By Steve Watkins
I was alone, fitfully sleeping, still feverish when Wayne showed up in room 431B at Lakeland General Hospital, which had now been my home for a month. I’d been hooked up to the subclavian IV for a couple of days. There may have been some hope that the antibiotics were finally working, but I was too out of it to know. Mom and Dad had told Wayne what would happen if this last combination failed, but I was still unaware. All I knew was I opened my eyes, and there he was, standing at the foot of the bed holding a broom.
I may have thought it was another hallucination. People had been coming and going through the room, which stayed in a kind of twilight, but they were more phantom to me than human. I didn’t recognize faces or voices, except, dimly, Mom and Dad. Never knew if the same people, the same doctors and nurses, were there, or if it was a succession of strangers–checking monitors, emptying urine pouches, suctioning my back, forcing a saline mask over my face. Changing sheets. Sponging sweat off my face and arms and chest. Repositioning the catheter. Replacing IV bags. Turning me on the bed. Peeling off bandages and pressing on clean dressings. Or if I was imagining as much of it–and as many of them–as was real.
I was the helpless rag doll to whom all this was done, and sometimes I kept my eyes pressed hard shut, and sometimes I was only aware of the changes after the fact when I drifted back into a sort of consciousness, and sometimes I watched it happen as if from a distance, outside myself, observing these strange rituals that ended, or were supposed to end, in the same way every time, with me, or the patient who was supposed to be me, put back together, cleaned and positioned just so, tucked under crisp, unwrinkled sheets that never lasted that way for long.
I opened my eyes again, and Wayne was still there. “Have to get you well and out of here so you can use this,” he said, gesturing with the broom. He had stolen it from a rest stop on the drive from Tallahassee down to Lakeland. A prop, I guess. Something to make me laugh, because he couldn’t think of anything else to bring that might help, couldn’t think of anything else he could do except be there.
Wayne said he’d left his job working in a child care center, carrying on the work he shared with Mom, though he expected they’d take him back when he returned. But he figured I might need him for a while to help me through this rough patch. I stayed awake and alert during his visit–he reminded me of this later. He said we talked and joked for an hour before I fell asleep, and he said he came back to be with me every day for a week, though I don’t remember any of it besides him standing at the foot of my hospital bed like an apparition that one day–him and the stupid broom.
Maybe it was Wayne showing up. Or maybe it was the broom. Either way, the subclavian IV started working as it continued to inject the last antibiotic combination almost directly into my heart. Tests run on the daily blood draws–when they could still find a vein–showed my white blood cell count was dropping, though still dangerously high. The fevers receded. No more ice baths. I started eating–a little. Stayed awake longer. Dad said the engineers at the phosphate mine had a bet going on what I would weigh next time they checked. Somehow they even managed to sit me up in the bed, and then move me—or lift and carry me–into a chair, which felt like a victory until I could no longer hold myself up and had to call for help getting back into bed.
After another week, they removed the urinary catheter and unhooked the tubes. I was still attached to the subclavian IV, and had to wheel the pole with me when I tried to walk, but I was able to piss standing up for the first time in a month. I was depressingly weak. Everything I did left me exhausted. And when they cut off the painkillers–the opioids I’d been on for most of a month–I got irritated and angry and couldn’t sleep. But I was finally getting better. Wayne, relieved, took the broom over to Mom and Dad’s house for safekeeping and drove back to Tallahassee.
But it was a temporary reprieve. The fevers came back not long after, in mid February, and I was laid low in the bed again, sweating through the sheets and too weak to sit up. The doctors didn’t understand it. Blood tests showed the infection, while still present, was waning. My breathing was better. The little walking I’d been able to do was beginning to restore some muscle tone, however slight. I’d been eating–though that stopped again with the spike in temperature.
Dave returned from North Carolina the day Dr. Barrios told us he’d have to operate again. There might be a problem with my gallbladder, and it would have to be removed. He couldn’t be certain that it was the cause of the fevers, but something had to be done. They ran a few last blood tests and scheduled me for surgery in the morning.
