This is most of Part I of an unpublished book by Lorenzo Milam, The Cripple Liberation Front-Marching Band Blues. We’ve published Lorenzo’s work before, and we’re grateful for permission to print this excerpt, which has also come out in a small California Magazine, The Sky’s No Limit.
The book has been turned down so far by 15 publishers. I’m not surprised; polio is no longer a fashionable subject, and pain never was — and this book lays open the belly of pain. The smiling nurse in me, the white-coated metaphysician, came out of it shaken, covered with bile and pus. I think that’s good.
Copyright 1982 Lorenzo W. Milam
was the saddest word of all
there is nothing else in the world
its not despair until time
its not even time until it was
The Sound and The Fury
I have so much to tell you of the new life that grew out of a windy fall day, half-way through the century, on the banks of a soft brown river, turned foaming with the storm. I am abed, on a porch, beside the moaning camphor trees. The screens oh and sigh, canvas cords cry out in the wind, and I cannot rise. The doctor comes, with his black bag, in the storm, to tell us what is happening to that part of myself I call body. The doctor comes, with his bag, to give us that black knowledge, of the virus, of the body dying, on that day when the wind tears Spanish moss from the long-leaf pine, and the camphor trees howl, and the branches of my body come crashing down, turning slowly in the wind gone mad and wrong.
My sister! My teacher! In 1952, she had two weeks advance knowledge of the theory and practice of the wasting disease. I want you to see her. She is my companion-in-arms.
No goddess, nor villain. A child of twenty-nine. Two years of college. Presented to society in late 1943. A woman of great sport and warmth.
She likes sailing, and tennis. She is a good swimmer, with a broad fine stroke in the school of the Australian Crawl. She loves cooking, and from time to time, I would hear her in the kitchen, humming tunelessly to herself.
Of all the unlikely people, of all the unlikely people to kiss with this grey disease: who would have guessed? As of the second of September, she is laid in the hospital bed by poliomyelitis. By the sixth of September, they have laid her in an iron lung so that she can continue to breathe. And on the 29th of December, of the same year, they lay her in the grave.
She has never thought about the functioning of her body. She has no idea in the world how her various muscles combine in their workings with bone in a magic way to carry her through the range of motion: the complex interface of muscle and bone and nerves, the action and reaction to dendrons, axons, neurons, cytons that makes it possible for her to climb into a sailboat and spend a day racing before the wind on the St. John’s River. I am sure that the knowledge of how it is done never comes to her. Nor the importance of it. It never occurs to her. At least, not until late summer 1952.
She is a naif who spends twenty-nine years of her life harming no one and loving, to the depths she is able, a few close family members and a husband. She is an innocent, slightly freckled child who plays a fair game of tennis, and who trails her red hair behind her like a fire.
She contracts polio in late August and in the intense stage, it moves slowly over the entire field of her body. When the fever departs, she has one muscle remaining: in her left foot. Because of the loss of her breathing apparatus, she is fitted with a machine that breathes for her. “Whoosh” it goes, twenty times a minute, 1200 times an hour.
She cannot scratch her knee should it itch. She cannot bring food to her own mouth. She cannot brush back her fine red hair. She cannot wash nor wipe herself. She cannot reach out to hold another’s hands.
In her respirator, she is flat on her back. She is turned over every hour or so to prevent the development of bedsores which can become malignant and score the body down all the way to white bone.
The regularity of the bellows punctuates her every moment, asleep or awake. “Whoosh.” “Whoosh.” A submarine: she is lying in a submarine. Warm. Protected. With lightbulbs, festooning the iron lung, like a newly constructed building, or a Christmas tree. A submarine with portholes all along the side, so you can peer in and see where the muscles have disappeared from bone.
She, my sister, the originator and founder of all this pain, is now quite thin. Bones show beneath flesh, a picture out of Dachau. A woman’s once graceful body now has knobby knees, knobby elbows, celery root. The hip bones jut up from a wasted stomach. The entire skeletal frame is pushing to get out, to get born, to be done with this painful flesh.
Her eyes are quite large now. Her face so shrunken and drawn that the eyes stare out as if she were some night creature, startled in her submarine body. “Whoosh.” She views you, the room, the world, upside down through a mirror. People stand outside her new breathing machine, up near her head, and wonder what to say. If they stand, she looks at their legs (legs that move!) If they sit, she sees their faces backwards. Friends’ faces are turned around, turned obverse.
She who never thought seriously about sickness, nor her body, nor death, is thinking on them now, thinking hard on them. And she wonders what to say to the reversed faces of her old friends who cannot imagine who cannot imagine what it is like to be in the pale tan submarine, with all the dials and meters, and the bellows that go “whoosh” twenty times a minute, twelve hundred times an hour.
And if they talk, and they do talk, and if she replies, and she does reply, her words are turned wispy, hard-to-hear, for the talking mechanism is dependent on lungs and air, and her lungs have been deprived of power to push air and words.
And when she talks, and she talks so that you can barely hear her, she talks on the exhale, because she cannot talk on the inhale (one does not fight this submarine), which means that her sentences are interrupted twenty times each minute, for the breathing machine to make her breathe,which makes conversations with her quite leisurely, long pauses in the sentences, and everyone learns to be patient, very patient, with this new woman in her submarine, who has become very patient.
Very very patient. Doesn’t demand too much, really. Can’t demand too much. Except that you feed her when hungry (she is not very hungry) and bathe her when dirty (she is not very dirty, doesn’t play in the mud too much) and dry off that place near the corners of her eyes when sad (she is sad very much because she doesn’t know what has happened to her, nor why) and be with her when she thinks on the things that are gone now, like body and arms and legs and motion which are gone now, so soon now, things that she loved, gone so soon now, like sailing and tennis and running into the surf at the beach on the Atlantic Coast, and most of all, the ability, that important ability to scratch her knee, when it begins to itch, or turn over in her sleep, which she doesn’t do very much anymore, sleep that is, because of the noise, and confusion, and strange change that has come over her body, which with the six nurses and orderlies and nurse’s aids and the eight doctors and technicians and physical therapists, which with all these people working at her body, somehow doesn’t seem to be her body any more at all, at all.
They give her a mirror, over her face, turned at a forty-five degree angle, attached to the submarine, that pumps away, with its engine pumping away. They give her a mirror so that she can see the world, so she doesn’t have to look at the ceiling, the light green institutional ceiling, with the flies, and the single naked light bulb. She is given a mirror, her own mirror, so she can watch the world go by outside her door, there in her hospital room. She doesn’t know if her room has a view out the window, because she isn’t turned that way, but rather, turned so that she can see up and down the hall, see the nurses and orderlies and doctors, who come in to do things to her body, her new body, a body which has come up with such new experiences of pain, of new pain. She never thought she would be capable of surviving such pain. She never thought she would, my sister didn’t: but she did. For awhile, for awhile.
They bring in a television set, into her room, and she becomes a fan of baseball, watching baseball through her mirror, on the new-fangled television set. She never cared for baseball before, before all this happened. She cared for sailing, and tennis, and some golf, from time to time (she was very good at the long stroke, in the first, fourth, and eighth holes at Timuquana Country Club) but she never really cared for baseball, at least not until now, but the afternoon nurse, Miss Butts, likes baseball, so they watch it together, and my sister can watch the Dodgers (whom she never heard of before) playing the Pirates (whom she never heard of before) and she watches the occasional homerun in the mirror, when the batter hits the ball, and takes off, and runs to third base, then to second, then to first, and finally to home. It is comforting, in a funny sort of way, to know that people still play, think of, watch, write on, report on, worry about something like baseball.
They never taught her very much about life, and the body, and muscles and things, before this. When she was at Stephens College, they taught her dance, and music, and a smattering of literature courses, and some math, and a little chemistry. But they never taught her about the catheter stuck into her urinary tract, which stays there to drain the piss that won’t come out on its own, and how urine crystals grow, so that when they pull the catheter out, it is like they are ripping out the whole of her insides, her entire urethra shredded, to ribbons, by these crystals, that come out of her, and no pain-killers, they give her no pain-killers, because of the fact that this is a disease of the nervous system, and it might affect the regeneration of nerves. They taught her some math, and a little chemistry, and how to dance, at Stephens College, but they never taught her the new dimensions of pain, which she never ever thought she could bear, never, in a thousand years, but she does, she does, even though she never thought she could.
