Emily Carter Roiphe | Longreads | February 2018 | 14 minutes (3,466 words)
The Waiting Room
I was leaning on my husband’s shoulder one day as we were walking through a lobby that seemed a bit crowded for the part of New Mexico where we lived. On the soundtrack there was some desultory chatter and the hum of fluorescent lights.
“Where are we NOW?” I asked in exasperation.
“You had a brain aneurysm, sweetheart, you had brain surgery.”
“Is the surgery over?” I asked.
“Yes, for a whole day,” he said.
“So, we can go now?”
We’d been planning to go camping in Monument Valley, and I didn’t want to complicate our schedule. I’d had something wrong, but they fixed it, I felt fine, could we please get on with it? Then I saw his face. Usually, my husband is pretty cocky in public, thinking that he has me, and I am so wonderful, that he wants to make sure people notice, so he keeps up a performative patter of flirtatious banter about how brilliant, sexy, infuriating, and baffling I am. It’s his routine. There was something about his tone of voice now, that made me turn to look at his face; it was ashen. He looked terrified.
“What?” I said. “I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me anymore. I want to go camping like you promised.”
His eyes filled and he said, “Let’s go back to your room.”
First I thought, I have to do whatever, say whatever, be whatever it takes to get that look off his face, it’s making a bouquet of broken glass bloom in the dark place behind my ribs.
Then I thought, Room? What room? Are we in a hotel?
Then I realized I wasn’t walking, but perhaps, sitting and floating along. How was this possible, I wondered analytically. Am I walking or riding, standing up or sitting, falling down or getting to my feet? I wasn’t alarmed by these questions but I knew one thing instinctively: keep those questions to yourself, tell no one you have questions, or you can forget about that camping trip. I was very focused on the idea of going camping, a tent, all the stars in the wide open sky out there.
The Lucky Room
In April, 2017, I was walking the dogs in our tiny development, returning from the open and empty mesa where I usually let them run, when I fell down in a neighbor’s yard and began to scream in pain. An aneurysm had burst inside some part of my brain causing a cerebral hemorrhage. I am not especially disturbed by it. “You are so lucky,”someone — a nurse, an aide, my husband, very rarely an actual doctor assigned to me — is always saying now. And then they recite the stats: 50 percent of people with what you had die. Of the 50 percent who don’t die, 50 percent are severely debilitated in some way or another. Of that 50 percent, 50 percent are not just debilitated but vegetal.
I keep thinking of the AA preamble, the part where it says, “half-measures availed us nothing…” I am certain if anyone finds out I’m in the percentage that is neither dead nor vegetal they, will correct it by hitting me on the head while I sleep. Oddly enough, this doesn’t keep me awake. Instead I float in a beam of moonlight and spidersilk while my I.V. delivers rather generous doses of fentanyl. When the sweet young tech wakes me for some kind of procedure that he can’t do while I’m sleeping, I’m seized with a combative impulse so I take out my false teeth and throw them at him.
I am so ashamed that I sob into my husband’s lap, but he just laughs.
“Kid’ll have a story to tell at the watering hole.”
In April, 2017, I was walking the dogs in our tiny development when I fell down in a neighbor’s yard and began to scream in pain. An aneurysm had burst inside some part of my brain causing a cerebral hemorrhage.
“Please,” I say, “please don’t leave me here.”
“How did I get to this place?” I wonder aloud. “This murky world with its unwholesome and sepia-tinted haze…”
“Don’t think like that,” the tech says, squeezing my arm. “You’re so lucky. You know 50 percent of the people with a cerebral hemorrhage die and of those that don’t die 50 percent…”
“Dont” I say, “Statistics are an evil language, a viral infection made of of bacterial numbers…meant to control us. I feel the way about statistics that William Burroughs felt about women, so stop before I get confused and shoot myself in the forehead.”
But the tech’s not listening…sounds are coming out of my mouth, but it doesn’t follow that meaning will, too…
The New Room
I keep finding myself in different rooms not knowing why I’ve come in or where I was previously. Sometimes I think it’s the room my mother or my husband is in, but, usually it isn’t. They weren’t here in the hotel with me, I’d remember — I’d just been talking to them on the phone. Even though I was lucky, lucky not to be dead or a vegetable, and to have people who would call me on the phone, the sudden knowledge that there is no one in the room but me leaves me feeling desolate; like I’ve teleported to an empty planet with white cork board for sky and a cold fluorescent lit sun….
“What’s going on?” the sweet young tech asks.
