Just Left of Center
Bill Feltt '02



Bill Feltt, MA 2002, has not fallen far from the tree: he currently teaches English at Eastern, and has taught various writing courses at the University of Phoenix and East Central Missouri College. Before coming to Eastern he spent a dozen years working for newspapers and magazines as beat reporter, copy editor, and design coordinator. His freelance work has appeared in a variety of Midwestern publications.

Of his current long-term project, excerpted here, Bill says:

Unlike most memoirs, Just Left of Center spans a lifetime, more like an autobiography. Its genesis, however, was in an inexplicably violent occurrence at the heart of this campus on a perfect August night in 2002, when I was attacked by a pack of thugs and hospitalized for a month. As I battled Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome a year or so later, a potentially fatal genetic illness emerged. With the bone marrow stem cells of a benevolent donor, I am able to fight off the disease and remain in remission. The story of those battles begins here. —DMM

Chapter 1: August 2006

A Life Unsaid

A life unsaid,
Where does it go?
Left in the heart,
In the mind?
Body? or—if you believe—
The soul?

My Journal, Feb. 27, 2004
T

uesday morning, up at 5:30 a.m. Rush to shower. Short breakfastógranola bar and coffee, maybe a biscuit for the road. Kiss Maggie goodbye. I miss her already. I worry about our relationship. Weíve been together for more than two years, but the strain of my bouncing back and forth between my home in St. Louis and my job in Illinois has its dangers and would test the mettle of relationships tempered by many years. I know Iím no catch and wonder why she lets me stay.

Behind the wheel by 6:30 a.m. If Iím a few minutes behind, I risk arriving late. On the road, I look constantly ahead over miles of jammed traffic, shimmering in a sea of exhaust in the cool St. Louis suburban dawn.

Soon, freed from the traffic of Metro, I stare down the long gray ribbon of interstate that stretches out before me across the dull Illinois prairie. Where does it end? How long does it take to get there? I donít mean where it ends at the Atlantic seaboard; when can I find a job in St. Louis and get off the road and this infernal hamsterís wheel? It is a must. It may be the only thing that saves my life with Maggie.

Between NPRís ďAll Things ConsideredĒ and the current audiobook of the week, I struggle to keep my thoughts in the present. But things keep allowing the past into the present or keep pushing my mind ever backward. Iím not sure what happens. Iím not sure how all this works. Sometimes, I fade between now and then, and the past comes roaring back into my head as real and as loud as the semi-trucks that overtake me, pushing out most of the now.

I try hard to follow Eckhart Tolleís way. Iíve read this spiritual leaderís books on the art of living in the now a hundred times, more probably. But struggling to stay in the present seems to deny everything about my past, a reality that weighs down the business of every day. Heís among the few philosophers who know the truth and how to tell it.

The dragon cruises just ahead in the passing lane and suddenly lumbers back in front of my Cavalier, and I brake heavily and more past comes, this time in waves. I fight for control of the car, but my mind jets backward.

Shadows flicker and dance, first shuffling around me as silhouettes with dangerous substance thrust kick after kick, as solid as the night, at my prostrate body laid out in a cove of light cast by a few quaint streetlamps. I manage to lurch heavily to my feet only to fall face-first onto the concrete.

I avoid the semi but the damageís done: the trauma of past crashes down upon the reality of the present. I didnít get this way from going to war. My past didnít go there.

Although I didnít go there, I can imagine war. I have all my limbs. I donít draw veteranís benefits. I canít walk into a VA hospital and get my head shrunk.

All this makes me feel bad about not serving my country, not earning my PTSD honestlyóinexplicably guiltyóbut I donít have time to feel guilty. A semi-truck just missed mashing my gnat of a Chevy Cavalier and panic trumps guiltórapid breathing, the feeling that Iím moving faster than I am, the feeling I imagine permeates the limbic system after a bomb detonates nearby.

Yet I feel guilty for playing the victim and canít compare this ordeal or my past with that of a soldier suffering from shell shock, after a long stint in the Green, as ĎNam was called back in the day. I canít say or write those buzz words without feeling silly and unpatriotic. I didnít enlist in the Marines to go to war or in any other branch of the service or belief system. I bought none of it. The body bags that, night after night, paraded across the evening news contained, in my mind, clothes stuffed with rags just as kids stuffed rags into clothes to make scarecrows during Halloween.

Hooyah! and Semper Fi and Jarhead meant nothing to me. Theyíre just words locked and loaded with the myth of what valor and honor mean that Iíve read in books or heard in movies.

Once upon a time in the harmless and thrilling land of make believe, of childish war games, a silky slick Marine Master Sergeant pursued my stepbrother and me, who were both seventeen-stupid and approached him in his irresistible, board stiff, red-white-blue dress blues one day after high school back in 1972. He was a walking recruitment poster, walking propagandaóstraight, stiff and pressed flat, a stickman espousing empty U.S.-anti-Vietcong propaganda. Both of us managed to dodge his overtures, miss the draft, through no common sense of our own, and miss out on the war. I could have signed on the dotted line. I could have enlisted and witnessed first hand the glory of dying for oneís countryóDulce et Decorum Est [i] óbut I was a coward and didnít know how lucky I was.

We were all caught up in it. Young men burned their draft cards, lit them and watched them go up in smoke with a triumphant look, eyes glowing like coals. I was a year too late for the draft in which thousands of youths were sucked into the violence of a war over fuzzy geopolitical lines on a map.

So I didnít fight in my generationís war. Iíve never been to ĎNam so I donít have a clue about what itís like to hear mortars whistle overhead and explode nearby, to feel oxygen sucked out of the air by fiery explosions of grenades landing closer than a prayer should allow, to have my buddyís brain matter splattered across my face. See, I can imagine war, but I wasnít there.