They taught her how to diagram sentences; and they taught her about Mozart, and Beethoven. They showed her the difference between the Samba and the Rumba, and between the Waltz and the Foxtrot, she remembers her teacher played “Besame Mucho” over and over again, so they could learn the Samba — but they never taught her about her lungs, the beautiful rich red alveoli, that lose the ability to aspirate themselves, so that one night, they think she is clogging up, suffocating, the doctor comes, with all the lights, and slices into her pink flesh, at the base of her neck, the blood jets up all over, and she can see the reflection of her neck in the mirror of his glasses, as he cuts into her neck (no anesthetics permitted because they affect the dark grey nerves nestled in the aitch of the spinal column, and polio got there first) the blood goes all over his smock, a drop of her blood even flecks his glasses, and of a sudden no air comes through nostrils or mouth, and she is sure she is suffocating, the very breath has been cut out of her, and her doctor punches a three inch silver tube down into her lungs, so that every two hours they can pump out the mucous. They never taught her about the kiss of the trachea, the silver kiss, at the base of the neck, the kiss of this silver circle, the silver circle of the moon.
She was quite good at chemistry, my sister was: quite good. She got special honorable mention, at graduation, from Stephens College, there in Central Missouri. What she remembers most about Stephens is the spring evenings, when the smell of hay would drift into the classrooms, make her feel so alive, in the rich fecundity of central Missouri, the rich hayfields, and the people moving so slowly, on a spring day, through the fields, those rich fields of hay. Or in the fall, when the moon would peer up over the fields come hush by midnight: the moon growing a silver medallion, hanging there in the sky, the sky so black, the moon so white-dust-silver. They gave her a silver medallion, for her chemistry, she was surprisingly good at it, not so good at literature, she never cared for Dickens, or Jane Austen, but she was so good at H2SO4, and NaCl, and MnO2that they gave her a special ribbon, with a silver moon on it, which hung on her neck, which hung where the new silver moon of the tracheotomy hangs now, her badge, the badge of a job well done, a job well done, in the new education on the nature of the body, and its diseases, and the way the body will try to kill off its own, because of the diseases, and the deterioration of the kidney, bladder, lungs, heart, mind, under the kiss of the disease, under the sweet new kiss of the disease.
My sister: the new student! The student of the body, and a student of disease, and perhaps even a student of sainthood: Sainthood. The questions of the nuns and priests and ministers of all religions of all times. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, and no one hears it, was there really a sound? Or, can God create a rock, such a huge rock that He Himself cannot lift it. Or, can God create a disease, such a painful awful burning disease, of the nervous system, that invades the tender spinal cord, and scars the nerves therein so completely, with such pain and destruction of the self, that one can wish not to live anymore. To live no more.
My sister. An innocent saint. For slightly less than four months, from 2 September 1952 to 29 December 1952, she will have ample time to work on her sainthood. She will have 2,832 hours to recall growing up in the sun of Florida, her shadow a black hole on the burning white sands of the beach.
169,920 minutes: she will have almost a hundred and seventy thousand minutes to remember running for a fast lob on the white-lined tennis courts at the Timuquana Country Club. She will have over ten million seconds, there in her new submarine, to remember that for twenty-nine years she had a constant companion, namely her body. A companion which asked little and gave much and, of a sudden, in the early fall of that year, turned a dead weight like a tree which has had the life leeched out of it. So dead, so weightless, that she must ask the good nurse to scratch her forehead, move a leg, adjust the hair, or brush away the wetness that forms of its own accord at the corner of her blue-gray eyes, just below those beautiful ruddy lashes, that match her beautiful ruddy skin — turning quite pale now.
The body ceases to function as a body, and commences to try to kill itself off. Bladder infection, kidney stones, phleghm accretion in the lungs, bedsores, respiratory dysfunction, depression. Over the next three months and twenty-seven days, my sister’s body, the body which has been so kind all these years, will turn enemy and try to sabotage every machine (from within and without) which makes it possible for her to survive. Her body will attempt to murder her.
“This is not happening to me,” she thinks. She cannot believe a termination of self and being in this huge room of clanking machines on a snow-dawn in North Carolina. “This is not happening to me,” she thinks, but she is wrong.
And shortly before dawn, nineteen hundred and fifty-two years after the Birth of Our Lord and Savior, two days before the end of that dark year, at 4:47 in the morning, in some anonymous respiration center in North Carolina, where she has been sent for re-education of what is left of her body, in the company of some one hundred other machine-bound patients, just as the first winter dawn is beginning to crack the still and snowy Chapel Hill sky, my sister will awaken for the last time to find her lungs clogged with the suppurating thickness of pneumonia.
There is to be a battle, a short one. A creature is squatting on her chest, trying to keep air from its proper place in her lungs. It is a silent and lonely battle. There is no crying out. She doesn’t have the lung power to cry out. She is alone, and thinking “This is not happening to me,” and for some unexplainable reason she remembers a spectacular day from last summer, with the sun coming down over the water, a spectacular day on the St. Johns River running before the wind in a White Star sailboat. She remembers the wind in her hair, and her body riding, riding on the swells from the great dark Atlantic near the jetties, and that great flowing expansive feeling of having all of life before one, of having the wind and the river and the freedom to ride them and be alive, so full of the freedom of being alive at the very edge of the river, just before it merges with the great wide dark deep Atlantic Ocean before her.
“This is not happening to me,” she thinks. She cannot believe a termination of self and being in this huge room of clanking machines on a snow-dawn in North Carolina. “This is not happening to me,” she thinks, but she is wrong. She is drowning in the liquids of her own body, and there is no way she can call out, to tell the nurse that she is suffering.
My sister! My sister. She is quite alone in her struggle as the sun begins to break through the grey waste outside. She tries to breathe in, cannot, and suddenly there is no spirit in her. My sister. Eyes, mouth, heart, single moving muscle in foot cease. There is no more warmth within or without, beyond the artificial heater placed inside the submarine which, as of now, has discharged its last patient.
The iron maiden continues to pump dead lungs for over an hour before the night nurse discovers the drowned creature, grey froth on blue lips. My sister, who never did anyone any harm, who only wished joy for those around her, now lies ice and bone, the good spirit fled from her.
Once I had a vision of me in the Isolation Ward. I am lying on a white marble table. My body has turned to white marble. I can hardly move.
My brain is a bird. A bird trapped in a pale cage, a cage of bone. The fires are raging all about, and the bird, in fear, escapes from the cage of bone. If you look to the corner of the room, you can see the bird beating frantic wings against the shadow-filled upper corners of the room. There is no way out of the room: the window is barred, the door is locked.
The bird, frantic, eyes shiny with fear, beak ajar, beats wings against the corners of the room. And there is no way out, no way to escape from the room with the body being eaten by flames, lying on the marble crypt below.
The inferno consumes the body, lays waste to the cells, and, in the process, plumbs the deepest shadows of the mind. Seemless grounds open, vampires and greyish beasts come swarming forth, extricating themselves from the pits. Figures lurch out of caves hollowed in the ground. They elevate themselves on bony limbs. Feelers twist and circle, and from out of the space one can hear instrument howls, lips beating time out of space.
An army of creatures come to cross civilization through that room. Sticky feet beat small rhythms across the figure wrapped in white linen. From time to time, masks lean out of chambered porticoes, jaws open volcanoes to release clouds of words into a barren sky.
Body tangles in sheets. Knowledge corrodes, falls thickly to the shiny ground below. The invading beasts metronome through the vast reaches of the soul, platoons of shadows bearing clocks that push forth with black hands to clutch at the child below. He rocks on the edge of infinitude. In a far corner, a grey candle sputters, and contemplates the wisdom of darkness. Showers of reason babble in dying whorls.
This child, this child of the sheets, comes to be bent forever anew on the strange crusted edge of the night. The scratching beasts gnaw at the bones and disappear, leaving ragged claw-prints about the desert stretching all about.
Human shades come and go in that bile-green Isolation Room. Two interns come to take a spinal tap. Spinal tap! A knock on the door of nerves. They come to my bed and with no words, no discussion, no thought they wrestle me into the C position, head touching knees. I am unable to move with the burning ache of it, and they draw me into an arch so that they can run an eighteen-inch horse-needle in between the plates of my spine for an hour or so to get a copious sample of the cerebrospinal fluid. So the doctors can tell my family. What they know already. That I am very sick. That I might die.
I am plunged into madness and into hell. A mechanical jungle comes to replace the plumbing and the wiring that have gone out. An army of instruments are brought in to make the bare-bones functions continue, so the body will not poison itself, nor starve itself to death. I don’t want to, I can’t eat, so there is a needle that rides in the crook of my arm (the loving crook of my arm) three times a day, for an hour or two each time. For that hour or two, my arm is tied down so that the little motion I have is forced to a halt. The muscles in agon redouble their pain at being restrained in one moveless position.
And then, they come once a day to irrigate the insides of me, to wash out the impacted bolus. There is a great new dam in me, and that stuff that used to flow so easily, without regard, has stopped. It is a huge hard ugly plug that tries to kill me.
And then the bladder stops up. Lord — it is as if there was this house, this fine new house, which has been working excellently well for years: and it goes all blarmy. The faucets, heaters, boilers, stoves, fans, blowers, showers, washers and dryers just stop dead, all at once. The whole machinery breaks down.
