Morning sunlight on a bowl of clementines reminds me of how I spent last night. In a hotel high in the Italian alps. I had ordered lunch: prosciutto and melon and bread, with a bottle of Pellegrino. Instead of finding a table, though, I took my tray and walked to the back of the same line of customers to order coffee. While others conversed in Italian and German, all in sunglasses and fur-trimmed parkas, I squinted out the window.
This must be why I was here, to bask in the exaggerated scale of dazzling, snow-capped peaks and their deep, cold shadows. A wall of glass framed the spectacular panorama behind the line of tourists inching their way forward. The scene was dizzying and almost unbearably close, like being inside a huge aquarium. At this altitude the light was blinding, but I seemed determined to take in the view while I waited. Why on earth hadn't I simply eaten my lunch at a table and come back later for the coffee?
Logic was pointless; even dreaming I knew that. To understand anything inside the dream, one needs an emotional cipher. So I was waiting, impatient, though I needn't have been waiting or impatient; and I was awestruck by the view. These are my clues, when I'm ready to consider them.
In my alpine dream I'm not divorced or grieving my mother's death, don't have two teenagers and four cats, in an old house in central New Jersey with a flooded basement and no prosciutto, fast asleep in my dark bedroom in the middle of the night. In my dream I'm wide awake and the sun is shining.
Who are we when we dream? I am a lonesome traveler. A hungry traveler, waiting at the end of a long line for a cup of coffee while I could be eating a meal. Distracted by what others are more or less taking for granted.
Why is it the most basic questions—who am I when I dream? where am I when I'm dead?—don't plague everyone else to distraction. I marvel at this, on and off, every day. How do they carry on as if nothing is out of the ordinary? As if those concerns were beside the point when they are the point. Maybe it's too risky to ask and end up with nothing but the red herrings, religion, philosophy, psychology, quantum physics, all the magnificent dead ends.
The answer to such questions must be buried, like treasure, in the secret life of every object.
This isn't a dream: I was paralyzed. Invisible inside a white spacesuit, even my face was obscured by the astronaut's helmet. This is the recurring image I had of myself as I lay in a hospital bed in the Intensive Care Unit.
Every morning a nurse lifted my gown and injected a blood thinner into my belly, two inches deep, to prevent deep vein thrombosis. She apologized in advance, but I felt nothing. At regular intervals, nurses turned me from side to side to prevent pressure sores. Because I was incontinent, a urinary catheter was inserted, but my period had come several weeks early. I felt nothing, lying in my own blood. There were IV lines in my arms and threaded through the shallow veins on the back of my hands. While I could still use my thumb, the call button was taped to my hand, but I could only whisper and my speech was severely slurred. Most of the muscles of my face no longer worked, giving it a mask-like appearance, though I was still able to open my mouth, move my tongue a little, and blink. My sense of taste was gone. I choked on thickened water and coughing produced something that sounded like the repetitive, slow-motion wheeze of a machine that fails (and fails, and fails) to start on a cold morning.
Nurses would rush in to ask how I felt when monitors indicated a sudden drop or elevation in blood pressure, and then do nothing. Since the body's responses could no longer be predicted, medication presented its own dangers. I fainted repeatedly but often had no idea I'd lost consciousness unless a nurse happened to be standing over me. "Charlotte, are you with us now? You just passed out, hon." I couldn't understand what had made them think I'd fainted. There had been a drop in blood pressure, they told me, and my eyes were glassy and unresponsive.
Guillain–Barré syndrome is a rare autoimmune condition where the body attacks its nerves, causing progressive paralysis that affects breathing, swallowing, body temperature, blood pressure, and causes intermittent back pain that is 10 on a scale of 10. It has no known cause and cannot be prevented, but intravenous immunoglobulin therapy often hastens the natural reversal of its course. IVIG contains plasma collected from the antibodies of healthy donors and is administered four hours a day for five consecutive days. Most people recover fully in a few months, though others will retain some lasting paralysis, nerve damage, or weakness. Only a tiny minority of those afflicted will die of cardiorespiratory complications.
After the fourth IVIG administration, my neurologist paid a visit and said that while they had hoped the treatment would reverse the symptoms it had proven to be unsuccessful in my case. The symptoms had worsened each day and it was likely that a respirator and feeding tube would become necessary during the next 24 hours. The neurologist was handsome and I was pleased that he looked into my eyes whenever he entered the room. The first time he visited me, I was secretly thrilled by the way he had held my gaze and told me, "You're in for a wild ride." But now his attention quickly waned, shifting to my mother.
He assured her that while I wouldn't be able to speak I would still be able to communicate by blinking my eyes. He patted my leg under the white cotton blanket in the way medical professionals do to indicate compassion, but I couldn't feel anything. I didn't ask how I would communicate when the nerves of my eyelids stopped working. I smiled at my mother, to reassure her, but she didn't smile back. Then I remembered she couldn't see me smiling. I was smiling but no one saw it. My body was becoming more like any other object—furniture or a piece of statuary, or a spacesuit.
