Thursday, February 25, 2010


1978-1989 + Waterville, Maine

What follows are several stories of a radically different tenor; parental discretion advised. Be forewarned.

Following our separation and eventual divorce, I was a long time wandering aimlessly in the erotic outback. I was alone and terrified to re-enter the thorny thicket of expectation, disappointment, and failure. There were forays, but when I heard, "I don't care that much about sex", I couldn't get past the 'that much'. These forays left me feeling like Custer at Little Big Horn: "Why the *#^* did I ever come the #@** down here in the first place?" I simply gave up.

My fantasy life was sensational; I could hardly keep up with my over-crowded production schedule. I was often exhausted from the pressure of scripting ever more titillating scenarios. Perpetually deprived, I grew skin crazy. My flesh ached for that soothing and exciting sweet velvet feminine touch.

Like Frog in that Alabama bar with Sid, I was headed nowhere. I lay endlessly alone in bed in the dark, longing and fearing. Night after night I felt as if I were suffering a root canal without anesthetic. My would-be message to the women I saw around me was repeated over and over in my dream scape: "I could make it without you, honey, if I just didn't feel so all alone".

There were medical 'breakthroughs': surgically-installed metal, the space-age plastic implants and a pump device to inflate Erectoid like a clown making balloon animals. There was something called the Stuff Method (no kidding). There were mediation techniques:

She: "Close your eyes, sit very still, clear your mind,
feel the throbbing sensation of the blood flowing to
your penis."
Me: "Ohhmm...Hey, what the fuck! Somebody stop that
god damn dog from humping my leg. Now, what the hell
were we doing?"

I even went to a faith healer, but that was all over when God figured out I was only in it for the hard-on. I was like a perpetually hungry, lonesome diner without a fork.

As I say, sex was definitely on my mind, but in the closet, so to speak. Pandora's Closet, secreted safely away with my other psychosocial unspeakables:

Sex was like a safe deposit,
hidden away in Pandora's Closet,
some day I'd have to try the latch,
and free my E for a bit of snatch.

About then, as unseen virtual particles danced in and out of existence in the vacuum and trillions of neutrinos and possibly neutralinos passed unimpeded daily through the Earth, my body, our atmosphere and into outer space, the Great Quantum Flow delivered up a most improbable concatenation of four variables at one and the same time and place: Jean, Papaverine, Doctor Agnes and Yours Truly.

Jean was a personal care attendant I had hired to come to my home to perform certain highly personal nursing services, such as bed transfer, condom care, bed baths, and stretching exercises. I quickly came to anticipate our evenings together like the convict waiting for his biennial conjugal visit. A touch from Jean set my skin on fire. She was untamed, leggy, and all over country.

She stood about 5'7" and was thin, with long, brown, big hair. She peered at me through luminous, hazel eyes, beautiful regular white teeth, and a curiously coquettish, yet childlike face. She had that look that said, "I've seen too much and forgotten too little." I found her alluring, like a vamp from the movies of the thirties and forties. I was drawn to her as was Othello to Desdemona.

We were constantly touching, rubbing against each other in my 10' 8' plain pastel blue bedroom, with its low ceiling. We talked, everything lent itself to intimacy: Two lonely, sensual people in a tiny, quiet space where we had skin-to-skin contact, comfort, and trust.

Jean: "My dad left when I was six. My mother drank and
dragged me from bar to bar. i had no friends. She died
when I was 14. I grew up too fast. I never had a childhood."
Me: "I fell off a ladder. I lost my marriage, my home,
and my dream. I went to law school and became a lawyer.
Now I'm alone."
She: (in that smokey Marlene Dietrich tone)"You're
different. I never met a man like you."
Me: (voice trembling) "I can't wait to see you. I think
about you all the time."

I was headed back into the thicket.

I was practically hyper-ventilating, waiting for Jean's next visit. She didn't disappoint. She wore skin tight blue jeans, black leather boots, and a low-cut, translucent powder blue blouse. She was a dead ringer fro Shania Twain. Each chance touch that evening was 10,000volts of nuclear excitement. Adrenaline and sexual tension transformed my room into Chernobyl-on-the-brink. Tonight had to be it.

When the work was done, she stood by my bed whispering good night. I gazed into her 'Go ahead, I won't say 'no' eyes'. I felt lost in the haze of her delicate ways, reached out, and drew her to me. Unresisting, Jean was in my arms and in my bed. "I've wanted this a long time," I said. Jean responded, "Me, too."

We became bed mates. Make-out bed mates, that is:
Shania: "Oh, oh, ah, ahhh...what should I do now? can I?...Can you...what if I..."
Your author: "No, that won't work. I can't...sorry."
She: "That's OK. I understand."

"I understand" was a jarring echo of, "That much". I had to find some way out of Pandora's Closet.

What happened next, fortuitous and felicitous as it was deserves a drum roll and a grand oratorical flourish. "When in the course of human events...", "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." As Lewis and Clark had stumbled upon Sacajawea, who rescued the Corps of Discovery, I came upon El Dorado. Actually, as we'll see, it's fairer to say El Dorado discovered and delivered me. For just then the Fates, those magnificent invisible couriers on the breeze brought me wind of PAPAVERINE (peth-PAV-err-even).

The dictionary papavrine doesn't impress"

"A crystalline alkaloid derived from benzyl-isoquiinoline,
that constitutes about one percent of opium, that is
made synthetically from used chiefly
as an anti-spasmodic because of its ability to
relax smooth muscle..."

That chemical jargon, however, translates into a miracle erectile creator. [This was 1988]

I thought, "This is just the thing for our dilemma." There existed, however one huge potential deal-buster: papaverine must be injected directly into the penis. In case you don't quite get that, that's a needle in the pecker. I'd do it if i could, but I could, I wouldn't need to. That's got to be a conundrum of paradoxical proportions, from the 'there's always something' file.

I ruminated, 'How am I ever going to ask Jean that?' I had to at least try.

I started stammering, feeling like I was walking the plank, at sword point:

Me: "Jean there's this stuff that will allow us to be more intimate.
I mean, you know, go all the way, have sex like men and women do."
She: "Good, let's do it."
Me: "Well the thing is, you'd have to inject me. I mean, into my

That dropped into the conversation like a stink bomb at a dinner party. Jean never flinched. "No problem," says she. "Oh man," says I, "I've got real sex as far ahead as the eye can see!"

Let us digress a moment to consider the philosophical implications here. Does it seem likely that God (so-called and as generally understood) would have knowingly brought together Jean, Papaverine, Doctor Agnes (whom you'll meet in a moment), and your author so i could have quadriplegic sex out of wedlock with an employee? I believe that is highly unlikely. St. Augustine would be scandalized speechless.

Coincidence? The odds of this particular confluence of improbabilities occurring to these particular people at this particular time in this particular place had to run: (1) Meeting jean--1 in 8, (2) Jean willing-- 1 in 10, (3) Me willing--1 in 1, (4) hearing of Papaverine--1 in 12, (5) Finding Agnes--1 in 5, (6) E responding--1 in 2 = 1 in 9,600 chances. Statistically, that is . Aquinas would never hear of it.

Payback? Did the facts owe (as my friend Michael would say)? Were my labors as chronically unsatisfied sexual sparring partner about to be rewarded? If so, the equation, beginning on Day 1 of the Fall, must be: 6 shit scenes + 15 piss episodes + 8 bladder infections + 2 bladder operations + 1 anterior vertebral surgery + 1 divorce + 2 1/2 years of depression + 11 wheelchair years + 4 years of loneliness + 6 years misery + 15,000 tears = 1 shot at the carnal title.

Sisyphus? Was I doomed to Camus' Existential nightmare? Was I fated to roll my metaphoric boulder up that hill, knowing its return to the bottom was preordained? Would all those alkaloids and vanilla set me free?

Through an extremely improbable chain of events that validates the farthest reaches of Chaos Theory, involving a chance dropped remark to a variable stranger, an ad in a never before seen magazine, several unlikely phone calls, a guy who knew a guy who knew a..., I got hooked up with Doctor Agnes over the phone, sight unseen. She gave me a script for my very own Papaverine, $75 bucks for a tiny vial and about a million of these darling bright orange mini-syringes.

The Doctor said I had to come with my partner to her medical office in Augusta to be counseled, trained, and injected. Thinking, 'Winning the billion-dollar Multi-State Power Ball Lottery has got to be worth at least one day off work,' I took a very personal day for unmentionable activities of a medical nature. I was not up to the task of telling my female boss I needed to rediscover my erection in order to have sex with someone who worked for me. I couldn't even begin that conversation. Administrative matters done, Jean and I drove to Augusta on a dark, cold, and rainy weekday afternoon.

The Doctor's office was one of many in a suburban medical complex. The complex was sprawling, neo-modern efficiency with cream-tinted bland stucco walls and overhanging, black faux-Spanish tile roof. Jean and I checked in at the ubiquitous reception desk with a gum-snapping, uninterested clerk like two skittish, unmarried teens at a cheap motel.

We took our seats among the coughers and hackers and attempted to disappear from what felt like inquisitive eyes. 'Likely couple. I wonder why they're here. Syphilis, I bet, maybe gonorrhea, or worse,'

"Mister and Misses Gill, the Doctor will see you now." 'Yeah, Doc, great way to start,' I thought. We were led into the inevitable, brightly-lit, avocado-tinted mini-exam room. This cramped space was replete with fake-leather exam table, jars of tongue depressors, and cotton balls. This was the same unimaginative decor one sees all over, remarkable only for its unerring capacity to be absolutely uninteresting.

