Repetition. I have been trying to begin this for several days. Something about the quality of morning light and reassuring quotidian rituals was what I had been contemplating. Nothing written, nothing typed. Just thinking and walking and repeating the words, rearranging the words, changing the phrase, changing the oblique quality of the morning light coming through the east-facing windows; never getting past a sentence or two of editing sentences that don't actually exist. That is how I write or, more accurately, don't write. Then, while reading a book, re-reading in fact, which I am reading almost exclusively in the "the excremeditation chambers", the word repetition finally sticks. I don't know what it means in my own context yet, but the word repetition is repeated repeatedly in the book, a book that shall remain anonymous, since, in a greater context, it is not applicable to the purpose of trying to begin, or trying to find a place from which to begin, or trying to proceed to a conclusion that, like all conclusions, is not yet known. Or, in another sense, all conclusions are known; everything ends, dies, ceases to be. And that has as much to do with this beginning as with its eventual conclusion, and mine. "And the end and the beginning were always there."
"For those of us who believe in physics," Einstein once wrote to a friend, "this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion."
It's a reflexive action, entering the day from sleep; my wife's kisses are a memory and as long gone as everything that has ever been. The feel of the cool wood floor is a relief. It is still early enough that the sunlight entering the room down the hall is perpendicular to the window and the front porch outside it. The leaves of the vine twisted around the porch's wrought iron railing are yellowing slightly; it is also early enough that the moonflower blossoms on the vine have not yet closed and withered completely.
The cool floor, the sunlight, the usual stop in the bathroom followed by the slow but deliberate beeline to the kitchen and the ritual of coffee making – putting the water on, the grinding of the beans, leveling the ground coffee in the press pot, stirring, waiting – could be any day. It barely registers that I died the night before.
Often the detritus of dreams linger and litter the clarity of a morning. It takes a moment to distinguish memory from fantasy and decipher the images: the ambulance, with its bright interior lights and astringent smells; watching the lights of the restaurants and businesses and vehicles of this familiar neighborhood streak the rain-soaked streets with reflections as they receded in the twin frames of the ambulance's small rear windows; a seemingly impatient autumn had inserted a chill into the early October drizzle to douse any sleeping embers of summer. It occurred to me that I had used this retracting view from a vehicle's rear window as a metaphor once before, trying to evoke a rapidly receding past as one is propelled blindly forward into an unknown vortex, a cliché at best, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. This, I thought, is one form of dying: watching one's past recede like the tide in the Bay of Fundy, while ironically being aware that someone other than I should be taking notes . Not only is youth wasted on the young, death is wasted on the old.
The ambulance backed into what reminded me of a loading dock and a flash to my youth when a summer job in an old factory that produced boat and other trailers came to me with the smells of machine oil and dust, mildewed wood and fresh paint particles suspended in the stasis of a sultry afternoon, the bleached light on the dock in stark contrast to the fetid cool just beyond the diamond-plated steel thresholds of the bay doors. All my senses were within the confluence of the three circles of consciousness then; now everything is seen through gauze or several layers of polymerizable resin where light is diffused and color itself seems inorganic.
Suddenly I was thrust forward into the cool air and seemed to float upon a gurney, first entering the automatic glass doors of the emergency room, then careening along through the dream-illuminated fluorescent blue-green-gray lighting of the hospital's hallways with the frenetic first-person perspective of countless hand-held cameras recalled from movies and television; again, I was a living cliché in my own semi-comic death. The glances of nurses and orderlies and peripheral staff as I was whisked by like a dignitary being circuitously exited from danger seemed emotionless, diurnal, routine, yet grotesque in their ordinariness, like faces along a Felliniesque parade route – no, definitely more like Antonioni. This perception, misperception, actually, was a result of my own fear and humiliation as my tenuous connection to these corporeal surroundings was exposed – everyone offered great care and kindness with grace and calm; it was a genuine falling into hands. The attending nurse, a young woman herself, allowed her protégée, a student doing her clinicals, to hook me up to the EKG machine. While attaching the leads, the young woman asked her mentor "is it clouds over grass, white on the right, and smoke over fire?" The nurse assured me that this, the EKG, would give the doctor a clearer picture of what was going on and that she would be both inserting an IV for a saline drip and drawing blood for tests.