They send out another intern to work over the broken bladder. In between jabs with the various needles (glucose, distilled water, antibiotics) and nozzles up the ass — they are now going to have to fix the pisser. Because there is no way in the world I can make that little trap door or whatever it is open up and release its load. My body is killing me.
Medical student without consultation pulls down the sheet over naked me. I don’t even know him and he is undressing me without my specific permission. I am wracked, and yet I remember thinking, “I don’t want them looking at me without my clothes, not at all.” But no one is listening to me. My body is no longer my own.
He then runs a hose (another hose) up my cock. By this time I am so generally befuddled with amazement at what my body is doing to me, and what they are doing to my body with all their needles and valves and tubes, that I can hardly moan. Or show any interest. But the old pisser does. Medical student runs into the cockswain or whoever is the keeper of the gate and we all get wet, all of us do. All of us: me and the medical student and the bed sheets and for all I know the walls and the ceilings: two days of fevered piss, showering the room in golden ecstasy, the hot yellow stuff of the morning sun coming out knee-deep all over the floors, gushing out doors, flooding all the rooms of Isolation, floating desks, records, nurses, mucking up the plumbing and electricity, causing such a general stink that Medical Director must file an official edict: no more unplugging Milam’s pisser.
It works. It has a salutory effect on the corpus spongiosum. This is the last time the pisser ever gives me any trouble. Of all the joints and muscles and parts that quit, take off from work, go out on strike, cancel engagements, it alone stays on the job thereafter. After that Normandy Invasion. I can, and will forever, until my dying day, be able to piss out-of-hand, with the best of them, in symphony, the golden symphony of urine, showering the world with warm regard.
Isolation has its own music. There is the banging and clanking of the food cart. There are handles to raise and lower the beds, me they rattle and bang as patients are moved about, as beds are made and unmade. Nurses walk down halls, and the clicks echo and reecho.
Next door to me is the Howling Girl. Day and night she wails. She has contracted lockjaw from some biting dog. She is expected to die momentarily. Her saliva has turned to glue, her teeth are ground together. She howls all the day and all the night.
I waken to her songs. Her music blends with my own. We are the Weird Sisters, in the Year of the Big Wind. Our songs fold and turn together down the halls. We are demon lovers. We howl in unison, a song of dying, the harmonies from the deepest animal centre of ourselves. We are trapped in our twisted and knotted bodies, and in the storm, the souls cry out to escape. The beasts beg to be allowed to leave the fevered aching land, to sail away, to be done with it, to be done with this ragerie called living. In that phantom day and night of total Isolation, she comes to me as my wolf-lady lover. We make the unearthly rhythms together, the wailing hymns of body — woe, a Missa Solemnis for all to hear.
One night I try to walk. The wolf lady, now, of a sudden, relieved of her sickness, is the first to hear me go down.
When I first arrived in the hospital, there was an attempt to erect bars alongside my bed, to keep me from falling out. Some preservation instinct made me protest. “There is no need for that,” I said, weakly. I remember thinking that if the bars were set up, they would never come down.
And then on the fifth, or the sixth night of my new indoctrination, I wake to find myself hugging the floor. Hot cheek to cold tile. They hear me, next door, down the hall. “Nurse. Nurse!” He has fallen. They come running.
I got half-way to the door; perhaps six feet from the bed. I was trying to get out of there. God-damn, I wanted to be out of there.
Those are my last steps alone, unassisted. My body, on its own, for the last time, raises me from the winding sheets, takes me half-way across the room. Get me out of here! Just so they will stop torturing me with all those tubes and needles and buckets and pans and hoses. God let me out!
The last steps. And the first knowledge of what had come over me in the few days in Isolation. In those icy moments on the floor comes the realization of total immobilization. I cannot get my arms to raise me up. I am lying flat on the floor, my cheek to the floor. I go to raise myself up from it. Nothing. I push with my arms, but there is no movement, not an inch. I push, and there is no resulting movement, no matter how hard I try. I have fallen, and am helpless. I have come to a point of no strength. I cannot raise myself from the dead. I am body with bulk and no motion.
A new man. I am a new man! Instead of being one who dances, or races the surf, or runs up the stairs two at a time, I am the one who will watch the dancers, contemplate the surf, lift myself up the stairs, backwards, one at a time.
From butterfly to worm. The reverse metamorphosis. Flying free one day (in the sun, heady smell of ocean, palms rattle overhead); the next day, a new body, a different body (shadows and fires all around, darkness, the fecund smell of death from within.)
My wings have been shrivelled. The delicate antenna have been shrunk down. They waved a wand and I am cocooned in a white hospital sheet to emerge, later, as a night crawler. The fall of the year, and we are turned to worms of blackness, filled with the smell of dirt, chewing away at past bodies.
September, October — the Golden Flyer turns to a slow Quadruped. The irrevocable reverse metamorphosis. On that cold floor, I lying just above the ground below, on that cold hard floor, the black-and-white tile pressed to my burning cheek.
On occasion, I return to the places of my youth. But I have never ever returned to Belsen Medical Center. Never. They took my spontaneous self from me there, in 1952. In 1952, I ceased to be me. I lost my ability to be casual, at ease. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I emerged from Belsen, it was without that ability to move across the face of the land free of plot or direction.
I have never returned to the place where the spirit flew out of me. It left me, a fresh bright blue light, brighter than the fire-flies. It left me then and, for all I know, it may still be haunting the area. This spirit, flitting around the dead and dying palm trees that mark the outer limits of Belsen Medical Center.
We die and we go on living. Sometimes it helps to return to that place of our death. Others do — and there is no reason why I should refuse to return to where the spirit wrenched itself so noisily out of flaming body. The fire all around, and villainous shadows, and spirit moving out of mouth, out of barely conscious body. Spirit escaping into the drenched night.
I have never returned, shall never return to seek out that spirit. But I know it is there: know the spirit of the eighteen-year-old me haunts that blasted prison. A spirit lost from Master, the Spirit of Spontaneity, crying out for a master gone forever.
There seem to be curtains. I should be able to see more clearly, with more insight, into the events of those three weeks. But the black curtain (it must be felt) comes tumbling down on the stage, and all is gone — actors, dramatist, still-warm corpse. No matter how hard we may look, we can never resuscitate the ghosts in that charnel house.
The Hospital they send me to in 1952, after the worst of the fire consumes my limbs, is called Hope Haven. Shades of Mercy! Where do they get these names! Obviously thought up by some refugee from the ad department at General Motors, sent south, out to pasture to dry out, to try his fertile brain on the charity hospitals of North Florida! Hope Haven! A penny for the old guy!
Physical therapy is a part of my daily routine at Hope Haven. There is a pool, a giant tub, really. There is a stretching table. And there is a shock machine.
The shock machine is an apparatus designed some fifty years ago whose main purpose is to keep muscles from atrophy, from loss of “tone.” Two pads, one positive, one negative, are applied to the body. The muscle to be pulsated lies between these two moist pads. The operator can increase or decrease the amount of current, or the rhythm of the shocks.
It is a medieval torture machine. And I find out later, much later, that the efficacy of physical shock therapy is so limited as to make it next to useless. Now I find out.
The operator is Miss Bland, the physical therapist. She is shocking me powerfully twice a day, for four months. Anywhere from five minutes to half an hour. The cure and the disease match each other in relative pain. Miss Bland turns the dial all the way to nine, and a regular pulsating blast encompasses my upper leg, tearing at my bones and flesh, forkfulls of jerks blasting at my thighs. Dear God.
If I were me now, back there then, I would be hitting Miss Bland on the head each and every time she jolted me with those useless shocks, shouting in her ear: “You fool! What are you doing to this child? Don’t you know . . . don’t you know. You wretch!”
But I am not me back then — and I cannot speak to the foolish lady. All we can do is shake our heads, and wonder that those who practice medical science are so unwilling to expose themselves to the ideas of the time; to open their eyes to new theories of physical medicine so that they do not torture us endlessly, for no reason at all: torture those who have been tortured enough already; the patients who have had a bellyfull of pain and don’t need any more supplied gratis by the ninnies who pretend to know medicine.
After electrocuting me carefully (shoulders, thighs, stomach, back) Miss Bland stretches the muscles. With her hands she lifts my legs and forces them into certain positions which are as close to elaborate and exact fainting painfulness as possible. By a true magic, she is able to go to work on the muscles which are already on fire, and pull hamstrings and extensors and rotators and quadriceps and opponens so that they will not contract. Miss Bland puts me through the tortures of the damned so that my heels will not touch my buttocks for the rest of my life. O, Miss Bland, you are killing me, telling me all the while it is for my own good. Kill me now so I can live tomorrow.