Left alone, we waited, whispering nervously how strange it feels to be here doing this. We waited some more, gazing blankly at the wall chart of some poor bastard who's going through all the stages of stomach upset, ending with the flame-thrower ulcer and spontaneous gastric combustion. Uh, oh, I heard footfalls sounding doctoral.

In sweeps our short, portly physician who seems more like a modest matronly middle-age maiden aunt than doctor. Aunt Agnes the Anchorite. She, however, was all business. "Get him up on the table, pants down, present penis." There was nothing frivolous here. Jean and I snapped to attention.

We were both put off by the abrupt Doctor and the hermetic sterility of this room, which was all alcohol, autoclave, and antiseptics. This felt like an utterly strange, Alice Down the Rabbit Hole situation. We half expected our Doctor to return as the Queen of Hearts. No such foolishness. With all the brisk efficiency of a German brain surgeon, Agnes inspected, injected, and exited. Jean and I were impressed. I was thinking, 'Jean, we'll soon be three; thee, me, and E.'

Woe the while, nothing happened. No blood flood, no anti-spasmodics, no erectiles, and no penis rising. Excitement and anticipation became frustration and disappointment, and eventually resignation and despair. As time passed, I sensed the light from our window of opportunity growing dimmer and dimmer. That afternoon seemed to drag on and on in slow motion. Our precious time became, as the Bard said, "Like a foul; and ugly witch, [that]...did limp/So tediously away...". The air in that miserable little antechamber seemed to be a thick, gloomy fog destined to smother out our sexual fire.

Agnes came bustling back in and looked'er over. "Hmmm", she commented, and bustled out. The good doctor was visibly unimpressed.

Let us recap: I lay supine on a medical table in a sterile, impersonal doctor's office, with my pants down and my dick limp. I re-lived a decade of miserable, crushing sexual failures, while trying not to look into Jean's sometime come-hither eyes. She self-consciously looked up, down, away, sideways, anywhere and everywhere but in my eyes. She fidgeted nervously, shifting from foot to foot. She cast intermittent, clandestine, hopeful glances at Flaccid Freddie, my want-to-be Erectiod. I thought, 'This is just like all the other *&#* times the *^#* thing didn't work I've got to get the hell out of here.'

But this time there would be no disappointment or failure. Jean and I were determined. The Flow was with us. We both got the same idea at the same time. We were two headlights simultaneously illuminating one dark and dreary landscape. With unspoken agreement, Jean commenced ever so gently stroking the intransigent member, which came alive, bright red and rising. Lazarus re-born. Whether this was benzyl-isoquinoline, the vanilla, the one percent opium, or just our fierce, not to be denied hunger, I don't know. Payback was; I was now a contender. That was enough for me.

In swept Agnes, who caught us in the act. She looked things over, uttered an approving, "Well, now, that's more like it," and swept back out.

By then the pace had definitely picked up. We were busted. Jean and I had been discovered with one naughty, metaphoric hand in the cookie jar. The excitement and sexual tension, the bliss of seeing my swelling scarlet penis, and Jean's relief and admiration, elevated our sexual stratosphere. The fog, the witch, and the limping were gone. Jean gazed down, licked her lips, and made very suggestive oral gestures. Too excited to even think of the risk, "Go ahead," I said. "It's my thing," she replied. I thought, 'I'll die right here from pure happiness.'

Back in swept the proud Doctor, obviously impressed with her stunning success. She beamed as if she had just discovered a cure for cancer. "OK'" she said, "that's it. You can go. Just remember, if you have that hard-on (she said erection, but I'm thinking HARD-ON) for four hours straight, you've got to go to the emergency room to have it irrigated." I thought, 'Holy shit! Four hours, did she say? I swear she said four hours. Four hours. I could open up a fucking business!' Elated and in a hurry to get my newly found treasure home and put to use, I forgot to ask what 'irrigation' meant.

Back home, Jean had to leave. 'This is no way to begin this exciting exploratory enterprise', I thought. It was a lot to expect: an enchanting excursion to that magical Undiscovered Country in the middle of the afternoon after several hours with Aunt Agnes. That would have been sufficient to quench my ardor, were I not a man.

There I sat, two hours, three hours, stiff as a...well, you know. I had a get real session with Erectiod: "Now Dude, we've got to cut a deal. You've got to behave and go away for now. I'll treat you right, no self-wanking, nothing from my half-written do-it-yourself manual, "The Joys of Solitary Sex", or that involves rubber gloves, KY gel, or penicillin. Come when I call. Please, no four hour scenarios. I need the blood. You need your rest. I need your rest."

I was seriously starting to worry, wondering what irrigation was, and picturing the scene in the emergency room. Three and a half hours. I was getting ready to head to the hospital, gathering up my stuff, and wondering what happens to a guy with a four hour hard-on. Could it be permanent? Wow! Think about that! I suppose it would get old pretty quickly. After all, I've only got so many platelets.

Three hours and forty minutes. I was heading out the door when Erectiod finally started to let go. Three hours and forty-five minutes! can you believe that?! 225 minutes, 13,500 seconds. Whenever my mind goes blank, I blame E for so selfishly tying up all those red corpuscles and Vitamin K all that time.

Jean had a serious auto accident that very evening and was laid up over a month. I had to get another personal care attendant. I couldn't wait to see Jean again, for many reasons, not all related to E. When I finally did, she told me she was going back with her old boyfriend.

Those once adorable petite syringes lay exile in a dark, out of sight drawer, unused. That $75.00 vial sat in my refrigerator, mocking me for what seemed like a long time. When I used it again, it had lost much, but as we will see, not all its potency.

This is a wonderful horrible interlude. Like the bends I had probably risen too far too fast. At least I had been erotically alive for that sweet, short time. I had run up and down the emotional ladder.

I accepted that Jean was gone. I was bound to come up for air sometime, right? Right?


1989 + Waterville, Maine

I decided to seek psychotherapy. I needed someone who cared, someone I could trust, someone who would be invested in my well-being, for the long haul. I had not encountered anyone to date who was qualified. I did not want to be coddled or talked down to. I sought someone without false optimism or easy answers. I wanted someone who could see my evasions and excuses for what they were. This therapist would be willing to challenge me and approach these sessions rigorously.

I asked around of friends and was directed to Ahmed. He agreed to meet with me to assess the possibility of working together. He was up front with that. I could tell right off he didn't waste time or mince words. I felt both hopeful and fearful when we first met.

He was in his mid-forties and from the Middle East. He spoke precise and impeccable English with a slight accent. His black hair and warm complexion framed his self-assured face that bespoke non-arrogant confidence.

It was those eyes! So deep, so quiet. I felt as if I were looking down into a silent and beautiful well without bottom. You could get lost and found in those eyes. They held me spellbound and focused at one and the same time. I knew immediately, beyond thought, there would be no getting around this man or those eyes. I tried.

For instance, early on I came fairly bouncy into one session, thinking I had everything figured out. I was fully charged as I laid out in detail my thought and conclusions. Everything was in its particular category and proper compartment. There would be no need for future sessions. I had created an analytical House of Mirrors. It was as though I had discovered a shortcut through the labyrinth of my being. I acted as if I had successfully reached the exit.

Ahmed sat immobile. His gentle eyes followed mine as he respectfully let me have my say. He did not interrupt. His non-judgemental appearance lent me the impetus to say more than I intended. When my ramblings were done, I expected him to congratulate me. He spoke almost in a whisper, clearly enunciating each word. "You'll have to find another way", he said. That was it! With those six words, Ahmed had shattered my House of Mirrors. I felt deflated and perplexed. I trusted him explicitly and without question, so I gave no argument. The session was over.

I went home wondering where I had gone wrong. What was it about my approach that had failed the test? Like a novice laboring over a Zen koan, I racked my brain, taxing my thoughts to the limit. Like Frog's fixation on Dylan's lyrics, I set myself to know this one thing. One morning I awoke, answer in hand. Ahmed was nurturing me to openness, emotional honesty, and deeper feeling. Less thought, more depth, much as the Zen master to the student.

In his loving way he was challenging me to contact my heart directly, without evasion or diversion. As the months passed, I learned to do this more. Ahmed was putting me in immediate touch with my pain, which had accumulated for so long. I was growing up, again.

On a cloudy, cold, and drizzling late afternoon, I dragged myself into our meeting. I felt I was back at square one. All my progress was lost, I thought. I felt utterly miserable. By this time i was feeling comfortable enough with Ahmed that I kept nothing back from him. During this session, I poured out a full hour of non-stop black misery, all the while sobbing uncontrollably. My eyes grew soar and red. Ahmed sat there like a holy man, respectfully silent, compassionate, and present. When I had ended, he simply said, "You have a strength in your heart that is unique". I wasn't sure what i had expected, but it wasn't that. I left.

Those words stayed with me; they were like a life jacket to a drowning man. I knew then that Ahmed trusted and honored what I hadn't seen. In one of my dark and despairing hours, he had peered directly into my heart. He saw the resources I had failed to see or honor. Like Hindus and Buddhists are instructed to do, he had addressed and paid homage to the Divine he perceived in me in ten simple and easily understood words. I had been shown an example of love in action. Ahmed had presented me the precious gift of himself. Galadriel's glass was to be used in Frodo's darkest hour, when all other light had failed. These words of Ahmed helped light the way through some of my darkest days to come.