The EMTs had wheeled me in and onto an immaculate bed that sat in "a clean, well lighted place", a draw-curtained cubicle, in such a whirl of efficiency that now, as I lay back, shirtless, hooked up to some machine that would reveal the damage from the heart attack, I became mesmerized by the youth and casual grace, or was it a rote aspect of their routine, of the two female attendants and began to feel re-tethered to the tangible sphere, somewhat literally as my index finger was cuffed and wired to a vital- signs monitor, an intravenous infusion of saline entered my left arm, a series of stick-on probes dotted my chest and legs, and the actual nurse of the two pumped up the tightening cuff of the sphygmomanometer around my right arm, while the preceding – how long was it, a half hour, more, mere minutes? – moments dissipated like the dissolving image of dreams upon waking; the unreal perspectives, like those within Chris Van Allsburg's illustrations, or like a short flight of astral projection, gave way to the sensual perceptions of the sheets' crispness and cool temperature; the comingling of amaroidal, sweet, and foul effluvia; the unique timbre, colloquialism, and pitch of the young women's voices as they never seemed to stop explaining their every move; the stark chiaroscuro of the scene – I lay in a bright blue bath of light while across from me an old woman lay in a grayish green shadow except for a bit of amber light that painted her frightened and forlorn countenance – as though I were inside a cathode-ray tube looking out into someone's room, and suddenly I became aware of my own thoughts as the stream of dissociative images and fantasies I had just experienced rushed by, with the image of my wife– who was unaware of any of this as she persevered through her shift at the restaurant, a shift that began fifteen minutes after her shift here in this very hospital where she is also doing her clinicals ended, she the sole breadwinner, she the object of all my prepositions, she the ghost in the machine of every synaptic spark in my consciousness – became an almost physical presence in the room. How could I do this to her? How could I have failed so abjectly? Would her group insurance plan cover any of this?
I noticed that one of the EMTs was still there, watching, standing next to the nurse's desk and computer alcove that sat about four feet from the end of my bed and saw that he was getting ready to leave. I tried to thank him in my apologetic, self-deprecating way. Earlier, he had kept me calm and positive as his partner – the driver – had botched his first attempt to hook up an IV in the ambulance and spurted blood all over the my arm and his. Raising his hand dismissively, no doubt a quotidian gesture, he said something about buying him a beer someday, while looking around as though checking for any piece of equipment he may have been leaving behind. As routine as all of this must have been for him, I wished that I had spent one day of my life in as humane a way. If I had, I could not remember such a day. Yet even now, the mundane and disjunctive pettiness of my stream of consciousness went from thinking about the documentary on photorealist painter Chuck Close ("On December 7, 1988, Close felt a strange pain in his chest…") I had been watching when the chest pain struck, to prime numbers, specifically 11, and symmetry – the symmetry of the date and how it's doubling and tripling and quadrupling, etc. remains symmetrical – that twice 11 is the day of the month on which I was born, while simultaneously remembering and infusing into the flash of prime numbers Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat; I had recorded the piece's virtuosic concluding percussion solo (Stravinsky wrote the percussion part for a series of various sized drums, cymbals, tambourines, triangles, etc., parts that typically would have been assigned to an entire percussion section in an orchestra) in a studio many years ago as an audition tape for my application to California Institute of the Arts. Although I got accepted, I never did go there, vacillating at the time as usual between several choices, always seeming to make the wrong choice. But, here, it was more the Faustian morality tale of L'Histoire that flashed in my thoughts, the no-turning-back aspect of bad decisions summed up in the moral of the story:
You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.
No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.
One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.
