On a spaceship, passing by. The world outside was alien, where plants grew leaves that breathed the same air as people walking so far below I could only imagine them, not see them. And I pictured them carrying umbrellas—it had been raining since I first woke—so from my spaceship up high they would look like fascinating bubble creatures waddling on short legs attached to feet. And water—the kind that falls unhindered—pooled into puddles, formed rivers that made rivulets down to gutters. Not that I could see, but most of my sight those days happened behind closed lids. These were all things of only that world, the other planet. On the spaceship no such chaos was allowed. My tubes, the machines they were connected to, told me that out there I was not viable. I was an alien observer; I wondered what their lives were like. Just as I wondered if I would one day be released to their ranks. It didn’t seem probable.
I was withering. The extra water weight that had puffed me out, making me look larger and heartier, had dwindled. My legs were still water-logged, but not to the point of immobility. From my arms and head the water had drained and what was left looked meager. My arms were fleshless, the skin—floppy, from having been stretched—only emphasized how little lay underneath. A few days prior, my fingers had been swollen to the point of no distinction and my knuckles had been dimples, and all of that had quickly reversed so that now they were knobby, weak appendages.
The inside of my left arm, from the middle of the palm to six inches above the wrist, was black. Not black-and-blue, but black. A nurse had informed me it must have been caused by the line there made by the anesthesiologist. She thought it should be documented and I understood the urge, as it looked horrific and painful, as though I had been bludgeoned. But I simply did not feel it. Perhaps the pain receptors were too overwhelmed to receive more input, but I kept reassuring concerned eyes that fell to my arm, ‘No, it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt.’
My torso was a section that I had finally gathered the courage to look at on the sixth day. I had kept my head and eyes level till then, but now, with solemnity, I tilted my head down. My chest was enlarged and my breastbone was massive, covered in a large bandage so I could not yet see the incision. They swelled out almost obscuring the line of sight to below, where I could only glimpse tubes, bandaging, electrodes, and noted that my abdomen also looked heavy, protruding. I did not recognize my body. I had no idea if these changes were permanent, so I looked up again and resolved to keep my eyes averted.
Threshold is not a line but a space that can be briefly inhabited. Late that morning I reached my pain threshold. I had tried breathing, distraction, and patience for five days but it all crumpled away uselessly, as I approached the threshold that I could sustain that amount of pain. Weakness overcame me; I could no longer say that the fight or the holding on were worth it, as I struggled to lift my head. I saw Jonathan’s silhouette by the window and I made a soft noise to catch his attention. He leaned over and I barely whispered with the last energy I had, ‘I need help.’
He looked around, trying to anticipate what I needed help with.
I looked at him with the earnestness I could manage, ‘I can’t anymore. The pain.’
I heard him make phone calls, have conversations, bustle with energy that infused me with just enough more to hang on passed my own. Within an hour, the director tromped in with a group of doctors and nurses trailing behind her, hanging their heads low as though they had just been reprimanded.
She directed with authority and people moved in response. From my vantage, eyes half closed, listless body collapsed against the bed, I couldn’t follow what went on. I could feel myself in the threshold, again, like waking from surgery, where some rope tugs in one direction or the other, determining the fate of landing. That time it had been thirst, asserting itself out of a wasted body, usurping all other desires to cease to persist. This time it was their action, motion, commotion, promising a prompt relief that might carry me forth just a little bit further until things got easier.
A nurse was at my side, touching my arm, saying something about ‘an injection of Toradol.’ As the drug hit my blood stream, my entire body relaxed, my head lifted, my lips parted in the closest thing to a smile within those walls. I understood that euphoria wasn’t a permanent place, but an elevation out of whatever misery was current. And I persisted a little longer.
After that, when I asked for pain medication I asked for Toradol. I was told it was dangerous and had to be limited and my response was a flattened stare that warned I would win this battle just as I won the water battle in the ICU. I felt like I was probably going to die there so I wished they would just help me ease the pain until then.
Timing of pain relief was perfect, as a few hours later my sisters and their wives arrived for a visit. It was hot in my room just before they arrived, or at least it felt that way to me. But I wanted to try to be decent, cover up as much of my disgusting self as I could, so I donned the purple bathrobe I had brought with me. It reached to the ankles, but when I sat down it slid up enough to expose the lower parts of my legs, to which both of my sisters immediately pointed, crying, ‘Look! She has fat ankles!’
Their wives slapped them on the arms and chided them for being mean. But the three of us were laughing too hard to be stopped. I had always been thin to skinny and this moment of seeing an engorged Shayan, a version of the obese me that would never, otherwise have come into being, was too good to pass up. So we laughed and I tried to hide the grimace beneath it, as the chest tubes shook beneath my ribs, tore new tissue and scraped at already-formed scar tissue. But the Toradol made it all a little more distant, as though it were being recounted to me from a body that I was only loosely attached to, through a shared, muted nervous system.
Late that night, sleepless again amid the ever-present hum of a hospital, I had a twinge of hope. The pain was a little bit less, which made it barely tolerable. I had been touched, for the first time in days, by a human emotion—joy—enough to let my lungs laugh even with chest tubes still buried deep within me. And tomorrow was another day, where the chest tubes might come out and life could begin. It was the smallest bit of joy and hope and I threw my entire weight onto it.
Winter moved in early—long, cold, and mostly paralyzed. My job, the doctors said, was to rest and get better, so I hibernated. I had assumed recovery would be a linear process with an upward direction, but it was proving to be rough waves on the ocean, with concaves where I could get lost for weeks before riding back up to a crest that never lasted.
Those were days of questions of memories. ‘Do you remember?’ Jonathan would ask.
‘Remember what?’ I would say.
And then Jonathan would repeat something he had said a day or two ago that I swore was new. Something about plans or laundry or cooking or a thing he had heard in the news.
‘Do you remember?’
‘Do you remember?’
‘Do you remember?’
‘No,’ I replied countless times. But I was sure none of the things I forgot were of consequence anyhow. Memory, they had said, would return. Along with the ability to focus, organize, and see properly. So far, five months since the accident, it did not seem that way to me. And Jonathan and I were falling apart. As the threads of our relationship unraveled, I watched them fray but scarcely had the energy to try to grasp onto them.
Daily, I wanted to believe that I was finally about to pass through to a clearing, a respite. But it took more time for me to understand that I was stranded in a holding pattern that was not yet safety. I had wandered in among a thick stand of reeds: whistling, deceiving, hiding things.