I’m arched-back-fists-clenched-writhing on a trainer’s table, eyes damp with tears exacted by the pain-pressure of his efforts to realign my right hipbone. The small office – nothing more than a I-hope-those-are-clean-towels-wrapped-trainer’s table, a life-size chart of scarily-meat-colored-even-more-scarily-perfect human musculature, and dimmable lights (an almost imperceptible nod to the Not-a-Torture-Chamber aesthetic) – shrinks smaller and smaller as the pain blooms from the nub of my hip. This is an office outside of which you hang your ego, your machismo, and, if you’re lucky, your guilt over past bodily abuses – I’m not that lucky: So my breath comes urgent-rapid as I question my judgment on every past decision. The torturer … I mean the trainer’s focus is unassailable, his eyes intense as he studies how to release the pain stored in my hips. But in truth, it’s not just in the hips, it’s all over the gaff. A fifty two year old human body is a repository of pain – physical and emotional; but this office trades only in the physical – and the trick is to ease it out slowly, non-destructively.
That’s definitely not what I’m up to today. Today is a trip to the human body shop, and the hammers are out – beating panels into shape after an accident. This time the accident – which like all other “accidents,” was not an accident, but simply an occurrence; we covet that word so we don’t have to deal – was the result of that most hazardous of all activities, something which no human has ever survived: Aging. I’ve not done a good job with aging, not been too kind to this body of mine; forcing it through a could-care-less-youth, heavy on dirty pints of Guinness and steak-and-kidney pies; banging the shit out of it playing rugby for seventeen years; injuring out with a badly herniated disc; slipping into you’re-too-young-to-be-but-you-are bitter rack and ruin; then clawing back with pavement-pounding, iron-pumping, lap-interminable fitness. Then, in midlife crisis – with the type of wisdom usually ascribed only to mosquitos – I dragged myself back onto the rugby field at age 45; only to have my mosquito mind finally cleansed of any notion of eternal-youth with three painful sets of cracked ribs.
Now I’m paying the bill, or some of it at least, on the trainer’s table. He’s a good man who candidly quotes Genesis from a well-thumbed Bible he keeps in his desk drawer, as he expertly realigns human bodies contorted by life outside of Eden. It is a truism of life – human and mosquito – that sudden realignment of incremental dysfunction is painful: Often extremely painful!
“Some days just suck, don’t they,” the trainer gives a chuckle.
The pain stops.
“That’s ok,” I answer, breathlessly loud, and trying to maintain sanity through gallows humor, add: “I’m pretty sure I’m in purgatory. The more pain, the quicker I get through.”
“Oh no,” he says, with the assurance of one who studies the world outside of Eden. “You didn’t hear, they abolished purgatory, or was it limbo they abolished?”
“They can’t do that, I’ll sue!” I answer, warily anticipating his next move. “My whole philosophy of life is based upon paying my way into heaven with earthly pain.”
“Relax your legs,” he says, taking a conciliatory half-step back from the table. “It won’t work if you’re so rigid.”
“Sorry, I’m just anticipating more pain.”
“Oh don’t worry,” he wry-sigh-smiles, “your anticipation won’t be wasted.”
Later that evening, with a post-pain-complacency-high racing through my veins, my mosquito brain has me flick on the news. I rarely watch television news, not simply because I prefer to get my news from barbers and cab drivers, but because of an odd combination of events. Growing up as whippersnapper in Ireland, Radio existed as a sort of Irish-white-noise; I can still hear the “BEEP … BEEP … BEEP” that prefaced the moribund reading of the hourly bad news; Larry Gogan’s sure-we-never-really-have-to-grow-up-do-we “60 Second Quiz;” while the “Good morning, good morning, good morning to you, … this is R T E, Radio 2” jingle still haunts my ear. The “telly” was a bit of the new kid in town for me. As a young child, it didn’t start until 6:00PM with a not-so-rousing rendition of the Angelus: Doing! … Doing! … Doing! Then the bad news came on, very bad news indeed, black and white footage from the craziness in Northern Ireland, reported by people who looked like mannequins come to life to mechanically jaw out disembodied reports into huge-hand-held microphones, detailing how stress and provocation of regular humans leads to daily atrocities.
