Early Days, Dark Days (I)
September, 1977 + West Roxbury VA Hospital, West Roxbury, Massachusetts
Immediately following my injury, I was taken to a small Skowhegan hospital. There the Emergency Squad was told I was in too serious a condition for them to handle. I was moved to Waterville, where I stayed for two or three days of medical manipulation, including some drugs with exquisite qualities. Family gathered. Eventually, a spinal cord doctor from the VA hospital in Massachusetts arrived. This doctor knew a spinal cord injured man when he saw one.
I was one, though I didn't know exactly what that entailed. Everyone was hush, hush. Family and friends moved around me on tip-toes, as if my room were a funeral parlor. Everyone gave me searching looks and spoke in whispers with hidden meanings, or so it seemed to me. It was a conspiracy of silence. They all made sure I would be the last to know. I didn't feel I was dying, but how could I be sure when no one would be straight with me? I was eventually taken by helicopter to a VA hospital, where I was, of course poked and subjected to the most undignified procedures imaginable.
I was assigned to the new injury ward, aka intensive care, and placed in an ancient Stryker Frame. This was a device right out of the Inquisition. In order to stabilize my neck and vertebrae, I was positioned on a very narrow bed face up, head held firmly in place as in a vise. Twisting or turning was not even remotely possible. This position, however, was as superior to its opposite as a nice cozy, comfortable bed is to the rack. Every few hours the bed and I were turned over, like a hamburger on a grill. I would then be left face down for several hours more. Now, this may not sound so bad in the telling. What made it horrible was the chin position. There was one roughly padded support for the forehead and one for the chin.
This meant that for two or three hours every two or three hours for weeks I was unable to move in any way. My face and especially my chin sweat without stint the entire time. I restlessly struggled to find a little relief. As I did my face and chin scraped against their restraints. I lay in excruciating pain. Tears of abject misery and self pity flowed non-stop. I was a long way from Wellington. My heart just wouldn't move on.
All that mattered, all the future held for relief was that turn from front to back. Everything else was of very little importance. I longed for that turn, like a prisoner longs to stop the steady, slow drip, drip, drip of water during the infamous Chinese water torture. Like that prisoner, I thought I would go insane.
My last Stryker day came unannounced, much like my San Fransisco City Jail release. Imagine my surprise and delight. I was at long last put into a regular bed where I could lie on my back and both sides. Never face down. To this day, over thirty years after, I cannot bear to lay face down.
Perhaps this captures the moment:
"I was put in a frame filled with pain,
and longed for my home back in Maine,
As I lay on my chin,
my tears would begin,
while I thought I would soon be insane."
Early Days, Dark days (II)
October, 1977 +West Roxbury VA Hospital, West Roxbury, Massachusetts
Following that ordeal, I was moved a couple of beds away, still in what amounted to the ICU. I would lie in relative comfort and listen to the moaning of the next miserable wretch condemned to the Stryker torture. 'Poor bastard, but at least its not me', I selfishly thought. My elation following my successful escape was short-lived.
Days in that ward were generally busy, other than weekends and holidays, which were downright funeral. I had ample time to look around. The room was large, probably thirty feet by twenty feet, with cream colored, whitish ceiling tiles that had a cork-like surface. This ceiling had a host of four inch slits, which resembled discolored tears in a close-knit sponge. Some tiles were simply missing, revealing dark, cavernous recesses of dust and hanging electrical wires. Looking up was not encouraging.
Linda and Sarah visited a lot. These visits were marked with dazed loneliness and sadness. We weren't sure how to act or what to say or what not to say. We were in a state not unlike limbo, a place foreign to us where our lives were put on hold. What we did day-by-day didn't seem to matter much. Before the injury, we were vital, hard-working young people whose efforts were rewarded with visible signs, like the lawn mowed, a compost pile started, or more logs up in out house-to-be.
Doctors, nurses, therapists, aides, technicians of all stripes, benefits counselors, clergy, and group representatives stopped by with endless questions, tests, procedures, and evaluations. Guys with more injury time dropped by, mostly for mutual support, ball busting, and hot nurse talk. One of such Florence Nightingale was Pecker Checker, whom we'll meet hereafter.
