Nov 19, 2013

The big stick

It's the middle of the night. Wind buffets my tent. Rain pelts the fly. I zip back the flaps to look out. The moon is peeking through my neighbor's twisting palms. A gust blasts in a spray of rain. I scootch back into my bag. It is dry and warm, but my thoughts are howling like the wind.

I don't know what was I expecting from Dr. Wei-Chi. If you go to a barber, you expect a haircut. If you go to masseuse, you expect a message. So what would you expect if you go to a surgeon?

Dr Wei-Chi is a very cordial and tidy woman with beautiful transparent skin, shiny grey-streaked hair and clinical dark eyes. She taps with self-evident finality on on the display. "This picture shows a stenosis. A root of the sciatic nerve is getting pinched and inflamed."

I stare at the image. I have no idea what's she's seeing. I nod because I now realize that from this point on my fate will be steered by the judgement of this woman who I do not really trust. Maybe it's because she exudes a physician's infallibility. Maybe it's because she is so polite. Maybe it's because I'm older than she is. Back when I had infallible parents, I wasn't so suspicious. I was full of trust and willing surrender. I was theirs to poke, puncture and slice. Being brave meant submitting without complaint or least sign of fear. But now, it's a quandry. I've come to seek her advice. I'm here to fix my leg. I feel the stirrings of anxiety.

"What's that mean?" I ask.

"First, we'll shoot a bit of cortisone right there," she says squinting down the length of her pen which is placed precisely in an undifferentiated grey smear in the center of the image. "If that doesn't work, we get a bit more aggressive and scrape out some bone."

"In my spine?"

"Yes. But we don't want to rush into that. Do we?" she says with a chuckle. "Let's start with the epidural."

I see that she has very white, very straight teeth and crinkles about the eyes. I think about her day and how, every day before work, she must fuss in the mirror with eyes and hair and that she will probably stop at the grocery on the way home and endure her teenagers complaints about her sauteed chicken.

"Do you do that here?"

"No," she says. "This is an outpatient surgery. We use a Fluoroscope to place the needle. We don't want to miss." She stands. "The nurse will help you schedule the procedure."

Lilalee is delighted. "At last you'll be hiking again. Aren't you relieved?"

"Yes," I say. "I am very excited. I can't wait." This is pure fabrication. I have been online and know that Dr. Wei-Chi plans to stick a 4-inch needle through my spinal column. I am extremely uneasy at the prospect. The very thought cause my heart to pound unevenly. There is no point is upsetting Lilalee. "It's very routine. She says I'll be hiking in 6 weeks after the procedure."

Later that afternoon,I begin to think about all the money I spent on camping gear that I may never use. I get this wild hair. "I'm gonna camp in the back yard tonight. Do you mind?"

"Really?" says Lilalee. "They say we're gonna have a storm."

"It's cool. It'll be fun."

Now I'm lying here amongst all this tumult while Lilalee is sound asleep with Max curled up on a corner of the bed. I could just go inside and slide under the covers next to them. Just then a cold gust blows under the fly through the rear netting. A branch of the neighbor's tree crashes a few feet way. Probably the Jacaranda. I pull up my bag around my chin and stare into the darkness of my small shelter. Eventually this storm will blow out, but how much damage will it do? Time will tell.

Nov 11, 2013

Along for the ride

It's the first cold wave of the season. The streets are quiet and slick with drizzle. Most are in their beds, their faces illuminated by TV. The rest are huddled where it is dry.

If this were a normal day, I would be home too. This is the time of night when I sleep best, before the interminable wee hours. But tonight is not a normal. I am descending in a rumbling elevator to the basement for my 11:30 MRI. It seemed odd. Who'd have thought that the MRI schedule ran till midnight? Given the choice of waiting till next year, I signed on. So here I am.

I've read about MRIs on the web. I've heard stories from ex-work buddies. Everyone seems to have a tale. But, this is my first. I am secretly apprehensive. I am secretly claustrophobic.

I am 10 minutes early. The waiting room is bright and deserted. No one is at reception. I poke my head over the counter. No one insight. I thump my coat pocket for my copy of Wenk's John Muir Trail. I'm good. I'm prepared.

I take one of the less-than-cheery orange chairs that line the walls. Across the room, a pretty actress, who is displaying a generous cleavage, weeps as a bare-chested actor exits, stage right, off the flat panel. I am annoyed and weary. Why must TV be everywhere hammering at our senses seducing us away from our own thoughts.

I grab Wenk and crack the book where I left off. Oh yes. We are skirting a large meadow of Kelley's lilies, sneezeweed and swamp onion. Pink flowered shrubs decorate the slope on our right. Just ahead is the 14,000 foot granite wall of the Palisades. The pinnacles are reflected in the cerulean blue water of Lower Palisades Lake. My thoughts drift from the page. I imagine the crisp air and clouds racing above. My pace is good. I am now strong and my pack is now an organic part of me. Up head, there are trail friends. We will camp together and laugh at our hiking adventures as we relish our freezer-bag dinners. Then the temperature drops and we crawl into our warm sleeping bags, tired and happy as we stare out at the transparent night sky.

