This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
This is an excerpt of a novel in progress.
After the meeting, Robert drove to the hospital again. The fury he’d felt two days before was gone. Remembering that day 20 years ago with Jessica and Maylin, and hearing that young man talk about forgiveness had shaken him. Phil was somehow connected to his guilt and Robert longed for a confrontation.
Visiting hours ended at 9 p.m., so he didn’t have a lot of time to do whatever he was doing. He parked and sat in the truck with the window down, and this time he noticed the dusk, the daytime birds going to roost in the trees and the night insects winding up. After a moment he raised the window and climbed down from the cab, forcing the key into the right front pocket of his jeans. It struck him how easy it was to open the door, step onto the pavement, and to walk wherever he wanted to when Maylin did not get out. But he pushed that thought away. He was going to see her murderer.
The hospital’s wide automatic doors whooshed open for him, and he stepped into the quiet, tastefully lit lobby. The woman behind the curved prow of the information desk did not look up as he approached, but a uniformed security guard standing against the wall gazed at him. Robert leaned one arm on the tall counter. The woman glanced up. “Can I help you?” He took a breath and asked for Phil’s room number. She looked it up and told him, reminding him that visiting hours ended at 9. Walking down the corridor, he felt naked, empty-handed, and chilled by the air conditioning in his stained T-shirt, work boots, and ill-fitting jeans. He was conscious of how his belt cut into his belly and the click of arthritis in his left knee. Maybe he thought of these things because of how young Phil really was, because Maylin and Phil were young, together.
The elevator took him up to a smaller lobby with a few chairs and artificial plants where a sign pointed to the hallway with Phil’s room number. An elderly couple passed him, then he passed a group of works stations corralled behind a waist-high wall where doctors and nurses talked and typed, their faces lit by blue screens. Then Robert was at the door. He hung back and listened for voices, but it was quiet. He bobbed around the door casing to take a look, then stepped in, ducking slightly like a servant or a soldier. Phil lay with his eyes closed under a light blanket in the high hospital bed, wearing a pale blue hospital gown. He had a black eye, his beard had grown out, and his hair was unwashed. One arm was wrapped in a bulky bandage from fingers to elbow. His other arm was bare, scratched, and bruised, and an IV tube was taped to the back of his hand. He looked thin and pale, and the fluorescent light behind his head threw shadows on his face. Robert knocked lightly on the doorframe.
Phil wondered if he was dreaming when he saw Robert standing there. A little bubble of fear expanded in his chest, but nothing came of it. When he’d thought about it, Phil had anxiously imagined Robert would come at him. But now he wasn’t afraid. Surprisingly, he did not feel much at all. It was just poor old Robert, looking at him the way he always did.
“Can I come in?” Robert asked.
Phil blinked. “Yeah, come in,” he said, almost lifting his good hand.
Robert slowly walked the three or four steps to the bedside. He was nervous and did not want to stand too close or move too quickly. “I came to see if you’re OK.”
A buzzing sound startled him until he realized that it came from the hospital bed. Phil’s upper body rose with the bed, and he looked at Robert with glassy eyes and the slack expression of narcotics. Robert turned to sit in the reclining chair just behind him. Phil remained quiet and motionless, but Robert’s breathing was quick, his heart was thumping, and his hands were icy cold on the arms of the chair.
He forced himself to talk, to keep it simple. “I’m sorry this happened,” Robert said. “Just — sorry.” It was so hard to say only the words he should say and not the other things — his questions, his anger, his grief. They looked at each other in silence.
Phil blinked, licked his lips and said, “I’m sorry, too.” It sounded lame, but he meant it. His mind was empty, but in a way that made it easier to focus on just this moment and not try to guess what Robert was thinking. The nightmare scenes of the accident that sometimes overcame him stayed hidden. This was good in case his thoughts traveled through the air like a virus and became visible to Robert — because who knew? Maybe they could. Robert looked old and exhausted with deep creases in his face. His shoulders were low and rounded, and he leaned forward in the chair with hands clasped in a surrendering way, like he was praying.
“Are you OK?” Phil asked him, surprising himself.