These thoughts lasted split seconds yet were as fully formed as if I had taken the time to contemplate the implications. It was not my life flashing before my eyes, it was simply being alive. The search engines of our minds are always catching glimpses of memory and sentences that may have begun other stories at other times; we wonder if we set the DVR to record a show we want to watch later at the same time we are hearing tragic news and processing it against every tragedy we have ever read or of which we have ever seen or heard – we think in metaphors and can barely control the associative flow of information. Among the ineluctable images that were present with me were those emanating from the fact that within this new millennial decade, not yet finished, both my parents had died. I had spent countless days and hours in rooms like this. The last night I had spent with my mother was in a hospital room. One of the kindest acts I had ever witnessed was by the attending nurse that evening. I had kissed my mother's forehead before leaving on the drive home; I lived a state away, and the darkness of the drive home along the coast seeped into me. By the time I had arrived, my mother had died; the phone rang with the news moments after I walked in the house. The light of that hospital room, – half of it was in shadow – the feel of my mother's skin on my lips and of her thin hand in mine, the sounds coming from the nurses' station and in rooms throughout the halls were all extant here with me as I lay confronting my atheism, agnosticism, lapsed Catholicism – whatever it was – confronting the big nothingness.
What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well.
It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all
it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but
he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada,
nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.
Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada
as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada;
pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
-from A Clean, Well Lighted Place, Ernest Hemingway
The night my father died, two years later, I had driven the same route to the same hospital. A passing storm way out to sea had brought torrential rains to the coast so intense that driving was like going through an automated carwash - a blind, slow, slouching forward without the chain guide; it seemed interminable. The dedicated ICU elevators in the hospital went only down; I remember thinking the phrase, "Orpheus descending." Here he was, my father, in an ICU a room, on a ventilator, trying to talk, with a fear in his eyes that I still can not shake. This man, the source of all my childhood nightmares, the man who had beaten me with abandon for reasons I'll never know, the man who had been both a prisoner of the Russians and of the Germans in WWII and had escaped both times, who had escaped death countless times, whose anger belied some primal fear, now faced his own extinction and was unable to speak except with his tear-swelled eyes and look of horror. I held his hand and told him everything would be alright. In fact, he had beaten a broken back, a blue-collar life of endless hard work, clogged arteries, strokes, and his ubiquitous nightmares, and I full expected him to pull out of this one. After a few hours of watching him sleep, I decided to go make the arduous drive back home in the relentless sheaf of water and wind. Once again, I had barely gotten home when the phone rang; my father had taken a turn for the worse. This time the drive was an almost unbearable test of endurance; I couldn't see a thing except for the steaks of diffused light through water of the trucks that never seemed to slow down and threatened to sweep me off the highway. By the time I got to the hospital and descended once again past Erebus into the ICU, where one had to wait to be buzzed into the actual halls of this daedal and purgatorial sanctum, the attending physician came out to tell me that my father had died at – and here he stated the time, as though it mattered. I was led to a room where my father lay on a gurney, uncovered, with the now-disconnected blue ventilation tube still protruding from his mouth. Here he was, snorkeling into oblivion. Out in the parking lot of the hospital, sitting in the rain-pelted car, a lifetime of emotions that I didn't understand poured out of me in spasms, the kind of breathless crying I had experienced while getting beat by this same man who now caused this unfathomable sense of loss. These thoughts of my parents occurred in a second smashed into a million pieces, each of which reflected an infinity; I did not want to die.
"My dear bird, we are
wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you."
-from Vulture, Robinson Jeffers
Foremost in my thoughts was my wife. I could not bear the thought of her sadness if anything happened to me. While the sum failure of my life weighed upon me, my marriage to this beautiful woman who has loved me with tenderness such as I have never known was a gift I was not ready to yield, not that I had any say in it. I wanted to call her; I needed to call her. An orderly appeared who said he needed to take me to X-Ray, a test evidently requisite and standard operating procedure in such instances, such as the blood panels that had been taken. I had managed to keep my pulse from escalating but began to feel anxious. After I was returned to my ER alcove from getting my chest x-rayed, I asked my young attendees if I could use my cell phone, now in the pocket of my jeans tossed across a chair, to call my wife. I was told that I may but that my phone probably would not pick up a signal in there. True enough, the call would not connect. I asked if I could use the phone that was on their computer desk. "I'm okay, so don't worry, but I had to go to the emergency room tonight." Is that what I said? It didn't matter; I was talking to my wife and she was already soothing me. It would still be a couple of hours before she would be finished with her shift; I told her to just stay and finish, that I would still pick her up or call her if I couldn't. When the nurses heard about where my wife worked, a well respected steak house, they joked about bringing them some food. If only I could.
