Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Release into Captivity

And so, after three days and two hospitals, I was free at last, and sat outside savoring the warmth of the evening. Blanca and Raf were on the way, but since I had been released at rush hour, the traffic was fierce. And so I had an hour or so to relish being alone, being warm, and listening to the night sounds coming from the bamboo grove next to the hospital.

Oddly, I had received great care, and no care at all. True, every imaging device yet available to man had scanned my back, which no human hand had touched. And yes, I was protected in the hospital, but I was also isolated. At home, in the worst of the days of pain, Gordito—our tuxedo cat—had insisted on coming into the back bedroom. Once there, he marked my face several times, settled laterally across my chest, and peered / purred into my face. Once I began to doze off, he then settled onto my right side: we fell asleep together.

And I had been given muscle relaxants and analgesics—that wonderful Percocet. But what was that, really, but a modern form of one of the oldest of drugs: opium? Certainly, it had been tweaked, but there was nothing really new there.

And now, I was being told to go home and rest for two months, and to avoid any strenuous activity: physicians all the way back to Hippocrates himself could have given me that advice.

So ostensibly there was nothing new in the treatment I had received; what was different, however, was the isolation that  I had experienced. A century ago, I would have been put to bed, the doctor would have come to my home, sat by the bed, looked grave and concerned. He would have felt my pulse, and listened to my chest. The neighbors would have brought soup, and arranged shifts by the bedside to relieve my family. The church prayer group would have included me on their roster. The butcher might not have pressed my wife as hard for the monthly payment.

I would have gotten to my feet gradually, and then been placed on the porch—weather permitting. I would have seen the neighborhood children playing, heard the crickets, smelled the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. But in modern times, I had been in a sterile, intensely cold environment. True, I was lucky to have a bed by the window: equally true, the window looked out onto a blank wall.

And so I sat outside as dusk fell, and remembered the story of an Amazon tribe who had received a visit from a team of physicians. All had been welcomed, with the exception of the psychiatrist. What was the problem?

“Well, he insisted on taking depressed people away from their families and into little rooms, where he wanted them to talk about their problems. And of course, he just made everything worse, since everybody knows that when the spirit has left a person, they need to be taken out into nature, distracted, and surrounded by their family. And then the spirit can return….”

I read once that all of the great physicians throughout history have had essentially equal success rates. So why should Galen and Hippocrates have succeeded as well as Raf’s cousin, with her MRI’s and CT scans and powerful arsenal of drugs?

We do a good job, I decided, on focusing on the disease. Disease we do well—we can isolate it, analyze it, visualize it, map it. But what of the patient, who is easily half of the equation? What does the disease mean to the patient, and how do the disease and the patient react to each other?

What did it mean to me, to have broken my back? Because it is one thing to write of a compression fracture of the L2 and L3 vertebrae; it’s another thing to have a broken back. Any patient can have fractures of the vertebrae, but a broken back implies a martyr, a saint, or perhaps a chronic whiner, intent on making his misery known to all.

‘I’ll try this out on the cats,’ I thought, and imagined the response.

“I worked my fingers to the bone! I slaved day and night—scrubbing the floors, washing your clothes, cooking and cleaning! All so that you could have the life I never had! Yes, I BROKE MY BACK FOR YOU, and is THIS how you repay me??!!”

Yes, since I am an inherently and incurably horrible parent, I have at least chosen to be responsible about it. Therefore, I have traded children for cats, which saves everybody a huge amount of money in psychotherapy bills. Because the cats, of course, are utterly unaffected by any such guilt-trippery, and they go back to sleeping in the sunshine.

But had I been bearing more weight than I could bear? Had my burdens really been so great? It depended, I thought, on whom you asked. Ostensibly, my life was easy: I woke up, wrote a bit about whatever interested me, taught some classes, and then settled back at night with wine and Netflix. How hard a life is that?

Well, there was the worry: the money certainly wasn’t flooding in. And then there was the house, which for six months had been undergoing a renovation / repairs. The work had dragged on, since only Zorba, Lady’s brother, was doing it. And Zorba periodically got called off to do his Army reserve; then he got sick. And then—for completely good reasons—he had taken a short-term job. So the work had stalled and stalled, and half of the apartment was in the living room. And since everything was in flux, what sense did it make to clean it?

