Monday, November 29, 2004

The return of the mem-wah

Some of you who were readers of my Live Journal may remember me posting sections from the memoir I was playing at writing. I've picked it up again. Here is a new section:

There were four of us to a room, curtains drawn around our little space where cards and pictures were taped to my wall and where a wet Carol Alt beckoned from my neighbor’s wall, the poster signed, TO JOSH scrawled across her dark nipples. Josh Anderson was six feet seven inches tall, a high school basketball player from Albany, New York. His bed had to be equipped with an extension for his feet and his wheelchairs custom made. He was seventeen and had broken his neck diving into an ocean wave in Hilton Head, South Carolina. It was not in King Arthur’s court this Yankee found himself. His arms nearly touched the floor when he pushed his chair, his injury less severe than mine. He became, for that time, my best friend, five years older, five years cooler. This living arrangement would be my first college experience, and despite the pain, surgeries, eight hours of physical therapy five days a week, I would love my time there.
A third man, older, in his sixties but robust at the time of his injury, shared our room. He suffered with bed sores and, I think, depression, the one compounding the other, and would have liked, probably, not to be in a room with boys, but on certain days he would call out from his bed to join in the laugh, to stir us up. Our fourth suitemate was Joey Allen, a teenaged boy from Alabama who’d been injured since a child and had come to Shepherd for strengthening. He was where I had yet to go: the awkward middle of adolescence, his voice brittle and wavering.
One day, one evening, after therapy and before dinner, Josh and I were talking, cutting up, he was eating a small packet of trail mix. Dropping it, he leaned slightly over to grab it but lost his balance, tumbling from the chair into the floor and under his bed. I sat still for a moment, having seen it happen in my head just before it did, but Joey pushed his chair into the hall quicker than his weak arms normally pushed him. He called down to the nurses’ desk, to Violet, a large black nurse, who came running.
Meanwhile, under the bed, Josh had his trail mix in hand, eating away, while I laughed in the middle of it all. This was easy, this part of our lives.
The nurses woke us at seven and dressed us in soft clothes. Anything with a seam, that might cause our skin to break down, ulcerate, was forbidden. Breakfast was served in a cafeteria that doubled as our physical therapy room. The mats where we would lie until lunch surrounded us. After lunch, we would return to the mats, to be stretched and strengthened if possible. A stereo played in the background. To this day, anything that was in the top 40 of the summer of 1986 returns me to those mats with a startling immediacy. It was Peter Gabriel that summer. He wanted to be my sledgehammer.
After breakfast, we had mat class, a term that was lost on none of us. Our bodies were remedial cases, able to do little. Some of us could not sit up without becoming dizzy, nauseous; for them, they were gradually acclimated to sitting upright. For others, range of motion: a therapist would straddle one leg while raising the leg perpendicular to the mat, to the patient’s body, while the leg shook, tremored. For me, for a time, there was not much the therapists could do for me. Faint flickers of sensation were returning to me but my muscles were still unresponsive to conscious control. The muscle spasms continually worsened. At night anguished nurses tried to stretch my legs, but nothing helped, not the medicines. It would be two years before the electrical storm of my nervous system would quiet.
So ingrained by doctors and therapists that I’d never move my lower body again, I did not realize that I could. One morning one of the favorite physical therapists, a middle aged man named Steve, who would help dress patients when nurses were understaffed, came to help me. I mentioned to him that I could make my legs spasm. His face grew funny and cautious, his eyebrow inching up his forehead. What do you mean, he asked, his voice now sounding like his face looked.
I had noticed that if I concentrated in certain ways my leg would begin to spasm. In retrospect, it wasn’t purely muscle spasm, clonus, but the first tremblings of control returning. I didn’t recognize it. It seems obvious now. Steve asked me to show him and I did. A sly smile began to play across his face, as I haltingly straightened my right leg at the knee.
Paul-ee, he said, drawing out my name, his delight obvious and still, for a moment longer to me, mysterious.


Eduardo C. Corral said...

Wonderful! I can't wait for more. I have no doubt this project will be published someday.

Paul said...

Thanks, Eduardo!