Something broke inside Robert in a way that he did not know he could break. His breath caught as he swallowed a sob, then he gave up and wept silently, shoulders shaking. He hid his face in his arms, bent over his knees. In a moment, he had it under control. He inhaled deeply and let it out in a long, ragged sigh. Then he looked up.
Phil looked stricken and afraid. He returned Robert’s wide-eyed look. All at once, Robert wanted to laugh. He smiled crookedly and said to Phil, “You look terrible, man.” And Phil laughed, too. Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Then Robert stood up, nodded, and left.
Driving home, he leaned into the wind and listened to the truck’s low-pitched hum, a Tuvan throat song that harmonized with the rise and fall of insects in the ditches and hovering woods. The night air was warm and humid. This time, when he got home, he would tell Cynthia about his visit with Phil, and he would tell about her the feelings he’d had during the meeting. He wanted to be let back into her heart.
Suddenly a deer flashed at the side of the road ahead and leaped in front of the truck. Robert slammed on the brakes and missed it by inches. The truck idled at an angle in the middle of the dark road, headlights staring. Robert’s hands shook. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wept again, surprised that there was more inside him. Crying was painful — it was a terrible pressure in his head and a sensation of nakedness that made his skin itch with fear. Now that he had let it out, he was afraid it would never stop, and it would carry him to the end of the world. One part of his mind thought this is defeat. This is a surrender I never knew I could feel. But after a few minutes, it passed. He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face.
Crickets sang their stream of consciousness from every direction. An eggshell moon stood above the tree line on the eastern horizon. Out there in the dark along a hedgerow, the deer zig-zagged on its impossibly thin legs, its wide, liquid brown eyes alert for the kind of danger it could understand, with just two strategies to face it — run, or keep perfectly still.
© Patti Witten, all rights reserved
You Boys Be Good
He was climbing up the makeshift ladder to the stand when he fell. Everything was fine up to then. He was still pissed at Robert, but it didn’t matter because he’d gotten geared up, he was ready, and his good mood was restored by more beer and weed.
The ladder was made of six-inch wide pieces of salvaged wood siding nailed to the trunk of a pine tree. The tree stand was also made of salvaged lumber and plywood. It was on land that his friend Mike’s family leased for hunting. Phil and Mike had helped Mike’s uncle build it, which had been harder and more work than he’d expected.
Hand over hand, one foot, next foot. But he missed a beat in the pattern and went backward into the snow, falling on the rifle slung across his back.
He lay there for a while, catching his breath and looking straight up at the stupid tree. It was mostly dead, the dark broken branches sticking out like spears. The sky was a uniform white. He was still warm from walking in, but if he didn’t get up he knew he’d get cold pretty quick from the shock of the fall and from the snow. He experimented, raised his arms. Muscles convulsed between his shoulder blades. Then he tried rolling onto his side, intending to free the rifle digging into his back.
The pain flared. It hurt. A lot. Fuck. He could not even start to sit up, much less stand. He carefully removed a glove and fished his phone out of a pocket, and thank god there was a signal. He called Mike.
“You’re alive. What happened,” Mike said.
“You wouldn’t believe it. I fell. I was climbing and I think one of the slats broke. I fell like twenty feet.”
“What, did you break your leg?”
“My back hurts like a motherfucker. I can’t walk out. Can you come get me?” Mike sighed, agreed, and ended the call.
An hour later the doe appeared. Phil was really cold and it was getting dark when she stamped and snorted. He turned his head slowly and watched her, his cheek freezing against the icy snow. The doe’s head was low and her breath smoked in the cold air. He could smell her. Then he heard the buzz of Mike’s ATV and she disappeared.
The only good thing about this — two good things — he would get time off from work and he would get Percocet. Already he looked forward to the warm nothingness he would be feeling in a few hours. It was such a relief that, unbelievably, he started to cry.
Old friends, old enemies
Phil was dreaming — speedometer, clock, RPM. His arms and legs would not move. Teeth scratched at his hand and he was filled with a wild fear, pushed against something dense and heavy that was dragging him down. Don’t look at the light, baby. Close your eyes hard, roll them all the way up. Count and sing. We are the sultans, the sultans of swing.
