The boat was caught in a current and I wished the mud to stick fast to the bulwark, to keep me from sliding towards the open waters, but the tug was too strong. I could not paddle up, only gaze longingly over my shoulder, tether my thoughts to the dream that had closed behind me. The arrival at sea was always rough. First caught in an eddy, then spun around to land backwards in tumultuous waves that beat against the sides of the boat, tossing it side to side, then up so it plopped down hard with a thump and a flip of the stomach—finding its rhythm in the up and down churning. Forgetting its cargo—me, gazing back at the channel that brought me here, longing to return and unhappy to be sailing at all. Until the waves became larger, the water below darker, land—and the channel that carved through it—were long below the horizon. And then I grabbed the helm, reluctantly, and steered.
The nurses changed shift frequently. Early in the morning I heard someone bustling beside me and I lifted my eyes. The woman’s kind face smiled and said, ‘Good morning.’
I was confused. ‘You,’ I rasped.
She leaned in to listen.
‘I know you,’ I said in the harsh whisper that was now my voice.
She nodded and smiled again. ‘I was here the first night. When you came out of surgery.’
I vaguely recalled having been difficult. I had moaned as she moved me. I wanted to apologize but could not find the words or the strength to look for them. ‘Thank you,’ I mouthed, closing my eyes again. Morphine induced stupor.
Late in the evening of the fourth day I was moved from the ICU to the Cardiac Step Down Unit. It was a place with less monitoring than Intensive Care, but not quite as relaxed as other inpatient floors. My heartbeat, from what I understood, was still a blip on a screen at the nurse’s station, and its wayward activity would send up an alarm.
Earlier in the day the ICU nurses had insisted I go for a longer walk, to the end of the hall. They had to rig all of my fluid boxes, wires, and the bag for my urinary catheter on a metal pole that my mother and Jonathan wheeled beside me. They took off my leg compressors, which were funny contraptions that wrapped around my calf and pulsed every few seconds to push the extra fluid through my body. Even as I vacated the bed, the compressors continued to pulse, causing them to wriggle around at the foot of the bed like a couple of live animals. I had dropped five of the forty pounds I had gained, and apparently all of it from my arms. They were almost returning to normal, but my legs were heavier than ever. They felt like water-logged wooden posts attached to my hips.
Later that night, before my move to the Step Down, I was stripped. They took out my urinary catheter, which meant I had to walk to the bathroom. The morphine pump was replaced with a pill regimen, and I no longer had the undivided attention of a nurse. But I had a large private room overlooking Central Park, and this time my bed faced the window.
I hated the mirror in the bathroom and wished to smash it; it told me ugly things. But with one hand carrying the suction box and the other holding the smaller chest tube box so it didn’t tug on me, I was useless; forced to stare at my own sunken eyes that looked far away, like they had somewhere to come back from. I knew I had a long way to travel and knew I was not the only one. Hugging my boxes to my body as I shuffled back to bed I wondered if there was a map for this journey, and perhaps a gathering place where we could seek solace in companions. I wondered if their eyes were sunken as well and if eyes ever revived. Windows to the soul, then what decay was befalling the source?
I did not feel what I remembered to be human emotion. I had lost my soul in the black abyss of purgatory and came back an android. When I saw my parents I thought I should feel love or some deep attachment to them, but it was absent. I stared at the wall ahead of me, trying to conjure up the thought of some person or thing that incited a passion of any kind within me, but no object arose, no feeling stirred.
They had taken away the morphine pump when they moved me out of the ICU. I had to rely on morphine pills that I could request from a nurse no less than six hours apart. It usually took much longer than that to get them. I had to wait six hours, then push a button to page my nurse and wait until he had time to come to my room and ask what I needed. Then I would tell him I needed painkillers and he would step outside to the nurse’s station to place an order. At some point the order would come through, the medication would be dispensed and when the nurse had time he would see it and deliver it to me. Those were long minutes. Unfortunately, the morphine was practically useless anyhow. It served only to knock me unconscious for an hour-and-a-half, at which point I would re-awaken into the same searing pain. And I began to count the four-and-a-half hours left until I could order my next dose.
‘When will they come out?’ I asked Dr. A who was standing at the bottom of my bed that night. We were talking about the chest tubes that were supposed to have been removed the day after surgery, but it was day four and they were still in. They said my body was producing too much fluid and it was accumulating in my chest cavity. No one knew why, but if they pulled them too soon the fluid could cause my lungs to collapse.