Speaking of ball busting, nobody can pull that off as well as another cripple. "Hey, Bob, look at you, you're nothing but a head", "You sorry son-of-a-bitch, you look ridiculous", and "I hate to be the one to break the news, Jack, but you're fucked." It was meant to lighten the mutual load. Every now and then anger trolling just beneath the surface would break out. Those were usually ugly episodes and hard to get over. We were all sitting on a Mount St. Helen's of suppressed rage, and those scenes made us uncomfortably aware of our own plight.
I could usually get through the day without too much emotional trauma; the quiet evenings and nights were murder. Night after night I would lie in my bed, alone in the gathering shadowy dusk and darkening late-night ward, hearing the muffled distant whisperings and footfalls. I was feeling so lonesome, so blue, so lost. On many of these sleepless, forlorn nights, I would stare blankly up at the ceiling tiles or pull the covers completely over my head and silently weep, like a ten year old orphan lamenting his homelessness, and pray in pain and anguish: "Oh, God, I don't want to be crippled, I just can't take this, I don't think I can make it, Please do something; I've let everyone down, I don't want to be a failure, I want to live."
At times my silent weeping gave way to outright crying, my body shaking and trembling. The heartache and helplessness I felt during these sessions of struggle were hardly bearable, like the powerless despair one feels over the death of a loved one. I ached for me and Linda and Sarah and our family and our wonderful homestead and our dream. Deep in my being, beyond thought, I felt the awful changes coming of their own momentum. That's what Robert E. Lee must have seen, as wave after wave of the flower of Southern youth paid the awful price in Pickett's Charge. Lee knew the Confederacy would never be the same.
When I was allowed to get out of the bed for most of the day, I would visit some of the older guys who had been injured ten years or more. I highly valued their experience, insight, and advice. One Sunday, when the hospital was as deserted and lifeless as a Siberian steppe, I felt especially depressed and sorry for myself. I gazed five, ten, and twenty years into the future. Self pity as far as my eyes could see would grind me down and rob me of the will to go on. I worried I would be deeply depressed forever.
I went up to a big, husky farm-boy looking man of fifty or so and got him talking. Most guys want to talk. Its a lifeline, however temporary, we toss to each other. Listening, without more, has untold recuperative qualities. Dylan, "If you see your neighbor carrying something, help him with his load." We who craved help, helped each other when we could. I began:
"Is this how it will always be?" I asked.
"Feeling sorry for myself and trapped in the misery of this goddamn injury, year after year?"
"No," he said "after awhile you hardly even think of it. You just get on with what you're doing. You'll be okay, give it time."
As thankful as I was for this great piece of advise, I just couldn't or wouldn't believe that would ever be me. All I saw were dark, despairing days until my end as a perpetually sad and tragic figure, a curiosity to able bodied folk. Not a pretty picture.
I did my rehab with great effort and determination. I learned how to drive, to use a fork and spoon and feed myself, to brush my teeth, to write, to type, to put on clothes, and to get around. These are collectively called Activities of Daily Living. At times it all seemed so pointless. I mean, I could do all these things before, as a matter of habit. Now it took effort. For instance, by the time I finished brushing my teeth, I could hardly lift my arms from the ache of overwork. What sort of future was that?
My two reasons for working hard and hoping for some kind of meaningful future were Linda and Sarah, who were always with me. They encouraged me and shared my pain. With their support, I even hoped for resuming a homesteading life. Fools gold. What were the odds I could live, genuinely live, the rugged back country life of building, splitting firewood, clearing overgrown areas, working honeybees, fixing cars, without even use of my fingers? I felt hopeless and hopeful, sometimes both at once, as I tried to square my reality with my dreams.
One of my few consolations, as I've said, was a visit from Linda and Sarah. During the majority of these, there was something precious I could do for us: read our beloved Narnia Chronicles. We all three couldn't get enough of these marvelous tales of boy and girl kings and queens of a magical land of talking animals, witches, water nymphs, dwarfs, courageous mice, and Aslan, the majestic Lion. As sad and forlorn as we were, these wonderful stories brought us closer, like they did before my injury. They were a lifeline to a happier time.
I was over ten months at West Roxbury. When i finally got home, it didn't take long to realize I needed something more meaningful than reading 19th Century Russian literature.