I fell apart that afternoon, helpless on the bed, too depleted from the fevers to cry. David stayed with me, let me say all the dark things I couldn’t hold inside, but couldn’t say to Mom and Dad–that I couldn’t do this any more, that I couldn’t go back into surgery, I just couldn’t. If they put me out under anesthesia again, tomorrow or ever, I wouldn’t be able to come back. I would die there. I was through.
Dave held me the way he’d held me in Sariska, the way he’d held me at East-West Medical Center. He said all the things he supposed I needed to hear. “You’ve survived a lot worse and it hasn’t killed you. You’re strong. You can handle this. And I’ll be here with you, I promise. We knew there were going to be setbacks. We just didn’t know there would be so many, right? So it’s a great cosmic joke. Up jumps the devil. But you’ll get through this, too. And what’s one more scar when they’ve already carved you up as much as they have? You won’t even notice it. Plus nobody knows what the gallbladder even does. Probably one of those pointless organs you don’t actually need. Like your appendix. They took out your appendix when you were a kid, right? And your tonsils? I bet you haven’t missed either one of them ever. I bet it’s the same with your gallbladder.”
He almost got me laughing–at least lifted me out of my despair and got me to stop feeling so sorry for myself–when Dr. Barrios came back into the room to tell me they’d cancelled the surgery.
“It turns out that it’s not your gallbladder,” he said.
“So what then?” I asked, worried it was something worse.
He held up the test results and said, “You’ve got malaria.”
They started me on quinine treatment right away, and once again the fevers abated, this time in a matter of hours. They forgot to warn me about tinnitus and hearing loss, though–side effects of the quinine–so for a couple of days, as a high-pitched ringing in my ears gave way to an almost total silence, I was convinced I’d gone deaf, yet another demoralizing complication. I didn’t hear people entering my room, didn’t know what they were saying, couldn’t make out what questions they were asking. Just one more kick in the nuts, Dave said, when the treatment ended and I regained some of my hearing. But maybe this would be the last.
I was a fixture in the hospital after that, shuffling around the halls day and night, like a ghost, still attached to the antibiotic line, holding onto the IV pole for support. They asked if I would talk to another patient about the subclavian IV. She needed one inserted in her chest, but was frightened that it would hurt, and they were hoping I could reassure her. I rolled my IV pole down to her room and told her that when they put mine in I didn’t feel a thing, forgetting to mention that I was delirious at the time, barely conscious of anything. They did her insertion shortly after, and the poor woman screamed so loud I could hear her all the way down the hall. I did my best to avoid her after that.
I was still in the hospital a few more weeks, until they were certain the malaria was under control, and the abdominal infection, and the internal bleeding. When they removed the tubes from my back, they left the hole open, packed with gauze, so what was left of the infection would continue to drain. There wouldn’t be any cosmetic surgery to repair the damage or close the depression.
A nurse came in one day to check vital signs and change my dressing. It must have been a slow day on the ward, because she stayed for a while to talk. I had my guitar, and was sitting cross-legged on the bed trying to get it in tune. She said she’d been in the ICU when they brought me out of surgery in early January. “It’s good to see how well you’re doing,” she said. “You were so sick. We were worried you weren’t going to make it.”
Once they removed the subclavian IV and switched me to oral antibiotics, and after most of a fever-free week, Dr. Barrios agreed to sign the discharge papers, though he emphasized that I still wasn’t entirely well, and wouldn’t be for some time. He gave me a prescription for a new opioid, Darvon, for pain. Said if the fevers returned, we should contact him right away, and I’d have to be readmitted because it would mean the infection was once again spiraling out of control.
It was the end of February. I’d been in one hospital or another–Alwar, New Delhi, New York, Lakeland–for three long months, since early December. They followed protocol and took me downstairs in a wheelchair, not that I could have made it under my own power, especially with no IV pole for support. It was freezing outside, the coldest winter on record in Florida. But the sun was out, and it was the first time I’d felt it on my face since India.