Eventually I came through depression and despair to a fuller and deeper life. Due to this great man's wisdom and skill, I had, in some sense arrived.

Great people, such as Ahmed, Juanita, and Cesar Chavez, prompt us to appreciate and respect the Divinity in ourselves and those around us.

response to deep waters

I have not been responding to or commenting on the chapters I've been lately posting--I didn't have much of a reaction to the tip-over section--mostly "Jesus, that must have sucked." And recalling him listing, jaw clenched, eyes focused, from side to side, in his chair as he followed me around the lawn and gardens on my land in Ohio as I proudly pointed out this flower bed and that fruit tree--what an adventuruous, precarious vantage point.

This last section--I feel that I really need to say something about, if only because the sweetness with the 'vow to my Dearest'.--I am melted and ache and think of his final act--and exactly what that might have been, or his final thought. I do believe my Dad passed away in peace, that he ceased struggling and could do that with impunity as a result of having lived so ruggedly and honestly. His father died that way, having taken care of all the loose ends, quietly, and with dignity. My dad said, repeatedly, that's the way he wanted to go--and he did, as opposed to 'Not to Be'---which is almost impossible for me to imagine, and thank-the-fates for hitchhiking angels.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


On one particular Saturday, the afternoon was cold, overcast, and lonely I was, as usual alone, sitting in the living room, gazing absently out of the row of windows. I saw a bleak future in my world gone wrong.

I was out of work with no prospects and little, if any, self-respect. I felt left, as if everyone had sailed off, purposefully leaving me behind. I felt, in the words of Thomas Merton, like a "a dead thing, a rejection".

In a strange twist of fate, from the depths of this loneliness came an unexpected sense of anticipation, as if there were something for me to do. Something important was in the air. As I had done countless times before I turned to my beloved touchstone. I intuitively knew there was resolution there. Some people turn to the Bible, some turn to a favorite poem or other work of art, and some turn to family or friends for solace, comfort, and peace. I turned to Dylan"

"I just reached a place,
where the willow don't bend..."

This song is a mournful a ballad about moving on in the wake of what I take to be a failed relationship. Like a dirge of parting, replete with sorrow and loss. Sounds just like me. When I heard this refrain, the pent-up feelings of months of depression, despair and sadness washed over me, leaving me vulnerable and defenseless. Our family was scattered, in a number of ways. Our Wellington dream was dead. Our love shattered. Our hopes were blowing in the wind. There was no escape. There was no where to go. There was nothing to do. TV, talking, reading, and going somewhere all seemed pointless and absurd. I had struggled my way to another crossroad.

I simply sat in solitude, waiting. I floodgates of emotion opened. This was the polar opposite of the onetime Hoover Dam, yet directly related. I wept. The force of the pain of loss could not be contained. Cleansing tears flowed without restraint down my face, like drizzling showers drip down a weeping window pane.


April 1986 + Augusta, Maine

I was passing yet another interminable day at the VA clinic at Togus where I had been a psych inpatient. This facility was just outside Augusta. It was a very bad day. Very bad.

Togus, like many VA medical units around the U.S., is not a particularly good place to be when dealing with intractable quadriplegic health problems and confronting the ultimate dilemma. Like Hamlet, I was faced with the question whether to go on living in an emotionally bleak and hopeless landscape, or not. Simply mustering the internal resources to get out of bed in the morning was like climbing Everest. Every day was another day in Stalin's Gulag, without reprieve.

I had become, not literally by any means, a Flagellant. Those medieval fanatics who lash themselves with whips and wear hair shirts to atone for sins, real or imagined. The big difference, obviously, is that they can stop whenever they want. I believed I was caught in a trap of my own making. I was not up to chewing off my foot to get loose.

Like Lear holding his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms, I felt bereft of what made life worth living. Guilt, regret, anger, sadness, and remorse hounded me, like the Flagellant's sin.

Over the years I had suffered from nightmares in which I was trying to run from a menacing, knife-wielding evil presence chasing me. I would be unable to move. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get away. The blade got closer and closer. I felt doomed. When i would awaken from the dream, shaken and terrified, I would be safe in my bed, relieved beyond measure.

Waking and dreaming were now one. The seemingly malicious being was my own mind and emotions turned against me. There was no safety or relief. Nothing offered a long-term way out, other than not to be.

During this miserable period, I had had one medical problem after another, as you'd expect from one for whom life seemed such a cheap commodity. Pressure soars kept me in bed a week or more at a time (imagine a week in the Gulag in bed). Dangerously swollen limbs and dramatic weight loss were sure signs of lethargy, which is anathema to a quadriplegic. All parts of the descent to...Where? What? That, as Hamlet said, is the rub.

Back in Togus, I sat in an impersonal, glaringly bright room, readily recognizable to anyone who has ever been in any hospital waiting room. This one felt especially empty, like a room where one feels invisible because of the sheer indifference of everyone around you. Whether i was there or not did not appear to mean anything to anyone, including me. I wanted to scream, "Oh my God am I here all alone?" I was, after all, just another medical mouth to feed in an unending stream of veterans, all wanting something last week. Its not like I was General Powell or General Patton.

I waited, looking down. I looked down a lot. I was afraid to encounter another human being eye to eye. I was ashamed to feel so weak and in such apparent need. I was sick of feeling naked and utterly vulnerable. No secrets left to conceal.

I would have been reading a book, but even this innocent pleasure had been stripped away. I couldn't focus or didn't care. When you're facing not to be, in this context, not much matters. I vacillated from fragile confidence to search disillusion to deep depression to profound despair. There existed for me but one inevitable outcome: not to be. I was terrified, yet I always made it through.

I returned to the Catholic Church, seeking refuge, guidance, or comfort. I spent hours in silent prayer, yearning for some glimpse of hope. Something, anything, week after week, confession after confession, during communion and solitary anguish. My dark night of the soul pushed me to different territory, as I desperately searched for help.

One of the things that helped me pull very temporarily through was a visit to my VA shrink. He was a corpulent and imposing figure with an over-sized head. He was inevitably attired in a close-fitting, old tweed jacket and unironed baggy pants. His longish brown hair was unkempt. He had a wry, sour demeanor that said, "I'm only here because I have to be here".

This man, in his mid-fifties had apparently treated too many Post Traumatic Stress Disordered vets. He seemed worn out. I am still puzzled how seeing him helped. Perhaps it showed I was at least trying.

His small, dark, and couchless office was hidden away in one of the cavernous recesses of this otherwise overly illuminated bland landscape. Here existed a medical doctor and psychiatrist with walls displaying a lifetime of education and achievements. These were the real thing, I surmised, unlike Mr. Drudge's questionable wall ornaments.

I wanted urgently to tell him about this Voice that was always dogging me, like an Army drill Sargent constantly yelling in my face what a weak, sorry excuse for a human being I was. This Voice was for me an unanswerable precursor of my death, telling me my end was assured, inevitable, and imminent. The doctor didn't seem interested--my greatest, most pressing fear was of no consequence in that tomb he called an office. For all that, he seemed cheerful enough during my five minute session, as witnessed by this witty repartee:
Doctor: "So, Mr. Gill, how are you doing?"
Me: "Jeez, Doc, I'm really depressed."
Doctor: "Join the club."

That was it. He reached for his prescription pad, but as I was at that time trying to make my way back to at least a semblance of mental health drug-free, I declined. At that time, I believed psycho pills, capsules, powders, and shots compromised my capacity to determine my own well-being. Perhaps I was simply afraid of them. I held a dim view of those who let doctors tamper with their mental abilities. I regarded those folks as weak and passive:

I never believed in a pill,
that would do strange things to my will,
I looked down on those folk, but this was no joke,
now I never speak ill of the ill

I left his office wondering why I had ever gone there in the first place. Maybe it was helpful knowing the VA and this doctor cared, at least enough to make appointments for me. I usually left feeling a little better, which is saying a lot. I wasn't exactly Lazarus arisen, but I wasn't Lazarus in the tomb either. As I left, i thought how good it was to know there was a club of desperate and despondent depressives that would have me for a member.

Medication, yes, as the months went by and I saw no let up, I tried various medications. I guess I realized I was too close to something deadly serious not to at least give pills a try. I'm no martyr, nor a fool (I tell myself). At any rate pills were, at best, an all too temporary fix.

There was a frenzied run to an emergency room:

Nurse: "What can we do for you?'
Me: "Well, you see, I'm really freaked out here--
I mean depressed, and my VA psychiatrist
couldn't have cared less, unless he were
dead, of course. I don't know how much
longer I can hold on because I'm right at
my wit's end and if I don't get help soon
it may be the death of me."

A bit incoherent, you think?

This particular Nurse, who must have seen some hard cases, knew just what to do. Hearing the word 'death' and sensing my agony, she presented me forthwith to a psychologist/therapist. This astute and self-assured new-age youngster was in his middle or late twenties. He sported jet-black, shaggy hair. He had an obvious disdain for professional, or even presentable garb. His attire was random, at best. A plaid checked shirt with a tie unevenly knotted told me he would do the minimum, but no more in that quarter. He seemed idealistic and optimistic, like a hippie's son who had taken the parental flag and run with it.

I felt drawn to him, while at the same time envying his youth and good humor. He helped to pull me off the ledge, for awhile, using bio-feedback. He had a strange looking machine, with wires randomly situated. He hooked me up. I heard a slight buzzing sound and responded to several questions. He left. "What the hell is this?" I wondered. He returned with a printout and unsuccessfully tried to convince me I had strong mental abilities. I simply could not relate that to anything. I thanked him and left.