A few years later, when I was too old to enjoy it, Sesame Street showed up, and we got thirty minutes of Big Bird’s grey – color TV didn’t come to Ireland until 1971, and not to our house until a priest uncle died ten years later – and physically awkward liberalism, before the Angelus-bad-news-mannequins chased him off the air at 6:00PM. Later still, in what could only be described as either an act of genius by some desperate washed-up-TV-show salesman, or an act of misplaced charity by some Irish-American television executive, grainy-grey 1950s Flash Gordon shows appeared in the 5:30PM slot, pushing Big Bird and company back to the wilderness of 5:00PM – remember, this was an era when children still played outdoors, regardless of the three hundred days a year of rain. For too many hours I watched an eternally-boy-scoutish Flash Gordon take on Ming-the-Merciless, or wrestle with chronically-unbelievable reptilian shapes who came to destroy whichever fictitious planet Flash had come to save. Ironically, most of those planets were a studio in West Berlin, where the show was filmed as an allegory – albeit a pathetic one – of the Cold War! Flash then, humbly, but triumphantly, climbed into a spaceship that, in the long shot, looked suspiciously like toilet paper cores wrapped in foil, and with a Free World winning smile flew off God knows where – which made perfect sense, as he was, in any case, being pushed off the air by the Angelus.
The TV news, or the “bad news” as my daughter calls it – she once asked if we could switch to a channel that shows “good news, just like Pandora has a channel that plays happy Katie Perry songs” – is, and pretty much has been since Adam asked Cain, “is that brother of yours still working out in the back field?” a royal fucking mess of depression-inducing stories detailing humans killing-torturing-shitting-on-one-another, the planet boiling over in direct ratio to the enlargement of the Koch brother’s savings accounts, and stories in the vein of 78 year old identical twins who won $100,000 on a scratch ticket – and then fought irreparably over which of them owned the ticket. But with a few months’ worth of purgatorical-pain-payments jammed into just one hour, my mosquito brain is feeling so good about the world, that it drowns out deeper instincts screaming that Ming-the-Merciless, all those crappy monsters, and real-life-we’ll-blow-your-focking-brains-out-balaclavaed-gunmen live in that flat panel; of course it was so much easier to believe they all lived in there when it was a hefty box. So on goes the television. Modern TV mannequins are so much more accomplished than their 1970s counterparts. They almost look human, but the talking still lets them down. Then you realize, they are just human-machines mouthing whatever they’re told by their corporate overlords.
But this evening the “telly” gets to knock me backwards on the sofa. There’s a report from Aleppo in Syria. Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in our world. It was strategically important as a trading location until the Suez Canal made the East more available to the West by sea. Over its history it has alternately been the center of empires, or invaded by others such as the Assyrians (which is one of those needlessly confusing names; I mean, are they Syrians or not?), the distinctly non-confusing Persians, Alexander and his un-confusing Macedonian army, the very definitely not confused Romans, the slightly confusing Mongols, the we’re-a-bit-confused-in-our-mission-so-we’re-killing-everything-in-sight Crusaders, the Ottomans (it can’t have been much fun being ruled for almost 400 years by an empire whose greatest contribution to humanity is a cushiony-footstool!), and finally by the not-so-much-confusing-but-confused French. Though it’s not really legit to make colonialism jokes, because most of what colonialists do – slaughtering the “natives,” and stealing everything from material wealth to history to identity – is distinctly not funny: Still, sometimes, all we get left with is humor. Eventually the French colonialists returned home to sit in cafés, smoking, drinking coffee, stroking their French-evitably-thick mustaches, and talking Fren-shit about the rest of the world. Meanwhile, back in Syria, with the horrors of colonialism having clearly imprinted might-is-right on the people, the country – or what actually had been several distinct regions that got forced into a country – for reasons unknown, went on to excel in the creation of juntas and coup d’états, with a subspecialty in producing particularly vicious dictators.