‘Tomorrow,’ he said.
I wanted to tell him there was no time, that there was only the awful present moment and it was an eternity. Time was each moment choosing to take one more conscious breath and be alive, and then another, and infinity and misery were consorts, choreographing the dance of torment in my hospital room. There was no tomorrow. The map was gone, and there was no place to put a time, so it hovered in the ether, useless. Tomorrow would never come because it simply didn’t exist. The only way it could matter was if he said, ‘Now’. Instead I closed my eyes and pretended to wait for the thing called a tomorrow.
As I splintered myself, the wholeness fell apart. I became muted, rent to bits. I remembered the frigid mountain pass, my toes—wet and cold—drained all my body’s warmth. Hunched, shivering, wide-eyed, I had waited patiently for the bright sun to rise and warm me. I had felt perfect then. I knew I should have married the golden orb.
Life was a sticky venture. I touched objects as I passed, trailing my own gooey parts, leaving a residue, losing part of myself, picking up particles of objects I thought I had left behind, so we two had become part of the same one, and the distinction was lost. I was a composite of the residues of all that I had touched, while everything I had passed glistened with my own organic trailings. Crashed, tumbled, thrown, crushed, devastated, buried, ill, dying. Thread of saṃsāra. Each anecdote was a well of anguish for yet another creature, throbbing in unison, the heartbeat of shared existence. I received without petrifying. I experienced without fossilizing into the bedrock.
My eyes opened to the dark wood floor, peaked ceiling, and books along the wall of the built-in shelf of my bedroom in Boulder, but everything was rocking, up and down, left and right. I squeezed my eyes shut, swallowed a wave of nausea and took a deep breath. I tried again, but was still displaced, lost at sea.
I kept my eyes closed the second time, drifted back to sleep, and woke just after nine. Immediately I was suspicious of the unsteady movement of the door, which refused to simply stay put. The waves were a little less violent, however, so I ventured to sit upright and swing my legs over the side of the bed in one motion. As I did, the room spun chaotically, and my eyes sought something fixed. Slowly, the plant, the door, and the floor came to rest in a gentle sway and I stood up. With cautious starts, pauses, and bracing myself against furniture and doorways that shifted, I made my way to the kitchen where I had left my phone.
There were two calls from the office already and a voicemail. I ignored them, found the number for my doctor and hit the green button. When I got through to the nurse I said, ‘I need to see a neurologist.’
‘Oh, okay!’ chirped the nurse. ‘Dr. S can see you next Thursday and she can figure out if you need a referral then.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I need it now.’
‘Oh, what’s going on, dear?’ asked the nurse.
The rocking had worsened: the fridge looked like it should collapse on its side to the floor, except the floor itself had moved. ‘My eyes,’ I began, and then the ship lurched and I fell to the side of the chair.
Dr. B was soft-spoken and her office was silent, which calmed me.
‘Have you had ringing in the ears?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Vertigo, like the room is spinning?’
‘Constantly since the accident.’
‘What makes them worse?’
‘Using my eyes for anything: computer, reading.’
Dr. B nodded and said, ‘Hmmm. Any fatigue?’
Jonathan laughed from his seat beside me.
‘In the past week I sleep twelve hours every night and can hardly get up in the morning,’ I said. ‘Then I have to take naps during the day.’
‘Hmmm. Trouble with balance?’
‘Sometimes I feel like I’m on a boat.’
A little while later, after some gentle physical examination, Dr. B looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have a traumatic brain injury.’
‘A mild traumatic brain injury. It can happen when you hit your head as hard as you did in the accident. I predict a full recovery within three years.’
‘Three years!’ My mouth was agape and unmoving and my eyes set on her.
Dr. B was scribbling something on a piece of paper. ‘You will need cognitive and vision therapy.’ She handed me the prescription. ‘I suggest you cut back your hours at work—by a lot. It would be best if you don’t work at all right now. You need to sleep—as much as your body needs. Don’t try to push through. I’ll see you for a follow-up in six weeks. It was nice to meet you.’ A handshake, a smile, and she was gone.
Jonathan looked shocked as well, but mustered a confident, ‘We’ll figure it out.’
We stayed up all night digging the chasm deeper, darker—to see if our arms were wide enough to reach across, test the stretch of our spines and the strength of our grip. I was the nothing that balanced the everything, the abyss that would consume the chaos, like the wind, strong and surreptitious. I should have been more like the tree, swaying only a little.
