Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Thinking the unthinkable: time without us

This thing, this indiscernible blade, this surgical slicing through skin bone marrow and soul—I do not understand. If I sit here long enough staring out the window at the leaves swirling in the eddies formed in the lee of the building, at the glowering gray sky and the trees bowing from the force of the wind, I think I might get close enough to grasp at it, though I do not believe for one second that it can be caught with physical hands. Or that by staring empty-eyed into space its mysteries will be revealed. Maybe some things are conceived in darkness and in darkness remain.

How deep are our scars? Some I can name and chart, their physical traits and characteristics, the method of their execution: the melted patch on my right shoulder, the waxy pucker on my thigh, the pale thread half-circling my ring finger. Each a remnant, a memory of blood or fire, and shallow, though deep enough certainly to forever leave their imprint.

But it is not of these I speak.

It is some unnamable thing I reach for, and it eludes me. It slips away light as a shadow. But it is always there. Especially when blood flows like water.

It was a morning like any other. Lori off to work with a kiss and I retreating to the back of the house to brush my teeth. When I returned to the kitchen Lori was there, dazed, eyes glassy, face bloody from a cut on her nose and chin, her nose scraped raw. A fall outside off the front step had launched her face-first into the gravel, and for several minutes I laboriously scraped bits of rock and dirt from the cuts. My hands shaking as if possessed with the ague.

She would heal. I would not.

Seeing her like that sundered me somehow, so that even as I led her into the bathroom to daub her wounds I passed beyond the boundaries of the physical and entered a room whose pastel walls were unbroken by door or window, illuminated by a soft light that came from everywhere and nowhere. My presence cast no shadow. There were two of me now, one with her, the other lost and terrified and unsure how to return. But I knew the place.

Deep wounds leave their dermal histories through a condensation of collagen fibers and structural molecules, a lessening of blood vessels, a reduction in nerve endings. An imperfect, if visible, mending.

This sudden severing left neither trace nor sign, nor pain, but brought in its wake a fear so great it was like a pack of wolves descending on me to rend and tear. I was breathless in panic, seeing nothing but my prison while that other me stanched the blood with a confidence I in no way possessed. That other me an imposter. The real me was cast into an otherworld where I wandered alone.

My wife is stronger than I will ever be. She sat at the table for a minute while gathering her composure and then left for work, against my admonitions and pleading. And my two halves slowly merged, as though a tentative truce had been bargained and both parties remained distrustful of the other. That terror, the metaphysical knife that cut through the strings which keep me upright, was still lurking in that tenebrous shadow I carry inside like a scar, but in the days that followed I kept returning to the place and snooping around for answers. There were things I wanted to know, things about myself I do not understand.

Why this blade, this terror? Where did it come from? It’s been with me for decades, yes, and possibly before, but there is nothing in my past which would account for it. I only know that sometimes a sense of mortality is so strong I can barely breathe, and a sense of dread falls like midnight, and that when Lori is injured or sick it comes out of the shadows like a singing sword and I fall screaming not again not again. No. Not again.

Time without us is unimaginable. We may peer cluelessly into the future and on one plane understand that in an indeterminate future we will no longer walk among the living, but to draw so close to the edge that we are singed or bloody is another thing entirely.

And yet, I do not fear death. Not my own, anyway; Lori’s is another matter. But the real fright must come not in the contemplation of loss but in the witnessing of a loved one’s pain. If there are levels of hell on earth, that surely is the worst.

With little warning, a friend’s husband slipped into advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Every day, without fail, she drives 30 miles to the nursing home to be with him. Most of the time he does not recognize her. She told me that after the initial heartbreak she now finds it fascinating how the mind works, and memory, in Alzheimer’s patients.

Another dear friend is dealing with her father’s struggle with cancer. Her mother is at the hospital all the time, rarely leaving her husband’s side. “I couldn’t do what my mother is doing,” she said, and then, after some thought, she said it’s probably just something we learn to do. I wanted to say something sensitive and touching. I couldn’t.

Later, it came to me that I should have said, Find the joy. It’s a creed I want to live by for the rest of my days, and yet seeing Lori with blood streaming down her face left no place in the universe for joy.

We will walk down dark roads in the days ahead. Somehow I must learn from my friends as they wend their ways through those twilight valleys, and find a way to blunt the knife, to escape that windowless prison. But for now I stare out the window and look for something hidden behind the dancing trees. I am afraid and don’t want to be.

Do not turn away. This is your life, too.

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