This evening, with Flash and company sitting in the back of the TV playing cards, and the talking mannequins not functioning, the White Helmets of Syria have the box to themselves. Their story is, all at once, stunningly sad and hopeful. Not “SAD!” in the way a manipulative-narcissistic-orange-wanna-be-dictator uses that word to reinforce his fake-all-knowing-double-fake-folksy-wisdom, but a deep boned sadness that humanity has not evolved all that much since Cain crept up on Abel out in the back field. A fighter-jet whistles in low over apartment buildings; the billowing thud of an explosion; creeping darkness created by bomb smoke; screaming-screaming-screaming; a solitary siren’s thin wail; faces frozen by traumatic-fear – fear that asks whose life has now been wiped out from their community, from their family. It is nearly impossible to watch this scene, broadcast from a war zone 5,000 miles away into a complacent-first-world-living-room, without giving up hope that humans will ever evolve out of our skin-deep propensity for barbarity. And yet in the midst of this near apocalyptic scene, there are the White Helmets as proof that human kinship is fact every bit as strong as our barbaric urges. With the same deliberate, focused energy as the bombers, they work with manic strength of body and spirit to pull babies from the rubble of a collapsed-by-a-two-thousand-pound-bomb apartment building. Risking it all – their luck often runs out; 150 of them have died as part of their recovery efforts – they mobilize when the “let’s-be-friends-with-them” Russian jets swoop in to wipe out whole communities. With superhuman courage and humanity – the witnessing of which obliterates my short-term bodily pain whining – they navigate through Not-Eden, guided by a plume of bomb-smoke toward human made, human disaster.
The next evening I go to get my eyes checked. Eyesight is important, as without this faculty, it’s impossible to gauge exactly how awesomely-orange our President is, or to read in the lying media how we’re heading, one Executive Order at a time, back to the Middle Ages – with the added new-medieval-era problem of having our hapless planet ready to boil all over the Milky Way. As with everything in life – other than pretending that it wasn’t you that farted – technology has made the chore of getting your eyes tested easier and more difficult all at once. Gone are the days when you are asked to trust someone, that you met for the first time seven minutes before, to park an unnamed piece of equipment a fraction of millimeter (I-know-I-know, strictly speaking there’s no such thing as a fraction of a millimeter, but as here in the US we’re mucho impressed with how unknowably small millimeters are, and we understand how fractions work – ¼ of the US population, via our own indolent volition, gets to decide whether we blow up the rest of the planet – I decided to mix them for melodramatic effect) from your pupil, and then shoots a puff of air at it. I’m not actually sure what a “pupil” in your eye is, but I am pretty sure that you shouldn’t be fucking with it one way or another. That is, not if you want to continue filling in your daily Presidential Orange-ness Scorecard, for FOUR FUCKING YEARS!
The miracle of science has replaced that too-close-to-your-eye-air-puffing-machine with a “retinal scan” machine, into which you push your eyeball to get its “snap took” in all its scary glory. A photo of the back of your eye, blown up a few hundred times, is a nightmare-inducing image. The veins in my eyes appeared as primary and secondary roads on a map – of Ireland, or St Croix for that matter – winding around my eyeball with no apparent purpose. The eyelashes, captured by the crazy-eyeball-camera, and blown up a few hundred times, looked like thickets of stiff-curved reeds with minds and purposes all of their own. They lurked menacingly at the edge of the photo, appearing ready to attack – just what they were going to attack I don’t know – maybe they’d snag a grainy-grey Flash Gordon if he tried to pass through them? In the middle of the photo, with a jellyfish’s translucency, sat the optic nerve: My connection with the visual world. Without this piece of jellyfish, I would not be able to experience the faces of those I love, the infinite-blue of the daytime sky, or get lost with the “cold, but sure friend” that is a good book. Sitting in the darkness of the optometrist’s office, my hundreds-time-too-big eyeball staring back at me, the optic nerve is as big as the palm of my hand. I’m floored by how we keep this whole human machine, with all its delicate parts, functioning in the way that defines our humanity. Should that jellyfish disappear or seriously atrophy, my definition of life would change so intensely, that I would become a whole different human being.