And as I think on this, I come to think on the hundreds, the thousands. the armies of people like me who are lying about the gutters and alleys and hospital beds and battlefields of the world, retching in pain. The thousands, the millions of men, women, children, slaves, soldiers, supplicants, beggars, the poor and the hungry and the lost: puking out their guts, screaming with rage of pain, the dogshowls of anguish; on the fields, in the bed, on the cot, on the ground, on sides of whole mountains, in the open space of streets, with a full complement of witnesses.
A whole battalion of folk who are crying, moaning, wailing, screeching from the depths of anguish. An army of wide-open mouths. Their eyes glaze as they crawl, writhe and quiver with the fire burning, consuming whole limbs, whole bodies, whole blocks, whole cities, whole nations. An endless procession: all of us united in our groans of anguish. These are my brothers, my kin-folks in agon.
I think there is some poignance to this as we realize that the pain I was privileged to attend was not the pain of a noble cause. I was not crucified for my god. I was not gassed for my religion. I did not run over a hill and get it in the gut for my country.
I was not tortured in some stony prison for freedom of the press. I was not martyred on some wheel for my pronouncements. The Pope did not have me pulled asunder by four horses (one on each limb) for my statements on his particular god. I was not privileged to have a red-hot tube of almost-molten glass shoved steaming up my cock to obtain a secret document for the Nazis.
My country, my God, my secret. The country to which I was loyal, the country for which I experienced such torture was the country of my body. They tortured me for clinging to that. My God was the belief in American Medical Technology as practiced in 1952: they worked me over for that.
The secret? The secret! The only secret I have, and which I give you now, freely, while not on the rack, while not being split apart by some divine torture machine is this: the disease for which I and my sister and hundreds of thousands of others gave so much, were pilloried so brutally for, was and is and always will be a particularly ignoble disease for which to give sacrifice.
The secret: the secret which I give us is the secret of no secret. We went through the torture of burning muscle, the ripped asshole, the electric shock muscle therapy, the pulled burning muscle, the regeneration of dead flesh for no other reason than we chose to continue living, with our collection of braces and crutches and pisspots and bedpans and rocking beds and iron lungs.
And I think they should raise a monument to this wonder. Let them raise a monument to it: a giant pedestal. And that pedestal will be surrounded, as its cold marble base, with an army of cripples. The draggers and the droolers, the stumps and wens and goitres and the bent and twisted frames. On their braces, on their racks and pinions, on their walkers and crawlers and draggers and inchworm apparatuses.
A whole army of suffering lame and halt and blind, with their misshapen distorted human forms, their flaccid arms, their bowed legs, their dragging feet, their pouched-out bellies, their claw-like hands, their stranded, strained necks, and even, yes, the sacred spot: the spot at the base of the neck, where sternum meets clavicle; the slight puckered scar-navel of the ultimate kiss, the kiss of the tracheotomy. A blessing! The high dimple of truth! The symbol of all those new insights and visions which are the fruit of knowledge of the sacred virus.
And towering over all our bent and twisted figures will be that ungainly lamppost, a single virus poliomyelitus anterior magnified a hundred million times. The drunken corkscrew well elevated above the bent heads of her many gnarled children.
And because of the still imperfect science of magnification, our founder and leader may be slightly fuzzed. Which is as it should be. The noble cause for which we martyred ourselves (in the mold of Jesus, Saint Ignatius, Saint Peter, Joan of Arc), the hundreds of thousands of us on our collective bedpans, in our wheelchairs, on our gurneys, in our rocking beds, on our frames, and joints, and splints, with our arms and legs twisted, shrivelled, wasted — our leader, the virus of viruses, is itself fuzzed out, as if unsure of its standing in the panoply of international heroes.
Underneath that drunken pole capped with its hexagonal shape, in huge fluorescent lights, at the very center of the face of the pedestal, below which this maelstrom of broken humans sprout like so many weeds, will appear the words:
We Suffered Nobly For A Cause
Which was Neither Noble
Nor a Cause
In Hope Haven, I am in a ward with some thirty-five boys. I am almost the oldest, and certainly the sickest. I don’t talk to anyone; don’t want to really. I am so blasted out of myself. I can’t figure out what has happened to me — and here I am in the football-field length medical ward with noise from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., nonstop. Noise: babbling, calling out, yelling, whistling, stomping, running, singing, crying. Four dozen boys ranging in age from seven to twenty; and I am right in the middle of them all.
Every possible sickness is represented: poliomyelitus, osteomyelitus, quadriplegia, spinal bifida, burns, gland disease, Legg-Calua Perthis, pneumonia, rheumotoid arthritis and, I am convinced, retardation. Mostly on the part of the medical and nursing staff.
My favorite is Nurse Stumpf. An old Naval Destroyer. Docked in with the kids, to give them the taste of the military life from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. On the upper lip, a slight black down on hair, incipient moustache. Like she has been eating dirt. Mouth curled down from eating bitter-melon.
You old axe. You make me so angry that I come to life again. I should strike a medal for you. You give me a taste of life, life: the sweet heady feel of bitterness and anger. Here I am straight out of the fire of body-death, and you come down on me for my attitude. My Attitude. What do you expect me to do? Thank you for every icy bedpan delivered? For the gruel they call lunch? Thank you for those high-powered colonic irrigations you order on the recalcitrant bowels?
I do have to thank her, don’t I? There is no way that sweetness and light can bring me to my senses; it had to be vengefilled hate and vituperation. I know that Florence Nightingale made the troops of the Crimea stir to life again (mortality rate down by 79%) with the gentle whip of her tongue. “You boys have all the wrong attitude. You’re gonna get an enema you won’t forget. Not an enemy: an enema!” And they fell to cursing her, and had some common tyrant to hate, and vowed they would get well just to get the hell out of there: wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of dying!
Nurse Stumpf, the Florence Nightingale of Hope Haven. She gives us a common enemy. I mean coming here we are on our beds of separate disease, infection, affliction, plague, The Dengue. And the bosun’s chair comes swinging down and the battleship hoves into view and we unite, despite our common differences; unite to denounce her. Each day provides another Nurse Stumpf horror story (did you hear what she told Willie about his shoes? And Willie has arthritis so bad he can’t even reach his Christly shoes!) and the angel is giving us some great purpose. The prophet Stumpf: most of us have to wait dozens of years before we realize the sanctity of that straight up-and-down white charger with the puckered mouth. God Save You Miss Stumpf!
She is actually at her best working on Harney. Harney is the ward quadriplegic. Four years before, he dives from a high boulder, arcs down to the rock-quarry pond, and misses. Head meets grey granite. Splits the spine wide, and the nerves grind to pieces between edges of bone. O Harney!
Now Harney is permanently encased, face down, on a Striker Frame: to contemplate his downfall, the two inches that separate rock from water. Harney has many days, hours, weeks in the arms of the Striker Frame to mull over the sin of his ways. And Nurse Stumpf comes to work him over with her acid tongue for not cooperating. Not cooperating! What a jewel!
Go to it, Nurse Stumpf! He is the one person that I know of at the time, in the world, who is in worse shape than I. Me: building an edifice of hope on the broken body of a broken man. He is my freedom. My path is up — his is down. I build my life on his corpse.
For in 1952, the quadriplegic is doomed. The fractured portion of spinal cord is so very high that everything from lower neck down is finished, forever.
Harney can wave his arms around, a bit, but they are permanently crooked, the arms of a rooster plucked, the chicken-thin arms. He has no use of his hands: they bend into the position of eternal surprise. Harney amazed.
Harney has no feeling below his nipples. No feeling whatsoever at naval, or ass, or knee. No lover can pinch Harney and hope for response. Harney has no feeling in his cock. No lover can kiss those thin buttocks, and no lover will. Harney is incontinent, can’t control his piss, or shit, can feel no joy in lips crossing thin white mountains of thighs.
If Harney were lying naked (Harney is lying naked, with a sheet over him) on his back (he is on his stomach) and the gentlest of ladies were to lay gentle fingers on the sweet cocoon of his hips, put lips to inner thighs — Harney would feel nothing. Nothing. He is a quadriplegic.
He can feel nothing and do nothing. He can move his chicken-wing arms. And his legs: once every two or three days, his legs throw themselves into huge spasms, shaking and rocking. As if to protest this inaction. Why did you cut us off? Just when we were at our best! Why did you do that to us Harney? And his legs go into outraged spasms, are tied down to keep him from upsetting everything on the floor, and the whole bed shakes with the spasms of legs fighting against the bonds, against being tied down. Harney is shaking in rage; the earthquakes of the dying land. He has to be tied down, he is fit to be tied.
Harney, Harney! They have taken so much from you. You will never feel the cold water of the quarry rushing past (sudden recoil) a slim 20-year-old belly. You will never feel your balls tighten up as you go deep in that cold clear water, reach the darkness below.
