Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When you’re raised Quaker, you’re supposed to see the face of God in everyone. Which is not always easy to do. When Phil Rowlett invited my daughter Calina to the senior prom, I was kind of proud of it — she was just a sophomore, after all. Later I learned that they slept together that night. Then I hated him and practically broke his arm shoving him into his pickup. Maybe I am a little backward, but she’s my daughter and too damn young!
Things have gotten away from me. And I’m afraid that after the operation I’ll lose my sight.
I never wanted to suck my mother’s breast or have sex with her or do anything like that. In photographs her face is soft and lovely and her figure is always obscured, like all Quakers of her generation. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where we were raised, we still used the familiar: thee and thou. It embarrassed me. “Art thou ashamed, Tilman, to let thy religion show?” Ashamed I was. “But mother, the other children don’t do it. It’s not exactly shame, it’s being different.” Different — the same damn thing over and over. We’re all so different and stuck with it; just as we’re stuck with our ancestors. “Remember, Tilman, in the eyes of the Lord, there is none different. Love the Lord and love thy difference. With that thou canst see the unity of all the world.” She would always say things that seemed opposite; it puzzled me and twisted my gut and silenced me. My father worked all the time, meticulously, as a carpenter; faithfully attended Fifth Day Meeting. And never, to my knowledge, was inspired by the Spirit to speak. A quiet, kind man. When we were small, he wrestled with us — me and my two sisters and our older brother Angus. Later, Angus took over the roughhousing chores. I loved my father. He volunteered for the last two years of the second World War, contrary to the Quaker religious stance, and definitely against my mother’s wishes.
When I was sixteen, my mother was thirty-eight. She had very long, light brown hair, which she somehow kept secured on top of her head (it looked like a sleeping woodchuck). When, on occasion, it was down, she didn’t seem much like a mother, more like an older friend; her womanness showed. Then she cut her hair off. (It means something when a woman cuts off her hair.) That night my father, who never did anything impromptu, went out suddenly. We kids all noticed it. Then occurred one of my strongest childhood memories: we braided our mother’s cut-off hair into one long rope, strung it across the living room between curtain rods, and hung Christmas ornaments on it. We were so excited, we didn’t question it. (I get the shivers just thinking about it now. A human hair rope with glass balls and tinsel, mid-July in a Quaker home?) A couple of weeks later my father left. He returned briefly, and then moved permanently to San Jose, California, where he worked for a box manufacturing company. It was not until two years ago, when my wife Trudy left, that I understood what happened twenty-six years ago. No one explains feelings to you. You have to put your own hand in the table saw.
The best part about the hospital is the hot shower across the hall. Last night I planned my escape in detail; but after indulging in elaborate mental adventures — “Ingenious Patient Befuddles Entire Hospital” — I gave it up. After all, this operation is part of God’s plan. I’m in a semi-private room (not really semi-private, because there are four of us). The other inmates talk incessantly about food; they get their menus, and, sitting up in bed (difficult for the guy in neck traction), they discuss at length the pros and cons of each entree. Chocolate ice cream or strawberry jello? It all reminds me of my mother’s compost pile in Lancaster. I eat only the bread, butter, and potatoes.
This is a teaching hospital, and because of the unusual growths on my optic nerves, classes of white-gowned students are constantly peering into my eyes as though they were kaleidoscopes. “Would you ask the students, Dr. Blum, not to eat garlic before entering my eyes?” Actually, I love garlic. One day, shortly after my wife slipped off with her girlfriend, I took the drying mound of Italian red garlic from the garden and braided it into five-foot strands and hung it across the front door like an oriental curtain, warding off evildoers. It seemed a good idea at the time.
There are beautiful things in this world, and sights that are less desirable. I once saw a sheep that had been torn by coyotes or dogs, still alive, its flesh suspended. I’ve seen raw sewage pouring into a river. Anger about to explode on someone’s face. And then there are other ugly images that both incline us to turn away and arouse certain painful passions.
I own a small cabinet shop in the town not far from where Trudy and I used to live. People like my work; I don’t overcharge. We lived modestly, yet with most of the amenities our neighbors had — a Toyota, a Chevy van for my work, color television, washer, dryer. It’s true I never actually finished our house — polyethylene on a few windows, and untaped drywall here and there. The toilet still runs a little. I never had time for everything. Trudy reminded me — more than once, that’s true.