The Rule of Three – an unofficial, but nonetheless binding, rule – requires that I close this out with a third, careless-middle-class-complacency thought provoking, healthcare encounter. The Rule of Three is a real thing arising originally out of fairytales, but now broadly used in writing, speechifying, even slogan making. Thus the US Constitution lists our “Unalienable rights” as being “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness;” while the French prefer Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! A more diligent mind than mine could probably tease apart our actual and truthful adherence to these triads.
But this rule of three crops up everywhere: Blood, sweat and tears: I came, I saw, I conquered: Sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll. I was once told that the rule of three works because the human mind can only comfortably work with three concepts, and that if you move on to four or five, or a mind stretching six, you’ll lose your audience. So I will abide by the Rule of Three, partly because you’ll enjoy that better, but also in the, perhaps Quixote, hope that our Oh-So-Orange President will start to broaden his thinking to at least two concepts at a time: The first is, was, and will always be, the all-important reassuring feeling he gets from the roar of the crowd at his seemingly-never-going-to-end rallies, his higher-than-Arnold’s TV ratings, and the yowls-from-the-lying-media every time he does something designed to gain yowls-from-the-lying-media. Perhaps, with some coaching from his highest-ever-IQ-cabinet, a little prodding from the hosts of Fox and Friends (which in a less disturbed world – like at the height of the Cold War – would be a clunky kids cartoon,) or a few kind words from BFF Vladie (who in a less disturbed world – like at the height of the Cold War – would be seen as a latter day Ming-the-Merciless,) His-Royal-Orangeness could think of at least one of the other 7.4 billion humans that exist on this planet – even if only for a few seconds?
My third encounter leaves me sitting in the crowded waiting room at an Endoscopy Clinic. This is a facility where modern medicine can send a camera through one of your connected orifices – this connectivity may eventually become a legal defense for some of His-Royal-Orangeness’ statements – and record what’s going inside you. It’s suggested that – as a consequence of the aforementioned most hazardous of all human activities – you let the docs go have a look every now and again. With my mosquito brain fearing the unmentionable-inevitable – a PTSD hangover from over visiting by the grim reaper in my whippersnapper years – and access to complacency-inducing-careless-middle-class health insurance, I gladly comply with all such suggestions. The clinic waiting room is busy. I find a seat, and my brain starts recording the scene.
Next to me there’s an older African American couple sitting silent-scared, hands clasped in their laps. Across from me there’s an English guy, complete with tweed jacket, thinning grey hair brushed back, a brown felt Fedora hat on the seat next to him, reading the Failing New York Times – his soft-gentle-British-accent coming out when he offers – “oh, let me tidy up my belongings” – to let a couple have seats next to each other. The couple sit: She’s small, skinny, her boney frame lost inside bright yellow sweatpants, a long sleeved white tee shirt, a black-zippered-up-the-neck-sleeveless-puffed jacket. She’s barely sitting when she stands again, sits again, eyes restless, hands fidgety. He’s in jeans, a fuzzy olive green fleece, beard, weather beaten face; he taps his thigh repeatedly with a many-times-folded Metro newspaper.
She stands suddenly, and takes a few steps toward the door.
“Running away are you?” he asks, speaking lowly, smiling. “Looking for a gourmet restaurant to smell some food?”
“Yeah, sure, that’s exactly what they got here,” she throws her hands up, but lets them fall so fast, it looks like she’s waving, “and anyways, I need the calories, I ain’t kep’ a thing down for three days.”
He reaches up, touches her arm, nods his head.
“With you?” he raises his eyebrows.
“Nah, I’m being miserable-me today. We can go out after, I’ll go nuts with a basket of fries.”
The Times and Metro fill my truncated horizon.
The African American couple shift in their seats. He holds out his hand: She takes it into hers.
Nurses appear at the door leading into the procedure area. They’re all in scrubs, all with too much make up, hair done up smartly, white soled sneakers.
A nurse calls out a name. Someone stands, grim faced, and follows them.
I wait: Absorbing.
A half hour later I’m sitting next to a young nurse who, with a determined look, and some tap-tap-tapping, pulls my record up on the computer.
“Ok,” she says with a sigh, and stares knit-eyebrowed at the screen.
She leans forward, and talk-whispering in a conspiratorial tone, says: “And you’re here because of the lung cancer?”