The celebration evening at my parents’ house quickly gave way to the hard reality of recovery. I spiked a fever the second night I was home and freaked out about it, convinced, just as I had been about the prospect of yet another surgery, that if I ever had to go back into the hospital I wouldn’t come out alive. Suddenly, away from the security of all those doctors and nurses and 24-hour care, all I could think about was how vulnerable I was, and how close to death. Every time I fell asleep I had nightmares. Mom heard me crying out and came into my tiny back bedroom in their house to rescue me. She took my temperature, gave me aspirin and Darvon, reassured me as I nodded off in a drug-induced stupor.
The fever broke the next day. I wouldn’t let Mom call Dr. Barrios, though I was anxious every time I felt flushed or sweaty for any reason. The Darvon–a brand name for propoxyphene, a Schedule IV narcotic that was eventually banned by the FDA–helped. David stayed on for a few more days, but I knew he was worn out from looking after me, from putting his own life on hold these past four months to help save mine. He already seemed lost being back in America after his two and a half years in India. Everything here was strange. Nothing, he said, felt right. He left for a second time, and it would be months before I saw him again—months of wandering, months of uncertainty, months of looking for somewhere else to call home.
A week after Dave drove off in his old VW, my grandfather came down from Virginia to help take care of me while my parents were at work. He’d spent most of his life working for an old offset printing company in D.C., and had recently retired, his hands still stained with the ink of ten thousand print jobs over the years that once included an order from the White House for black-bordered thank-you cards for all the condolence letters that pored in after JFK’s assassination.
He tried to get me to eat, though all he knew how to make were soup and toast. Did his best with arthritic fingers to change my bandages. Coaxed me outside with him for walks. I complained that I was too tired, that I was too weak, that it hurt to move. Just to the corner and back, he said. He was patient but persistent, even when I acted like a petulant kid. I’d always loved my grandfather, and I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I eventually dragged myself out of bed, or off the couch where I too easily fell asleep when I was on the Darvon, which I was already taking more than I should. I meant to be grateful, but I resented having him there, resented him for being old, for being another reminder of death.
I felt bad for being so withdrawn, for turning away from his entreaties, for not being appreciative of his kindness and generosity. But I couldn’t seem to help it. I didn’t want him there, though nothing was ever said. I didn’t want anyone there to see me in my fragile state.
I still felt foggy all the time. Everything seemed out of focus, just shapes and shadows, as if I was trapped inside a translucent sheet of plastic. Or bound inside Plato’s cave. I was lonely, heartbroken about Robin, and angry about my broken body, the scarred, emaciated skeleton I’d become. I couldn’t let the bandages get wet, but still steamed up the bathroom when I turned on the shower to cautiously wash what parts of me I was able, plus I didn’t have to see myself in the mirror when I got out. I didn’t know who won the bet they had at the phosphate mine about how much I would weigh; it still wasn’t much.
When some old friends from college stopped by to visit, I did my best to be friendly, but hated every second they were there, the sympathetic looks they kept giving me, the freedom they had that I didn’t, and that I despaired of ever having again. I couldn’t shake the fear that held me in its grip that I was just waiting for the next complication to send me back to the hospital.
And I couldn’t bear my grandfather’s cheerfulness, his bright optimism, his encouragement–all of which made me feel like a child learning to feed myself, or walk, or go to the bathroom.
He left after a week.
A few years later, in a hardware store in Northern Virginia, he struck up a conversation with a retired high school teacher from North Carolina. The teacher, recently widowed, mentioned having a son who’d served in the Peace Corps in India. My grandfather said he, too, had a family member, a grandson, who’d been to India–and had nearly died there in an accident.
The teacher said my name and asked if I was the grandson, because if so, then it was his son David, just out of the Peace Corps, who’d been the one who saved me.