You Harney: you have a new wife. Your other wife (the one with the veil; the one with Richard Hudnut perfume and magenta on the fingernails) will never run soft ladyhands trailing down your stomach, bringing the fires up from below. You have a new wife now, Harney.
You are married to your Striker Frame. Your cock lies in the cold vagina of the bed for all time, in good times and in bad, for better or worse, in good weather and in poor, for summer and winter. You are in perpetual love with the bed on wheels: the one raised high from the floor with extra soft padding to keep away the bedsores (that come anyway, lover’s bites, love cherries from your new wife.)
You are high on your Marriage Bed, high up so those of us around you who love you can see you perched high on the throne, the flat-lay-down throne. And your constant procession of ministering angels come to change, once daily, the silver chalice that receives the golden flow from within (that comes in its own natural cicadian rhythm) and, once each two days, to remove the offering from within that obtrudes from your moveless bowels.
Harney, Harney, Harney. Be good to him Nurse Stumpf! Lash him good and proper. Pull out the whip of your words and flail those frail buttocks, that bone back, those knobby concentration camp knees. Flail him hard and good. For our child on his Wedding Bed has so little time to live. The liver and the kidney and the spleen and the bowels do not take kindly to the perpetual marriage of their body-master. Soon enough, one of them will give up. And Harney — who has grown so wise, lying face down for four of the last twenty-four years of his life (where he can attend to every speck, every fly, the movement of every foot) will consummate once and for all the ceremony he began as he arched through the air on that bright June day of 1948, as he raced down to engage, with two inches to spare, the huge grey boulder that came a giant to meet him, head on, to enlighten him, once and for all, with the truth of the O so fragile hair-thin nerves.
I do not want to be here. I do not want to be here alone, in a dirty baby diaper. I do not want to be in this ward, in this hospital, in this world. I want to be back at the beach again, on the sands again, running, laughing, the warm waters spitting out before my feet. . . .
Beginning when I was — what? — five or six years of age, I had this friend used to go about with me. Tall, about my size. Shy. Warm (once you got to know him). Above all, dignified. He was my friend, my best friend, and I would do anything to protect him; and he, I know, would do the same for me.
Early on in my stay at Hope Haven he got pushed around a bit, my friend did. Bruised. Worked over. But he stayed with me, spent most of his time with me, despite the nurses, despite the unfriendly atmosphere. He put up with all that. He was my best friend.
It isn’t until a few weeks have passed at Hope Haven that he gets the bludgeoning. This is how it happens.
They take a mallet, with the little metal studs on it, corner him at the far end of the ward, and beat the shit out of him. They beat him so hard and so fiercely that the blood leaks from his mouth and nose and ears. He had so much pride before that.
I am sure he knows what is about to happen. They can’t hide that malevolence. He is very calm when they capture him — I think he hopes for the best. He is brave, he really is, even though his eyes are dim with the knowledge of what they might do to him. They do — they do their worst, and he doesn’t have a chance.
The nurses and orderlies get him at the far part of the ward, where no one can hear them (even though it’s broad daylight) and they beat him so thoroughly with the mallets that he can’t even move to get away from them. They break his right arm (leaving it fractured and hanging by the skin alone). They twist one of his legs behind him so that you can see the jagged edges of the bone piercing the skin. They take a mace-like contraption, a metal one with rivets, and come right up under his crotch so that it slams into his nuts, driving them right up into his belly. It hits so fast and so hard that he doesn’t have the breath to cryout. He just twists with the brutal hurt of it.
They stomp him there not once but four or five times to be sure they have done it right. His mouth comes to be frozen in a round jagged circle of pain, and when they smash the metal rods into his jaw, they crack the bone so that the stubs of his teeth (red washed in blood) are all that remains.
My poor friend; my dear friend; the friend of my days: Dignity. Absolutely beaten to insensibility, so that you can see the four red-brown blood streaks on the wall where he crushed fingers against it as he tried to keep from being pulled down to the floor by the bloody weight of his body.
They do it to us, do it to me and my friend. They come at us with a mallet, a piece of piping, and a diaper.
Muscles cease functioning in the wasting disease. Muscles of lower intestine cease peristalsis. Movelessness in bed turns the contents of the bowels to rock. To counter this, the hospital loads the patient up with mineral oil, caster oil, milk of magnesia. If there is no reaction, the dosage is repeated, increased. Finally the bowels turn to water. Where previously, all was stone — now there is a flooding . . . not once, but again and again. There is no control.
There is no way that we can run to the bathroom. In total bedrest, there is no way to go to the private world of toilet which is our heritage from the age of child on. No privacy, no freedom, no exit.
The nurses are harassed. There are dozens of patients to be attended to. They can help only so much, and after awhile, I am a man soiling himself as if I were a babe again. A bad boy who shits in his clean white sheets. There is no control.
After the sixth time, the nurses aide, the blonde one, the one with the thin sharp face, Miss Amarga, takes a white towel, folds it into a triangle, puts it around my waist and between my legs. Gets two big steel pins, pins the diaper in place. I am the child again. I dirty my bed, so they give me a diaper, so I can dirty that. I have no control, filled as I am to the brimming with mineral oil, milk of magnesia. I am out of control. Dignity gets it with the bludgeon.
“I put a diaper on him,” Miss Amarga tells Nurse Stumpf. They both smile. I can see them smiling, each to each. “I put a diaper on him,” Miss Amarga tells the other nurses, and nurses’ aides. “I had to put a diaper on him,” Miss Amarga tells the other patients. I can see them smiling at me. They stay away from my bed. Miss Amarga is smiling with a tight clean smile. She looks quite clean in her white starched uniform.
I am not smiling. I am not smiling: I am contemplating the broken body of my friend Dignity, now a bloody rag doll over in the corner of the boy’s ward. I am contemplating the broken body of my friend, in the corner of the ward.
Lorenzo is not smiling with Miss Amarga, the nurses, the other aides, the patients. I am not smiling, neither inside nor outside. In fact, inside, where none can see me, I am torn by misery, and loneliness, and the absolute desolation of hope and pride. “I do not want to be doing this,” I think over and over again. “I do not want to be the baby again,” I think. “I must get out of here,” I say to myself. I do not ring for them to come and clean me up. I lie there by myself, in my own dismal dirt, moveless, speechless, a foul babe again, without hope, with no reason for existence.
I do not want to be here. I do not want to be here alone, in a dirty baby diaper. I do not want to be in this ward, in this hospital, in this world. I want to be back at the beach again on the sands again, running, laughing, the warm waters spitting out before my feet as I run, me in my sun-colored bathing suit, racing alive through the surf, racing to lunge into the waves, to swim down below the waves, below the surface, deep down into the nectarine waters, down where the white moon-hill bottom is pulsing with the waves and the warm life about me. Fish dart thoughts swerve past me and turn colorful showers there at the bottom of the sea, where I am warm and fresh again, kicking out into the sea, there with my friend of my life, my friend of all time, my friend dignity, who has lived with me, good times and bad, for so long, so long.
Over in the corner of the ward, clean, white Miss Amarga whispers to one of the other patients and looks over her shoulders with a tight, white-lipped smile. She winks, and so doing, she renders one last blow to my friend, and he passes out against the wall, for all intents and purposes crippled forever.
It’s a good school I go to, out there at Hope Haven. One of the best. Within a day I learn to feed myself.
The teacher, I must admit, is a hard disciplinarian. But I am a good student. And I want to learn. They might starve me if I don’t attend to my lessons.
I get them to turn me over on my left side. I support my right arm with my left hand. I have them place the tray close to me on the bed table. With some agility and juggling, I can get fork to plate, pick up food, and back again to mouth without dropping too many beans on the sheet.
I have to rest each five bites. And at the end of the meal I am exhausted. I lie there for an hour, resting from the exertion of eating.
But by Jesus it is my own fucking hand that is bringing food to mouth. Six weeks into the school, and I have learned the first step of independence.
I go over it again and again in my mind. Perhaps if they put the tray closer. I should be able to get seven bites before exhaustion. The glass of milk: that is the bitch. There is no way I can get lips to it. I have to wait until they come to take the tray away so someone can hold the straw to my lips.
But a victory! And it came so suddenly. When friends or family come to see me, they think (I can see them thinking) Jesus, he looks awful, and wasted. They see me in the thrall of atrophy. Disconnect muscle from brain, and the muscle withers to a string. The joints stick out. The bones come to lie painfully close to the surface. The flesh hangs down, like an old washerwoman’s upper arms.
I am thin, wasted; pale. And they all see that — those people who come to visit, who knew me before. But they are already behind the times. I am moving upwards in the world. I can get fork in hand to mouth. I am a self-feeder. I am three years old again.