One day I didn’t have much work and wasn’t in the mood to create any. I drove home, ran out of gas, and walked the last mile or so. Taking a short-cut, I came in the back of the house by the knoll, heard some unusual sounds, walked up to the bedroom window, and there I saw one of those less desirable sights. It froze my heart. Trudy and one of her friends, Elizabeth, were rocking with some gadget between them, inside both of them. They were sweating and grunting and laughing. My mind went blank. I turned away, and a spear passed through me and out the other side. I walked back over the knoll behind the large oak, dropped to my knees, leaned forward onto my hands, and vomited out my insides. I continued into the small woods like a dog bit by a rattlesnake, and cried and cried and cried.
Besides the shower, there is Agatha Trudell (one of those coincidences; I call her Ms. Trude). She’s the nurse who comes on at 10 p.m. She looks like a model for black women who want “the natural look.” To me she is beautiful and sexy, in a nurse sort of way. Since Trudy left me, I have lived alone and dated maybe three or four times; it’s been two years since I’ve had sex. Ms. Trudy can see that I like her and, probably because nursing is still new to her (she is only twenty-three or twenty-four), she has a mildly flirtatious attitude.
They were wheeling me in for a CAT scan when I intentionally rolled over and fell on the floor in the hallway. I was reprimanded for this humble effort at civil disobedience.
The CAT machine costs about a million dollars, and was technologically outdated as soon as it was finished. You lie on a movable table and are strapped in, Cape Canaveral style, then slid into a metallic cave that resembles a hair dryer in a beauty parlor. The buttons are pushed and the hair dryer spins around your ear with a whirring noise, lights blinking. It takes cross-sectioned X-rays of your skull at minute intervals. All my resistance melted away like ice cream on an August sidewalk. Every time the scanner spun around me, I dropped further and further into a mesmerized state. All my anger and frustration, fear and apprehension drifted away like dandelion puffs, and I knew I was one of the poor in spirit inheriting the Earth. Blissed out, as they say. I was in the palm of God’s hand, warm and comforted, protected forever and ever.
The nurse pulled me out and I smiled beatifically at her; she turned her head away as though I were Medusa. The next trick of the medical trade is called an angiogram. Some heavy radioactive dye is injected into your thigh and crawls through your circulatory system like a salamander in a hose, and lights up the capillaries in your skull so the scanner can better see what’s there. The pain is excruciating. I went from the palm of God’s hand to beneath Satan’s heel. As the poison toxified my body, I lost all my humanness. I was alive by the grace of pain. I didn’t struggle as they took me back to my cell. I lay on my bed, tossing, feverish, sweating for hours — a prisoner of my internal war.
The surgeon, Dr. Hinz, informed me, “You’re scheduled for the operation at 10 tomorrow.” “Sounds great,” I moaned. A young doctor came in and gave me a shot of Demerol; benumbed, I sailed off to dark and tranquil waters.
A blind cabinet-maker is about as useful as an axe head with no handle. Some good news. Two of my cellmates are checking out today; that leaves Mitchell, the fellow in traction, to come home to after my debut on the table.
Tea at 8. At 9 I got the pre-anesthesia. A mild euphoria filled my body while I awaited the angels of mercy, who, at the appointed hour, arrived. Down the corridor, up the elevator, until finally I was introduced to the long needle of the anesthesiologist, who would keep his juice flowing through me while Dr. Hinz pared down the superfluous vegetation. No big deal, really. “Count backward from 10. . . .” An instant later the nurse’s voice drifted across the sea. “He’s waking up.” I felt my fingers, way down there, moving, like Lilliputians. More pain.
I am back on Earth, I think. But I can’t see. Damn. (A fine, feathery thought-voice.) Blind. Oh well. My head churned. Blind. Damn. Of course, Milton went blind; prophets are blind. Oedipus plucked his eyes from their dismal sockets. I’m in good company. How important is seeing, anyway?
