The First Day
Today, while I was driving back to Santa Fe from Colorado Springs, Rick told me that Ronan had some trouble with his first nap. “I had to intervene,” he said, which meant picking him up and rocking him, giving him some water, singing a song. We call it “resetting Ronan.” I missed both of them so much last night; it was (and is) difficult to imagine missing Ronan, someday (but not today, not yet) for the rest of my life.
This morning I had the first fitting for my C-leg, a prosthetic limb with a computerized knee. The leg won’t let you fall over and can be specifically adjusted for activities like spinning, cross-country skiing, running, etc. It practically moves for you. I’ve wanted to go fully bionic (cue Lindsay Wagner jokes) for years, but until recently the technology was unavailable to most. But then we invaded Iraq, and now men and women are returning from war with missing limbs, demanding better technology and getting it (as well they should), and the rest of us who used to covet the gear on the Otto Bock website, wondering how they came up with this incredible stuff, are weirdly benefitting. So there I was, walking down the stairs unassisted (no railing required!) while the knee beeped and whirred away as Bill calibrated its fancy settings, feeling guilty.
When I was a kid in the 1970s the Vietnam vets in the prosthetist’s office chainsmoked Marlboro Reds while I held their ashtrays for them (and also sometimes for the prosthetist, who was himself a WWII vet) and stared at their super cool tattoos and listened to the occasional war story (which, before I saw an actual war movie, I imagined in animation). The office was filthy and yellow and smelled of smoke (obviously) and body odor and AquaVelva and the dust that spun off the wooden legs as they were ground and shaped in the back room. A radio perched on the shelf in the hallway played sports talk radio on a continuous loop.
Flashforward thirty years: Bill’s office smells like air freshener and everything is blue and white. Nobody smokes within ten feet of the building. Most of the veterans from the Iraq war are younger than I, often by a decade. Today a young man, 20, was being fitted with two prosthetic limbs so that he could walk down the aisle at his wedding in six months.
Almost four decades, and so many wars; so many bodies moving in and out of these prosthetists’ rooms; and so many wars before these more recent wars and so many bodies that never made it into these rooms and have been forgotten, their stories buried. The mind boggles. The heart reels. I’m reminded of Ziusudra of Sumer who, long, long ago, in 2700 B.C.E., wrote a letter to the future as he looked out over an empty, flood-washed world, reminding us that “fate, my dear friends, is like a wet bank. It is always going to make you slip.” He was uniquely suited to speak to this experience: the only survivor of the old world, he was charged with rebuilding a new one. Destruction is supposed to lead to recovery, resurrection, new life. Floods and storms and then “in the beginning.” But how? Z is on his own, with only his writing and his hope to comfort him.
When my nephew was younger he lost his favorite cap over the edge of the ferry in Seattle. He couldn’t believe that it was actually gone and that we, useless adults who were supposed to know how to retrieve lost items, could do nothing to get it back. He pleaded with us, “Can’t you go get it? Don’t you know how? Is there a special tool? An extra-long arm?” We shook our heads. No. It was gone. “Does anybody know?” he finally cried out over the water. Nobody knew. I thought of that afternoon today as I began cautiously investigating “plan of care” options for Ronan. Obviously we will insist that he is free from pain and as comfortable as possible. What kinds of interventions are we willing to investigate or consider? If we decide to use a feeding tube, which kind should we use? What about hospice? Respite care? How the hell will we get all of that organized? How?
In an effort, I think, to reassure himself, and perhaps looking ahead to the time when he would be considered the wise patriarch of this new civilization (he did well on that score, as he is credited with writing the first essay ever), wet and lonely Ziusudra pointed out that “any path that we may take in life is one that is treading the earth.” A simple, factual sentence; the concept makes sense, right? Read it again. Huh? It’s so basic, so true that it becomes meaningless, like reading a Pema Chodron book and trying to explain her Buddhist philosophy to someone else. You have to go back and read it again or finally give up and just read sections from the book out loud as the two of you try to puzzle out the meaning together. What Ziusudra seems to be saying is “Chin up, folks! Let’s put one foot in front of the other,” or “Take it one day at a time, and this, my friends, is the first day,” so perhaps the language of recovery owes some debt to him. In any case, it was the first day of the rest of his life, and he was clearly ready to hit the ground running, even if he was all alone on the road.