I am growing again. They take me through the firehouse, and burn the flesh away from my bones, and fry my brain, and leave me with muscles that still (twenty-five years later) are tender, and disconnected. Yet give me a fork and a tray and by God, I can eat with the best of them.
And Triumph Number Two. That one takes a bit longer. I would say another month. It’s called Turning Over in Bed By Yourself.
Can you think of the strangeness of that? For so many years, I had the sweet and simple pleasure of turning over in bed, with no help at all. We fall asleep, and we move, unconsciously, from front to back, from side to stomach, legs moving this way and that, arms thrown out wide.
The vulgar disease takes that ability from me. There is no substitute for the muscles that have turned me about in my sleep. I wake up in the darkened ward, and my hip bone is burning. My shoulder aches from the pressure. I am paralyzed, not only in the waking state, but asleep as well.
To keep from getting bedsores, they must move me about for me. They (nurses, aides, occasionally another patient) will pull me over to the side of the bed, throw left leg over right leg, push me to the other side. Turn the patient (a potato in the oven) over and over to keep him from getting burned.
Miss Frye is the night nurse. Eleven to seven. She is to watch over the flock by night. She is to minister to the occasional crying out, the occasional bedwetting, the occasional attack of sleeplessness. The way she deals with these is by pulling the old easy chair to the foot of the ward and going to sleep in it. Most of the night.
Miss Frye. I call. Miss Frye! I don’t want to call too loudly, wake the others. But my hip is like fire. Will you turn this potato? She can’t hear me above the buzzing of the dreams, and her snoring.
I appeal to the head of the hospital. Miss Frye won’t come. She is asleep.
Miss Frye comes after that. She lies awake sulking in her chair. Whenever l call, she races down the corridor, throws me over. I am no longer a potato: I am a sack of bones. Miss Frye is furious.
I wish she would die. I wish she would retire. I wait eagerly for Sunday nights (her night off) so that I don’t lie awake for an hour, or two, hesitating. Should I call? My voice is tremulous. Why doesn’t she move to the goddamn day shift?
Miss Frye: you should understand (don’t you understand?) that I am not here to bug you. I am not some whimper of a baby, intent on irritating you out of your well-deserved sleep. I see you: as you sleep in that easy chair, snoring loudly through your adenoids; I see you shuffle and move around. The body needs freedom from pressure points. You understand, don’t you Miss Frye?
No, I am dependent on a woman who hates me. Absolutely a slave to her.
I begin to intellectualize the problem, the huge space between thought and deed. Problem: I have few muscles, but I have to be turned. Now if I take my left hand and hold it up with the right (on the elbow) I can just get my fmgers to the cross bar.
Once on the cross bar above my bed, if I move (slowly, o so slowly) upper torso to the right in the bed, squinching shoulders along the sheets, I can make it so that I can pull the right shoulder over so I am lying on my left side. Marvelous!
And it works. At last, I can, at the least, get from my back over to one shoulder (the legs follow like pooches on a hunt). And, with enough calculation, and putting my strong hand up to the head bar of the bed, and twisting. I can get over on the other side (this second process takes another ten days to clarify). And one night, without her knowing it, I am free of the clutches of Miss Frye. That horrid lady with the snore of an ox; who didn’t give a goddamn about me and my burning hips. Horrid: no. Wait. Miss Frye has taught me several lessons. (1) How to fend for myself in the jungle of the bed; (2) How to avoid conflicts with hospital personnel; and (3) A new view of the legs.
The legs! My legs. My new legs, thin as they are; in this period, they become an adjunct to the rest of my body. They don’t do leggy things like walk, stroll, or cross themselves. They are rather weighty appendages, although fast slimming down in a trimming class sans pareil. As time goes on, I will begin to treat them as so much excess baggage. Throw them around on the bed. Lift them up, by hand, and put them somewhere else. They are weight and counter-weight: and little else.
An appendix. Of a sudden, my legs have become strangers to me. They aren’t quite a part of me (Where did you go? Nowhere. What did you do? Nothing.) But they provide a balance when I go through the intricate motion of hospital bed body juggling.
You are right, Miss Frye. You have taught me a couple of good things. Think out the act of moving before doing it; intellectualize it to accomplish it. And: stop thinking of legs as legs. Weights, potatoes, sticks, firewood, appendages: ok. But legs of yore (running, dancing, standing still) — no. No.
James was a football player. He was Captain of the Robert E. Lee High School football team until polio put an end to his end runs. A big guy, with a Marine crew cut. Born to be captain.
He is probably captain of the ward at Hope Haven, if anybody is. His legs have, through the kiss of Polio The Great Leveler, turned the size of telephone cables. One of his arms has been eaten alive: shrunk, reddened, muscles survive, bur not too many — and it becomes definitely second place in James’ armory.
The other arm, the left one. What a powerhouse. Wow! Big when James was trying his opponents on the gridiron; now, trying his opponents in the hospital bed, it has doubled in size. After all, left arm has to be right arm, and as well, left and right leg.
The shadow of the glory-hole days of Spring 1952. Racing down, that arm securely nursing the football, the baby to his chest. But the baby dies, and the Captain acts out a lifetime of football maneuvers, for the next forty years, in the comfort of an Everest & Jennings Wheelchair.
What a leveller! James and I are almost the same. No: wait. My family comes to see me visiting hours on Sunday. James’ visitors are girls from the high school cheerleader squad. They come in their short hair and pleated white skirts; their white-brown Oxfords and blue sweaters. And their carefully shaved smooth round muscular legs that work, that work by God. And their trim little waists and sweet blooming breasts. Their arms and hands so casually placed on James’ pillows. The heady fragrance of rose scent. Let’s hear a locomotive for James and his five regular cheer-girls. We are all so envious.
Do not be angry with me. Or sick. You see: I have vowed that I will tell you everything. Everything. I am going to cut a hunk a mile wide channeling through my soul, and lay it out on the page for you.
I like them because they breathe and speak the normalcy that the rest of us have had dragged from us by one means or another. I think on their breasts, and their beautiful calves, their lips made up in Cardinal Red (that pout!) but most of all I think of what lies underneath the skirts.
I think of their stomachs. I think of their duodenal reaches. I think of what lies under that warm natty softly downed scarcely touched skin. I think of their bowels. And the shit in their bowels. And how it works. Just like clockwork (they don’t even think of it!) the faeces come and plop! are gone. Without a quiver. Without a pause. Without the hard, impacting, asshole wrenching, crater-fissure aching brutalizing deep bone-ass tiring killing crying out a constipated Impacted Bolus.
The secret of the Shit. James — the football captain, the ward captain — teaches me the secret of the Shit.
Don’t be angry with me. Or sick. You see: I have vowed that I will tell you everything. Everything. I am going to cut a hunk a mile wide channelling through my soul, and lay it out on the page for you. The depths of my soul. The reaches of my workings. The Secret of the Big Shit.
I have to stick the secret in James’ ass because of the fact that he was and is a man. I am not saying I am some wimp, for Christ’s sakes; but I was never the captain of the team. As a maner of fact, the closest I came to the team was when I played soprano saxophone for the Lawrenceville Prep Bears or Hogs or Geese or whatever they were called. I surely was no sportsman. Thus, you would expect me to cry out in anguish when they first started teaching me the Secret. But not James, not the Captain of the Lee Lions.
Two or three times a week, in the ward, in the long ward, of Hope Haven Charity Hospital, I watch the shit reduce James to a baby. A crying baby.
I can watch this because in that unquiet grave, our shitting is a matter of public record. Each Bowel Movement is recorded on work sheet: texture, quantity, nature (hard or soft). For the bedridden, there is no place we can go God knows to void our bowels. Privacy: what’s that? The best they do for us is to pull together white curtains on moveable metal frames, enclose our bed, and let us get on with it. For all to hear and smell.
Two or three times a week, in the ward, in the long ward, I watch the shit reduce James to childhood again. James the man who would never shrink from a head-on with some 250-pound guard; who would pile-drive his way through eleven hulking peers to lead his team to victory: James the Captain turned to a moaning baby by some wretched turd.
Why am I telling you this? I have promised to tell all. Why am I smiling? It’s not funny! Get on with it, get on with it; let’s be done with it.
The agony, the one that haunted, and still haunts James, and Hugh, and Francine, and Margo, and Ed, and all my old polio friends — outside of braces, crutches, corsets, wheelchairs, and Nurse Stumpf. The introduction we have to the wonders and romance of this disease, the secret order of friendship, the special handclasp, the grasp of ass that binds us all forever together, the legion of camaraderie for all of us forever, until death do us part, the Secret Ritual of the Groaning Crap.
Listen to me! This is important! I have never read any book on hospital lore, sickness, disease, the novels of self-help and resurrection of the ill, the betterment and wonder of departure of the sickbed: nothing, no one of those has dealt with Constipation. Constipation: you old bag you. Phew!