I stayed stoned on Darvon for a few days after my grandfather left, moving from bed to sofa, but not much further. Nobody was around during the day to say anything about it. Eventually, though, realizing I was slipping into depression, I forced myself back outside, determined to make it to the end of the block and back. But just stepping into the front yard was hard. I felt unbalanced standing on the thick dog’s tooth grass. Mom and Dad lived on a cul de sac with no sidewalks, so I had to walk in the street, which shouldn’t have been a problem–except that every garbage truck and service vehicle in Polk County seemed to show up whenever I ventured out on my unsteady legs. I got winded hobbling off to the side of the road. The drivers gave me dirty looks for making them slow down or stop until I shuffled to safety.
I kept it up. As much to get Mom off my back as for the supposed benefits. Once a day. And then twice a day. And then two blocks. And then I lost my motivation. My legs hurt too much. My back hurt from standing. I was embarrassed if anyone saw me, an old man at 22 in sagging sweatpants and loose t-shirts. The days were long and boring, interrupted by more occasional visitors from my past life, but nobody I wanted to see. TV was stupid, but reading made my head hurt. It was too easy to give up, to keep taking extra doses of the Darvon, so I did. And then I hated myself for giving up. Swore I was going to get rid of the drugs. And then I did it all over again.
By the time Mom came home from work, my bandages were soaked through with the yellow discharge. She continued to make food she knew I liked, continued to encourage me to eat more, got frustrated when I didn’t, or when she realized I’d forgotten to eat during the day, or hadn’t cared enough to.
She refused to let me feel sorry for myself, or sink any further into despair.
She came into my room one night, and sat on the edge of the bed. “I know you think this is your life now,” she said. “And it is your life, but only for a while. I want you to listen carefully to what I’m saying, because it’s all true. I know you don’t believe in prayer, but your father and I have been praying for you anyway, and we’ll continue praying for you, and we know God is with you. You don’t have to believe it, but that’s okay. We believe it for you. And we believe–we know–there is strength in you, a great strength, that has already gotten you through so much more than most people would have been able to handle. Just look at what you’ve survived. Look at how far you’ve come since the accident. And as hard as it is for you right now, things will get better. I know absolutely that they will. Because you’ll make them better. With God’s help. With us. With your brother and David. With your other friends. But mostly it’s inside you, the strength and the will to make this happen, and you need to trust that it’s there.”
And then she started dragging me out of bed before she left for work in the mornings, giving me lists of things she needed done around the house, insisting that I go with her to the pre-school to help with the migrant children, even if all I could do was sit in a chair and read stories. I was soon bruised from the kids crawling into my lap, sore from their bony knees and elbows, falling asleep in the car on the fifteen-mile drive home. I wondered if Mom was going to pull out the old job jar from when we were kids. Or threaten to ground me if I didn’t follow orders to put on some real clothes as she called them—jeans and a clean flannel shirt instead of pajama pants and dirty t-shirt–and go for another walk around the block before it got too dark.
The doctors said my iron and protein levels were what they’d expect to see in an 80-year-old man, so Mom snuck raw eggs into homemade milkshakes and didn’t tell me until I managed to get most of it down. Dad dragged me out to a bar for oysters and beer, though I’d never seen him drink before. “Good source of iron,” he said. He got a little sloppy. I had to drive us home.
They must have been close to broke from all the medical bills that poured in—far more than their insurance could begin to cover. But they never talked about the money. Never asked me to help—then or later.
I started sleeping better. Eating more. Breathing. Going out to the playground with the children, though there still wasn’t much I could do with them there. Mom said that was okay, that sometimes just showing up, just being present, was enough.
In April 1977, after several weeks recovering at my parents’ house in Lakeland, I decided they must be tired of having me around, though I don’t know if that was really the case. Mostly I was just tired of being there, tired of being dependent–on them or anybody. I wanted my old life back, or what of it I could find in Tallahassee. I’d been a burden on them for months, and they had their own worries at work–Dad supervising land reclamation at the phosphate mines, Mom still short-staffed, caring for migrant children at the pre-school. Mom tried to argue me out of leaving. I was still too weak to lift a kid onto a swing, or walk more than a few blocks without stopping to rest. But it was time.