By this time I was out of possibilities. There was just nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, nothing to do, no future, no light, no hope. I faced an endless series of empty days ahead, joyless and comfortless. Absolute zero.

I waited aimlessly among the blind, cripples and crazy for my name to be called for something or other. The voice i had wanted to tell the doctor about, the Voice I was so terrified of, spoke to me from my deepest being: "Today is the day. You know what to do". I felt chilled in my core. I believed i couldn't descend any further. I had reached not to be. It was no Shakespearean play, dream, or metaphor. This was it.

Something beyond my conscious control consented without a struggle. "Yeah, today is the day. I knew it was coming. I do know what to do".

I had driven the road from Waterville to Augusta to Togus many times. I had picked out the perfect spot: a huge, jagged rock that protruded out of an embankment around a long curve on the freeway going north to Waterville. I had the perfect plan. I would release my seat belt, sped up to 75, and veer head-on into the rock. It would look like an accident. No one, especially Sarah, would ever know the truth.

I was resolved at last, after a bruising boxing match in which I had lost every round. I actually felt relieved; a great weight had been lifted off my sagging shoulders. This resolution was much like what you feel when someone else finally makes a critical decision for you that you just can't make for yourself.

I left Togus at long last. During this momentous visit, I had experienced the mundane and its polar opposite. Togus was an unlikely place for that. As the saying goes, 'When coming back to life, it makes no difference where you are', or something like that. I suppose that applies to leaving also, at least in the way I had planned.

I looked up. It was a clear spring day. The characteristic Maine April chill was in the air; a beautiful light blue sky the color of Frank Sinatra's eyes framed the day. I was reminded of many such days gone by that were once so full of promise, possibilities, and new life. I thought, "I'm never going to see this luminous blue Maine sky, or Sarah, or my family. How sad. Too bad it has to be this way".

My heart was very heavy despite the relief that passed so quickly. What was so strange, in hindsight, is that I felt no resistance. This, even though i was about to leave everyone and everything i cherished. I was crushed, yet resolved. Those who don't know this condition ought not to judge.

I headed back to the freeway. I saw a typical hitchhiker: mid-twenties, unkempt, and low-budget. I had bummed rides for what seemed like a hundred thousand miles. I recalled nights under overpasses trying to stay dry, freezing cold days in driving snow storms, and baking for hours and hours under the California sun. I had a soft spot for my careless kin; I had picked up many hitchhikers at this circle before. All of them had been going south to Portland. I would give this guy a ride to the on ramp, drop him off, head north, and execute the plan. I stopped; he climbed in. "Where are you headed?" I asked. "North, to Bangor."

I knew I wasn't going to take anyone with me into the rock. That was for me alone. I looked over at the hitchhiker. He was a most unlikely guardian angel. Sometimes salvation comes from unlikely sources. I silently pondered, 'You just saved my life, and you'll never know it'. Sitting next to me was this young, unknowing, and seemingly random guy who had single-handedly brought me back from the brink. This set me to wondering, 'What are the odds I'd come upon a north-bound hitchhiker on this day of all days, and just at this time?'

I was mostly quiet on the ride home, trying to ponder the imponderable. My unanswerable resolve and commitment to not be had evaporated in the time it took my hitcher to say "north". How strange, how simple.

As we passed the rock, I felt sick to my stomach and a mixture of profound awe and relief filled me. I let my Rider out at the on ramp to Bangor. I hoped there were many more of him to save many more like me. As he receded from sight, like the Hero riding into the sunset after saving the heroine and cleaning up the unruly town I sent him a silent blessing. Wherever you are, my hitchhiking Friend, THANK YOU and:
"May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
may you always know the truth,
and see the Light surrounding you..."

I thought long and hard about what I had almost done that day. Very disturbing questions demanded answers: What would this have meant for my loved ones, my Mom and Dad, brothers and sister, and my dear friends? And Linda, who had so intimately shared her life with me for fifteen years? Mostly Sarah. She knew my mental state far too well not to wonder whether I had purposely abandoned her for the last and forever time. Would I have permanently broken her then fifteen year old heart? What future would I have been condemning her to?

Would I have left her permanently in self doubt, maybe blaming herself? Would her sustaining, wonderful self confidence be destroyed, and she left prey to years of periodic depression, guilt, remorse? What of her life dreams, how would they have been effected? Perhaps I'm overstating my importance, but these and many other questions troubled my mind for a long, long time.

To this day, when I feel deeply depressed and out on a ledge, I am invariably brought back to safety by remembering Sarah, my beloved son-in-law Jeff and my beautiful grandsons Sam and Oliver. The circle of life expands. I am deeply grateful I am part of it.

As you can imagine this episode left me shaken to the very heart of my being. In an effort to stay off the ledge and protect my Dearest, I made a vow: "Whatever I do, wherever I am, whatever happens to me, my final act upon this earth will be for Sarah".
The light side emerges, the dark side recedes.

Monday, February 22, 2010


February, 1985 + Bangor, Maine

The time has come to switch gears and re-live some dark days. Linda, Sarah, and I had become immersed in deep and foreboding waters. The incidents that follow are very closely interwoven into this tapestry that presents three lives in snapshot form. Suffice it to write that we three moved in orbit around each other, from the Early days, Dark Days to these retrospective Deep Waters.

We all know life presents options and choices none of us wants or deserves. Loved ones die, marriages end, and auto accidents happen. The most painful are those in which we leave our cherished ones. As we've seen, Sarah felt deeply that I had abandoned her again and again. The injury, hospital stays, Kate, and law school, to name several, wounded her young and impressionable heart. I had abandoned her, choosing self-serving courses from which she was excluded. The one that follows was extremely painful for us all, as we struggled to hold our lives together.

As our marriage spiralled down to the point of no return, Sarah shrank like a child to the shadows. My emotional health had spiralled as well. Our shared dreams became lost in the whirling of hurt, anger, and confusion. We were like hurricane survivors lost and adrift in the ruins.

Linda and I were going our separate ways. Sarah was caught in the crossfire. She couldn't go with Linda; there was just too much anger to be livable. She stayed with me by default. I was in no condition to mentor my own child.

I had become deeply and seemingly irretrievably depressed. I was unable to work, sleep, drive or even read. I was dangerously suicidal and terrified. I desperately needed a change. My being cried out for immediate intervention. I was at another crossroad.

My choices came down to going to the VA psych ward at Togus or else. That 'else' was the unthinkable: the ultimate abandonment. Togus meant leaving Sarah, who was thirteen. She was losing her family in a flurry of recriminations and bewilderment. No one knew what to do with or for or against each other. I knew I was no good for anyone while I was unable to function and on the verge of suicide.

I called a VA friend who said I needed to get help right away. He told me he would make a call, which he did, and got me a bed at Togus. I didn't have the heart or the courage to tell Sarah, who was at school. I did the cowardly thing: I left a message for Linda and was driven to Togus. I slunk away, like a deserter from a battlefield.

As I was checking in at the hospital, Sarah called. There was terror and anger in her voice. There was terror and guilt in mine. I wanted to get out of talking to her, but I couldn't. THAT would have been to cowardly, even for me. I had to at least speak to my child, whose own world was in shambles too.

She went straight to the point: "Dad what are you doing there?" I tried weakly to explain, in a voice dripping with self pity. It all sounded so stupid and self-serving. I wanted to die. I told her i needed help and couldn't take care of myself any longer.

"When are you coming home?'
"I don't know."
"What am i going to do?"
"I don't know."
"Who's going to take care of ME?"

Utterly crushed, I broke down, uncontrollably sobbing. I mumbled I was sorry and handed the phone to my friend. I had left my little girl again in a dark, dark hour.

Morning after morning, evening after evening, day after day, I looked out my Togus window at the seeming desolation outside that reflected the desolation inside. Dylan words haunted me. She was Sarah Bird Charmer who had held that tiny chickadee on her trembling finger in the not-so-distant past. Each day in that psych ward, at first light, I awoke alone and terrified. Every evening at lights out, just before going to bed, I sat by my window and bowed my head and cried.

June-October, 1985 + Waterville, Maine

I eventually made it out of the psych ward. I was not sure I wouldn't be back. Yet leave I did. I was terrified to be thrust back into the world of personal choice and responsibility. In chronological time, my stay at Togus and eventual return to the world had taken but several months. In psychological time, it seemed a lifetime. During that lifetime, I had more or less reconciled to the notion Linda and I were finished as a married couple. I also knew Sarah and I had to figure out where she would live and where I would live.

Linda and Sarah still could not live together; the pain and anger between them was utterly destructive. The only tenable solution was for Sarah and I to live together in Waterville. I would provide a home and she would go to Waterville High. Sarah would begin school there as a freshman in August, 1985. When I dropped her off for her first day at Waterville High she was enraged, resentful, alone, and frightened. It was excruciating for both of us. I tried to reassure her, telling her how great she looked and how smart and friendly she was. I said she would readily make friends and settle in. That didn't help much.

I spent that day and many more forlorn and alone in our little apartment, doing nothing. I reached the depth of depression. I couldn't even brush my teeth, for fear I'd fuck it up somehow. Sarah was perpetually angry and hurtful. She too had been deeply wounded. She was thirteen years old; I couldn't reach or get close to her. She blamed me because i was nearest. She blamed Linda; she believed Linda had dropped an atom bomb into the very center of her life.