“No,” I answer, in-fucking-credulously.
“Liver cancer?” she looks, confusedly, at the screen.
“Jesus no, not that I know of!”
“No, definitely not,” relieved we’ve moved off the you’re-totally-fucked diseases to the supreme pain-in-ass ones.
She stares at the computer screen, her whole face now contorted in confusion.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she says breezily, giving me a conspiratorial, weren’t-we-silly tap on the knee. “You were fine for all those.”
“But then,” she asks curiously, “why are you here?”
“I’m here ‘cause my doc told me to come,” I answer; which is code for I’m-a-would-prefer-to-worry-and-drink-than-do-anything-about-it-Irish-hypochondriac-who-happens-to-have-a-kick-ass-doctor.
“Oh, … ok,” she looks askance at me – now overflowing with curiosity. “Wait here, until I can get a bed ready for you.”
I sit back, relieved to have been instantly e-cured of a whole suite of you’re-fucked-diseases.
Across from me is a man of indeterminate age lying on a hospital bed. His grey-white-paper-dry skin hangs helplessly off his arm bones and folds repeatedly at the base of his neck.
“Prozac?” his nurse – older, scrubs fully filled, too make-up, hair immaculately set – asks loudly into a phone connected to the wall via a once-might’ve-been-white-coiled cord. The patient is on another phone – he keeps up a constant monologue in a language I don’t know, she talks over him.
“Did he say Prozac?”
The patient, speaking a language I presume is Russian, my strong suit being – not unlike our President – dodgy, but nonetheless firmly held, presumptions, rattles on interminably.
“But did he take his Prozac today?” the nurse asks, what I further presume is a translator on a three way call with the presumed-Russian, her voice rising purposefully over his drone.
There’s English language silence as the presumed-Russian drones on.
A young Asian doctor in scrubs appears and takes the phone, mid-translator-sentence, from the nurse.
“Hello, I am your doctor,” he says in heavily accented English.
The presumed-Russian drones on monotonously.
“I’ll be doing your colonoscopy today,” he says, pacing around, limited by the scant remnants of elastic limit left in the might-once-have-been-white cord.
“There is slight chance, slight, we puncture hole in your in-test-tine,” he says earnestly to the translator, stopping his pacing to look the presumed-Russian in the eye, “but jus’ very little, very little.”
He holds up his thumb and index finger – the pads almost touching.
The great director in the sky whisks me out of this scene. Offstage, I change into the most humbling garment that human beings have invented since the Spanish Inquisition – the adult diaper; oh no, that doesn’t come for another (God willing) thirty years – it’s a hospital johnnie that I end up in, actually two of them, one facing each direction. I reappear in the Pre-Procedure room thus be-johnnied, all the worldly possessions I entered with now in two bulgingly-large-how-the-fuck-do-these-not-tear plastic bags, and get directed toward a bed next to the presumed-Russian. He’s still rattling on, but now nurse-and-phone-less, his speech gets directed to whomever passes his cubicle. I nod to him, while, very humbly, passing by. Once on the bed, I settle back, smug in the knowledge that, as of that particular moment, I have no specific medical facts to worry about. Instead my baseline anxiety-trifecta – at hospitals in general; Catholic guilt over potentially losing my deposit if I return a less than fully intact body to the St Peter – or the devil; and an emotionally exhausting unwillingness to even consider the unmentionable-inevitable – rages on unabated.
“Three weeks,” I hear the voice of the dapper Englishman, now in the bed to my left, definitively answer a question that I didn’t hear.
“So, three weeks since the last radiation treatment, and will you be going back again?” a young man’s voice asks.
“No,” the Englishman answers. “I believe it’s all done. I mean I do have to go back for further testing to check, … you understand … if the cancer’s all gone. But I don’t believe any further radiation is planned – at this time.”