Yet I journeyed though my own A Shau Valley, my own Hamburger Hill. To understand my predicament, you must understand that. I canít overstate how a victim is a victim is a victim. Itís one intricacy that mars the whole of me. Truly this conceptóthis sense of violence that permeates this societyóis much larger than what I suffered, what I went through.

In the minds of each of these youths who beat me like I was a wild dog, something shifted wrongly during their youth and, I suppose, painful passage into adulthood. Itís a subtle shift that moves the specter of conceptual violence, a harmless video game that keys their primal urges, urges born out of the survival of the fittest, into real world scenarios; the wall between id and ego crumbles.

Anything goes.

Yes, one night I was drawn into a private battle, one of those childish war games, one from which I have never recovered. A group of toughs backed me into a corner, and while the beating has stopped, it never relents and perpetually turns life on a spindle that denies me peace. It has never allowed me that ease of life that all of us are born with.

I can imagine war but I havenít humped through war-torn jungles or pock marked rice paddies. All I did was to walk across a college campus one warm August night. Why should I be miserable? Why should I jump every time a door slams? Each time an ambulance siren howls? Each time someone slips up on me, startling me?

I donít have a war story. Again, we must be clear on that point. I donít know what mortar shells sound like as they pass close by overhead, though Iíve heard they whistle, or the sound of bullets, though I understand they whine.† And I canít know what it feels like to stand in the searing heat of an exploding mine. But I canít dam up my past with denial any better than, say, a soldier can hold back the memory of his buddy cut to shreds after stepping on a lethal bouncing betty, memories too real and too dreadful and numerous to contain, terabytes of memories that send him cringing for cover each time a car backfires on the street.

The pastómy pastóis so real that it takes over for a while. It does this all the time.

No.

Thatís not accurate either. Itís not real but itís my story, so I must tell it as it occurred, as it sometimes still occurs. Itís as if my past stands just off stage awaiting its cueóloud noises, overgrown children who appear out of nowhere, dark paths lit only by dim lamp light, doctorsí offices, hospital beds, things that go bump in the night. The past takes its cue, enters and takes center stage. Ióthe real meócowers in its shadows. On the outside, I look like you and you and you and, yes, you too. I turn my suffering inward where faceless fear feeds upon me.

I donít have a war story. But I can tell you one. Iíve never tested the heft of an M-16 or its kick, but I know things. I know what fists and feet feel and sound like as they land on my body. I know the hard ground and the thudding ripe melon sound of my head striking the ground after Iíve been tackled and dumped by an enraged stranger. I know those things well. Iíve looked into the eyes of rage. All this, I know.

I must digress hereóto an extent. I also know how the mind rushes to a place of inner sanctuary in the echoes of the doctorís pronouncement that you have 1.2 years to live. But that story will have to wait. Itís in the future. Donít forget, Iím still in the past.

Ö odd how slowly a foot seems to move as it approaches the face: the jolt, a backward jerk of the head. It doesnít hurt much really, only the jolt bothers me. Itís more just the idea that someone could Ö then too many feet and kicks to count. So many, I canít get up. I am buffeted about and I try but canít risk moving my arms from the shield they form over my face. I think they are yelling at me. Saying something to me but I donít hear them. Then they stop and I get up but Iím dizzy, and the ground cants and dumps me on my face: the jolt again, this time the concrete or something hard snaps my head backward. My face, my teeth ache and precious blood trickles down my chin. Iím up again running. But I weave like a drunken man. Iím afraid. I donít know where Iím going. I donít know where I am ...

I can remember these things. I can remember and tell you this storyómy story, and many more that will help you understand. Theyóagain theyósay I must rememberótherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and the like. I must experience the war, my personal battle, in my mind, and aloud, in the air between us, over and over and over again. I must express the emotions around all of it. I must exhaust them. I must relive it to live without it. I must leap onto and smother the grenades exploding in my head. Remembering enough to make my story real for you and me is not the problem ó I canít forget.


Chapter 2: September 2006

The Tale of Too Timid Tom
For Ian when he was 7

Meet too timid Tom. His clear
Blue eyes stare up at you from
A round little face—if he let’s
You within a country mile.
Trouble is in store when
Someone comes round
The place.

Too timid Tom hides behind
The couch, behind the door,
Under the bed. Too Timid
Tom even hides in his
Pet dog Ralph’s doghouse.

Too Timid Tom helps his Mom.
He helps with the dishes.
He takes out the trash.
He feeds the fish.
He even makes iced tea.
But for pity sakes,
Only Mom and Dad,
Grandpa and Grandpa,
Auntie Ruth and Uncle Bill
Know just how good a boy
Too Timid Tom can be!

My Journal, April 14, 1991

I


arrive at 9:20 a.m., in time for my 9:30. I must hurry and put a different mask on. My insecurity wonít allow me to function in front of a classroom and I have to visualize what a college instructor looks, sounds and acts like through the eyes of a student. The result: I am a different person who stands before my class staring hard at his notes on the lectern to buy time.

Iím not well prepared and I think it will show. Finally, I force the last of the restless past to the back of my mind, just out of reach of thought, and wrest control from the darkness of that night. After an uncomfortable silence, I plunge ahead.

I go through my first class with a feeling only a shade or two removed from the first few pain-soaked days following the beating. I wonder when I started feeling this way. I look for my sense of humoróI assure you I have oneóbut anxiety locks it down tight.