Every day after school I would be verbally attacked: "Why do you just sit around all day? Why don't you get a job? Why don't you give a shit about me?" I saw our relationship failing.

Life there became unbearable. Each attack and wrathful tirade left me feeling mortally wounded. I had no defenses left. I couldn't take any more. I told myself that, although i had given my all, I had failed. I knew Sarah was in pain, but I couldn't or wouldn't get close enough to her to make a difference.

A decision loomed, one fraught with life changing consequences. Would Sarah continue to live with me and go to Waterville High or would she live with Linda.

I was well aware that, if I said "No" to her living with me, I would be closing a door between us. If I said "Yes" I was sentencing myself to years more of these tirades, which left me exhausted and debilitated. Could I choose myself and abandon her again? Could i continue my pattern of satisfying my self-interest over hers? What was in the best interest of my family, Linda included?

The day of decision arrived. The day was overcast and uninviting. Linda, Sarah, and I gathered in the Waterville apartment kitchen. We were a onetime family. Each of us now seethed with hurt. We faced a future none of us planned or wanted.

We looked for answers to questions to hard to ask. There were simply no good choices. Each option contained varying levels of heartache. There were black holes everywhere.

One quality I admired about Linda was her unflagging honesty. She would get right to the point. "All right," she said to me, "What are you going to do?" Sarah stood there defiant, expectant, and nervous. I started to whine, listing all the reasons I couldn't do it. I knew my daughter's future was on the line. Mine was a pathetic, cowardly display.

I recalled a conversation I had with my sister Diane about this very thing. After giving her my excuses, she had said simply, in a gentle and loving voice, "But Ray, you're her father." That had stopped me cold.

"Yes", I said "Sarah should stay and live with me." It was done. When I got back to my bedroom, alone, I made a silent promise to Sarah and myself: "I will not let you down. Come hell or high water you will live here and graduate from Waterville High." That was a promise I kept.

Friday, February 19, 2010

January, 2000 + Edinburg, Texas

The South Texas legal Project consisted of three: (1) our very intelligent and highly efficient paralegal, Catholic nun, and conscience of our office, (2) our office manager/legal assistant, a young Latino with an unbounded love for farm workers and the low income folk we served and (3) our director and attorney, your author.

On even years in February, the United Farm Workers held its convention. This required a huge organizational effort from everyone, Project staff included. Other than the general organizing we all did, I was responsible for parking, security, and much of the march which ended each convention.

We three continued our legal work, which included writing briefs, interviewing witnesses and potential clients, and attending court sessions, hearings, and depositions. We were extremely busy. On the day in question, I was rushing as always, only twice as fast. Very early in the morning, I awoke to prepare for a hearing in Edinburg, the County seat, which was about fifteen miles from my home. Documents I needed to peruse were in bed with me. I had no time to waste. I gulped down something that might have been coffee and inhaled something that was probably food. I was dressed for court in black polyester pants, long-sleeve dress shirt and some tie or other.
I made it to the courthouse without an accident, a ticket, or a traffic jam. I was alright as far as time went. I did need some time before the hearing to be sure I was ready for any objections or questions that might come my way. I could never prepare enough, it seemed.

I parked my van in the handicap space. I was in full litigation mode by then, ready to stun the legal world with the cogency of my argument:

"Your Honor, I will prove to you,
to my esteemed colleague, and
to all the world that my argument is
cogent, apposite, germane, relevant,
dispositive, and sui generis. Defendant's
case is utterly frivolous, without
merit, and should be summarily
dismissed and prejudice. Attorney
fees, costs, and punitive damages
should be awarded to my client".

Probably not, but a lawyer can dream.

So, as I say, I parked, got my paraphernalia together on my lap, like many times before. I checked myself out in the mirror, unlocked the chair restraint, and backed up to and opened the side door. I let the lift down so it was even with the van floor and headed out the lift face forward. I would then used the switch located on the lift itself, to ride the lift to the ground. All went as usual. I pushed out of the van onto the lift. By now i knew something was very rotten in Denmark:
My chair wheels were half in the van and half out on the lift. The inside lift switch would let go. It was stuck in the 'GO' mode. The lift was descending on its own. I couldn't get off the lift into the van or onto the ground. This was yet another out of control event that did not have my very best interest at heart.

The situation afforded me but one option. I could only ride it out, hoping I wouldn't be brain damages when my head hit the pavement. Everything seemed to move very slowly, with a will well beyond time.

I hit the pavement on my left side. My briefcase and precious papers were strewn everywhere. My chair was tipped over with me still in it, due to the the seat belt. One chair tire was still spinning. I lay there in full view of everyone walking into the courthouse. I knew help would come soon.

Given this situation, I thought, "I may be late for the hearing". I lay there imagining what my client would say to the unknown visiting Judge in my absence.

Mr. dignified attorney, champion of farmworkers, the United Farmworkers, and civil rights. I was the proverbial turtle on his back. I could flair and flounder, but not much more. Helpless I was, in case you didn't quite get that.

I gazed around, at floor level, so to speak. When would my champion arrive? ' Saint Guy would know what to do and those striving-to-be Samaritans'. I was becoming more petulant and descending fearlessly into self pity. 'Somebody better get here fast' I thought 'or my whole morning will be ruined'. Stating the obvious always helps in situations like this. The obvious ground, so to speak.

Eventually (time is warped in these events) along strolled Saint Guy's evil twin. I had seen this rather corpulent attorney from time to time in courts state and federal. He was, as I say, a stout fellow, one who was in the middle of the letting-himself-go process. My would-be savior was a man of about 45. His garb was lawyerly: a three piece dark blue suit, matching tie and wing-tips enclosed his well fed frame. He resembled Tolstoy's Ivan Illich: a self-satisfied government clerk going to seed. That my no means justifies what follows.

Ivan was the first to see me. he stopped and viewed the scene from seven feet away, "Do you need help?" he asked. If I weren't on the ground already I would have been floored. I could think of nothing to say so I muttered, "No, I'm OK." I listened to myself say these words. Why would anyone of common sense say that? Perhaps I didn't want to bother this guy, maybe I was too dumb founded, perchance my innate sarcasm and cynicism spontaneously emerged, slipping pat the Censor, who usually protects myself from myself. Anyway I take some of the blame for what came next.

Wordlessly, Mr. Illich scurried past me into the courthouse. I was reliving that bus driver nightmare. In this very bad dream, various people would leave me on the ground from sheer indifference or as a result of my dismissive attitude toward the human family at large and individuals in particular.

At any rate, a cadre of helpful people, who didn't need to ask, picked up my papers and me up off the pavement into my chair, right side up. I made it to my hearing on time. The visiting Judge sized up our situation and appeared satisfied. I had, after all, gotten my ass into the Judge's temporary courtroom more or less on time, considering I had been stranded on the pavement.

What of Mr. Illich? To this day I wonder about him. What would it have taken for him to stop and assist? Would a pool of blood have done the trick? How about me writhing and screaming in excruciating pain? Perhaps a small amount of broken glass would have triggered a different response? Or lying next to a detached arm or leg?

The issue is: What does it take for one human being to respond positively to another in obvious distress? What makes saint Guy willing to help or a busy attorney to walk on by? Perhaps my "I'm OK" released him from further responsibility 'Hey, why did you walk by that crippled lawyer tipped over on the pavement? Anyone, even an attorney, would see what was going on and stop to help.' 'Yeah, I saw him lying here--He said he was OK. What do you from me?'
What do you want from me?


Thursday, February 18, 2010


December, 1985 + Augusta, Maine

It was an awfully cold winter day. Cars and trucks were getting jump started everywhere and frozen tongues stuck to frozen poles all over town (well, maybe not ALL over town). You could get frost bite right next to the stove. OK, enough's ,enough. It was Maine, after all. I was doing legal work for a lawyer by the name of John Monroe. For some reason other lawyers referred to him as John Quelled, JQ for short. He was a perfect pettifogger/hack.

Pettifogger: A petty, quibbling, unscrupulous lawyer.
Hack: A broken-down horse for hire; banal, routine, commercial.
I was continuing to sink into ever deeper depression. I was losing self esteem by the hour. I hit a bottom of sorts at the office of good old JQ. He was so angular a lawyer at this early stage of my legal career that he belonged in a category with, say, one of Dostoevsky's clerks. These and he were characters who trudges to dusty, hidden cells of useless industry to spend day after day poring over ancient documents.

These dreamers endlessly hoped to find a diamond among the musty clutter of decades and decades of deeds, springing interests, and perpetuities violators. The parties named were long dead and buried anyway.

"A Ha", I half expected him to yell out on a rainy day, "I have found Czarina Alexandra's diamond brooch at last". No, of course not, just more dust and older and older documents which gave way to parchment which gave way to papyrus as you plunged deeper into piles, which were everywhere. It was not like the piles had any conceivable order, like 'Letters' or 'Deeds'. This was what most people called--A MESS. How does he keep track of anything? I wondered.

His secret was no so secret at all. JQ kept her closeted, like well-meaning folk used to do with a cripple in the family. Miss Bottlebey was his perfect factotum: an ancient woman who may have been young once; it was real hard to tell. Or even married. Miss Bottlebey lived and breath OLDNESS, in much the same way JQ did PETTIFOGGERY. I couldn't imagine both being other than they were or doing other than they did or where they did it. They had simply settled in and stayed, like bats in an old barn.