“Nothing,” I snap. “Alzheimer’s preview.”
The Computer Room
I wonder how reality can keep shifting like it does in this place. When I remember who and where I am, I follow the ancient ways of my people and look for a magazine article. My laptop is here. I take a look at some basic neurology and anatomy texts. The brain is more complicated than all the stars in the wide open sky out there, full of structures and pathways, all sending molecule-sized little electrochemical flashes to one another. If something had happened to my lungs, my knee, my liver, it would have happened to something in my body, something of mine. However something happened to my brain, and even the phrase “my brain” doesn’t make any sense; I am a brain. Something happened to me. But which part of my brain is me, and how is this so called “me” derived from electrical impulses and neuro-chemicals, molecules traveling around at light speed through the subway system of myelin-sheathed tunnels and synaptic transfer stations? Which is the part that takes care of itself? Which part is me? How does anything as massless and intricate as whatever I call “me” derive from an earth-colored three-pound lump of what looks like wet clay? How do “I” stay safe? I don’t, I can’t.. “I” am under attack.
I keep finding myself in different rooms not knowing why I’ve come in or where I was previously.
Well, what’s that even mean, really? “I.” “Me.” Is that the part telling my neurons and molecules to get on with it — all aboard, careful of the closing doors, mind the gap, the express isn’t running today and we will be making local stops, lots and lots of local stops, kindly have a destination firmly in “mind,” if there is such a thing?
The neurosurgeon who operated on me is a plump and pleasant woman, last name of Olson. She can’t answer my question either, but she attempts to briefly meet me where I am.
“Consciousness is sometimes defined as the experience of being embodied,” she says. “In other words in order to be conscious you have to have something to be conscious of.”
This is not a comforting thought, but if I want comfort I can always pretend to believe in an afterlife.
I’ve watched brain surgery videos. I can picture her delicately poking with small, chrome-shiny, precise little tools into the meat underneath my dura mater.
“What’s your favorite neural structure?” I ask, using my dottiness to pretend that I’m not asking her an inappropriate question. Her face takes on a strange glow.
“I’ve always liked ‘substantia nigra,’ the dark substance,” she replies. “There’s an area of dark substance in the brain.”
The Cruise Ship Room
The world has pretty much ended. The planet’s limping along to merge with the Void. It’s the pale of skin who brought about the disaster.
The planet’s destroyed, and there is only a small remnant of humans left on it. It’s been decided that 90 percent of humanity, including everyone 50 or older must be returned to the environment which we had torn apart with our rows of savage teeth. The planet needed to return to its former stately silence, so it could rest up and gestate. To that end some very kind-eyed and large-framed young folks have put us, the last remnants of Gen-X humanity, on a small cruise ship. They are gentle and they smile at us, but every night they take one of us to a platform on the side of the ship. Almost imperceptibly, the platform lowers; warm tropical waters begin to gently lap at its edges. The stars seem very close. The cruise ship staff sing and create a rising wave of a capella voices, rising and rising. They smile encouragingly and say,“Don’t be scared, Grandmother, this is what’s supposed to happen. Look at the stars.”
Orion will be the last thing I see, because he’s always been there, a friendly presence, waiting to pick me up after school. But I’m stubborn. Even though I have outlived any possible purpose I might’ve had, even though I am only another mouth chewing away at the foundation, I’ve decided not to go gently. I won’t just let the water slosh me into nothingness. Instead, I’ll sneak around. If I can find the engine room, where the actual working parts of the ship are doing their job, I can set it to re-navigate toward shore, where the water won’t be over my head. Instead of drowning, I will just pretend to drown and float ashore like something plastic and un-recycled.
The brain is more complicated than all the stars in the wide open sky out there, full of structures and pathways, all sending molecule-sized little electrochemical flashes to one another.
I eventually find the engine room, which is bright and humming. It seems to be made of people working small machines they power themselves with their own bodies, like hamsters on a wheel. Some are hooked up to measuring devices, black screens with glowing blue letters giving constant updates on the ship’s inner balance. The people work their contraptions doggedly, the chrome rails gleaming as the rubber rectangles they stand on move under their feet while they do an imitation of walking. It’s too bright here for subterfuge and secret agent hijinks, I’m exposed. They’ll come for me and put me on the drowning platform, whispering, “Go on Grandmother. It’s fine, It’s fine. Think how lucky you are you didn’t die in the second famine. Think of all your beautiful extra years and toss them into the water like jangling bracelets. Let them go back to the water. Look at the stars….