He opened his eyes, his heart thumping, and he knew instantly that once again he was on his back in a hospital bed.
Unlike the other times Phil had awakened to find himself in the hospital, this time he was full of despair. The room had that slippery quality of nighttime. Light spilled into the open door from a hallway and a far-away voice buzzed quietly. A monitor beeped behind his head, out of sight. The scratchy pinch on the back of his hand was an IV needle. The rest was a maze of dread.
A female nurse in pink scrubs came through the door trailing a breeze that wafted over his face. She reached over his head. A fluorescent light came on and the beeping stopped. She turned his right wrist to time his pulse.
“Were you dreaming, honey? Are you awake now? How’s your pain? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”
Phil tried to answer but coughed instead. It hurt.
Here were his old familiar companions — pain and the hospital. He watched the nurse as she lowered his right hand and closed it around a thumb button attached to a cord. “Press this if you have too much pain. Can you do it? It’s a medication pump. You have a catheter so don’t try to get up. Do you understand?”
She held a plastic cup and a straw for him. The straw reminded him of something just beyond recall and discovered that his bottom lip was swollen and would not obey him. He had a question and looked at her over the cup.
“You’re OK, you were in an accident,” she said. “You have to stay in bed now.”
He dropped the straw from his lips. “I know,” he croaked. “What time is it?” Then, “What’s wrong with me?”
“Your left arm is fractured, and your pelvis. Your right knee is sprained and you have a lot of cuts and bruises. But you’re going to be OK. It’s very early now, go back to sleep if you can. The doctor will see you in the morning.”
The nurse straightened and pointed at a whiteboard on the wall next to the bed. “That’s me, I’m Becky. Oh, let me change the date because it’s tomorrow.”
With her back to Phil, she pulled the top off a marker with a pop, and the felt tip squeaked on the board. “I’ll be back,” Becky said over her shoulder and left the room in a puff of wind.
Sunday, August 19, 2018. Because it’s tomorrow. Phil tried to work it out. It meant almost nothing, or not quite something. He looked at his left arm wrapped in an ace bandage over thick padding. A light blanket covered his hips and legs. When he shifted experimentally the pain took his breath away. He found the pump in his right hand and pushed the button with his thumb. Then he pushed it again in case it didn’t work the first time.
Pain and the hospital — old friends, old enemies. The pain was an expanding balloon that carried off his mind like a trailing string. There was no room in his body for more questions.
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress.
There is a lot of pain when we are injured, break a bone, or have surgery. This happened to me recently and really shook me up. I slipped on an icy walk in mid-winter and landed on the heel of my left wrist — my guitar fretting hand — breaking the radius bone clean through. Without knowing anything about treatment options and recovery for distal radius fracture, I elected for open reduction internal fixation surgery, where a titanium plate was screwed into the bones.
I was 61 years old with 30 years clean and sober and I had never had general anesthesia before, had never even broken a bone. I worried about feeling pain but also worried about the effects of anesthesia drugs and post-op pain medication. I knew a handful of ex-alcoholics and addicts, maybe a dozen, who became addicted to pain meds and suffered terribly. I was immediately honest with my surgeon and he prescribed what he called a non-opioid (Tramadol) for post-op pain. It’s actually a synthetic opioid and a controlled substance, but the surgery was successful and I took the medication at the lowest possible dose to control the pain for just five days after the surgery. I didn’t crave its effects and managed pretty well after that with over-the-counter meds. There was nothing I could do about the anesthetic (Propofol) I was given for surgery. I wanted to be completely unconscious!
But in the next few weeks, I was weepy and often overcome with anxiety. I don’t think it was the medications (who really knows). It was my mind, for sure — I was terrified of falling again, alone and without help. I had anxiety over asking for help, fear of the future, and, above all, fear of pain. I was not used to that kind of anxiety or its intensity. I could not drive but I had help from friends, ordered groceries delivered, and watched a lot of Netflix.
