I wake up sitting in the cab of a pickup truck parked on the outskirts of a small town. I leave the truck and enter a small building to find a small office that is a shambles. I sit down and try to remember where I am and why I am there. All I can remember is that I have something to do and that the person who was with me has disappeared, leaving only a half-finished bottle of soda. Lacking any other information, I start to clean-up the office and get the paperwork back in order. I grow increasingly anxious and finally I can’t stand the small office anymore. I get back in the truck and drive into the town to find it deserted. I stop at what looks like the town hall and enter, to discover another, larger office that is also a shambles.
“OK. If I need to urinate, I ask for a ... urinal. But if I need to move my bowels, I ask for a ...”
After a while the word ‘bedpan’ comes and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Ten minutes later, I can’t remember the word for bedpan, and the whole silent struggle starts over again. Can’t even grit my teeth because they still don’t line-up.
Back in the deserted office, I take charge, making and hanging a sign identifying myself as the head of the department. I then spend a long time trying to put all the records back in order and back into file cabinets. I think there are other people around who are hiding so I can’t find them. Eventually I have had enough and decide to leave the building, only to find that I am in a wheelchair that will not fit through the office door or into the elevator. For a long time I struggle to get the chair out of the office, and somehow do so. I am now preoccupied with a single thought: that I “don’t want to go to sleep and wake-up back in this town, instead of where I want to be...”
Several of my cousins come into the room to visit. They tell me that I look and sound great, and what great progress I’m making. I, in turn, lie there, silently wondering why they are naked and why they are here in the middle of the night in my BOQ room at the Reserve base on a drill weekend. However, not wanting to seem impolite, I refrain from asking them where their clothes are and remain cheerful and responsive. They don’t suspect a thing.
I get to the parking lot and find a woman and a man fighting. The woman jumps into my truck and we drive away together. I tell her how strange the town seems with everyone gone and “my office” in such disarray. She replies that we have to find a way out of town “to keep from being brought back there every time we wake up.”
The hospital room is warm. A football game is on the TV. I have absolutely no interest in football, so it serves as white noise. I have a new roommate. He was brought in last night. I can see only his legs past the curtain that divides the room in half. He is wearing a fancy, blue jogging pants and nice sneakers. There are strange, gargling noises coming from his side of the room, accompanied by sucking and machine sounds. He was in a minor car accident. He is unhurt except for the fact that the impact snapped his head forward and broke his neck, paralyzing him from the neck down. He is awake. His wife and two young kids are there with him. He is being suctioned to keep his airway clear.
This is real.
“Please, Mr. Boyd. Please. I have to clear your airway.”
Suucckk. Suuccckkk. Whirr.
“Please, Mr. Boyd. You have to keep your shoes on. The socks are to prevent fluid buildup.”
“I know, Mr. Boyd. Your family is here.”
It’s a dark night out and Mr. Boyd’s colorfully dressed legs seem to luminesce against the blackened window in the bright light positioned over his bed.
A woman and several small children stand nearby, twisted with impossible surprise and horror. I have gotten used to seeing things from a 90 degree left tilt as I move my head on the pillows.
Strange. I was in a plane crash and about the only thing I didn’t break was my spine. Mr. Boyd was in a small car accident and is now a quadriplegic.
Is that sound I hear God laughing? Or the Devil?
Another day in bed. No one is poking at me at the moment and it’s peaceful. I gaze out the window. It is a perfect sunny day. In the distance, a Cessna 172 drifts by, on the way to the airport. Someone is flying. I love flying. I’ve loved flying all my life. I love the freedom – freedom in three dimensions. I have to fly again. Somehow. I will.
For the first time since the accident, I relax.
Weeks pass and so do rooms and roommates. I get a lot of travel time. Sometimes to a lot of different departments in the hospital, where a bewildering array of people poke and check and make small clucking noises and take multiple pictures of everything in every imaginable band of the electromagnetic spectrum. As often as not, I am returned to a different room. This hospital has Turnover. The rooms and checks become a blur. When poured to my already leaky brain, these constant changes make it impossible for me to remember what room I am in or who is my roommate. More frustration.
Sometimes I get loaded into an ambulance for a horrid ride to another hospital over the city’s pot hole-filled roads, lying flat on my back in an ambulance with no discernable suspension system. Wham! Thud! Pow! Every jolt sends pain radiating from all 42 fractures. It is sheer torture. I start to whimper; I can’t control it. One of the orderlies turns and says, “It’s ok, fella. Almost there.”
‘A ride from hell,’ I think. Yes.
New room; new roommate. A nice guy. Has diabetes. They just cut-off one of his legs a few months ago, and now they are telling him that they will probably have to cut-off the other one, too. He has not stopped smoking despite knowing what smoking does to someone with diabetes. He’s taking it pretty well. Discusses with a visitor his diet and how he wants to give-up smoking. I have my own problems. I’ve been in the hospital for over a month now, and I am eating again. If you can call it eating. I keep getting a special sort of milk shake in a carton along with bland meatloaf and veggies. I used to love milk shakes. Now, I want to kill the man who invented them. After not having eaten for a month, my body has forgotten how to. Trying to drink the shakes makes me so nauseous that I have to fight not to throw them up. My stomach howls in protest at having to digest anything. I try to find ways to avoid drinking the awful things, but the staff knows all the tricks. They are worried. I’ve lost over 30 pounds since the accident. I still can’t use my hands or legs, so I am at their mercy. But my tongue is slowly healing, all the better to fully taste the rich, aromatic flavor of what is apparently polyester dissolved in xylene.
Now, something seems even more wrong. Bad stomach pains all the time.
“We’re taking you down for an ultrasound, Mr. Berlander.”
My roommate’s wife bustles-in from outside. She is a 60-ish woman wearing an expensive coat and earrings. As she passes I get a pleasant burst of perfume and cold air from outside, where it is well into fall. She must be here to cheer the guy up before he loses his other leg.
“I need a new car,” she announces.