“Emily,” my husband says, and there’s the look on his face again, “what are you doing here? You’re not ready for the exercise area yet. You’re still a fall risk, baby.”
The “Hostel” Room
My husband is a registered nurse, so he knows the term “hypergesia”: an extreme sensitivity to touch which causes excruciating pain. A steadying hand on my shoulder feels like a thuggish wrestling hold and I wrestle back. I know what it’s like to be a small lizard curled up in a comforting ball inside a warm mud pit. Hands come to wrest me out of it and I’ll fight back. I hear their voices from far away. The nurse sounds irritated, my husband apologetic. “It’s the hypergesia,” he says, trying to smooth things over, trying to make a good impression for me I can’t believe him. He’d let his throat get cut before he’d have an awkward social moment. Me, I have only one reflex; fight back, don’t let them. Whatever they are trying to do to me, don’t let them. I’m not upset, just ready to kill or die, these being my only logical options.
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They wheel me into another area where I am attacked and stabbed with enormous needles. I know what they want: They’re trying to convert me to an early version of Christianity. This room is lost in time and it’s only the year 2 AD. Early Rome. They are trying to convert me to their new religion by draining my blood and replacing it with Christ’s. This is only a waiting area. Outside the door is the coliseum — blinding heat, the screaming crowds, the lions. It is very important to them that I am torn limb from bloody limb as a Christian, but I won’t play their game.
“He didn’t!” I shriek at them. “He didn’t rise from the grave! He’s too busy spinning in it!”
I look up and see that my mother and sisters are in the room with me, their eyes brimming.
I’ve done it again, made them frightened for me, and embarrassed, and cost them money. Plane tickets do not grow on trees.
The Lunch Room
Long moments of boredom are at least punctuated by meals, but we have to sit at the table for five minutes or maybe four hours — things are still wonky time wise. We are having breakfast in the lunch room. It’s called the lunch room because it’s where we eat lunch, but also breakfast and supper, and so I am unsure why they call it the lunch room instead of say, the dining room. There is something behind it, something Not Quite Right.
They won’t give me a release date even though I’m fine. I’m going to be institutionalized here forever. My husband’s daily visits will be weekly, then monthly, then I’ll be alone in this world forever. I know what they’re doing.
My fellow diners are in rehab, too, for strokes, or cardiac events or traumatic brain injuries — TBIs. People with TBIs can be what they call disinhibited, so imagine having breakfast with a loud, cheerful drunk sitting across from you at 7 am Like this guy, he’s quite taken with his own sense of exuberant virility. “Oh My God,” he says looking at me with an ear-to-ear grin, talking at public volume. He’s got some great news he wants everyone to know: “I bet your vergina (sic) is as beautiful as your face!” An attendant appears at his shoulder, murmuring.
“Larry, we talked about this.”
“What…?” He looks mildly hurt. “I didn’t say ‘pussy’!”
Another aide taps the first one on the shoulder. “You’ve got eleven more hours. Pick your battles.”
Normally I’d be laughing, but now I’m not. They won’t give me a release date even though I’m fine. I’m never getting out of here. How do I know what’s really going on anyway? I think I’m fine, but for all I know I’m a vegetable. I’m going to be institutionalized here forever. My husband’s daily visits will be weekly, then monthly, then I’ll be alone in this world forever. I know what they’re doing; they’ll never let me out.
Sobs come galloping out of my throat, my nose runs, I salt my scrambled eggs with tears. Then I butter a piece of toast and ask the nice lady what room my Occupational Therapy is in today.
The Reindeer Room
“Do you see them,” I’m asking my husband, “aren’t they exquisite?” I’m coming out of some procedure or other. There’s a small lamp by the bed creating a halo around us but the rest of the room is pitch black. “The little reindeer,” I tell him and point just outside our circle of yellow light. “They’re perfect miniatures,” I go on,”baby reindeer with tiny, perfect antlers. Don’t you see how they are shy but curious? Look how they trot in toward us and then skitter away. You know what we do with them, right, you know what we do? We’re so patient, we tell them not to be afraid, we tell them to come into the firelight, where it’s warm. ‘We’ll keep you safe,’ we call to them in comforting baby talk. ‘It’s ok, it’s ok.’ It takes so long to earn their trust, but they finally come into our circle with their knobbly legs and big brown eyes.”
“Then what?” my husband asks.
“Then we bash them with clubs. They try to get away, but we beat them into red pulp. We don’t care how much they cry, and we put them right into the pot for reindeer stew. Silence.