I introduce and explain the dayís exercise. They break into teams and begin their work. Their faces look up to me for answers that I donít have. In that way we are alike. Their faces are open and honest. But I see the reflection of my face in the CRT in front of me and the creases that fan out from the corners of my eyes shatter the small and fleeting fantasy of immortality, an inexorable and prevalent attitude at their age.

I swivel in my chair to watch my students interact. One young man, probably 17 or 18, talks to a cutesy blonde. He seems perfectly laid back, cool, and he knows it. I think they call it fly nowadays, but I am out of it and donít know for sure. He slouches in his seat, right arm slung over the chair back as the young blonde, cheerleader pretty, flirts shamelessly with him. He tries not to show his delight but feeds off the attention.

Their guilelessness reminds me of the burdens of age, burdens that arrive by accretion and allow me to deny their presence, like a flower that doesnít notice the weeds that eventually choke off its source of food and water. I know all of the New Age gurus would scoff at this notionólife begins after 50, after allóbut I wonder how many of them have breached 50 or are trying to justify their eligibility to join the AARP.† Sometimes, I grow so weary of all of it. I donít know how my head can hold together or my body can stand one more crisis or invasion.

I collect their papers. Theyíre young and innocent, and again I wonder what lies ahead. I dismiss them, watch them file out of the room caught up in the playful banter of students. My second class isnít for six long hours. It is fall semester 2006 as we enter into this trek.

I follow them out and trudge down the long, institutional beige hallways of Coleman Hall, not knowing who I amóeven after 50 years of life. What am I doing here? A teacher? A college instructor? Thereís a joke here, but I donít get the punchline.

I donít run but I hurry to my office, where I wait. I am pleasantly alone. Itís a relief to close my door on the new world of academia. I sit. I work. I wait, and work. I think, think, think, never a good thing for me; quiet is a garden in which the terrors of my past flourish.

I turn my time with this account, but the words on the screen of my laptop come hard. Thereís so much I want to say, much that needs saying, but my mind holds onto it like a jilted lover holds onto her vision of love. Iím jacked up on coffee, hoping it will force what needs saying, but all it does is give me the jitters.

Hmmph! I grunt audibly. I pitch a DVD of Bowling for Columbine against the bulletin board hanging on the wall of my office and wonder when Iíll stop seeking happiness in the things I do. And I canít help but grin at the irony as I watch package flap open and the glittering, silver disk rebound off the orange, Christmas reds and greens of South Park construction paper display, an inheritance from my predecessor who sat at this desk.

When will enough ever be enough? How should I know who I am or what Iím supposed to be? Iíve been a gas station attendant, a martial arts instructor, an EMT-paramedic, a psychiatric nurseís aid, an editor, a victim, a writer and now a teacher, none of them for long, nor very accomplished at any. How, through all of those things, could I have avoided the person beneath the skin? How can I NOT know who I am?

As always, the questions cascade through my mind, a never-ending cataract that defies form and substance or answers. Trying to divine answers from all this uncertainty is like drinking water from cupped hands; most of it leaks between my fingers before I can slake my thirst. I struggle to frame my past into a palpable future.

I feel and hear squelching in my gut and hurry to the restroom. The squirts for the second time this week. I finish my business and stand at the sink rinsing the soap from my hands, staring at them, wondering if my palms are pink enough through the frothy suds. I wonder if my hemoglobin, which gives them the color, has fallen off again, and I feel the fear that always comes with a heavy dose of reality. But I struggle out of the past before I become mired in it. Iím supposed to stay in the now. Remember?

I have no future. I have only past and am continuously torn and tortured by the apprehension of the former and the specter of the latter. Why canít I stay in the moment? I stareóperhaps for too longóat the kids who stream around me hurrying to class and wonder what they will face as they grow older. They avert their eyes as if to avoid the leer of some pervert. I donít mean anything by it, but I do wonder what lies ahead for them. How will life treat them?

After so many years of being tortured by the loss of my innocence replaced by the burden of the cynicism, I wonder how I got through where they are at and arrive here so far down the timeline. Or maybe I simply envy their innocence, their ability to write a new story on the blank page of their future and avoid the pitfalls that tripped me.

Back in my office, I feel the small and fleeting relief of isolation while sitting at my desk behind my closed office door. I canít handle human contact without my anxiety bordering upon heart pounding, gut-wrenching panic. I donít know why that is but it is.

Somehow, despite all this, all these questions without answers, I manage to teach. I teach English composition, a required course for graduation. Thatís all I teach in the fall. During spring, sometimes I am assigned one, two or three Comp II classes, an intro to literature, but mostly Iím relegated to teaching basic writing to young college students who donít care about and donít want to care about the craft of writing or its potential beauty of self-exploration and self-revelation. After four years, teachingís become a grind, I think, and I wonder how I can get out now before I fail.

The stress has gotten to me. Iím not a teacher, I think, and the students know it. But surely they donít. They donít notice my lack of organization. Or maybe they do but are too polite or too frightened of academic authority to say much. After all I wield the awesome power of grade. Or maybe they donít care how disorganized I am. They just want to pass the course.

I know they donít care about writing and I donít blame them. Why should they? When society places so little value on learning the humanities that it pays its plumbers and candlestick makers more than those who teach their children, then why should the students care? Itís a lot to ask, after all. Whether I stimulate them to learn, whether I engage them, whether I care about my chosen field, they donít care, just as long as they escape with a passing grade.

But I canít quit. I have too many bills. A lifetime full of medical bills, student loans and balancing a budget that canít be balanced has left me living from paycheck to paycheck. Iíll never retire. Never. And I understand the implications of that and marvel over how clichťd it sounds; itís become hip to claim we want to work until we die. Not me.