I close my eyes, and try to concentrate on my breathing to escape this reality and replace it with scary-dream-semi-sleep. This is a survival strategy I’ve been cultivating for about fifty-two years; with varying degrees of success. Inside my ostrich-headed-darkness, I retreat from the overly-bright-beeping-monitor-ailing-people-world to the interior of my consciousness. Once there, the room sounds start to become even more distinct: The grating of a cubicle curtain moving across its rails; fingers rifling paper; a keyboard tap-tap-tapping; blankets rustling; a pain-groan; humans, in sneakers and scrubs, swishing by. I fade back, back, back … black.
“How come I gotta give this same information every time I come here?”
I’m woken by the sound of an angry voice. It’s the yellow sweatpants lady from the waiting room.
“I mean, don’t nobody write this stuff down?”
“I am, that’s exactly what I’m doing now,” the same nurse who worked with the presumed-Russian answers positively. “I’m putting this all in the computer, so it’ll be there for all your future visits, … if the computer takes it all … .” Her voice trails off.
“Ok, I mean, I don’t wanna be awkward nor nothing, but I mean, I been here like a thousand times and every time, every time, … and you’re even one of the nice ones. So what’d you ask?”
“Well, it would be helpful if we can get everything down in your record.”
“Ok, let’s start with the Lumbar Stenosis.”
The keys tap.
“Rheumatoid Arthritis, one hip replaced,” tap-tap-tap, “that causes a lot of constipation, I ain’t eaten since dinner on Wednesday – really, and I’m starving, but I don’t want to eat neither, know how that is? Two broken ribs. Both shoulders replaced and then ….”
“Hold on, hold on, I need to catch up.”
A loud sigh.
“Ready? Left saliva gland removed. That was a pain.”
The medical repartee keeps up, punctuated by tap-tap-tapping. They move into medication history, and there is almost no drug mentioned, no matter how long or complicated the name, which has not yet been tried with degrees of success running from “awesome” to “hated that – made me puke.”
I switch channels to the bed on the other side. There the apprentice doctor from the Englishman is talking to another patient.
“Yes sir, you were last in two years ago, when you were seventy eight, so now we would like to go to annual … ,” he trails off as the patient talks in an eavesdropping-ly-too-low tone.
“Oh my God, I am so sorry sir, did anyone, … were you aware she was struggling with those issues, … this is very sad, I am so sorry. We’ll get you into the room as soon as we can.”
I consider a second narcoleptic escape attempt, but instead I’m rescued by a pleasant-practical-oh-so-experienced-in-managing-self-centered-scared-humans nurse. She keeps up a cheerful but informative narrative as she wheels me into a frighteningly-full-of-complicated-equipment procedure room. There, by the miracle of modern science – which has long since obviated the need for narcoleptic escape attempts – real narcotics are administered, whisking my consciousness off the bed, away from ailing humans, out of the frighteningly-complicated-room, out of the bright hospital lights, off this planet.
I wake an indeterminate amount of time later. People in scrubs – who I start to recognize as the nurse, the apprentice doctor – are busy-fussily moving around the room, wrapping cords, placing equipment on stainless steel carts, throwing stuff in the metal-clanging-shut-lid bin. The atmosphere in the room is loud, but muffled. I glace around, moving only my eyes, nothing else seems ready to move.
“Oh there you are,” the nurse surprises me, smiling. “I was wondering when you’d come back to us.”
Fifteen minutes later, I’m dressed, wobbly on the pegs, but moving. I sit in the Post Procedure space, now empty of all the other characters, and wait again. I practice being a patient-patient – thus obtaining one of healthcare’s unsung dividends, the ability to silently, yet clearly, enunciate to you; “chill out, you are merely one of the 7.4 billion humans, and at least you’re not orange.” The doc eventually comes by, and, flipping through papers on a clipboard, gives me a clean bill of health – good for another 30,000 miles; don’t forget the oil change every 3,000. A nurse, gently holding my elbow, leads me out of medical-land.
I walk into the waiting room of a world where we humans spend our time hiding from pain, where Abel falls under his brother’s hand many times everyday, and where sickness is a part – but not all – of life.
In the, now almost empty, waiting room, I’m warmed to find a loving smile, a reassuring hug.
The effects of the life suppressing narcotics have worn off, and now that most basic instinct of all – to fill an empty stomach – takes over!
I stride out of the waiting room and into the world – a newly complacent man.