Before I went back to work I tried to keep my creative mind active. I read a volume of Billy Collins’s sweet, wistful poetry, and wrote short poems almost every day. Most of my writing was about the fracture, and fear, of course. I slowly realized that the lessons I was learning about my wrist fracture I had already learned long ago and somehow forgot. They had applied to the invisible, ravaging injury of the early days of withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, even to the days or months leading up to getting clean, when the broken parts were almost all under the skin and in the mind. Some say in the spirit, as well. There is a lot of pain in recovery, at first.
Lesson number one. It takes time to heal — more time than we think it should and more than we want it to. There is and will be pain as we heal. Even weeks, months, and years later the pain flares when we make a wrong move, even when we make all the right moves. Sometimes it just flares on its own as the sensitive skin, bones — even thoughts — recall the injury. Sometimes it comes as a sudden stab, sometimes it’s a nagging ache.
Addicts are in a big hurry to alter discomfort and avoid it, which is ironic considering that doing the same thing got us the same results. It would be nice if abstinence marked the end of the pain. It would be nice if we never had to move that painful broken limb again. But, no.
I began physical therapy at 6 weeks post-op. I could not stop myself from crying during my first couple of sessions. It was more than pain. The bones were healing perfectly but I was emotional. I was stretching emotional muscles that had stiffened as much as the tendons in my wrist, hand, and fingers. I was afraid. What if I could never play guitar again? What if I had permanent nerve damage, what if the surgeon missed something? I was crying over the present pain but also future fear and past hurt.
Lesson number two. Fear can settle in like a bad roommate who uses our things without asking and leaves a mess for us to clean up. Even in long-term recovery, we may become afraid of making a wrong move, afraid of reactivating the pain. To avoid pain maybe we stop moving altogether and lock ourselves in with the fear, afraid to fail, afraid to fall. And maybe we fear that we’re permanently broken — that we’ll be unable to dance, run, build, carry a child, make art, or play the guitar like we did before.
I had developed complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) from the weeks of immobility in the splints and cast. I had loss of sensation and a lot of swelling in all of my fingers, really the entire hand, but it was worst in my thumb. I could not move or bend it without pain. My first excruciating attempts to pull up my pants, twist a door handle, pick up my cat, and hold my guitar were very much like the early years of recovery when I accomplished sober firsts — first relationships, jobs, financial decisions, hell even driving past the bar — all terribly uncomfortable and requiring faith in myself no matter the outcome.
The CRPS has gotten much, much better but I still don’t know if or when I’ll overcome it. Fifteen weeks after surgery I could play guitar a little and I resumed the writing I was doing before the break, starting with an essay about being stalked by my next-door-neighbor 20 years earlier. It dawned on me that the lessons of pain applied to this kind of post-trauma recovery, too. Victims of stalking know that fear becomes a shadow which follows us into the future, dragging minor harassments, medium trespasses, and major abuses from the past along with it. We become suspicious and hypervigilant, seeing danger everywhere, maybe painting ourselves into a corner with a very broad brush. Even years later, maybe we recoil at the slightest chance of being frightened or hurt again and cling to what resembles a sense of security, even if it isn’t healthy.
And loss can be a pain-to-fear trigger: the death of a loved one, divorce, financial insecurity, or homelessness. Maybe we blame others or maybe we blame ourselves. Maybe we lose ourselves. No one is immune from experiencing loss, but the mind of an addict seizes on it as a calamity requiring fight or flight, and looks for control in oblivion or assigning blame — dangerous precedents to relapse. I learned these lessons, too.
But, unexpectedly, maybe we find reserves of strength and endurance we didn’t know we had. This has happened to me several times over the years and I have found it possible not to drink and drug despite my darker-leaning expectations.
Lesson number three. Precisely because we are healing, we can support others in unexpected ways. As we witness the honest vulnerability revealed by others in recovery, we will gain compassion for them and for ourselves. Compassion will make it possible for us to become open to our experience, even to look at the past without staring at it, and to understand ourselves. We will find that we have it in us to see ourselves in others and to help almost anyone.
Lesson number four. In recovery there is always more to work on, or to work out, to press past, to stretch through, to regain or to accept as gone. There is always more to discover about ourselves and this life. The practice and tools available in many programs of recovery offer a kind of physical and occupational therapy. We heal, we change. This, too — whatever it is — will pass.