What?” I say, “everyone has to eat.” My husband looks ashen again. I realize I’d better change the subject.
The Family Room
I know how to convince them I am ready to go home. I’ve figured it out. First, I am zealous about my Physical and Occupational Therapy. I don’t mind them a bit. They break up the hours of sitting there staring at the greyish-green walls with their mauve trim, a shade called Ashes of Roses. Hospital colors. Pastels with a gray undertone, soothing, soothing, so soothing you hardly notice them, so barely there that no one could form anything as concrete as an objection.
I know how to convince them I am ready to go home. I’ve figured it out. First, I am zealous about my Physical and Occupational Therapy. I don’t mind them a bit. They break up the hours of sitting there staring at the grayish-green walls with their mauve trim, a shade called Ashes of Roses. Hospital colors.
Also, I’ve decided to make sure they know I’ve ditched the anosognosia; I get it, I’m not 100%, I’m not fine, and they’re the ones with experience, not me. I’ll defer to their years of accrued knowledge and if they think I should stay here another month, then I’ll stay (although I still suspect a month means “the rest of your life, until you die, institutionalized and alone.”) They can’t help, I think, but see how reasonable I am, how reasonably I’m reasoning. There are conference calls with my “care team,” my family who are now back East, my husband two hours north in our little house on the mesa. I’m alert, poised, and sunny. I plan out my sentences in my head before I say them. I’m in Human Resource Supervisor mode. I hold up my styrofoam cup, with the brown liquid tracing itself into the grooves of the plastic lid:
“Decaf,” I say, “just like you suggested.”
“Well, the problem,” they say, “is your husband works long hours and we don’t want you to be alone up there, isolated.”
So it falls I can’t leave until we find a place to live in Albuquerque rather than Fort Wingate, which is almost two hours away, outside of Gallup, New Mexico, where we don’t know anyone well yet, and the wind scours the mesa into rough, shrub-spackled flatness. “Don’t,” says my husband, “don’t even think it. I won’t let them keep you. If I have to break you out of here with guns ablaze,” etc., etc. He is saving up money to put down on an apartment in Albuquerque. My family will give us some money. It will happen….at some point. But who will make sure I don’t walk out onto the highway, or into traffic in the meantime? They won’t let me go until they know there’s someone besides my husband who’ll know where I am at a given point during the day. The fog is clearing, but it’s not exactly sparkling clear. Better, but not best. Everything’s gotta be optimal.
The Room of the Madonna
You have a visitor, the nurse says with a smile. I’m thinking it might be a trick. I see my oldest friend in the world, who was supposed to be in Arkansas at the moment. She is floating in a capsule of light, moving her hands about in a lovely slow motion dance. I know better than to mention it to anyone. This could be a trick to see if I’m still hallucinating or delusional, but my suspicions are dissipating like bubbles and smoke. “Is it you?” I ask. “Is it really you?”
I’m alert, poised, and sunny. I plan out my sentences in my head before I say them. I hold up my styrofoam cup, with the brown liquid tracing itself into the grooves of the plastic lid: “Decaf,” I say, “just like you suggested.”
The friend I had been young with 30 years ago, and middle aged with, spent millions of hours with talking around various tables with coffee and cigarettes in our hands, laughing — if she wasn’t really here, I didn’t want to know. We walked outside and sat on a retaining wall, far enough from the unit that we could smoke. I kept staring at her, drop-jawed: she glowed like an emissary from a stronger world. She had left her last job, and was looking for a permanent home in Albuquerque. I didn’t care so much where she’d been. I cared that she was here. She was settling here, where the sky was thick and shining, like blue jello. “You looked like a saint in the light back there,” I told her.
“Well, I’m not,” she cracked.
“Well I know that at least.”
They gave me a release date the next day. In a week my brain, myself, and I were settling nicely into our new apartment. My husband and my friend live here with me. It’s not perfect but it’s good — good enough that the odds don’t terrify me quite as much as they used to. I don’t know whether I’m still experiencing the after effects of the aneurysm, but Albuquerque seems to me to be a beautiful town.
My husband and I kissed on the street while walking the dogs. “Hey,” yelled a youngster, “get a room!”
* * *
Emily Carter Roiphe is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband of 20 years and her friend of 30. Currently she’s all about the Fight for 15. She is the author of the story collection Glory Goes and Gets Some, for which she won a Whiting Award.
Editor: Sari Botton