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
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
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
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
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,
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.