Shouldnít a writing instructor know better than to write his life across the fuzzy realm of warn-out clichť? Probably so. As a journalist for 12 years, didnít I learn anything about writing and reality? Probably not. But I canít let anyone know of my flagging self-confidence and try to put it out of my mind.

Then my health worries replace the worries over unfulfilled career and financial goals. All of these anxieties overlap and canít be teased individually into the light of reason and seem to play on and off each other. Iím like a cat chasing its tail, only many tales tease me into a vortex of self-doubt. Had I only avoided some of the medical expenses.

See how it works? See how my mind wonít allow me to find answers to questions that trouble me? I suspect Iím not alone in that tendency. We constantly dig through the clutter of our past for solutions to the crises of today. And I really have no crises, not really; they have passed byófor now.

I look at my past and am in awe. I know I shouldnít be alive and wonder why I am. If it is, as they say, and He truly has a purpose for me to fulfill, then I wonít dispute that. I know little about what He wants from me or for me. Though I donít claim any religious denomination, I believe in a divine order, a purpose, for each of us. Yet I make no claims about any inside knowledge of that purpose, no more than the Catholics, the Jews, the Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists or any other religion. Yet the knowledge that He may very well have saved me for some greater purpose doesnít help relieve the pain that constantly plagues me. Perhaps He intends the pain to drive meóto what?

First, I survived the violence of the assaultóa fractured skull, head swollen twice its normal size, and more bruises and cuts than I cared to count. Forget about all of the illness that preceded it and would follow it, ending in Ö

Again, I get ahead of myself, but I must tell you thereís more than just a vicious beating to investigate here.

First, a lifetime of doctorsí visits and hospitalizations. I forgot to mention that I have this diseaseóthe rest of the storyóor had this disease. Iíve had it since I was 3, maybe longer.

Itís only fair that I tell you that Iím in remission. They tell me. That doesnít stop the fear I feel as I sit here now trying to concentrate on reading papers written by youths who can afford not to take life seriously. For me, every thing, every decision takes on much more immediacy. A chronic disease never goes away. It clings to you, coloring or even shaping every move you make. Thereís good and thereís bad in both.

Every twinge inside my body, real or imagined, means something dreadful, usually the Big C. The pain in my stomach and my head has been constantly with me since the summer of 2004, as much a constant companion as the dull, aching fear left me by the beating in 2002.

My cell phone explodes into a rant of electronic squawking on the desk next to me and I push myself an armís length away from the thing, roll backward in my worn but luxurious captainís chair, take a deep breath, sigh, scoop up and flip open the buzzing beast. Itís Maggie, my girlfriend of more than two years.

I know that I am not making much senseóflight of ideas, I think a shrink would call it. But Iím not manic and I donít care; itís how my mind works.

Note to self:

Maybe you are manic and donít get it. Bi-polar they call it now. Donít they say that if you think youíre crazy then you probably arenít? Well I donít so, then, maybe I am manic, loony, round the bend, a brick short of Ö

Thatís part of the problem; I canít slow down enough to organize my thoughts, so I end up with random thoughts that bounce off each other like pinballs. Occasionally, one lands in the hundred-thousand point slot and lights flash, the mechanism whirs, the wheel spins and the points rattle upward toward an epiphany. However, most of the time, they roll around in an uncoordinated fashion that accomplishes nothing. And if positive thinking truly leads to a positive outcome, I shudder inwardly to think what this disorganized thinking results in.

Perhaps my hectic life is playing out in an odd string of dreams. They donít haunt my sleep nightly but they make up for it in intensity and realism. Many evaporate in the light of the day before I can pull them together into something solid I can look at and, perhaps, understand. Some linger as a vague uneasiness that hangs around for a few hours, then evaporate.

One such dream woke me last night to my hammering heart, an aching head and cramping stomachónothing new. In the dream I rode a thunderous rollercoaster through a Technicolor panorama, a jumbled, light-crazed carnival. Strings of lights chased each other along the edge of the track, bells rang and hawkers hawked. I wrapped my body around Maggieís and she sighed. I wished she would awaken so our lovemaking would soften the fear. But she didnít. I listened to her rhythmic breathing in the dark.

Everything in the dream was as twisted and corkscrewed as the coasterís tracks. Nothing was as it should have been. No one peopled the midway. No long lines crowded into switchbacks at the most popular coasters. I was alone and felt the part at the deepest core of me.

The uneasiness it left me with lingers throughout the day. I am worn and frazzled, apprehensive of things to come, or not to come. I feel as if something has been done to me. During the day, I trudge around feeling like a victim, lugging the inexplicable weight of sadness. And I am. But that righteous tidbit of reality doesnít help. I wrestle myself into a better mood and it lasts for a while.

Itís already 4:30. Six hours have flown by and the harsh light of my 5 oíclock class approaches me like a freight train. My heart begins to thud annoyingly in my ears, my chests feels as if a ball of worms squirms there. I donít want to do this, I tell myself. But I have to. I made the decision six years ago to go back to school to get a masterís degree to teach, and it may be too late to switch careers again.

I wanted summers off to study martial arts. That came true for two summers out of five. I am disappointed and out of shape. Now the jobís perk has become its downfall. I am broke and canít afford being off, but Iíve had difficulty finding summer work, until this past summer, the summer of 2006. Then the famine turned into a frenzied feast, and within the space of one short summer, I taught five classes at two different colleges. Too bad the abundance of work didnít pay off. The pay is meager and the work brutal for adjuncts.

The stress of teaching only added to the weight of PTSD. That stands for post traumatic stress syndrome for those of you who havenít yet figured it out. I wonder if itís not a cumulative thing. I ask myself yet again if itís the job thatís the problem or if itís me. I have no answers. I never have.