Every four hours, I got another injection, to help bear the unbearable agony. Hours went by. A voice said, “Hello, Daddy.” At first I thought I was remembering it. Then the voice was on the edge of the bed, and a torrent of pain roared through me again. She took my hand and lifted it to her lips; then she held it against her cheek. I felt her tears run down and catch on my forefinger, continue on to my thumb. Calina, I thought, unable to speak. Slowly, the patches over my eyes dampened. “I brought a friend with me, Daddy.” Silence. “How are you feeling, Tilman?” It was Trudy. All you have to do to have a family reunion is go blind.
Sixteen years ago I ordered all my hinges, latches, and brass screws from Crosse & Duncan. Trudy Duncan was the bookkeeper. Fun-loving and sharp as a brass tack. We ate enchiladas with Mexican beer. In those days I lived above my shop: just an attic, with a sink and a two-burner camping stove, and a toilet and jerry-rigged shower downstairs. I remember we were both a little woozy, but complacent and in no hurry. (No hurry is a state I long for; I am in no hurry right now, probably for the first time since that date.) Trudy insisted on going up the ladder to inspect my quarters. She wore a slip and stockings under a multi-colored wool skirt. Her haunches alternated tautness with each ascending rung. Five hours into our first date, I sent out a feeble SOS. I didn’t know how those “lady” things unfastened. Trudy, unintimidated, moved my hands to the source of frustration. She was a patient teacher. The last person in the world to become a lesbian. Shows how much I know.
I could see them both plainly through the bandages — the mother at the foot of the bed, looking at my aged and altered face; the daughter sitting there, crying softly, still my daughter, coming to me with daughter feelings. Why should I judge Trudy for wanting to find her own way? Sure as sunrise, the Lord looks after Calina, and knows better than I ever will what’s in Trudy’s heart. Damn! I am a fool! Blind as King Lear before the imagined cliffs of Dover, white before his absent eyes. Damn!
When you think it through carefully, time and time again, you become confident that you’ve got it right. You proceed with certainty; and then, it doesn’t work out. Time passes and you learn that you overlooked a fairly simple and important ingredient. Yeast is necessary. The only time you’re definitely right is when it doesn’t matter. Failure and pain, twin stepping stones to knowledge.
Dr. Hinz came in on the fourth evening: “Tomorrow we’ll remove the bandages and see just how successful the operation was.” (How could blindness be successful?) “You’ll have to wear a pair of dark glasses for a while.” Dark glasses?
“You mean, doctor, I’m not permanently blind?”
“I certainly hope not.” He half-chuckled.
I can hardly sit up because my spinal fluid has been drained to facilitate the operation. But I feel pretty damn good. No bad feelings about Calina and Trudy. Fairly certain about not losing my vision. Even inside these bandages, the world has a rosy hue.
I need to stop doubting everything. What’s the point in being Quaker if you don’t work toward peace? And peace begins at home, doesn’t it?
I can feel the light during the day, even if I don’t see it. Knowing the sun is there makes me glad. After the operation, I woke every night and pushed the button, requesting a shot of painkiller.
When I awoke tonight, the fourth night, pain had brought one of his henchmen with him — frustration. Pain was stabbing away mercilessly at my head like a dentist’s drill. Frustration had stitched my pelvis into a knot. I wanted out; out of these negative states. I wanted some kind of union, not to feel separated. I needed a drug but I despised this need. Between the throbs of pain came waves of disgust. I realized I had ceased living for the past two years and had let myself rot away like an uprooted tree.
When Ms. Trude let the plunger sink its venom into my buttock, I didn’t let go, didn’t drift into an avalanche of sleep. Pain subsided but desire tormented. I buzzed again. I motioned Ms. Trude to my bedside. I pictured her there in her nurse’s uniform, not much different from Calina. She softly pulled the curtain that separated my area from Mitchell’s; he lay there, snoring and slumbering like an old dog in front of a fire. Aware of the pain I was in, sensitive to our situation, she eased herself onto the bed.
Tomorrow I will ask Calina to come back and live with me next year. I am her father. When I return to the shop, I’ll make Trudy a nice maple dresser as I promised ten years ago. Then I’ll finish the house. Sleep is on its way. Maybe this summer I’ll go back East and visit Mom and the family. God does care for me; I’m a lucky man. Everything is folding in on itself and is about the size of a pea. A few more tucks and it will disappear.