As the entire history of everything collided right behind my eyes, forever sunken specks into my present mind, I dared not look too closely or I might spin myself around. Dizzy, I would become lost in the myriad universe of the particles that made a yesterday, that conjoined to unite into what is called today, that fermented and frothed into what would be the nature of future. There was a forsaken landscape just over my shoulder, but I didn’t turn my head to look, try to see what I knew was no longer there. Too many twists in the road, way back, obscured sight. If I stared straight ahead I could wear yesterday as an emblem on my back collar: royal, brilliant, radiating into the space behind me, emitting light waves that would push me forward.
The first night had been interminable. The man beside me died. I lay there helplessly listening to the sounds of frantic attempts to save a human life. I understood that we, as patients there, were all on the edge of the same precipice, teetering, and only some of us would make it. Statistically, we would become a spot on a bell curve. Scientists would defend that the location of our landing on the curve was random, but my situation was too precarious to believe that right then. I recalled the ends of the curve, where the line approached the axis, showing that there are very few cases of something. Statisticians like to lop those ends off as statistically insignificant, labeling those insignificant subjects ‘outliers’. In my desperate state I understood that an outlier is a real person with a real experience and that being insignificant to others did not make the horror any less. Like everyone else there that night, I had to believe that I was chosen—that I was predestined to live through it—because I certainly could not muster the strength on my own.
The benevolent creature—the one whose voice spoke softly to me from the left and whose gentle touch informed me I was still being cared for—bathed me that first night, and I tried not to hate her for it. She took my swollen, battered body and rolled it to one side, then the other, wiping me down. At the time I did not understand why; I did not want to be moved or cleaned. I felt wantonly molested. I was certainly not aware enough to feel filthy and, even if I had been, it would have been the least of my worries.
Thirst—my greatest need—asserted itself instinctively, defined me as wanting to be alive before I was conscious enough to make the choice. But ‘thirst’ is an inadequate word. Thirst is something I had felt after a long hike in the mountains on a hot summer day. Now, lying there, I felt like my body was a high plain that had been excavated of water and rendered a barren desert. When I could first manage to speak, I mouthed, ‘Water.’
‘Oh, no,’ said the kind woman’s voice. ‘You’re not ready to drink yet, dear.’
She said it so sweetly, expressing care and concern for me, but did not know that if I could have, I would have fought her for it. I would have wrestled her to the ground, dug my knee into her chest until she relented. A little while later I heard her again rustling beside me and I rasped, ‘Water.’
For hours we bickered:
She finally gave in, placing a small ice cube in my mouth. As its cool wetness softened my mouth I nearly cried. It was gone too quickly and its tantalizing relief made me more voracious. ‘More,’ I demanded.
She sighed and gave me another.
I insisted, ‘Water.’ I would win this fight; she just didn’t know that yet.
Reluctantly, she let me sip from a straw that she placed in my mouth. I leaned back, satiated for a moment. Then something rumbled and gurgled. My broken torso lurched forward and I vomited, though I could not see where.
She sighed, cleaned me, said, ‘I told you, love.’ She wiped my mouth, which was more parched now from retching.
‘Water,’ I said.
And we did the dance again. I vomited twice more before the sun rose, but I didn’t care—it was nothing compared to the thirst. My demands only grew more insistent.
Fall, dry, honest, convinced me to travel so far. My body was thirsty, like the earth around me, where not a drop fell, and fires scorched the earth, stealing fresh air. Burnt scents wafted in through the windows of our tree-house apartment at the base of the mountains, crept up my nose and down into my lungs, which tightened. I quickly moved to shut the door, close the windows. I stared at the sky and the thin film of haze that made the air a little thicker, denser, not quite shocking blue, as my mind drifted to scenes of water. Energetic waves crashing onto a sandy beach, the foam creeping up towards toes, pails, towels and the sound as it retreats. The cool embrace of clear mountain lake water when jumping in was exhilarating, and swimming vigorously, could warm quickly. Frigid streams silently cascading over moss-covered rocks, feet, ankles, calves can barely stand the cramping and knees never get below, but suddenly the heat from above is lessened. A cool stream winds through a field in drought and silence. Lungs are cool, metallic, pure, exchanging ether with the clouds, the vastness. Fall dries the particles and they scrape together, a grating sound, a scratchy feeling in the throat. Lungs exhale sound: singing, whispers, screeches, screams, coos, snores, shouts, chanting.
I had been grounded. Since the accident, I had spent most of my time lying flat on my back on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Simple things like lifting a coffee mug could send my neck into a series of spasms that paralyzed my upper body. All I could do was lie there, learn to wait. There was a to-do list on a desk, something about years of preparing to go to medical school. Secondary applications had come in and my ambition to submit early turned to late and then too late, as they went unfinished.
The cool, wet decaying autumn I had craved was usurped, as usual, by brittle roots in cracked earth allowing their leaves and needles to ignite under the relentless sun, with a warm wind tearing between the trunks. For many reasons, I wanted to pretend I was somewhere else, but my body allowed no such illusions, forcing me into the present. Like a tree tracing back its own story of generation, I followed the patterns of reverse expansion, allowing myself to dwindle to my own seed point, where I found the generative power and fire that perpetuated my own existence. There was a small pulsation that felt like it could quietly build until it demanded more space, pushing outwards with irresistible force, so I decided to cultivate it.
First, I created roots, digging deeply, knowing the depth and breadth of them would allow for the height and expansion of any growth above ground. The bones of my feet spread, sinking into the earth, digging paths through soil as they branched off in myriad directions. I felt palpably that my own weight would allow me to soar. No roots, no trunk, no shimmering leaves or fall foliage. Once the roots are firm, water permeates them, getting siphoned through xylem to hydrate branches and leaves, desperately thirsty and calling out so in transpiration. While rich sugary phloem formed from photosynthetic leaves moves in all directions, nourishing every part of the tree.
And so each day I redefined alignment of feet, and the internal movements up through the legs, through the torso. Arriving at the head, neck, and arms, I let go of physical manifestation and simply imagined the movements. After two months of practicing like this, one day the imaginary movement along with the breath gave lift to my arms that started to reach skyward. It felt liberating for a moment, until my neck seized, yet again. Immediately, I crumpled to the floor into child’s pose, resting my forehead on the mat. I breathed slowly, deeply, breathed into the damaged tissues of my neck and shoulders. Magically, for the first time, the spasm released, my neck let go.
I believed if I rose early to meet the moment of sunrise, that the light would consume the darkness. That if I worshipped light it would pervade. I did not know then that the darkness would become me, and I it. That we would be so intertwined I would hardly know daylight even when bathed in it. Under a midday sun, it was the blackest of nights. And the time that my feet sank into the mud of the river, I was buried alive slowly from my toes to my crown, but that was not the worst death yet.
They wanted me to move, of my own volition. I could hear the daytime nurse speaking with my parents about how I needed to get out of bed and walk a few feet to a chair nearby. I was sure they would soon acknowledge that it was a bad, likely impossible, idea. But there was a flurry of movement of cords, cables, monitors, tubes that took several minutes. And then I was being prodded to move, which I still could not do unaided.
I heard the nurse tell my parents that I had gained forty pounds in water, a third of my normal body weight. My legs were anchors, and I lacked the muscle to move so much mass. Hands manipulated me till I felt the cold floor on the bottoms of my feet. My back was not strong enough to hold the girth of my torso, so I tipped forward. Hands held and guided me. Thinking that perhaps my vision might have returned, I opened my eyes, but saw only blurry shadows, double or triple of everything. I clamped my eyes shut and let them guide me, as I shuffled my gigantic legs forward. The large, comfortable chair was only a few feet away, but to cross that distance required every fiber in my body. By the time I made it I was exhausted and fell instantly to sleep.
‘Who are you? I cannot see you anymore. My eyes.’ I said. ‘Are you God?’
‘What?’ asked the bald figure kneeling before me.
I blinked my eyes but his image refused to resolve into coherence, so I closed them again. ‘I can’t see you,’ I said.
‘It’s okay,’ he said, gently patting my knee. He was crouched before me where I sat in the chair. ‘You’re doing great.’
As his hand left my knee I opened my eyes enough to catch a glimpse of a white coat over a blue suit and a flash of red tie. I was sure those were my surgeon’s kind eyes, albeit four of them. I wished them to stay, and was sure I had something to say to him, but I quickly drifted into sleep, bringing those eyes with me.
The evening nurse proffered a plastic tray of dry, unsalted rice, carrots, and chicken. I grimaced and could hardly muster the saliva to whispered hoarsely, for the countless time that day, ‘Apple juice.’
The nurse shook her head and left the room with the food. When she returned she handed my mother a large carton of apple juice and said, ‘There’s a bucket of ice in the hall.’
Though I couldn’t remember, Jonathan had spent much of my first night with me. Now, he must have been resting and my parents kept the vigil. My mother hovered near the bed, tiptoeing out of the way of the nurses when they buzzed in and out. She looked like she was struggling to find a way to make herself useful and had not yet resigned to the fact that here, she couldn’t. My father sat in a chair at the foot of the bed, staring at his feet, barely able to look at me. It was raining out on the streets of New York City, or so I surmised from the blue and white striped umbrella he had brought with him that morning. He sat there motionless for a while and then began fiddling. He had a piece of string and he spent nearly half an hour carefully tying his umbrella and cane together so he could move them as a unit. When it was done he lifted it up proudly and said, ‘Look!’ A smile spread across his face, wiped away by a scowl from my mother.
I was grateful someone in the room could forget, even for a moment, how awful my existence was, and inadvertently behave as though we might all just be spending another Saturday together. We just happened to be in a different locale as usual, but might at any moment all stand up and transport ourselves to somewhere more comfortable, where we could indulge in the luxury of eating leftover pizza while watching old movies on T.V. In his moment of recollection, his face shifted to take me in. Before he averted his gaze, he looked stunned, his face dropped, as tears turned his pupils wet. There are no mirrors in an ICU, but the reflection back to me in my father’s sad eyes was worse than anything a piece of glass could have told me. We were in the cadaver lab.
Death is always cold, and the being around it. Cold from the inside. In the night the man died in the bed beside mine. I could not hear his breath; only theirs, stop. Stopped breath, stopped feet, stopped hurry. He gave me his last bit of warmth so I decided to breathe for him one last time, but could not quit. Life is heat, is blood. Our hearts, infrared sensors, seek out like, and fingertips are their tendrils always reaching for another. How could I miss the beauty of perfection of your elbow joint? Articulated arm in a disarticulated world. I watched them put their hands into your cold, dark cavern and I remember what it was like to be you. The bone spurs on your lumbar spine and I are the same, fighting for stability as we push our weight to the ground here. It always upturns, gives way. In the end it is an egg shell that we plummet through. There was no point in being heavy to begin with; inertia could never keep us here. So I’ll follow your lead: disembowel, dismember myself, till my cartilage is see-through under fluorescent lights in gloved hands. I will become a specimen of an enthralling human. After all, the whole thing is just a vestigial part. It was you who survived and I am left behind—an appendix. Not so. Not so.