When we were girls in the early 1970s, my two sisters and I were lucky, so lucky. We lived in Connecticut, in a historic rambling brick and clapboard colonial home painted white with black shutters in the deep woods. Small brown bats slept behind the shutters during the day and a long green sweep of lawn and gardens led to a pond guarded by weeping willows and bullfrogs. It was heaven.
But the luckiest way that we were lucky was to have a horse. Nightmare was a sturdy, glossy, black mare with some draft horse in her unremarkable pedigree. She tolerated everything we did to her, from fawning on her to climbing and jumping from her back to pushing through brambles, to pulling her thick mane and braiding it with brightly colored yarn, to bathing her with blue Dawn detergent under cold water from the hose.
We kept Nightie at a nearby riding stable. She was so sturdy that unlike the touchy thoroughbreds I would ride as an adult, Nightie was never injured, except for one oozing wound of proud flesh on her right hind ankle that didn’t heal for the longest time. Still, we watched the other girls treating their more sophisticated horses with fascinating ointments and liniments for sore muscles and pulled tendons, and we also applied these lotions to Nightie’s legs and practiced bandaging them snugly but not tightly with cotton fleece and wide wraps, even though she did not need them. Such a patient horse.
The liniment everyone used was an alcohol, menthol and who-knows-what concoction that tingled when you tipped it into your hand from the brown glass bottle and rubbed it down her cannon bones and hocks and down the straight-as-saplings tendons at the back of Nightie’s lower legs. We pronounced it ab-zore-bean. Decades later when I mentioned it to other grown-up horsewomen, they laughed and corrected me. The proper pronunciation was ab-zore-bean, they said.
But I still say it the old way in my mind.
I’ve been writing and reading a lot of poetry over the past 10 weeks as I recover from surgery for a broken wrist. Marie Howe’s What The Living Do prompted this memory of my father’s last days. He died on April 18, 1995, in Vero Beach, FL.
I have arrived in this vivid spring: oleanders, hot Florida sun,
strong Atlantic breeze and cumulus towers in the blue-blue sky.
The small hospital is a tidy white concrete low-rise in a trimmed landscape
where shadows race and the wide doors open like airlocks.
Inside my father lies in a bed and I sit in a chair in my summer clothes.
Delirious, he says anything he thinks of and leers at my legs
licking his lips until something occurs to him
and he points at the door, looks me in the eye, and says,
Go to my office and get that book. I say, Maybe later.
Go now, he says and smiles like it’s a game.
He thinks he’s at home, not seeing the hospital around him.
What is it about, I ask, dangerously indulging the hallucination.
Go, he says, commanding. I say, I can’t, not right now.
A moment later he says, You’re having a hard time.
He sees me crying and his kindness breaks me in half.
The doctor and an intern enter and look at the two of us
How are you, the doctor asks me, but he can see perfectly well.
Prepare yourself, he says, and I begin.
I prepare by coming and going, abandoning plans for recovery
swapping vigils with my mother and sister
in the ICU that is a glass cage behind more airlocks
sitting with my father as he becomes quiet, struggles to breathe
watching the heart monitor leaping, the sound mercifully turned off
the oxygen mask pressing into the skin around his nose and mouth.
I prepare by taking an afternoon off as if cutting class or calling in sick
because he is unconscious, because I can’t take it, and that is when he dies
as I lie on the beach close to the restless, mumbling Atlantic
in the salty wind that peppers my skin with stinging sand.
A writing challenge on the prompt “ritual.”
. . .
The boy pulls on each boot as his father watches
he grabs his helmet by the strap
lifts it from the dirt where he dropped it
trudges through the barn’s shadowed maw where the ponies stand in cross-ties
and a thousand girls in jodhpurs adore them.
I prompt him at every step of the ritual tacking-up as he
swipes at the pony’s legs with a brush
broods at its refusal to lift a hoof for the pick
forgets where its bridle, saddle, and the stained pad are stored
although he has been taking lessons all summer.
Here’s what he thinks about riding
and his father’s nostalgia for horses —
He drops the saddle on the pony’s back
with the pommel facing backward.
. . .
© 2018 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten