Monday, October 27, 2014

That Night

My first thought was "Now I've done it. I've finally done it." 

It was similar to the feeling I had at age 16 when I totaled the family car while making a right turn on red. That time, despite having crushed my parents' Vega to half its size, I was able to walk away uninjured ("Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" people were screaming.) This time, I could only acquiesce.

My second thought was "I have no idea what happened, but I appear to be in extremely competent hands." 

I remember the flashing lights of an ambulance and many hands on me and being on a stretcher, but I'm not entirely sure which of those memories took place on the street, which were in the ambulance, and which were of being unloaded at the emergency room. As things started to come together more, I knew I was in the ER.

By this time, I must have figured out I'd been in a bicycle accident. The last thing I remembered—as "memory" itself haltingly reformed—was leaving the office with my bike, walking it across L Street, and turning onto the bicycle lane. Or maybe it came back to me later. But that's the extent of the events preceding the accident that ever have come back.

I remember having a neck brace put on me and being reassured by someone that it was just a precaution, that I didn't appear to have a spinal injury. I was asked if there was someone they could call. I don't remember saying the words, but I apparently came up with my brother's land line, a number he'd had for more than 20 years (and that he's since changed; I do not know his new number by heart).

At some point, as medical personnel started stopping by, I found out I'd fractured my right elbow (I always say "fractured" instead of "broke" because that was the word first used in my presence), knocked out a tooth and maybe damaged more, and cut up my face. 

An ENT (again, who introduced himself as such, so I'll never forget his specialty) stitched up my face—two gashes around my right eye, one on my upper lip where a tooth or teeth went through. I'd never had stitches before (at age 52, never been treated in an ER, never spent a single night as a patient in a hospital). The sensationless sensation of thread being pulled through tissue and tugged was new to me; at the same time, it reminded me of numbed dental work—that impression of major construction going on not quite here but in a room next door, the mysterious vibrations and structural manipulations of space felt all too viscerally.

My brother arrived in the emergency room and told me D was on his way. I was calm (drugged), probably apologetic, definitely immobile, and appreciative of what felt like order around me. 

I'd be spending the night (no kidding), and we were waiting for a room.

My brother manned iPhone central at the foot of my bed in the ER, communicating with our sisters and with his wife. At some point, D arrived, smiling, tender. My brother, D, and me—the trio who'd been with my father when he'd died at age 92 a year and a half before. This was the first time just the three of us were together since that day in July 2012, though I wasn't thinking that then. (I'm thinking it now.)

My injured right arm rested painless and immobile in a splint or brace across my chest. At some point, I met the orthopedist who would operate the next day. A young guy in his thirties, as young as my regular doctor, whom I'd seen just a few days before for a checkup at which all was well.

All evening long, I listened to gentle information and was ministered to—my first experience with the utter surrender of control entailed in the receipt of trauma care. Somewhere down deep, grief and sadness awaited their entrance, as did patience and fortitude, Sharks and Jets on opposite wings. But for now, the only thing required of me was to wait.

Later that night, when I was settled (oddly content) in my hospital room and my brother and D had left for the night, I was near-dozing when another doctor came into the darkened space—a dentist (dental surgeon, it turned out), closer to my age than the young orthopedist. He was nice, had grown up in Washington like me, and we talked about the high schools we'd gone to. All evening at the hospital, despite having no idea what had happened to me on the bike lane, I'd been able to converse relatively lucidly with anyone who came up to my bed.

He touched my shoulder in a comforting way. He examined my mouth and told me a tooth next to the one that had been knocked out was compromised and would have to come out as well. I thought he was referring to an upcoming procedure, but he started jiggling the tooth right then with his bare hand. I said, "You're going to pull it out now?" Saying it was already crumbing in his fingers, he tugged, as if removing a splinter, and it was out, leaving the root behind.

He said, "We'll take care of you." Then he touched my shoulder again and said goodnight.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014


Last night before bed, I picked up a guttering votive candle on the coffee table to blow it out and practically fused my fingertips to it, it was so hot. The remnant of wick, flaming out of proportion to its size, had migrated to the edge of the liquid wax and was leaning against the blackened glass like a hepped-up thug smoking in an alley. 

I'd had no idea how hot it was and spent the next 30 minutes with my fingertips submerged in a bowl of ice water (“You’re soaking in it”). As a result, I wasn’t able to indulge in the nightly bedtime ritual I’ve come to look forward to for practically the entire day: puzzling through a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday New York Times crossword. The day of the week is important because the crosswords get harder as the week progresses and Monday through Wednesday are just too easy to be fun—or relaxing. 

Strangely, I can't think of a more relaxing way to end the day. These are sometimes puzzles I've been working on for a week or two. Staring at the same spot over and over, mentally trying out each letter of the alphabet on an incomplete syllable ("--bow, --cow, --dow, --eow . . . ?), straining to remember the name of an Ingrid Bergman character in a movie I've never actually seen (so much of cultural literacy is hearsay)—these are not frustrating practices for me but meditative.

Anyway, I couldn't do it last night because the fingers of my writing hand were burned. So instead I watched Charlie Rose interview Martin Amis, who as it happens is the stepson of Elizabeth Jane Howard, the author of the book I'm currently listening to, Confusion (the third novel in the Cazelet Chronicles). Both his latest book and the one by Howard are set during World War II—his a Holocaust novel, hers about an upper-class English family whose staid propriety gradually, through each book in the series, succumbs to cracks and reveals turmoil, uncertainty, betrayals and, in the case of one or two characters, unerring goodness. 

I've never read anything by Amis, but maybe I should, if only to honor this minor coincidence triggered by a singeing of my fingers that for one night kept me from digging up words.

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