Rick and I have been taking night walks this week – on the Arroyo path near our house or just around the block. Just treading the earth, together. Right now every day is a “first” because we’re afraid, and fearful situations have a steep learning curve. The winter sky is tinged a deep purple and scattered with sharp stars, the air edged with cold. Rick always says, “I like the sky here,” and then we walk in silence. Each night I think of these lines from Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “Dancing in Odessa”:
We lived north of the future, days opened
letters with a child’s signature, a raspberry, a page of sky.
These words make perfect sense to me, although I struggle to say exactly how or why. Days continue to open with our child, with meals, with words, with the occasional sweet treat, and yet I know that we are living far north of the future, lifetimes away from a full understanding of this world we’ve slipped into. How will this day, and then the next, end? I don’t know the full details, many of which are still, mercifully, north of me, but I do know who will be with me.
My first husband and I took up running together, although at the end of our marriage we each ran alone, miserable and estranged from one another. We lived in a Texas town with one post office and one gas station, near a river that was dirty and green and weed-choked. (The woman who had lived in our house for sixty years had moved to a nursing home, and in addition to dead roaches that occasionally appeared in the corners of cabinets and drawers I often found mystifying notes. I couldn’t bear to throw them out, these little missives that documented the progress of her dementia. Some examples: Birds, paper bags, rocks. Bob? Another: Light out. Needles out? Marjorie 4/19/62. 62! ???) The Main Street had once been gussied up for a movie set and then later abandoned. Along a hot white gravel road I ran, past trailer parks and droopy ranch houses, over bridges and up and down hills, the sky always pressing and thick. We lived there for one year. Across the street was a dog that had been chained up for so long that his collar had grown into his neck. He hated the world – for good reason – and would only stop barking and lunging and growling to sleep or to eat; apart from that, the noise was constant. We grew accustomed to it.
I dreamt one night that I awoke in a moon-washed bedroom and looked out the window to see my then-husband on the other side of the street, cutting through the dog’s metal chain, freeing him. In the dream he struggles to cut the wire – sweat is visible on his face in the moonlight – but he finally succeeds and then quickly sits back, bracing himself for an attack. The dog shakes his untethered head, stunned by the change, and teeters a bit from side to side, bewildered. He is quiet and calm, thoughtful. He never expected to be freed, to leave the world beyond his yard. He turns toward the remarkable street, the possibility of it. And then he’s off; he knows exactly where he’s going, the chain rattling along the gravel, even the bone forgotten in the face of this greater joy, his dark body blending into the darkness, the tip of his tail bobbing along like a tiny white torch until that, too, disappears into the oily shadows at the end of the road.
This didn’t happen of course, and the day I left the marriage I woke up to a rainstorm and drove ten miles an hour to a friend’s house in Austin where I slept on the couch for a week, trying to find a cheap divorce lawyer. But I was happy to have had that dream, and happy that I had experienced (even while I was asleep) that final stamp of tenderness toward a man I no longer loved.
How did Ziusudra sort everything out on his own? He did, obviously, or we wouldn’t be reading his words literally thousands of years later. (The advice about donkeys and wives is perhaps not as useful as it was in 2700 B.C.E.) But many people, even in marriages or families, are lonely – even, truly, abandoned. Not Ronan, not me.
I think of many things on those walks, or I try not to think at all, but I always remember that dream from years ago. Rick and I walk in silence, grieving and rebuilding at the same time, somehow. How do I know this? Because it wouldn’t have taken Rick a year to help that dog, even in a dreamworld. He would have found a way to set him free – for real — on the very first day.