Back to the past Ö


Chapter 3: Fall 2002

Open Coffins

Open coffins scare me still.
Quilted pink-satin pillows
For eternal sleep bring
Back the day father
Laid his head on one.
Crying. I donít feel much like it. Ö
My turn, my mother says. I donít
Know why my knees tremble so (as I stand).
I wasnít scared. I wasnít anything. Just
Wondered what all the crying was for Ö
Maybe I should make myself cryÖ
I still canít cry. Death still canít touch me.

My Journal
September 6, 1990

My mouth is dry. Several days have gone by since the beating, but still I drift between television, sleep, and trying to figure out what has happened and why it happened. Much of what happens the next few days in the hospital remains distorted in the haze of pain and chemicals. I at least know itís the end of August 2002.

What I do remember comes in newsreel fashion as I try my best to lie still on the hard backboard the EMTs had strapped me to. A radiology technician works the controls that pass me through the donut hole of a CT scanner. The red line that hovers above me slices my body into sections and a computer will put them back together again only to showómistakenly, it would turn outóno broken bones.

The injection the nurse had given me in the emergency room hasnít touched the pain that throbs in my head, hip and face.

The scream of the ambulance still buzzes in my ears. I cross my hands over my chest in an effort to find comfort on the hard table. There was a conversation with the paramedic. Did I ask him if I was going to die? Did I cry? Did I ask him to tell my children I love them? I donít remember. The thoughts were there, but did I verbalize them?

I distinctly remember reclining on the stretcher, probing my mouth with one finger and pulling out a tooth broken off at the gum line in the attack. It was a lower front incisor, the lack of which was attractive, Iím sure, until my insurance decided they were going to pay to have it filled in. I remember the rack of lights atop the ambulance sweeping cones of blue and red light across the parking lot behind.

As they hoisted the stretcher on which I lay into the back of the ambulance, the bright lights probed painfully through my head. I closed my eyes to them. Through the back window, as I was bounced and jostled painfully, I saw the headlights of a car behind. Did its occupants know what had happened to me? I was embarrassed by the prospect.

For days I avoid mirrors. Donít have to look. I see its hideousness in the expressions of visitors as they struggle to avoid a mixed look of disgust and pity when they first see me. Theyófamily, friends, especially colleaguesócome sporadically after the news of the beating reaches outward in a concentric circle. In those faces, I see the ugly truth.

I get another kind of truth from the police. Under the sober faces of the officers the day after, I am questioned about the beatings. They come more than once, I think, but Iím not really sure. I am not thinking clearly. My head, Iím reminded, is swollen nearly twice its size.

What theyíre saying makes little sense. I do my best to tell them what happened, despite the haze of pain, but I canít concentrate. They sit in chairs near the foot of my bedóone black officer, one white officerógood cop, bad cop, counselor, doubter, friend and foe. Do they think I did something? What did I do? Iím the victim, remember? Theyíre the Laurel and Hardy of law enforcement, but they are serious.

ďWhat are you trying to say?Ē I ask.

The bad cop says he thinks I may have been distraught, depressed, self-destructive, suicidal, and did something to myself. He doesnít possess the subtle skill of tact or compassion and goes for the throat. ďWhy didnít you activate one of the emergency alarm stations?Ē

I am surprised and aghast at once. It just occurred to me. Why hadnít I? Lighted green beacons sit atop the slender poles that dot the campus. Theyíre a direct link to the police. I hesitate. ďI Ö I didnít think about it. I donít know why. I guess I didnít think about it. I donít know. I was out of it.Ē I feel guilty and donít know why.

He eyes me dubiously through the lenses of thick horn-rimmed glasses.

I become enraged at his implication. ďYou think I did something wrong.Ē It comes out as half question, half accusation. I am outraged, surprised and shamed, so ashamed that a little voice in my head chimes in agreement and tempers my anger. I must have done something wrong. I regain my composure by only a degree but feel my face flush and the pounding in my head. ďYou really think I did something to cause this?Ē My hands stay stiffly at my sides and I donít gesture at my swollen face but may have rolled my eyes upward.

Good cop: ďNo, no, no. We donít Ö really. Itís just that we have to ask these questions. Procedure. Can you remember anything else about ÖĒ

He asks on but Iím not convinced of his concern and tune him out.

They look at me as if Iím a dead man talking, or a liar: blank expressions, unblinking.

Bad cop: ďWe talked to a friend of yours. She says that you were very upset last evening. She said that she told you she was seeing someone and it upset you.Ē

I admit I know her and that I was attracted to her. ďLet me get this straight. You think that I hurt myself over this friend? We didnít have anything and I knew it. I might have been a bit upset but Iím not stupid. Sheís a lot younger.Ē

My story bangs in my head with dull implausibility because thereís a small truth in what they say. Yet why should I care? I had nothing to do with bringing on the assault or hurting myself. That thoughtís absurd, but they wear their silver badges pinned to starched, blue-black uniforms and carry guns and nightsticks and must be taken seriously.

ďWhat about the other boyfriend?Ē Bad Cop asks.

I wasnít any boyfriend but I donít say that. I get it and say something like, ďYou mean, could he have attacked me?Ē

As a unit, they nod.

ďNo. I mean Ö I donít think so. I Ö thereís nothing between us. Why would he care?Ē I had accepted the idea that we were nothing and never would be but am filled with a small pool of sadness.

They get the idea but look doubtful and get nothing of use from me in this interrogation. I could tell by their faces. Good cop smiles blandly. They will be back, they say. And they will continue to investigate, though they donít have any suspects yet.