When the physician on duty finally got around to seeing me, he had all the results of the various measurements of health: the blood panels, the EKG, the x-rays, the various vital signs. He said that I did not appear to have had a cardiac event. He asked me a host of questions about my medical history, what medications I was on, and if this had ever happened before. Nothing like this, I told him, but I had experienced anxiety attacks before. This had manifested itself in an almost blackout of dizziness, pain and numbness in my left-side extremities, and a pulse rate so rapid that I could not breathe. I could not think of any rational trigger for a panic attack; I had been sitting in a recliner watching television. The doctor said there was nothing to indicate an organic cause, but that I should see my primary care physician and a cardiologist to be certain. So that was it. I was cleared for release. Moments earlier, the young nurse had gotten me a .5mg dose of Ativan to help me calm down, since Lorazepam was already part of my prescribed medications. The girls, as I thought of them, asked if someone could pick me up. I said no, that I could walk home. How far away did I live, they asked. About a mile, I told them, and that I'd be fine; I walked several miles a day. I got dressed, walked slowly through the maze of the ER, out through the sliding glass doors, back into the cool night air. Thankfully, it had stopped raining. But I now found myself in my clogs that I usually only wore around the house and a light sport coat that seemed inadequate to the night's dampness. Regardless, the walk home was one of the most beautifully sensual experiences of my life: the feel of the crooked sidewalks meeting my soles, the mottled shadows on the wet streets produced by street lamps through tree branches, the now mostly closed shops along the way each holding a world of wonder behind their dark glass storefronts, the intermingled smells of the three Asian restaurants within two blocks, the red wooden doors of the Baptist Church, a paean to which I had once written, the city's neighborhood library now facing budget cuts and possible closing, and now, finally, my own neighborhood, whose inhabitants I didn't even know, whom I now wondered what thoughts they had earlier as they saw the man across the street or next door being taken away in an ambulance. Now back in the same rooms that had begun to disappear forever, I called my wife to let her know that I would be able to pick her up, to call when she was ready.
There is a half inch of light brown foam at the top of the press pot that always sits there after filling it. The physics of the multiple bubbles that make up the foam escape me, but the intrinsic beauty of their familiarity and the comforting aroma of the coffee are ineffable. In so many ways, I should not be standing here at the kitchen counter. My seasonal job ended a few weeks ago and I have not been able to find work since. There is no way my wife and I will be able to keep our house if this continues. Although there are few moments as filled with poignancy as the night we watched Barack Obama and his family accept his victory in the primaries that Chicago night, I had forgotten the sadness I felt when I read the news on January 23rd, only three days after the unfathomably momentous inauguration of Barack Obama, that two missile attacks from U.S. drones had killed 14 people in north-western Pakistan and that the young president already had blood on his hands. According to the BBC
<blockquote>The first drone attack struck a house owned by a man called Khalil Khan in the village of Zeerakai at 1700 local time.
Four Arab militants were killed in the strikes, officials said. Their identities were not immediately clear but officials said one was a senior al-Qaeda operative.
The second attack was aimed at the house of a Taleban commander about 10km (six miles) from the town of Wanna, local reports said.
But officials told the BBC that the drone actually hit the house of a pro-government tribal leader, killing him and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child.</blockquote>
I take my coffee to my desk and sit looking out my window, past the sundrenched front porch to watch two fallen leaves being blown along the street in a strange macabre dance, like L'Histoire du Soldat's "Danse du Diable." I am mesmerized by the nature of daylight.
http://tiny.cc/3afsq (Richter, from whom I borrowed the title and a bit of inspiration.)