They were decent folk; they treated me alright. They both dressed as if the sixties had never happened. He was rumpled and wrinkled on the best of days. He stood around 5'6, was about 50 years old, and weighed about 165 pounds. He was not fat, exactly, but he could have lost 20 pounds for his own good. His clothes didn't seem to care at all. They were just on him, hanging for no seeming purpose other than to hide his nudity.

He had low-budget collections business; those are the people who now call you at 3:00 AM from Rangoon wanting the $1.75 you owe.

He also had a real estate business, so called. JQ tried to get fourth generation family homes and farms from folk down on their luck. He would either buy the property outright for pennies on the dollar or cut someone with cash in on the deal. He would (almost literally) scrape something off the bottom for himself. JQ wanted me to pretend I had done a title search and sign some parchment so he could limit his exposure. Yeah, it was a nasty business. Like I said, I was near the bottom of the swamp. I had to get out of there, no matter what.

On this freezing day that frantic mothers and fathers tried to get Juniors' tongues off the pole, JQ left early to shake down the Salvation Army people with their bells and hanging pots of nickels and dimes for the poor consumptive kids in Chicago. Bottlebey and I were left alone. She may have been old but that didn't keep her from being exceptionally thin and frail. She was about 5'5 and couldn't have weighed more than 100 pounds. Her skin looked stretched across her face, as if her face bones remained the same while her skin shrunk around them. Her eyes had that haunting look of great depth, as if they had receded from their sockets for fifty years, one thousandth of an inch per year. She was my way down the ramp.

Oh, yes, the ramp. I arrived at the dust bowl one Monday to find a ramp from my garret to the world outside. This low-budget wooden masterwork took one around the corner of the building sharply to the left, and on down at a percipitious angle to the ground.

The cheapest materials were on display. There were no handrails, no non-skid surface, no protection from snow and ice, almost no bracing, and no thought tied up in this slalom of a ramp. Only Bottlebey was left to get me safely to terra firma. The weather was getting worse, what with new snow covering old ice.

"Now shit", I fumed, "Why always me?" The answer was way too deep to get at just then. She opened the door hesitatingly, as if she were fighting an urge to run. She muttered in her tones of the voice from the crypt, "Don't worry, I can do this". She sounded confident enough. I was deathly afraid. With that, out we went.

Lady Bottlebey's first step seemed OK, though we hadn't gotten to the ice, the turn, or the ski jump decline yet. Her second step was very shaky. Her control was waning. But I was still sitting up. Step three was a disaster. My front tires hit the ice and started to skid. She completely lost control. I looked back in panic. Her hands were outstretched beseechingly, as if she were praying and trying to reach someone headed out to deep waters, caught in a riptide. She hit the ice, went down on one knee, and let out a combination cry for help and moan of despair. By the time I was well onto the ice, and racing without hope into the hairpin--I was doomed.
I struggled mightily. I never had a chance.

The hairpin did me in. I careened straight through it, off the ramp right wheels first, and down into the new snow, cheek by jowl. Now what? Good Olde Mistress Bottlebey, who had her own problems, could do little more than stare in disbelief. Eventually, she painfully uttered, "Oh, my, Oh, my, Oh, my". She limped back and forth and back and forth, wringing her parrot-like hands, in a loss as to what to do.

I lay there freezing, face down, and struggling not to inhale that lovely, clean new snow. I could barely speak, like the dirt bike rider face down in a couple of inches of new mud. Right about then things sucked something awful. "Get Help", I begged, spitting snow. "Oh, yes, yes, of course" As she hobbled out to the front of the building, I felt sorry for her. For an instant, that is. I heard her as from a distance, working hard to get her rather pathetic message across to passers by. "He's really quite a nice young man who's in a wheelchair tipped over on the side here".

Eventually she convinced several highly suspicious men to at least take a look. These guys were a little wary at first, then speechless, then helpful. There I was, in my chair on the snow on my face, shivering like you'd expect.

The rest of the story, much like the others, is a huge anticlimax. I was set right side up, handed a towel of sorts, and pushed to the front sidewalk. I was lavish in my gratitude. I didn't want to look Miss B. in her eyes. I was sure she felt horribly sorry for me and blamed herself. I did look at her, however, and happily so. The initial wordless look between us settled everything. Her relief was palpable.

Bottlebey was a kind soul, you know,
though she worked for that old hack Monroe,
on a very cold day,
as we went on our way
I wound up face down in the snow.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


July, 1979 + Wellington, Maine

The good folks at the VA hospital knew Linda, Sarah, and I planned to resume life in Maine, as we were able. They also knew I loved to be outside walking in the woods, seeking the elusive edible mushrooms, chasing around the hayfield, touring the homestead, and getting my hands dirty in our rich, well-composted gardens. We all were aware of the impossibility of doing these things in a manual wheelchair. I could hardly manage a well kept lawn;woods and gardens were out of the question.

I became a test subject, trying out various chairs for usability in Maine. Everyone had some drawback. Operating most seemed like demolition derby with trees, rocks, and pitfalls instead of other junkers. We were all invested in finding something that served the purpose. We settled for a standard electric chair with a very heavy under carriage to prevent tipping over. Sadly, the woods were out of reach, as was just about all the rough terrain. The new chair did, however, make getting around the house, up and down ramps, onto the grounds, and into the gardens much easier. At least I wasn't going to be stuck indoors in good weather.

My favorite occupation was growing things that yeilded a tangible harvest, such as vegatables, fruit, berries, and grapes. This new chair allowed access to the gardens, as above. In short most of what constitutes gardening would be within reach. I could work close to the ground.

Linda and my friends had constructed several bins in which I could immerse my hands in good Maine dirt. These bins were three feet long by two feet wide by four inches deep. Much like window boxes. I could easily poll under these and work directly in front of me. Linda and these friends definitly looked out for me. On the day at issue, Linda was working outside alone. Sarah was gone with friends. We had no phone.

Motoring in that chair outside was like sailing on a choppy sea. The chair and I lurched side to side and back to front. I barely hung on. Whatever I was holding at that moment was taking its chances.

The day of this adventure was hot, especially for Maine. Garden soil was hot at the surface and very dry, like a typical day in the Sahara. That strange sound of summer when the sun bakes and parches the landscape was everywhere. I thought that was the sound of insects, grasshoppers, and bees complaining about the unrelenting heat. A shrill sound like piccolos, flutes, and violins seemed to lament for the death of Juliet. The sinister hum of high-wire electric lines emitting tens of thousands of volts of wasted electricity was in the air. Radiation rained down upon us. That high pitched screech somehow made the day hotter and drier.

I forgot was I was doing. Maybe I was inspecting, sightseeing, planting, watering, or thinning. The chair and I rocked right and left ominously as we hit some rough, uneven patches. I felt undaunted. I trusted (1) the good hospital professionals who tested and recommended this chair, (2) the chair itself, undercarriage and all, and (3) myself, to know when to ride over rough ground and when not. Everything was in order. I launched into the main vegetable garden. Linda looked out from time to time. She had seen guys on floors and lawns before. The garden was rough , yet managable.

The garden was set up in rows running North to South. I headed into it at the north end, looking straight into the summer sun. I squinted as I charged headlessly ahead. The going became choppier. There were many unplanted areas where rows were dug but not seeded. Cognisant of these spots I avioded them.

Steering straight ahead was a challenge. I turned here and there as the ground required. When I reached the south side border I turned around without a lot of effort.

Then IT happened. I gazed down and to the left while I steered sharply to the right. This would have been no problem if my right wheel and tire had not done the very same thing. A six inch drop-off grabbed my front wheels grabbed my front wheels and threw me, chair, and all into an unplanted row I hadn't seen. I once again tipped over in what seemed like slow motion.

I lay on my right side, face down in the Saharan soil. I couldn't move, due in part to this injury and in part to the tightly fastened seat belt. This was no joke. I was in real trouble. I could only with effort breath at all, so I was not able to call out to Linda. Each laborious intake of air brought the dries dust, which lined my mouth and throat and threatened my breathing even more. The pain in my neck muscels was killing me, as I struggled to keep my nose and mouth out of the dust.

So there I was once more, this time at the homestead in the garden strapped into my chair, unable to move, face down in soil and dust and barely able to breath. Alone. Ten or fifteen minutes of this and I would be cooked. "Too bad about Ray; he died from dust inhalation. Yeah, very rare."

I endured this for about ten minutes. Linda was my only hope. She peered out a front window. There I wasn't. She didn't panic. "He's probably touring the grounds". She heard no sound, not me mumbling a Dylan tune, or the hum of the electric chair. Linda was very aware and solicitous of my well-being.

At this point, after about ten minutes, as I say, she decided to check me out. She saw me and my predicament. She came running. What happened? (As if there were any question). She was alarmed but not frantic. Linda had seen this movie before and was always ready and eager to help anyone in a situation. She had witnessed her fair share of close-call big city overdose scenes and family emergencies. Linda had toughness and empathy in equal measure and would approach a problem head-on. She immediately put something, cardboard as I recall, between my mouth and dusty finish. At least I could breath some in gulps, fits, and starts. This was at best a temporary expedient.

In a barely audible voice I whispered, "I fell over. Get help". As we had no phone, this meant rushing from household to household to find someone (1) at home, (2) strong enough, and (3) willing to come to help. The Wellington community was spread out and many homes difficult to reach, so this took precious time.

Meanwhile my neck muscels were becoming so soar and painful I could hardly keep from going face down onto the cardboard. This was no picnic either.