Once again, Dad told me in his gruff and almost tearful way how proud he was of me. I thought about the day he came into my hospital room and held me and cried, so afraid he was going to lose his son. I would know that helplessness and that desperation myself several years later when my infant daughter lay on an examination table in a pediatric ICU, feverish with meningitis. And I would know the blinding relief—a relief my parents must also have felt, must have still felt in some ways in the moment of my leaving—when she survived.
Mom held my face between her hands and whispered, “Just you remember what I said.”
Wayne took me in, and took care of me for the next few months, until the scar tissue on my back finally closed the marsupialization enough for me to be out on my own. Once it was healed, we went with friends to swim in a nearby sinkhole that was popular with the locals. One of them, a middle-aged woman in cut-offs and crop top, took one look at me and recoiled. Dragging out the syllables in a deep redneck drawl, loud enough for everyone around to hear, she said, “Well what American butcher got aholt of you?”
I spent what remained of the spring going with Wayne to Tai Chi classes in Tallahassee, the gentle, flowing movements seemingly perfect for getting back in touch with a damaged body that had become alien to me in so many ways. I kept it up for a while, long enough to learn the first form, but finally stopped when I couldn’t get the teacher, a well-meaning guy who was also oblivious, to stop surprising me with hugs and pressing his bony arm against the hole in my back and the jagged end of what was left of my tenth rib.
I went alone to the university track after that and did Tai Chi on my own, in the shade of a small stand of pines. I tried running, but the first day I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way around. It was the same the second day. And the third. Every workout left me painted in sweat. I was leaden, atrophied. But I kept returning. The fourth day was a little better. And the fifth. And the days that followed.
After a week and a half at the track, I could shuffle my way twice around the oval, half a torturous mile.
But then I had to quit because of shin splints. I’d been wearing my old Chuck Taylors, which was part of the problem, so I scraped together enough money to buy a pair of original Nikes and went back to the track. But I must have overdone it. My temperature spiked well past a hundred. I drove home, sweat dripping down my face and stinging my eyes, making it hard to see the road. I skipped dinner, told Wayne I was just tired, then retreated to the bedroom, afraid that if he knew that he’d insist on taking me to the hospital. I lay still on the bed late into the night, bathed in sweat, trying everything I’d learned from David—deep breathing, visualization, letting go, acceptance of what was and what would be–until the fever broke.
A few days later, still anxious but determined not to quit, I returned to the track, did Tai Chi in the shade, but then sat and watched the other runners–some so light and fast it seemed as if their feet barely touched the rubberized asphalt, others lumbering, straining, fighting gravity, but still out there doing it, and still faster than me. I’d let the Darvon prescription run out and hadn’t refilled it. So now it was just this. I waited until everyone left and I had the track to myself. I walked for awhile, and then jogged for awhile. Gentler than before. Stopping when it felt like time.
I saw Robin again, to give her the ring I had lost and then found after the accident, the one I had bought for her in India, woven out of thin filigrees of seven metals–gold, silver, copper, and I still don’t know what else. Maybe tin. I didn’t know what it was supposed to symbolize, either. I told her I understood if she didn’t want to wear it, I just wanted her to have it was all. I realized there was so much about her I didn’t know and never would. Things she’d never shared. Questions I’d never known or thought to ask.
She actually did wear the ring for a while. But the metals didn’t hold, and after a year, it started to unravel. She did what she could to fix it, but finally had to take it off and put it away. I figured it was a sign for what wasn’t meant to be. Or maybe just a convenient metaphor. Or an object lesson in metal fatigue.
When she got married a few years later, Robin, by then a teacher at an alternative school for troubled teenagers, invited me to the wedding on her parents’ farm. I went, happy to see her so happy, but didn’t stay long afterward. They had the ceremony outside under a fifty-foot Live Oak that must have been a hundred years old with its broad-spreading canopy and shade enough for us all.
My friends at the newspaper encouraged me to come back to work not long after I returned to Tallahassee. I might have been broken, easily fatigued, hobbling like an old man, but I could still work the phones. Our 20,000-circulation paper, the Florida Flambeau, was independent from the university. We published five days a week, afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted. In the fall, I was promoted to associate editor with a modest salary, enough to live on while I finished my degree. I’d be writing editorials, editing letters to the editor and opinion columns, and I’d have a weekly column of my own. I was excited about the job, especially when I sat down to write my first column, ready to be a bodhisattva, sharing the insight and wisdom I must have gained from my travels and near death experiences. My logo was “Namaste.” But I ended up just staring at the sheet of canary paper I’d threaded into the carriage of my old manual Royal typewriter, with no idea what I might have worthwhile to say to anybody about anything. The hours dragged by. My deadline came and went. The typesetter called over from the production lab wondering how he was supposed to fill this 30-inch hole on the editorial page. Everything had to go to the printer by 2 a.m. and it was already past midnight.
Finally, not able to come up with anything else, I banged out an account of where I had been and what I’d been doing on that day one year before. Eating raspberry-colored apples with my friend David in the Valley of the Gods. Hiking into the hills of Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. Crossing the raging Beas River on a shaky rope bridge and praying it would hold. Crawling through a low opening inside a forest temple to light incense and leave some food. Watching two boys with stone-age axes cut poles from trees they felled with their old-men hands. Smoking a hookah with their fathers or grandfathers. Wondering what their lives must be. There wasn’t really a point to the column. Just a day I happened to remember from a life I used to live.
Dave tried finishing college that fall in Wilmington—he’d dropped out to join the Peace Corps three years before—but something about it didn’t feel right to him and he dropped out again. Something about America, a lot about America, didn’t feel right to him. He lived for a couple of years in Northern California on a commune called The Pumpkin where they grew all kinds of organic market vegetables but no pumpkins. Went back to India and spent a couple of months on silent retreat in an ashram near the headwaters of the Ganges. Stayed in Montana near a Peace Corps friend, working odd jobs, trying to get by. Went to Findhorn in Scotland to study permaculture farming. Lived at the Insight Meditation Society Center in Massachusetts, deepening his study and practice of Theravada Buddhism. Got married there and had a daughter. Immigrated to New Zealand where they thought they’d be safe from America’s dark obsession with nuclear weapons and the growing threat of nuclear war. Came home.
Sometime during those the restless years, living on and off the grid, Dave started running, too. We ran together on Topsail Island in North Carolina when we brought our families there for a week every summer in a dumpy little A-frame for body-surfing and curry dinners. We ran together years later on a trip back to India, chasing our daughters as they rode off on the back of a work elephant through thick underbrush in a logged-out forest in Uttarakhand.
Fifteen years after the accident, when I was teaching at a small college in Virginia and Dave was working as a massage therapist for hospice patients in Connecticut, we drove to D.C. and ran together in what was billed as “The Marine Corps Marathon for a Drug-Free America.” Every time we passed one of the review stands, we threw up our arms in mock surrender to the generals and yelled, “Still drug free,” which was true for me and mostly true for Dave. He still smoked pot, which helped with his depression. That and meditation. And the Unitarian Universalist Fellowships we’d both joined by then because they made room for everybody: Transcendentalists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, the whole lot of them. The whole lot of us.
Deep into the marathon, at the Jefferson Memorial, the course took a detour out and back to Hains Point. At the turnaround, in a thick morning fog rolling off the Potomac, we came across a sculpture, “The Awakening,” that we hadn’t expected—the bearded, screaming face and desperate hands and feet of a giant clawing his way out of the earth. I slowed down to stare—I’d never seen such a thing—but Dave grabbed my arm and made me keep going. We were eighteen miles into the race by then.
“If we stop now it’ll be too hard to start again,” he said.
I’d run a three-hour marathon before, and Dave had done Boston, but this time it took us a plodding four hours to cover the 26.2 miles. Not that we cared. We followed the winding route back over the Potomac into Virginia and struggled up the last painful hill to the Iwo Jima Memorial, still together as we had been all along.