They will never have any suspects. I know this. This isnít an episode of Cops after all. Good cop/bad cop rises as one in a rustle of starched blues and creaking of black leather, and Iím alone again in my room with my television and my PCA.

I flatten my thumb on the button that releases another milligram of morphine. My backbone turns to jelly and the pain evaporates along with the fear and the new and heavy emotion of guilt. For a short time, at least, I feel human and undamaged. I go away for a while.

***

Two weeks later I leave the hospital. I donít feel like Iím ready to go home, but Dr. Green says Iím ready. As the nursing tech wheels me down the hallway, I hug my sack of belongings to my chest. I keep hearing the voice of the hematologist who consulted on my case. I needed his services because of my underlying blood disorder and its potential complications after the injuries sustained in the beating.

ďIf you need someone to testify in court of the severity of injuries, I would be happy to. Youíre lucky,Ē he said, but I didnít and still donít feel the part. ďYou very well could have died. You could have gotten into a situation of intractable bleeding or infection and this would be a murder case.Ē

So I suppose I should be grateful, but Iím not. I should just be glad to be alive. But Iím not. I was glad to leave but didnít know what I would do next. Now I know what limbo is like. I would go to my momís house for a while.

I had planned to move out of the student apartment I had occupied with my Vietnamese roommate at the end of my graduate training but hadnít had a chance to find a place. I wanted to move into more substantial digs than the tiny, spartan university housing at the end of the summer semester when I began teaching at Eastern.

I push upward using my palms on the cold arms of the wheelchair and am surprised at how weak I have grown, but I manage to rise out of the wheelchair. The aideís hands catch me under the arms and the face of my terrified roommate swims into my head. I hear his voice, tight with fear, the night I came into the apartment, battered, bleeding from the mouth. It all floods back. I see my blood-spattered shirt and shoes. I wonder what the police had done with them. Lost them, it turns out, along with my shredded jeans after the paramedics or the nurse slit them off me.

I had stumbled into my roommateís arms after I found my way home after the beating. To tell you the truth, Iím not sure what time it was. I did and didnít know what had happened to me. I think he helped me inside to my room we shared and into my bed. The beating had left me disoriented, after I finally got away. I remembered looking over my shoulder to see if they were chasing me.

I think I ran south, along the massive Booth Library, across the street and behind Lumpkin Hall, but didnít realize where I was then.

I must have been a sight to my roommate, a newcomer to this country. My shirt was soaked with blood and my head throbbed. I was a walking stereotype from an American slasher movie.

The trip homeówhy I went home by car instead of walking to the police station or, given my condition, driven to the hospital 10 minutes away, I donít knowóitís as shrouded by time as the beating itself. Iím looking for answers to questions written in fear.

I made it to my car, then thereís another gap in the reel of memory. The film resumes as I turn the wrong way on Third Street, away from my apartment. As I reached the stop sign at Lincoln Avenue, I realized my mistake, turned left to circle the long block that encompasses a large swathe of the campus, including Old Main, a Tudor-style castle that houses the universityís administrative offices and math department.

This must be a dream: A police officer issues a ticket to a driver he had pulled over a car along 4th Street. I wonder why I didnít I stop and tell him. Why didnít I scream into the night? Maybe I imagined this or maybe it was real and I felt as if I had done something wrong, like good cop/bad cop implied.

What did I do wrong? I ask myself again as Iíve asked so many times before and since. What had I done to bring this on myself? Why did they feel the need to beat up a middle-aged English teacher in the middle of a college campus? Why me? Why now? Why had the first day of my new career become the worst day, up until now, of my life? The questions defy rational answers, as Iím helped into the car.

Over and over, I am assaulted, raped, this time by my own accusatory mind, a gift perpetuated by the police. The pleasure of my own conscience takes me. Yet I now know how a woman, victimized once by a rapist, must feel like under the cold vultureís eye of official scrutiny.

These things parade through my mind as my mother or sisterónot sure whichódrives me the sixty-miles to Robinson, a town of 6,000 people in southern Illinois. The trip is as forgettable as it always was and always will be. Farmers navigate through fields of corn on monstrous cornpickers churning out a haze of chaff dust as they harvest corn from the flat land that, except for ubiquitous silos and grain bins, dominates the region.

I missed half of September and wonder at the disproportionate amount of time I have spent in hospitals during my life. I donít like the estimates that surface on the blackboard in my head nor do I like the possibilities for the future.

I still had this illnessóthis illness called myelodysplatic syndrome I told you about. I wonder when I first learned of its name. I canít really remember the first time I heard its name or the first realization that it had killed my father. And it could very well be working up to doing me the same favor.

As I settle into my sisterís old room in my parentís home, I wonder where I will go from here. Turns out that decision would be made for me, at least for the short term.

Iím at home but donít feel at home; itís my motherís and stepfatherís house. Yes, I occupied the place for a while after I graduated high school, until I was 21, when I was married for the first time. I lie on the bed in my sisterís old room staring at the door. Everything is trimmed in white enamel and teddy bears. Two ceiling fans buzz as they turn slowly above me at either end of the long rectangular room.

My mother feels Ö I donít know what she feels. I feel like an emotional leper. All I get from her is that sheís glad Iím OK and that she is a ready and willing caregiver. She dares not cut too close to reality; it reminds her too much of my fatherís fate.† I only speculate about that. She rarely says much about his illness or mine. Yet it must be there. We donít talk about it though. We never talk about it or my fatherís death unless I force it.

The three of usómy mother, brother and meóremain aboard a boat launched by the death of my father onto a sea of denial, uncertainty and unresolved grief. We were close afterward only in the proximity forced on us by the close quarters of a two-bedroom house in Eaton, Ind., but we never entered the menacing, claustrophobic room that enclosed the reality and pain of grief.†

It would be 30 years before I could talk to my mother, or anyone else, about my fatherís death and then only because the inexorable gravity of grief forced me to my knees, grief that would show itself as a smudge of neuroses on my adult personality.