I couldn't hold out long in any event. My breaths were taking less and less unadulterated air. My neck and upper body muscles had given about all they could. Dust was everywhere. I was getting closer to Death's Door. I remember thinking, "Wouldn't it be ironic to die face down on the ground I love because I tipped over in a wheelchair I got specifically for the purpose of not tipping over on this very ground".

My musings were cut short. Linda reappeared with Chuck. With groans and great exertion, they put me upright and helped usher me back into our house where I drank enough cold water to satisfy an Indian elephant. Perhaps this captures the day:

I once had a quite heavy chair,
that should take me 'bout anywhere,
but no, I soon found
face down on the ground,
I was gasping and gasping for air.

Friday, February 12, 2010


July, 1978 + Wellington, Maine

Finally, about after eleven months of hospital life I was home. Home was that beautiful homestead of which I've already written so much. A great deal had changed: the house was finished, more or less, that wonderful log structure from which I had fallen, and a well had been drilled almost one hundred feet through the tough Maine underground. From this well clean, clear, and crisply cold water flowed. The place had been ramped.

The grounds were wilder, less manicured. The hayfield lay untended; grass grew about knee high. Soon this lovely expanse, wild and free, would give way to shrubs, then seedlings, and then trees. This was our beloved field where we had beheld and marveled at the majesty of Maine's nighttime sky.

Much had remained the same, our lawn was deeply, opulently green and mowed, although not quite up to Linda's exacting standards. Our log home looked as welcoming as ever. Our vegetable and flower gardens were for the most part unplanted.

Years later I would return to a desolate reminder of a far better time. In this time to come, I simply sat in the front seat of a friend's car and gave myself to weeping, then crying, convulsively. I saw chest high weeds, overgrown wild grass, gardens in complete disarray, no flowers, no lawn, no warmth, and no joy. This was our homestead where we had dared to dream a very big dream, indeed. We had failed, so sadly failed, and left behind a chaotic memorial of what could have been.

What I did find there were friends. They were close and loving Wellingtonians who had been solidly with us from day one, visiting, encouraging, and supporting. There was plenty of laughter, and no pity, separation, or anything that kept our lives apart. These were true friends. They had gathered to welcome us back to the homestead and the community we had missed and longed for during so many interminable days and weeks.

Smiling faces were everywhere. I heaved a tremenduous sigh of relief. Undiluted happiness brought tears of joy that ran down my cheeks. I had been transported several hundred miles for a few days less than one year. I had changed in ways I would not fully understand for years, maybe decades. Some bedrock things remained as they were: our family, my love of Wellington, our home, our friends, and Maine itself.

We hoped to settle back in and resume our country ways, as we were able. I had felt continuous worry over that. How were we to live? Would we become bored and irritable? Could Linda take on such a huge load? Who would do my care? How would we get through winter and mud season? Was it all just too big, too much? Suppose so, then what?

All that notwithstanding, the first and most important thing at the moment was getting out of the car and into my chair to properly greet and hug and kiss my friends. I wanted to feel the sacred ground beneath me, and go inside to inspect out onetime dream home, newly furbished to accommodate our lives to be.

I had to do a Red-like transfer from passenger seat to wheelchair with assistance from guys who had moved houses. I was not totally confident, however. If there is the least possibility of something going wrong, believe me, I will find it and worry. "I hope we don't break a bone or put him on the ground", said one anxious crew member.

The transfer was easy beyond measure.

I was at last on our beloved thirty-five acres of Yankee hinterland. At the risk of overstatement, this return had much of the flavor of a soldier returning home injured after some time in combat. I felt very fortunate as I recalled my hospital brothers. Red was alone without loving support and probably headed into a dead end life. Johnny was in some institution, hidden away in seclusion, not to be heard from again. Al was well on his way to heavy alcoholism when I last saw him. The list goes on. Changing gears, Gary got married to a great lady and had a family, Bob started a car sales business and thrived, and Sam became a wheelchair athlete and competed around the country and world.

I was, as I say, in my by-now accustomed manual chair in deep, thick, and prospering lawn. I could no more push through it alone than navigate my way through a full-grown Kansas wheat field. Friends gathered round me hugging, weeping, and welcoming all at once. Almost immediately Michael, one of our community philosophers grabbed the handles of my chair and said, "You must want to look around". With that and without more, he abruptly pushed my chair through about two feet of luxurious turf. My left front tire found a soft spot and sank five or six inches, which was well beyond the range of stable balance.

Shall I say more, this snippet being the Tip Over section? Within fifteen minutes of my return from the most traumatic experience of my age, within five minutes of landing back on home soil, and within one minute of my first eye-level look at Shangri-La, I was literally face to face with our good Yankee ground. Maine and I were close again. Michael didn't seem overly concerned, laughing as was his style. Several others chuckled as if to say, "Now doesn't that beat all".

I wondered if this was a sign of things to come. Would my days be spent unproductively inside because i was trapped by my inability to get out and around? Was much, most, or all of Maine and our homestead off limits?

Back to ground zero. I saw little cause for humor and was piqued at Michael for a short while. Such a welcome I didn't need. Several of the more level-headed in the group thought the best thing to do would be to pick me up. That done, it sure felt good to be home.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


November, 1977 + West Roxbury VA Hospital, West Roxbury, Mass

Four of my crippled pals and I were on an unofficial outing, cruising hospital grounds and griping about everything: "This injury sucks", "I hate this place", "the food is crap", "I wish I was dead", etc. The weather was gorgeous with bright sunshine and a welcome breeze that brought low humidity. It was an Indian summer afternoon. Other than griping, which came with the territory, this was a perfect day to hang out.

We were alone, and newly chair bound forever. "Hey, what the fuck, you can't have everything" I said, totally out of character. "Yeah", Floyd responded, "Or anything". For most of us it was just another pointless day waiting for Godot, like the second day of a life sentence in a Turkish prison.

The five of us planned to negotiate several switchbacks concrete downhill ramps and cross the normally well traveled avenue that encircled hospital grounds. We would then spend the afternoon in the well shaded, grassy, and flowered park-like area within that circle. It beat being in bed, at least, surrounded by sarcastic cripples.

Here I was outside, among my hospital buddies, loving the sun and headed to an afternoon that was hospital-free. No pills, no exhausting exercises, no 'do this, do that', no progress reports. Some time off.

City transit buses regularly passed along that expansive avenue and stopped right about where we were. These buses would pick-up and discharge passengers. They were city buses driven by well-trained, courteous, and compassionate operators. These bus drivers were supposedly well-versed in wheelchair etiquette; this included offering assistance as needed.

One of the ramps proved tricky for me, even though it was constructed of concrete and not perilously graded, or so I thought. If you recall, it was a perfectly dry day. All the ramps were dry. The degree of difficulty was doubled because there were no handrails, non-slip surfaces, or other routine safety devices, such as curbed edges. These absent devises stood a great chance of preventing me from tipping over. Irony was provided by the fact that this was a huge VA hospital with a specialized spinal chord unit, not a one-horse facility in say, eat Jesus Knob, Wyoming!

Losing control on the way down could be calamitous, because I sat in a manual wheelchair. The only way to slow down or stop was to either rub my hands, palms against the tires or shove my hands into the spokes. Neither was a particularly good option, but they both beat lying face down in gravel, sand, mud, ice or snow. Or concrete. You do whatever comes to mind first when all options suck about equally.

Anyway, back to the ramp. Three of my cohorts had handled it with ease, one whose abilities were about like mine. "Shit man", I figured "If he can do it, how hard can it be?" Heedless taker of risks that I have always been, I ever so gingerly started down. My chair and I quickly accelerated way beyond my capacity to control, slow down, or stop. With both hands trying to stop, I couldn't steer.

My buddies laughed until I careened helplessly toward the edge, the one without curb or handrail. Predictably, I went over, much like the old Model A in those Charlie Chaplin black and white movies. I came to rest on my left side. I lay unhurt. The laughter subsided, replaced by shouts of, "Help; help, somebody help, hurry" from me and all. We might as well have been yelling at Grant's tomb for the old guy to wake up. I said, "A bus will eventually come along. I think I'm OK until then". [Note: That was my second out of character, non-sarcastic remark in less than twenty minutes. I was getting soft.]

We anxiously waited for the bus; one of the guys sped toward the hospital for help. I hoped I hadn't broken a bone or done something or other I couldn't, but that I would pay for very soon. At last, after nearly ten minutes on the ground, a city bus came along. My friends and I were relieved.

The bus stopped next to where I lay and made that hissing sound old buses do. The front door opened. I looked directly into the driver's eyes. He was a portly man in his mid-forties. His face was florid. He looked about 'normal', if I may say so, neither mean nor angelic. He gazed back at me, directly into my eyes. Funny about human nature: I immediately felt a bond between us, even though the whole thing took about five seconds or so. "Good", I thought, "now he will see what's happened and put me right." I expected him to say something like, 'Hold it there Pal, I'll get some help and get you up right away'.

Without even a nod or other sign of common humanity, he closed the door and pulled away.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


As can be readily imagined, a quadriplegic tipping over, wheelchair and all is always a dreadful proposition. Admittedly, the 'Predicament' case was unusually dramatic and frightening. The negative possibilities were serious. Most tip overs are more mundane. When this does occur, whether dramatic or not, I am a turtle on my back (or side) with essentially four options: (1) flail about like that poor turtle, or (2) call out like a wounded buffalo or (3) gesticulate doggedly and , in most cases, hopelessly, or (4) stubbornly wait out the human family for help. During (1) through (4) I invariably feel utterly ridiculous, as if irrevocably caught in yet another of life's humiliating, undignified exercises. Most times, I'd rather be caught sleep walking naked near a convent. I have tipped over numerous times, in addition to 'Predicament', five follow.

