And then home. I was nearly outlived by the scent of pine needles on the wet ground of a temperate rainforest. I knew other things then. Things that had been burned into sunsets on wooden decks and meadows in the wild.
After leaving the hospital I became a reptile. My body had no thermo-regulation and I turned whatever temperature the air was around me. The drive north to the Catskills was on a warm day, and sitting in the car made me so hot that I sweated and begged for air conditioning, which my father turned on high, so I shivered. We found a happy medium, but then stopped at a rest area, and by the time I left the air-conditioned bathroom, I had goose-bumps and blue lips.
Before surgery, my brother’s job had been to walk me daily, keeping me as fit as possible, while doing his best to ignore my frightening cough. Upon my return, he took it upon himself to keep me entertained and to feed me, a challenging task, as all food still tasted awful and over-salted. He would carefully prepare my meals and bring them to me on the couch. Most nights he would make me a milkshake while we watched the lighthearted movie he had chosen—mostly James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn black-and-whites.
He sat down beside me on the couch and handed me a large glass. ‘I made you a milkshake.’
‘Is it salty?’ I asked.
He hesitated, looking for the right words, finally saying, ‘Well, I didn’t add any salt to it.’
He started The Philadelphia Story. I relaxed into the couch, smiling, and half closed my eyes, while I sipped the milkshake. A few minutes into the movie I mumbled, ‘It’s salty.’
The coldness I had felt upon waking in the ICU seemed to have infected my soul as well. My sister visited with her children, who buzzed around me, singing, drawing pictures, telling me stories. I loved them—I remembered that—except there was no feeling to accompany the thought. As my niece stood beside me, describing all of the characters in her picture, she leaned in close, gazing up at me with intriguing brown eyes, and I felt nothing. I excused myself and went upstairs, closing the door behind me. Something was horribly wrong. I didn’t know that I had signed up to become an android. Certainly life without emotion, a deep sense of caring for others, was no life at all. I stood there coldly, heart mended, yet heartless. I had become darkness. I had been shunned into a corner where I absorbed light, pushed back thick blackness. Lurking in the shadows, the only emotion I knew was sorrow.
They said I was alive, that I had survived, been discharged, and was free to live my life. But it was no such thing; I could feel that I had died and then been forced back into the living, but the process was scrappy. Perhaps they would perfect it in decades of killing-and-re-inflating, but for now it was highly imperfect. They had brought back a fraction of me and another part of me had been sheered off and left behind the veil. The moving forward was a tug-of-war between two parts of an ethereal body. Sometimes I skirted closer to the living, but mostly I was somewhere else.
The day after I returned to my parents’ house—twelve days after surgery, I went to an empty bedroom at the back of their house, and laid down my yoga mat to practice. I placed my feet at the front of the mat, mounds of the big toes touching. I spread my toes and pressed the balls of my feet into the ground. I felt a trace sensation in the arches of my feet, but it was a struggle to keep an awareness of my feet and legs, as the connection between my brain and those parts was interrupted by such a mess. Above the hips, all sensation was lost. I had spent the past two weeks trying to ignore that entire region of my body that housed the vitals: the scarring, the bandages, the pain, the numbness, the swelling. Between my navel and my neck was territory I did not dare yet explore. It was, in a way, deadened to me, as I had psychologically disconnected it from mind. I tried to lift from the crown of my head to lengthen my neck, but still had the sensation that my head might fall off my body any moment, as it had just a few days prior. My body seemed permanently perched in its forward slump that I had adopted around the tubes and the incision, while all of my postural muscles had vanished. My arms and shoulders were skeletal and I could not find any way to encourage them to stretch out or back.
So I stood, with the profile of something less than human, unable to breathe any light or life into the thick, heavy places that were now my organs, that was my core. It was too daunting to think about alignment or deep breathing, after I had allowed my body to spend a short lifetime collapsed into an undignified form and had reconditioned my lungs to breathe as shallowly as possible. I didn’t try to push my shoulders back or breathe in across my chest. I was just trying to feel the texture of the skin on the bottoms of my feet as they connected to earth and to let go of the sensation that if I closed my eyes I would disappear and become moot in a realm that didn’t exist anyhow.
There was no such thing as a control of any kind of muscle in a body that was a foreign vehicle to me now. But I managed to constrict the back of my throat, inhaling and exhaling through my nose. There was a strength there—the faintest light shining into the blackness, insisting it could carve out something more inhabitable. Yet it was so meager compared to the cavern it faced of the sheer emptiness of my own physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional humanity. I was a void. It was too much. I had gone too far this time. Brain and neck injury I had thought were difficult, and had struggled my way back. But this time, I was too broken in every capacity of my humanness and could not even discover within me a belief that I could return from this desolate place. After the tenth breath, I collapsed to the floor.
I had been beaten down and back so many times, I hardly remembered standing erect at all. And I saw that survival had nothing to do with thriving. It was the most meager existence that dragged me back into the mud—an animal panting desperately, hoping not to be discovered by a predator. I was the prey of my own karma, but somehow I couldn’t seem to stop sowing the seeds that would ripen into black stalks, stringy, strangling, while I watched others harvest green, alive things that would nourish. Sesa. I am my own remainder.
‘Why are you going back?’ my brother asked me, as I prepared for my return to Boulder.
It was a fair enough question. With no job, no school, no relationship, a shattered sense of who I was, the only things I was returning to were clothes, mugs, chairs and a table. But it was the place that had most recently been home and I hoped it might begin to remind me of how to be a person.
Longevity. Trees, sea turtles: large, heavy, plodding, un-caffeinated. Aspen: ubiquitous, insidious, glorious expansiveness hidden beneath dirt. Slower respirations. I was of the forgotten now. No one needed us—they hardly remembered us. We had been whisked out of the wheel and forced to reckon that we still had value even when we were nothing to the world. If I could be at peace with that I might finally know the girl on the street corner in Calcutta. The one without feet.