It was clear to me I could do nothing to influence the outcome of events. This fact was enough to convince me survival was unlikely. I was vanishing, already disappearing before I was gone. I would be leaving two very young children, too young to remember me, in the care of a man I didn't trust. I would break my mother's heart. And they would all move on.
Whenever I began to panic about my children, my insignificance would chill me into a fraught, emotional stillness. I wanted to make sure my kids would always know I had loved them, that they were first and last on my mind. For hours, my mother would sit beside me while I mentally rehearsed, Tell the kids I love them. It took time before I had the courage to say the words out loud. I didn't want to be upsetting or melodramatic. When I finally spoke, my mother nodded in a matter-of-fact way. I wasn't sure she had understood me.
On the fifth day, after the last IVIG treatment, the doctor performed his usual tests. He asked me to squeeze his finger and I focused all my concentration, but my will and my body were disconnected. He asked me to push the sole of my foot against his palm as hard as I could. I bore down mentally, holding my breath, for as long as I could. I felt nothing.
But my big toe had moved slightly, changing the trajectory of my life.
There would be rehab and months of physical therapy, but no respirator or feeding tube, no orphaned children or broken hearts. No vanishing. My favorite nurse, Donna, was delighted. She told me quietly that I had been given a rare, spiritual gift, that my life would never be the same again.
For years I waited for the epiphany. My kids' father told me the neurologist had confided in him. Before the reversal of symptoms, the doctor had felt that if I survived, I would never walk again. In his experience, all people who had this condition were susceptible to it because of some profound emotional weakness, a inability to stand on one's one. He shared this information with me so I would make myself strong, so I would see how lucky I was to have survived and rally myself.
But I was more concerned with my eye twitch. As the nerves repaired themselves, my brain rapidly fired signals to test and correct errors in synaptical connections. My eyelids fluttered almost continually while the muscles around my mouth twitched. The neurologist assured me that it was just part of the healing process, but after a year, the left side of my face was still out of sync. Ten years on, my eye is wonky and my smile uneven. When I press my lips together, to eat or kiss or smile, one eye pulls shut. The neurologist found this interesting but not uncommon. As the most delicate nerves surrounding the eye regrow, he explained, they may establish faulty connections. He said one of his patients now cried whenever she ate; another just had a pronounced limp. I was lucky, he said. I was alive. He told me he knew I wasn't ungrateful, but his statement carried the impact of a challenge. I was pissed off, but unable to put my finger on why. Yes, I was glad to be alive, I told him, but why should I be glad to be disfigured?
As I continue to await my epiphany I remember the empty spacesuit, how it felt to be unseen and to apprehend the fact of my eternal insignificance. Behind the helmet I can sometimes make out a tiny, single-celled creature peering back at me, unseeing, pulling levers and throwing switches. About the size and shape of a thumb, it reminds me of the character Plankton from SpongeBob, a cartoon my children watched. Like that character it dabbles with naïve, absurd dreams of domination, but I sense that the creature itself is controlled remotely, from an incalculably distant location, by something unknowable. By merely looking at the mask, it's impossible to be able to locate the true presence.
The basement floodwaters have finally receded, leaving behind a silty layer of mud and human waste that exploded from the main sewer line because of overgrown tree roots or too much toilet paper clogging the pipe. Before scrubbing the floor with bleach, I start scooping shit off the floor with wads of paper towels, but after a few rolls the doorbell rings. It's the Sewer Authority, responding to my desperate email.
I follow a man with a badge to the curb where he kneels on the margin of grass between the sidewalk and the street. He uses a long poker to pry open the cover of the cleanout. He is a solemn man and works at it patiently for several minutes, without irritation. The metal cover is about the size of a dinner plate, but disproportionately heavy. Once it's removed, the man aims his flashlight down inside the hole and motions for me to take a look. I think of the shock of those women, the disciples of Christ, who had come to anoint his body only to find an empty tomb, so maybe that's why I hesitate. Like the believers, what I see is both shocking and anticlimactic. I turn to the solemn man for an answer.
"That is human waste," he says. It looks like a smallish, water-logged turd centered on a salad plate. This is the evidence that has been painstakingly unearthed in order to explain everything. I think I recognize my own shit—this mild-mannered, passive-aggressive turd, it's clearly mine.
"It's exactly where it's supposed to be," the man says, as if this is an adequate explanation. "The problem must be on your end." Maybe, after paying $300 for a professional to run an electric snake to clear the pipes, with the prospect of scrubbing shit from the basement floor for the next two weeks, knowing that it will all happen again, when I least expect it, that's why I forget all about it.
Meanwhile, barely noticed, Plankton and my turd begin to form a single entity.
To be continued...