What happens is that the normal muscle tone of the intestines, the easy workings of peristaltic action, that gentle kneading action that makes the bowels move, gets lost. The action motion of the outside us (arms, legs) is gone; that inside (peristalsis) goes as well. The bolus, the shit which moves out so smartly for, say, you, from ilius to sphincter in eighteen hours — is for us slowed down intolerably. It moves slower and slower, the lower intestines extract more and more water, it grows larger, and heavier, and drier. Get the picture? It becomes “impacted”.
Impacted: a great word, conjuring up images out of geology. Giant tidal basins colliding with one another; great shelves of land becoming locked in slow motion; huge hunks of rock and cold lava straining and tearing against each other. All suitable images for the freezing up of the bowels, the consequent giantization of the turd.
Apt image! And when the bolus finally comes to exit, it has grown (I swear by all that’s holy) to the size of a boulder; a hard, monster boulder. Never (I think, you think, he, James, thinks) can that monster get through the tiny asshole.
Nothing makes it come out. Nothing, not prayers, strain, sweating, rocking back and forth, arms folded across belly, crying out, gut wrenching sweat and strain; nothing can get that Christly turd out of the hole to, for God’s sakes, Get Born.
Does the message get through? O I don’t just mean about the shit. I mean the body turned to enemy. My body, so kind and amiable, is all of a sudden producing this thing, this wretched painful thing, that will lay siege to another part of my body; and in their struggle, I am torn by pain. Ennervating, hours-on-the-cold-bedpan agony. The bottling up. The monster shit that refuses to release itself from me.
I hear James right now. I hear him, and my heart is with him. James the Captain is crying out, trying to get that thing (part of himself) out of himself. The Passion of the Split Asshole.
James, James! My brother of the cofraternity. My sweet brother. Writhing and crying out, as the inspiration from within ennobles him on his throne of steel. We, the select, divinely chosen, honored by the black kiss of the gods.
In symphony: James and I and countless others others in harmony, raise our cries to the heavens. This, the highest passion of the truth and understanding. We, caught forever on a piece of ourselves, come from these golden moments perched in solitary wonder: come, at last, to the magic moment. The one that leans down, splits yet another fissure, and, in an instant, transforms us from frowning gods into smiling cherubs.
For an hour, or two, or three, we lie there, thrashing back and forth, edges of the pan of steel permanently etched in our bones; and we, crying out, straining with it, come, finally, to the apex, the crowning moment, As we feel the stone beginning to penetrate into outer world, as we feel the rock cutting into tender sphincter flesh, as we feel the rage and passion of that rock merged on the edge of consciousness, and the universe, beginning at last to crawl out into the world.
When, at last, the rock is sprung (Jesus! did you feel that!) there comes, after it, the golden flow, burning out of the centre of all of us. Rushing, racing, pouring out of the noblest end of all of us, the place, where indeed, we wear the halo of the silver-shined aluminum pan: flowing out of the upper reaches of all of us, at last, the golden plug yields to pressures from within and without, and comes klang! into the world of the living, a massive on-swelling floods from us; we, lying in the sanctified perfume of the deepest parts of us, raise us all high on the mountain of our throne — as once and for the next two days we are released from the hard truth from within, we, perched on the sweetest mountain, the Himalaya of our sweet scented ever-flowing mountainous shit.
I don’t know who is making money off Hope Haven. It certainly isn’t the nurses, or the superintendent. I would be loathe to suspect my medical director, the doctor who is charge d’affaires for that hundred bed charity hole.
Despite the fact that he comes to us on monthly rounds in elegant tweeds, with a nose whose many veins testify to an excellent diet of wine and viands: who am I to point an accusing finger at Dr. Jackyl? Not I, Not I.
But someone is getting a good cut of all that money that comes rushing in from the annual fund-raising drive of Kidz on Krutches.
The food is lousy. We eat at seven in the morning, noon, and four-thirty PM. Supper in midafternoon! And you know what happens to bad food that is cooked and over-cooked and then cooked some more. Vegetables turn to library paste. Meat becomes doorstops. Rice is non-existant. Potatoes are peeled and boiled until they drop from exhaustion. We get five servings of wonderbread, and black-eyed peas turned to mush.
And always can-fruit-salad for dessert. Every day and twice on Saturday and three times on Sunday: fruit salad, soggy peaches and desiccated cherries. Where do they get that stuff? The sick and dying are being fed on pennies a day.
Things in the kitchen fall apart so that hot suppers come to us warm, coffee is served tepid, cold milk comes out of a can and is presented at dishwater temperature. They cook the meat until it is rubber, then they serve it to us with knives that bend. Lukewarm dogmeat.
Then the building: the roof leaks when it rains. The windows admit drafts and big centipedal bugs. When, in the late fall, the temperature ventures to the freezing point, the whole heating system collapses.
The therapy equipment goes into eclipse. Not the electric zap shock muscle machine: that fucker never gives up. But the pool develops cracks, the aerator burns up, the motor lift blows fuses, the heater sags and withers.
The furnace quits in November. Kerosene heaters are brought in to keep the ward warm. Kerosene heaters, with no chimneys, whatsoever. Kerosene heaters that throw great black clouds to the ceiling of the ward. We are freezing to death, and they are trying to choke us to death with these smudge pots.
As I look back over that long, cold ward of Hope Haven, I see nothing but a line of juvenile corpses. Eugene, with black pigeyes and something wrong with his hip to go along with 230 pounds of 20 year old corpulence. Warren, whose joints, all of them, are frozen by rheumotoid arthritis so that he cannot straighten out his concentration camp body, or bend it: but would spend his life at 150 degrees of arc, legs straight out in front of him, arms frozen parallel at his side.
Mark, the guitar player, whose foot, deprived of blood and nerves by spinal bifida, was always in a cast, for skin graft, left foot attached to right leg. Brad, of the kind disposition: an arm permanently kinked by some sort of birth defect. (When I come to visit you two years later in your shack near Valdosta, and I see the coon hounds and kerosene lantern, I realize with a shock how poor you are, how the hospital must have seemed to be some rich paradise.)
Fred, who sported one leg ten inches shorter than the other, another recipient of the bone wasting osteomyelitis. You had big teeth and a wicked way, Fred. Clark, one arm, and one arm alone, shrivelled by polio (a captious disease: like a tornado, dipping down to lay waste to some parts of the land the body; then skipping over other parts completely).
You wore your left arm in an upright brace, to keep it from tightening up. You are the Statue of Liberty, commemorating the poor and the helpless who have come to the shore looking for wealth and freedom — and have found, instead, two years in a hospital bed.
You, and the dozens of others: nameless, with stumps, bent shoulders, skewed backs, funny feet, hopeless hearts, gangrene brains, swallow-tailed butts, frozen joints, busted frames, twisted eyes. You, the pitiful dregs, the poor children, the poverty-stricken: so poor that you are sent to the hospital which is not a hospital, but rather a special torture chamber which is designed to enfeeble the healthy, maim the whole, sicken the well, cripple the walking.
Such is the state of the medical art being practiced at that dungeon in Northern Florida that those who enter the portals (which say “Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here!”) can expect your straight shoulders to be crooked; your beating heart to develop murmurs; your fingers to bend and twist at the joints.
Your cocks will sprout cankers; your ass will grow huge purple fistulas; your face will be encrusted with The Pox. Your shining hopeful eyes will become leaden and dull; your mouth which smiles will smile no more; your head will come to droop and your back to sway.
Your teeth will begin to rot; your spleens will develop lesions and leaks; your intestines will blossom with tumors and warts. If you walk straight — we will make it so you crawl; if you crawl, we will reduce you to a wheel chair; if you come to us in a wheel chair, we will turn you to one of the bedridden.
No state of health is too robust or too arcane for us to ignore. Bring us your hopeful, your eager, your breathing, your lively. We, the doctors and nurses and orderlies and masters of Hopeless Haven will reduce you to walking wounded, the scabrous deformed metal-jointed plastic-plated broken and defeated. Give us your children of hope and mercy, and we will return to you beggars and basket cases. Give us the young adults of the future — and we will give back to you broken flies of humanity to tug your heart and rip your soul. We are the masters of hospitalization: and without prejudice, we can reduce the young of this nation to rubble.
I am dying in that hospital. It won’t be revealed to me until later — but I am on my death-bed there. The food, not to say the shocking physical therapy, are less than sufficient for survival. I am in a charity hospital, and in 1952 they were and are very chary of giving the things necessary for life.
I have been sent to the hospital to die. They have sent me to a place that will leech the life and the hope out of me. Despite having been squashed by the steam-roller disease, there is possibility of life and recovery. With appropriate care, I might be able to walk again.
