almost instinctive movements? A cat jumping on the table needs to be swatted—but if I were half-turned, moved suddenly, jerked in some unexpected way? Would that be it?
“Well, I guess you’ll have to have surgery,” said an acquaintance at the café one Monday morning, during this time. And I, who had held it together all of this time, simply became unstrung: I began to cry and could not stop, which is, it must be said, inconvenient in a public spot. But the café has seen many tears—not always of sorrow or pain, but of joy as well. And so I am in the arms of David, the Mexican guy who makes the little plaster houses that Lady will paint. And I am telling him that I can’t, I absolutely can’t have surgery and I can’t stand the pain, and that my whole life has been pain.
Which leads me, in some crazy way, to tell him the whole story of my life, and guess what that has been? Yes, pain—starting with the pain of knowing I was gay and having to do something about that, and then all of the anguish with the cello, and then it was time for a major depression, and let’s see…. Well, there were the wasted years as a nurse, and then the crazy years as a teacher, and then I lost my job…and have I told you my whole life has been about pain? Which is what I am in right now, and what I’ve been in for the last two months, and now some guy tells me casually that I’ll probably have surgery and I can’t, I can’t, I absolutely CANNOT bear the thought of surgery.
So now I am shaking and crying and David is holding me, and caressing my head, and shooing Nico—Lady’s husband—away. For he has seen me for months, writing away at whatever I’m writing, but has he ever seen me in full psychiatric crisis? No, and it’s not pretty, because in addition to the crying and the wails, I am also shaking. And why is that?
News flash—it takes a lot of energy to melt down, and had I had anything to eat? Of course not, so my blood sugar had bottomed out, and I was now in hypoglycemia.
Nor was that all of the problem, since I was halfway on the road to a place called Panic Attack, and so my heart was pounding and my breath was shallow and I was sweating and afraid and couldn’t be alone, and that was a problem since David? His job was to pour plaster into molds, not to hold aging writers undergoing panic.
So then it’s Gabriel’s turn, since he has the misfortune of walking in just as I am realizing: I can’t keep David from his molds forever. So now it’s this 18-year old kid, this sweet and earnest kid who is probably gay but definitely not aware of it. Or so it seems, since I have seen him with his arm around a girl—presumably his girlfriend. Though one of the people in the café asked him about all of that, and then was rebuffed very gently, and not given an answer. Anyway, Gabriel is the new David, which gives me a wonderful opportunity to tell him the whole story of my life, and have I mentioned what that’s been all about? Right—pain! Oh, and also loss.
So now I’m feeling seriously horrible, and I realize: I either pull myself together or they are, yes, going to have to call the ambulance and take me to the loony farm. So what to do?
“Listen, Gabriel—get Santana, and ask him to come here.”
Gabriel is relieved, since it is one of the only things I’ve said that has made any sense. And Santana, when he comes, is perfect, because he is not eighteen, but rather my own age, which means that he’s seasoned. And so I explain that I am in hypoglycemia, and he brings me a papaya smoothie, heavily laced with brown sugar and cinnamon. And then he sits with me as I drink it, and talks calmly, and then he brings me a sandwich. And so I have become the invalid of the Café Poético, since they have brought me a little tray table, and put me in the back of the café, where they can monitor me and hide me from people who—astonishingly—are little interested in writers in breakdown. So I get all that down, and start to feel better but not—because why am I shaking so badly? So now Carlos is the new Santana, since Santana has other things to do, like make sandwiches for paying-and-not-breaking-down customers.
Yes, it’s Carlos, whom I’ve known for a couple of years, and who is a pirate, when needed—which is often, since being a poet and a Yoga teacher? Well, somehow the money isn’t rolling in, so the only solution is to get himself up as a pirate, and then to get “offerings” from tourists after having their picture taken with him. But today, Carlos is un-pirated, since he’s just come from Utuado, where he’s doing something related to something, which I would know if I were in my normal state. Which of course I’m not, and so since I am so anxious, I decide to go and plead with the people at CVS to give me Klonopin. And who will go with me, in case I start bawling in the street? Right—Carlos! So the plainclothes pirate and I are going down the street, and I am breathing deeply and pretending not to be anxious, and Carlos is explaining his project, about which I still know nothing.
Well, the pharmacy can’t give me Klonopin for another week, so what to do? We walk back to the café, stopping at my house to pick up some Benadryl! Yes, Benadryl is the new Klonopin, and it does take the edge off the anxiety, but what has happened to my stomach?
Because all the medicines that I am taking for the pain and the muscle relaxation and everything else have held a conference call, and what has the committee decided? Right, the first battle in the war will be my back, but why not head around the front (which is the back) and attack the back (which is my stomach, if that makes any sense). So now I’m under attack from both sides, and the Prilosec that I have taken will do nothing, since it doesn’t. Not at first. Rather, the Prilosec needs to see other Prilosecs over several days before they decide to go to work. So now I am in serious stomach pain.
Well, my grandmother stepped into the room, and though she died in the 70’s, she still comes through with the suggestion: baking soda and water. And so now I am taking baking soda and water every half hour or so, and then I begin to worry. I have to be absorbing all of this stuff, and what will happen to my electrolytes?
At this point, I’m at home and it’s after five, and Raf will soon be home. And there he is, and there I am, eating dinner and watching television later. And I go to bed, stomach still aching, and thinking, hoping, praying, pleading with the gods please, please, PLEASE let me sleep.
And of course, I don’t.