The rhythm of my days morphed into long stretches of pain, spasm, nausea, and dizziness. I rode them out lying on the floor, lying in bed, eyes closed, thinking, dreaming, or drifting. In better moments I used my energy on therapy. I took the bus or walked to weekly appointments with the orthopedist, the neurologist, the physical therapist, the vision therapist, the cognitive therapist, and the massage therapist. Each one gave me homework that I performed diligently when I could drag myself out of bed. One of the more pressing questions on my mind was how did I not know for two months that I had a brain injury. The cognitive therapist explained to me that the brain doesn’t like to be out of control, so it can pretend for a while, but at some point the energy it takes to recover from the injury and maintain the façade become too much, and then the brain fails to cover up what is really happening.
Depth was a problem. One day, on my way to an appointment, I crossed the street at a crosswalk. Perhaps the blinding light of Colorado sunshine reflecting off the snow-spotted ground or maybe simply what I had learned to term a ‘bad brain day’, but the crosswalk suddenly became an obstacle course. Each white strip looked raised compared to the blacktop beneath it. My eyes—playing tricks as they did—kept changing the apparent depth; one moment the strip looked only an inch above the ground and the next it leaped up to a foot above the ground. As I plodded across I raised each knee all the way to hip level before placing the foot precariously down onto the ever-changing street. In my logical mind, I knew that the crosswalk was level and that this was not necessary, but my confused eyes insisted on controlling my brain, which in turn ordered my muscle movements. As the light flashed that I was taking far too long, I began to laugh out loud at how ridiculous I must look. Then I realized that the high-stepping and laughter likely made me look like a lunatic, which only spun me off into more laughter. By the time I made it to the other side of the street a headache had begun, which meant I was promised days of debilitation.
I was lost at sea. The ceaseless bobbing and swaying on waves I never saw coming lurched my stomach forward and aft. And the hit on the head had undone my tenuous understanding of reality. My brain tried to wrap itself around time and land me in a familiar place, but I spun around aimlessly, feet hovering above, no place to put them anymore. What I had lost in my topographical guide I destructively gained in new vision where I saw things that weren’t there and couldn’t see things that were. Like any hopeless sailor, my eyes played the classic trick of mirage. A thing would flash through the corner of my vision and I would spin my head around, seeking a clearer view, but it vanished. So I spun deeper around, only serving to make myself dizzy. I tried to teach myself not to react to movement in the peripheral field and then would find myself walking into the edge of counters or chairs jutting out, because I didn’t believe they were there, thought they were more tricks of the mind. The whole ordeal became a game I could never win.
The small success I had experienced in controlling a neck spasm faded to insignificant, as now anything could trigger my eyes and turn me useless for the day. When I practiced yoga, I tried to keep a steady, soft gaze on nothing several feet in front of me. Sometimes I practiced with eyes closed.
In November, Richard taught a pranayama workshop. I signed up eagerly, thinking that it was an opportunity to focus on another branch of yoga, and that I could delve into a different aspect of the practice that might grant me more feeling of accomplishment than asana. But it was awful. Following Richard’s instruction, we began to regulate our breathing to specific counts, inhaling and exhaling. But I couldn’t hold those counts, and I would gasp and never make it to the end. Frustrated, I told myself it was just anxiety and I needed to calm my mind. Then I would try again, but I felt like I was suffocating and would gasp in between cycles. By the end of the workshop I felt more hopeless than before, and without the mental energy to try to understand what was going on, I simply resigned myself to failure.
Shame. And then how much we hate ourselves: her thick ankles, my long nose. his cowlick, their warts. Imperfection reflects back in every mirror and each person reminds us what we are not. Too large, too small. How did our mothers ever decide we were fit to wander out? They knew we would be bullied—every one of us. Still they sent us out with silly lunchboxes that proved our poor taste and new sneakers that were always too something, impressing early on everyone our hopeless inadequacy. Irreconcilable, we became faster or harder, always wondering if one day we could begin to like ourselves. But homes were full of Slim Fast in the cupboard, Dad doing crunches on the floor, medicine cabinets with wart remover, anti-depressants, lipstick, tweezers, hair gel. And then we realize that no one ever gets over it; they just grow more adept at hiding their shame, deflecting, detracting, enhancing, pretending. There is no hope in authenticity unless you choose to look like the old man across the street with a giant mole on his cheek. Three two-inch long hairs grow out of its center, dangle disrespectfully, blatantly, boldly into the air.