But they have sent me to Hopeless Haven. I shall be enslaved forever in the toils of this place. The food is fit to kill; the medical help is deadly; life will soon be over. Dr. Jackyl, head of Physical Medicine at the hospital, is trying to think of some way he can keep me there, and with luck, get me into his operating room. If he plays his cards right, a good series of operations should take care of me, and increase his annual income by five figures.
But he is being asked to yield me up. A determined mother has decided that her son is dying in the pest house. She has pulled strings to get me admitted to Warm Springs Foundation, Warm Springs, Georgia. She is sure that I will be treated somewhat better there, off to the north. She is right.
Dr. Jackyl has decided that he does not want to surrender $1000 a month, cash on the line, to an importuning mother. He is a wily businessman, and knows which side of the bread the butter is breaded on. He has his rummy eye on to something good — and it will take an act of divine intervention to get me out of my bed of pain.
Mother is persistent. She finds that Dr. Jackyl can be reached at his office each evening between 5:15 and 5:30 p.m. Each day for two months she calls him at 5:15 to get his OK for my departure, to get my records sent to Warm Springs. Two adults, two titans fighting for control over the boy, the boy in the bed.
A mother of persistence. A doctor of resistance. How reluctant he is to give up his young charge. You would think that the old man were in love with me, with some part of me. You would think that Dr. Jackyl knew a good fuck when he had him. And he had me. On my stomach, legs spraddled far apart, the rheumy doctor with the laeaden hand had his will of me. From September to early February. Had it not been for the sixty telephone calls, the unlimited zeal of sheer motherwill — this body would have remained consigned to the hole-wall nightmare hospital of No Hope.
But he fails. Reluctantly, he signs the papers. Reluctantly he rises from my impoverished body, and with tears in his eyes, watches his $12,000 a year patient sail off to North Georgia. Reluctantly he sees his financial security lifted from his arms, and spirited to another place, to another doctor, to another hospital, out of his hands.
I am admitted to Warm Springs, and I get to say goodbye to the one or two angels, the dozen or so harpies, and the countless non-entities that haunt the hospital of charity.
I am allowed to say goodbye to the twice daily electric shock spasms and the supper at four each afternoon which both, or alone, are certainly capable of killing a pig.
I am permitted to say good-bye to the kerosene black-smoke heaters, and to the leaky roofs, the shrieks and hollering fourteen hours of the day, including all Sundays and holidays.
I am able to say farewell to the trim black moustache of Nurse Stumpf, to the snores of the night nurse, to the encrippling of several hundred children of North Florida at the hands of the professional paid rippers and cutters and tearers and brutalizers.
How was I able to survive this ministration of the damned? How? I survived as well as I did because I truly had no knowledge of how grossly set-up, how grossly run the whole institution. I had no yardstick to tell me that I was in a dump set out to perpetuate sickness, not to cure it.
I had no idea that they were using medieval torture devices on me, tortures that were long since discarded in other parts of the country. I had no idea that the road I was on was ugly, bad, maladjusted, stupid, painfully stupid, out-of-date, backwards, acutely harmful.
I had never been in a hospital except as a visitor — and I didn’t know beans about nutrition, no idea of new developments in physical therapy, no idea that I was being medically and physically and emotionally starved.
Environments are Givens for the young. I had no criteria to decide whether I was in Paradise or Vulgar City. I had no knowledge of relative accommodations, quality of nursing, standards of hospitalization: We are so pure and clean and straight and innocent — we children of the Upper Class.
With my Prussian education, I learned to do what I was told, to accept what was given. If they had sent me to Korea (draft notice appears three weeks after my induction into the hospital) I would have learned how to use a flamethrower, how to cook up resistant natives. I would do what I was told: I wasn’t educated to disobey orders.
We children of the sun: tall, innocent, tanned, lank, pimply-faced stoics. We are the true Existentialists: taking in stride whatever measure our bleak god hands out to us, wondering why life is so drab. We accept the givens of life; we are put here and there, told to do this and that — and we think we have no choice. Never would I think to say (or think to think) “I am being destroyed in this place, by a bunch of doughheads. I have to get out of here!”
I, at eighteen: a poor child of wealth, having a poor, a pisspoor vision of those things which would contribute to my own survival. And as I am telling you this, I am wondering, just wondering how I survived to this moment to be able to tell you all this: wonder how I managed to get to this place of relative security and survivability. How I ever managed to make it from dying to living?
Permanent harm? Did I suffer any permanent harm from Hope Haven? Sure: I have a souvenir of Hope Haven that twinges me to this very day. Medical care — sensible, up-to-the-latest-technology medical care, available to those who could look for it in 1952 — dictated total bedrest for the post-polio for at least three months. And then — a gradual, gradual, gradual re-education of the muscles.
The medical director and the physical therapist could not and would not research that fact. The cross bar, the one that made it possible for me to escape from The Dread Night Nurse, was put over my bed. I was encouraged to pull myself up on it for exercise, to help the nurses when they were making my bed.
That bar murdered muscles of the upper arms, back, shoulders — anterior deltoids, serratus anterior, trapezius.. These are muscles that cannot return, will never return, because they were burned out: not by the disease, but by the strain put on them, as weak as they were, in the first few months of recovery.
Every time I pull myself up those muscles talk to me. They remind me of their nonexistence because the adjacent muscles have to make up for those long absent. And they can never do the full job of the ones now gone.
A little present of permanent loss from the pixies who ran Hope Haven. A present from those who could not be bothered with the burden of learning the truth about physical therapy, knowledge available in the medical journals of the time.
We can curse him, the fraudulent and hurtful Dr. Jackyl, but, already, he is reaping his same. At this very moment, some three decades after his collected malefeasances on the poor and unwitting of Hope Haven, he is lying in his own Hope Haven Nursing Home.
His titles and badges mean nothing now. The power he wielded so callously on the poor and young of the land has come back to regale him under the aegis of Nurse Neo-Stumph, Proto-Craven, Nova-Bland. He is in their thrall now.
His eighty-four-year-old body has changed most wonderfully. The legs that carried about his rounds for so many years have failed him. His intestines are showing signs of advanced retardation. He is on a new journey through bowel and vein and bladder. The brain — in collusion with the rest of him — has turned forgetful around the ages. Sometimes, he doesn’t know if it is 1941 or 1922 or 1985.
His fellow members of the profession of Hippocrates have passed to another, deeper, more encompassing institution. He, alone, remains the uninvited guest of a house in the state of terminal collapse. He spends his Sunset Years in the thrall of catheter and aspirator.
His many journeys over the years are now done. His voyages of sensual and financial and social delight are now a dream. He is visiting a new holy land, a land of rot and putrescense. A silent land — except for the whispering of puzzling words against his inner ear, the wheezing of an unknown roommate, the occasional scoldings of a vague, balloon-breasted nurse, and the quiet tinkle of the piss bottle at the foot of his bed.
In the Last Hope Rest and Nursing Home, all comes home to all. Bones turn to chalk. Cerebrovascular fluids leak out of the various cranial stops. There are new dawn-flowers of purple over the milk-white deserts of his skin. Shades of amarillo juices seep from the nine famous exits of the body.
His eyes have turned to the color of mud. His fingers, imprecise, frail, pick at the starched sheets. His voice trembles of its own weight, heavy with disuse. His body has taken him to a land of truth — truth that says “There is no freedom from the body.” We can deny it, pretend it away, but there is no escape from this tag of skin-and-bones that runs us, runs us all.
He is now alone with a sweet and simple song born of the engine of time; an engine that sings to us the hymn of entropy. Entropy! It runs us and it terminates us, and all besides it is illusory.
You are living proof of its power, Dr. Jackyl. Human vengence is an unnecessary gilding. Our thoughts turn to mice, skittering down dust-choked halls. All that it left as you creep towards this hole is the message of the fooishness of your efforts: your efforts, my efforts, the efforts of a frustrated and foolish world. You are proof dying and proof living of entropy.
I see you now, Dr. Jackyl. You touch neither my heart nor my soul. We are in this cosmic cage together, the corner-cage of decay and futility. The nurses ignore your whispered commands, the aides mock your pitiful requests, the orderlies shove you aside to clean the stench from your sheets, and laugh at your drooled demands. I see you, Jackyl — you and I will be side-by-side on this last journey: we will be tied together through the tubes riding up the veins, into the nose, deep inside the bladder, fully plumbed for the last journey, slowly dribbling to a halt in the last crevasse of them.
You are now wise, Dr. Jackyl. Your shattered os innominatum gave you ultimate wisdom. You are now a part of the Socratic army on wheels, pulled by tubes, given the truth of shallow sleep, scratching the covers of what is left of your days. You have outmassed the world in understanding.
If they only knew the depths of our body-given wisdom. O if they only knew! They would fall to their knees, to worship us. They would hail us with the inviolate cry, out of long centuries past:
Magnus ab integro saeclorum mascitur ordo.
(The great series of lifetimes starts anew.)