Monday, February 1, 2010


October, 1985 + Between Augusta and Waterville, Maine

Predicament: A situation from which extrication is difficult, especially an unpleasant or trying one.

I was driving home alone to Waterville in my tricked-out van on a lowering, cloudy, and chilly late afternoon. I had had a hopeless job interview for a statistical position for which I was completely unqualified yet desperately needed. The previous hour had gone something like this:

I had made it in good time to the huge, gray, false granite office building that resembled every one of its type that one sees all over. It was unimaginative, linear, and symmetrical. Every window and door was exactly where expected. This one looked like a morose, monstrous factory where majestic redwood trees are transformed into toothpicks for shipment to Greenland. This intimidating edifice must have been left over from Stalin's day. I could hardly imagine the time and effort wasted here at taxpayer expense. I reminded myself, "This is a State building, after all."

Entering through the side-by-side glass doors was problematic. There was no 'Handicap' button. The doors were too heavy for me to open by myself. No one was going in or out. There I sat, like so many times before and after, alone outside in bad weather staring at a building I couldn't enter. Finally, a defeated looking suit-and-tie man around fifty years old came out and ushered me in. I followed the signs down the long, shadowy corridor to the office to where I was to be grilled and, most likely, humiliated yet again. Yeah, I had confidence written all over me.

I eventually found my way to the front desk. The look of pity on the receptionist's face set my teeth on edge, like eating glass. It was as if she had just said, in smarmy, overly sympathetic tones, "Oh you poor little darling, how horrible your life must be." I told her why I was there, using impeccable grammar, diction, and big words, like I do when faced with interpersonal discomfort. She gave me a look of absolute incredulity, as if she had heard be say I wanted to play point guard for the Boston Celtics.

She had that, 'I'd sure like to help this poor bastard as long as it takes no effort on my part' expression on her otherwise immobile face. She seemed very self-satisfied as if she were the one who had re-taught me how to speak. I waited about ten minutes under her empathetic yet penetrating gaze. I felt like an uninvited guest everyone pretends they're glad to see, while wishing he'll disappear. I prayed she wouldn't engage me in meaningless chatter to relieve the stifling psychosocial humility in her claustrophobic little fiefdom.

I was rescued by my interviewer, a colorless, somber looking miniature man of about sixty in a cheap polyester suit. 'This guy is a perfect fit for the place', I thought. He led me into his office, which wasn't much bigger than an airplane bathroom and had about as much appeal. What it did have, of course, was a well-worn old style adding machine with long, narrow receipt paper containing a great host of tiny numbers. Nothing but numbers. I pictured this conscientious, cloistered civil servant sitting here long into the evening, attempting in vain to find the shovel unaccounted for in Bucksport.

His walls, such as they were, held proof of his education:

This certificate is awarded to MISTER DRUDGE,
in recognition of her/his successful completion of
the State of Maine two week course: "The Significance
of Accurate Computation of the Department of
Transportation's Active and Inactive Archives
Regarding the Calculation of Current Quantities
of Miscellaneous and Accessory Commodities,
Inventory Items, and Unaccounted and/or
Misplaced Implements

and achievements:

The Committee on Accounting of the Agency of
Calculations of the Bureau of Statistics of the
Department of Transportation of the State of Maine
Hereby Officially Recognizes the Contributions of
for his/her Untiring Efforts and Satisfactory Service
for Thirty-Five Years on Behalf of the Permanent
and Temporary Residents Who Utilize Maine Roads and Bridges.

We small talked about weather and so forth. Realizing that time is money is numbers, he abruptly cut off the useless chatter and got down to business. In this case that meant discovering his protege: another dogged and determined go-nowhere data chaser. This position required one inconsequential drudge. I had descended to that level.

After briefly describing job duties, he surprised me with, "Why would a lawyer apply for a statistician position?" I went temporarily speechless, thinking the jig was up. My self-destructive side wanted to say, 'Because he's depressed, out of work, desperate, and counting the Department of Transportation's pencils and paper clips, and dirt piles is better than nothing.' (Although I wasn't so sure that was true).

Instead, I muttered something patently ridiculous about innate beauty and dignity of numbers. Now, this guy may have been a humorless and nondescript bean-counter, suit and tie, and must have been bleeding desperation, so he said something like, "Very interesting, I'll call you about the second interview" or something equally untrue and inane.

'Yeah,' I thought, "I'll wait breathlessly by the phone for THAT call.' Away I slink, deflated, denied my childhood dream job tabulating endless quantities of dispensable semi-worthless objects. My self-esteem, fragile at the best of times, was shattered. I hate rejection. I passed the reception desk, too ashamed to even look up.

I got back into my van for yet another long, lonely, and miserable trip home. After all, I had failed to impress a perfect Charles Dickens-like Mister Drudge. I had arrived at what I figured was the last stop on the last train at the end of the track. I had come seeking a job that would have been the slow and agonizing death of me. I would die by the numbers, so to speak. I couldn't have felt much worse.

No, as the verse goes, waiting for me on the trip home was: "...a low below the low that you know".

I pulled away from the station, released from the wretched House of Numbers.

I was soon in my van and headed back home after what had seemed like a tooth extraction without Novocain. On the freeway, I motored along, preparing myself for a night of self-torture: 'Damn, you can't even get a job you don't want. It's not something you said, it's something you are.' Catholic guilt has nothing on me.

Nobody's fool, I always kept an empty piss jug in the van in case I needed it. The need arose, so I pulled off the freeway onto the shoulder. Although my gas gauge hovered near zero, I kept the engine running. I unlocked the chair restraint and pushed myself back to the empty gallon milk jug perched atop a cement block standing upright.

I locked my brakes, set the jug on the floor, sidled up to the cement block, lifted my right foot onto the block, and emptied my chocked full leg bag. The jug probably had a quart of you know what. I put the jug back on the cement block. To this day I don't know why.

I got back behind the steering wheel and slowly (as I thought) took off. Within ten seconds I heard loud THUMP and WHOOSH sounds from the vicinity of the jug. The one-of-a-kind odor of newly minted urine wafted throughout the van. "AH SHIT", I moaned, "Not this again."

I stopped, put it in Park, and backed up for a look. I left the van idling. The jug was on its side on the hard, linoleum-like floor, which was covered in urine. There were pools a quarter inch deep here and there. All in all, it could have been worse. This had happened before. I would ask my Aide to mop it dry and disinfect the floor with Lysol, which would help with the smell. It was no bargain. Given the miseries of my injury, this was about in the 65th percentile. The mess could be managed.

Resigned to the situation, I leaned over to pick up the jug. I had forgotten that the freeway shoulder fell away in the same direction I was leaning. What occurred next was reasonably foreseeable. In the time it takes to say it, my chair and I were all tipped over onto the floor and into the piss. "OH NO! NO! NO!" There may have been six or seven No's. I wasn't counting. I lay there, engine idling, gas near empty, alone, and half on my side, half on my back. I felt painfully scrunched up, twisted, and tightly wedged against the side door/electric lift.

I fought off my first thought, which was to say, 'Fuck it, I've had all I can take' and just lay there in self-pity. With what must have been super-human effort, I somehow managed to reach almost completely around. I struggled in fits and starts and in pain and agony, to open the electric side door. To my surprise, I was then able to get the lift down to a 45 degree angle. By this time, I lay more or less on my back. My lower half was in and my upper half out of the van, as I looked up at the dark and foreboding sky. I was barely able to wave part of left arm at the cars whizzing by.

I calculated the odds of (1) someone speeding by who (2) could see me, (3) understand what was happening, (4) care enough to do something, and (5) actually stop to help at about a thousand to one. Other than saint Guy, I took and still take a dim view of humanity.

I lay there ruminating. 'Well, I figure I've taken this exercise in futility to its extreme. What's next?' RAIN! That's what's next. Big, cold drops, each like a teaspoon of ice water, came pelting down, directly into my upturned face. I was on the freeway on the shoulder in the van on the floor in the piss in the rain. I thought I would be there all night, soaking wet and frozen to the bone. The van would eventually run out of gas. After I got out of Intensive Care, I bet it would have all been for nothing.

An hour passed that seemed like five. About this time, as the song goes, I wished I were on some Australian Mountain Range. I was cold and wet. Dusk and darkness were closing in. I had plenty of time to take stock. Regrets? I had no regrets. Well, maybe one. My only regret was that I wasn't someone else.

When I had given up on humanity forever, a couple vying for the Saint Guy the Great Award stopped and flagged down a trucker. Hardly able to hide their disbelief, they collectively lifted me out of the piss and into my chair. One of these sweet people drove me home. I had a hasty and confused explanation ready, which would have run something like this:
"See, there was this job I didn't really want but
applied for anyway and I was going home from Augusta
then I tipped over in the urine and I couldn't get up
by myself and it rained and I waved and you came and
it's really nobody's fault except maybe this bean-
counter guy who wouldn't hire me no matter what.'

My rescuers had a close relative in a chair, so they understood and mercifully didn't inquire. The trucker split the scene like he was running from a bullet.

True to form, it was all for nothing. I never did get the call I didn't expect. I couldn't blame Drudge, I guess, but I could write him a limerick:

There once was a bean-counting man,
For whose job I said, "Oh, Yes I can"
It was much worse than naught
'cause soon I got caught,
on my back in the piss in the van.