Truth is, for those years, I couldnít feel much of anything, not since his death. His absence had left me an empty hull adrift on mortal time. And itís hard to defeat a negative, nothing to defeat or remove, only the vacuum left by the absence of a fatheróa bad case of couldíve been, shouldíve been and mightíve beens. A hole that canít be filled. Turns out I would have more than enough time to bat these things around.

An eight-year-old boy sits in the middle of a neat row of folding chairs. People around him touch wadded tissues to their eyes and snuffling noses, but he doesnít know why all the fuss. His step-grandmother collapses onto the chest of his dead father. It takes two people to pull her away from the father who occupies the centerpiece of the gathering, a silk-skinned mauve casket centered among arranged banks of flowers at the front of the room. Their cloying scent will bother the boy for decades. Words like death, funeral, casket, cemetery would always trouble him. A man sitting to his right leans toward the boy and conspiratorially gives him permission to grieve. ďItís all right Ö if you cry,Ē he says. The boy looks up at the stranger as if the man had just dropped out of the sky because crying hadnít occurred to him yet. He turned his eyes downward at his lap where his fingers tore at the edges of a dry tissue, and he wondered how long his father would be gone. Ö

Within a week of release from the hospital after the beating, I awake with a splitting headache. Worse, as I roll over and sit on the edge of my sisterís bed, I realize something is very wrong. I am having trouble standing. My head Ö my entire body aches as if struck by the flu. Worst of all, my neck aches and I canít rotate my head its full range. My mother helps me dress and walk through the hallway into the living room. We are an odd couple: she a 70ish willow, slightly bent by age, who props up a 40ish son who is usually a straight and strong bough.

She skips the ambulance and drives me to the doctorís office. Fortunately, my sister works for my family doctor and is able to work me in to a tight schedule.

I am acquainted with Dr. Womack. She has taken care of my frequent infections and monitored my blood disorder, my MDS, by ordering periodic blood counts for several years. She has seen my moodiness through eyes that, at the time, were knowing eyes, above and beyond her training and experiences as a physician. I would learn much later just how well acquainted with moods she was.

I can tell by the worried look she gives me somethingís amiss. Sheís examined me and found some neurological symptoms. I get this because I was once a paramedic, mostly a second-rate EMT for six years at an ambulance service in rural Crawford County.

I think one thing and one thing only: Another infection will land me in the hospital for my average two-week stay for such things. I feel feverish, as if in the grip of yet another in a long line of infections, some of which invaded my entire system and landed me in the hospital for weeks at a time. I figure this time will provide me with another two weeks flat on my back. Iím in too much pain to be afraid.

I have a pretty good idea about how long these things require in the hospital because I have spent enough time there to know. Strange, then nor later on, before and during the transplant, when the cold breath of fear would play upon my skin, have I felt, truly felt, that I wouldnít be coming back out of the hospital. Who says denial canít be a good thing?

Yet, I rush us ahead. As always Iím in a hurry to get to the future where, I think, things are better. Weíre not ready for that. Too much ground to cover first. We have another hospital with which to contend. Hospitals donít always portend bad news. Babies are born every second in hospitals, quite successfully. Lives are pulled back from the brink of death.

As much as any of that, hospitals offer a chance to surrender everything, even the personal responsibility for oneís well beingóphysical and mental. I would come to recognize that self-truth more as burden than blessing. The dependency for such care would insinuate itself onto my personality. I canít begin to estimate how long Iíve spent in such places. Iím about to experience that reality again as my sister speeds me toward Vincennes, a small Indiana town where I would begin my next hospitalization.†

All of my hospital stays play back in my mind but none so vivid as the first. I was 12. The first of many infections had filled my lungs with mucous as thick as peanut butter and driven my temperature upward. Worse, it had pulled the plug on my blood count, and, as I sat in my pediatricianís office in 1967, I thought I would pass out. So did he. Itís the first of many times that I would see that tight look of controlled concern on the face of a medical professional. He had me lie down while he told my mother that I would have to be admitted.

I was terrified. All I could think of was my fatherís death, not on a cognitive level, you understand, but on a level that a 12-year-old can comprehend, a gut level, for lack of a better description. I read it in the eyes of the adults. They leave the thought niggling at the corners of my consciousness like a terrier jerking at a rawhide bone. It generated enough conscious terror within me that I refused to go and I told my mother and stepfather as much.

Nonsense. Donít be stupid, they said. Youíre sick. You must go. You will go. You donít have any choice.

And I didnít then and I seldom have since.

They read the fear in my face as defiance and, perhaps, they didnít know how deeply that dread rooted at the level of primal fearótotal abandonment, the worst thing that can happen to a child.

The hospital became a monster and my best friend, where they punched and prodded and gave you no answers and went about their business, and gave you drugs that made you feel better and sometimes worse and sometimes put you to sleep. And smiled thinly, sometimes as though nothing is wrong, and made bad jokes that made no sense. They couldnít explain what was causing the fall in my blood countsówas I bleeding or was an exotic infection invading my system? And my doctor worried about contagions. He put me in isolation, except the hospital that I remember had no isolation; they put me in a unit closed by low census, if I remember right, a bed in the back, among orphaned equipment. I was there for several days.

During the long days and even longer nights there, without television to sit me, busy nurses rarely ventured off the bustling unit. They had sick children to take care of, kids with appendicitis, tonsillitis and pneumonia, maladies they could put a name and a prognosis to, even if it was the worst thing, it was known. It had a name. They seemed to have little time to tend to a sick child with a disease with no name, at least no name at the time, a child tucked back in an empty unit, a child who might transmit that unnamed disease. I learned well how to be alone.

This hospital hadnít figured out that kids my age might need their parents round the clock, especially in isolation. I would lie for hours playing mind games. I couldnít sleep so I thought Ö thought Ö thought. I became lost in my thoughts. I became a part of my thoughts. I became my thoughts. I learned, early on, that I could hide in them. Play hide and seek with fear.

On the hospital unit behind the double doors in that empty room, where childhood is lost or, at the very least, forever changed, and the neuroses of adulthood festers, I lie in a bed on my back studying the pattern of the ceiling tiles. I didnít have to interact with people who might, for whatever reason, cause me pain. There, no one could assault my puerile sensibilities, sharpened by the loss of a father and untended by the insensitivity of the adults, including my mother, around me.

I didnít have to confront or be confronted with the erratic or the difficult behavior of people, theirs or mine. Illness had driven me inward, where comfort awaited me when I feel threatened by the pain of my losses or the pain of my potential illness, a safe place where fantasies thrive to the exclusion of reality.

Still I go there, whether I retreat to my mind or to my office (synonyms) for escape. I go inside. I go back to the hospital, which eventually became a place where no one could harm me and all harms get fixed. I find safety in the solitude, but I also find the threat of nothingness. Itís only in my mind, I tell myself.

I go there to escape the pain of a tube penetrating my rectum, infusing my body with white chalky liquid, which balloons my abdomen so that it looks and feelsóat least to a 12-year-oldóas if it will burst. The lower GI will hopefully reveal on x-ray, be it cancer or ulcer, the source of the bleeding, which has left my skin wan, and find a cause for this mysterious disease. It does not.

I go there to distance myself from the needles that probe my arms for veins that seem to shrink from the intrusion. I go there to escape the pain of grief. I go there later to escape the harsh light of reality and what terrors it holds, to evade the kicks of the eight thugs who watch me struggle to my feet.

The adult that contains the child goes there still. Some things find me no matter where Iím at, and I drift I drift I drift in time,

The ride to the cemetery is shrouded in a sunny haze. The Cadillac rolls behind the hearse that carries the emaciated corpse of his father, smooth, like itís floating on air. The funeral procession stretches out behind, their headlights blazing in somber respect. His mother, brother and perhaps someone else ride with him the eight miles or so to the cemetery.

They sit again in neat rows in the open in the middle of Gardens of Memories. Everything is green, too green, and the sun is too warm for April.† Flowers are arranged in terraced banks on each side of the casket. Strange looking wreaths with pink petals complete the tableau. The boy notices upturned scallops of dark earth only partially hidden by the canvass cover draped over the bier. He wonders how they will get his father in that great case down into the hole they had dug for him underneath the casket. Then how in the world would they get the ropes back up? The preacher says a few words about God and why he needed his father in heaven. The boy doesnít understand him. He finishes the sermon and, after some hurried hugs and hushed condolences, the knot of mourners breaks apart and leaves the men to their work. Ö

I broke ground for construction of the phantom room over the span of a few weeks back in 1967 when I was 12, when a war, inherited greatly because of the failed policies of the French, increases its clamp on Americaóa war with itself as much as with the Viet Cong.

I furnished it with denial and decorated it with shame. The violence of fists, suffered many years later, would become no more welcome than the noise of an argument, any argument, in my room. As a child and since as an adult, I hurry there each time the threat of either looms. Conflict has never been my pal.

ĎNam doesnít help. The world outside the room is stirred by violence and adversity. Rumors spoken by credible peopleóteachers and military and othersóin fearful bravado mirror the war effort in Vietnam. Now exotic places like Laos and Cambodia enter the fray. I look for them on a globe in our junior high classroom. Spin the globe. Put my finger on them. They seem so tiny. Whatís the fuss? I wondered

Then begins the flow of adolescent hormones that draw me into a brooding teen even more, just as any adolescent experiences. Pimples become nearly as big a concern as my youthful restlessness. A brooding teen is welcomed by an ugly world of loss and war. No mirrors grace the walls of my room for me to see that ugliness within me nor are their windows to see the ugliness outside. This is my room and I decided who and what to let in, and especially what I let out, for I am afraid of a part of me, a part that threatens to morph into a seething monster at the least provocation. Then they will know me.

In reality, I became aware of the need for the room after my father died. That I have sought its comfort and security more and more attests to the need to protect the psyche from a series of unfortunate eventsóthe Fates.

My illness Ö our illness for which, back in 1967, doctors had little knowledge about, spread a pall over my life, just as all such diseases of chronic or of acute nature. In me, it would emerge suddenly and catastrophically two-and-a-half decades later. But when I, as a 12-year-old, continued the construction of my safe-room, doctors knew no more about this blood condition than when my fatherís illness raged. They never told me, or I refused to hear themónot sure whichónot until years later, that I might follow him down the one-way road to death by a disease with an unknown genesis, at least during the early years, or unknown prognosis.†

Doctors scratched their heads, warmed their stethoscopes and laid on the platitudes. But they could give me nothing, no explanation for my low count or for my fatherís similar blood counts, not in 1961 when he became ill or on April 17, 1963, when he died, or in 1967, when my blood count took a dive. The truth would lie deeper beneath the skin, deeper than the technology readily available could penetrate, and deeper than I could have imagined. The just smiled weakly and sent me on my way.



[i] From Wilfred Owenís ďDulce et Decorum Est (Pro Patria Mori),Ē ďthe old lie,Ē was taken from Horace.

 


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