True, at the beginning I was cleaning as Zorba was scraping / painting, and I had amused myself by wondering: who would complete his task first? But then I had fallen, and all I could do was lie in bed, and listen to Zorba move his scaffold from one section of the room to the next. And even that, at times, made my back ache.

But it was worse, since the termites had invaded virtually every stick of furniture that we had brought from colder and tougher climes. And so I looked from one pile of termite droppings below a treasured piece of furniture to the next. Only the grand piano and my cello seemed immune.

It was, in short, a frightening picture of decay and death. Even now, there is a side chair lying—well—on its side on the Oriental rug next to the piano. On the other side of the room, a side table lies collapsed: one of its legs completely chewed through by the termites.

We could have, of course, done what so many sanjauneros do: live in air conditioning, and close off both ourselves and our furniture to the elements. Because twice a year, minimally, the termites will spawn, or swarm, or do whatever it is that termites do. And then, the air will be filled with termites, each one ready to breed thousand of others.

It will look like a Wisconsin snowstorm—the kind that occurs when the weather is very well below zero, and thus the snow, when falling, is powdery and fine. And so we used to close the doors against the inevitable, and then Raf would spend much of the evening swatting termites, as they swarmed towards the light.

It was futile, of course, and it was agonizing, since both of us knew that the time would come when we would lose all our furniture, and then have to replace the northern walnut and mahogany with harder woods: teak and tropical cedar. This, for me, was of no matter: I had become philosophical, even Zen about it all. None of the furniture was particularly valuable: no museum would clamor for it, no serious collector would particularly want it. The musical instruments were important: we were merely guardians. Other people after my death would play my cello; it matters little that other people sat in my chairs.

But for Raf, collecting his furniture and creating his home had been the passion of his life. Whole evenings could be spent talking about which estate sale had provided which buffet or table. He had, in fact, immediately seen where each stick of furniture had gone in his mind in the first moment that he had seen our apartment. From that moment on, he had determined to get me to agree to buy it. Could we afford 4500 plus square feet of tenement—which is what is was? There were toilets in every corner of every room: the platform ceilings covered the ausubo beams and red bricks of the original ceiling. To buy the place was unthinkable, I felt—it would consume every nickel we had, and leave us exhausted in the gutter outside.

I had mentioned this whole period once to Zorba; we were taking a break, especially needed, since the work of painting the ceiling bricks white and the beams / crossbeams brown had put a near permanent crick in Zorba’s neck.

“My mother was a very wise lady,” I told Zorba. “Because I told her that I was dead set against buying the apartment, and Raf was just as ardent to buy it. So we were at complete loggerheads, and barely speaking….”

“So what did she say?”

“She said that if we didn’t buy the place, it would always lie between us, and might drive us apart. And if we did, and it worked out for us, then I should swallow my words and admit I was wrong. And of course, if it turned out that I was right, I should keep my trap shut….”

“Wow,” said Zorba.

“Yeah, she was like that. So we moved in, and for the first ten years or so, everything was manageable. The termites hadn’t invaded—or hadn’t completely devastated the landscape. And so the time had come when I had to eat my words, and I told Raf: you were right, I was wrong….”


“Not really. I’d much rather be wrong about something I wanted but didn’t think would happen. “

And so for many years our home had been more than homes were for most people. It had both sheltered us and defined us: it was the visible embodiment of who we were. And it was a sort of defense against past and future both. We had both grown up in the stalest of suburbia: we were now living in a vast, 18-feet ceilinged, 200-year old colonial space. It was hard to imagine that it wouldn’t have a ghost, which in fact it does.     

And so it was more than a metaphor, our home. It was, to a great degree, who we were. And now? It was falling apart, it was dirty, cobwebbed, and filled with decrepit furniture. It was atmospheric as hell, as it always had been.

The problem?

It used to be “House and Garden.” 

Now, it was Grey Gardens.