Just then, the receptionist bursts through the door. She is a large, square-figured woman. She wears a low-cut red cocktail dress, necklace and dangly earrings. I am astonished, but given the late hour and the absence of any other living soul, her get-up is explainable. She takes her seat at the terminal and types aggressively.

She looks in my direction "Mr. Meyer?" I nod. "I can check you in now."

I walk over and hand her my med card. She continues to type. "Am I under dressed?" I ask.

She shoots me a quick disapproving glance and says, "Your co-pay is $15. How will you pay?" I hand over my Visa. She hands me a receipt. "Follow me," she says.

She punches in the door code and we pass into a white-tiled, curving corridor. We follow it for several minutes. We pass a few intersecting corridors before turning into another white-tiled corridor. Then another. And another. At last she walks up to a windowless door that bears a plaque that says "preparation room."

"Here we are," she says as she opens the door with a key that hangs from a wrist band. I follow her in. She opens a cabinet and hands me a snow-flake smock. "Put this on. You can keep your socks." Then she hands me a plastic bag. "Put your clothes and valuables in the bag. Don't leave them. We are not liable for theft. The technician will be here shortly." With that she leaves.

I change into my all-time favorite garment: the open-back exam gown. I keep my socks. I stuff my clothes, my wallet and my watch into the plastic bag and take a seat on the bench to wait. I notice a second, coded door and full-size illustrations of both male and female skeletons. Each illustration has a frontal and side views. I study the differences. The minutes seem to stretch out. I walk around and try the cabinets. They are all locked. I open the chrome lids on the glass jars of tongue depressors and cotton balls. Then I notice an exit diagram is screwed to the door. I study it. I seems to have no relation to the corridors I just walked. "Not surprising," I think and sit down to wait some more.

More time passes. I begin to think that something is wrong. Could they have forgotten me? I pace a bit thinking I should get dressed and look for help. I decide I'm being impatient and dig Wenk out of my plastic bag. But I cannot concentrate so I stuff the book back in the bag. I decide to have a look out into the corridor. I try the door. It is locked.

Just at that moment there's a knock on the 2nd door. A small bearded man enters. He wears an open, light-blue lab coat with a badge that sports his beardless image. "Hello," he says. "My name is Serge, I will be your radiographer today. Sorry for the delay. Please take your things and follow me."

He holds the door for me. I grab my plastic bag and I pin my exam gown tight to my side. He leads me into a brightly lit passage that slopes down. It is more like a tunnel than a corridor. The shiny white walls appear to be hewn from bedrock. The air is odorless.

"This is a strange place." I say

"I know," says Serge. "They are very concerned about shielding the instruments."

"From what?"

"Frankly sir, I don't know. I'm just a technician."

I begin to feel very troubled. Something seems too wierd. I start to feel anxious.

He leads me through an antechamber with X-Rays on the wall into a high-ceilinged, circular room with the MRI imager situated in the middle. He asks me to lie down on a pad that rests on sled-like mechanism that will carry me into the cylindrical chamber that sits inside a torrus.

"Just relax," he says as he reassuringly tucks the sheets around me. "The process takes about 30 minutes. It's important that you do not move or we will have to start over." He hands me ear plugs. "It will be loud. You will feel vibration and you may feel some heat inside. It is not dangerous." Then he places a grip with a button in my hand. "Take this. If you feel you must come out, just press the button. OK? Ready?"

Actually, I am not ready. This is not at all what I expect. It's as if I entered some other reality, a perverse destiny that began when that appointment nurse signed me up. It feels very weird, irrational, wrong. But I know that destiny is neither perverse or irrational. It just is. "Ready," I say.

Serge takes his seat at the controls. He activates the sled. I slide into the chamber. My nose is not even an inch from the cylinder wall. My breath bounces back in my face. There is no room to turn my hands never mind wiggle. I force myself to stay calm. I try to visualize the reflection of the stars in Lower Palisades Lake. I cannot concentrate. I am trapped. If there was a failure, I would not be able to get out on my own. Then the machine starts to vibrate. It is loud. Deafening. The earplugs do not help. I try to imagine the Palisades Peaks. I cannot think. My insides begin to heat up. They get hotter. They begin to burn. I panic. I press the button, but nothing happens. I press again and again. The machine is just getting louder. I am cooking from the inside. I start to shout.

And then I feel a shake and hear...
Sir? Sir? Sir?

Nov 6, 2013

Unbearable tightness of being

They say that Hope is happiness—

... Alas! it is delusion all—

The future cheats us from afar,  Byron, 1816
The words started early in the day. Now I am up on a chair staring into the brittle pages of a dusty book pulled from the back row of a high shelf. I don't hear Lilalee get home or even come into the house.

Well?!" she says in a rising tone of demand as she walks past to the bedroom to ditch her work clothes. From there she shouts, "What did they say?"

But I'm not really listening. This old verse verse has been chasing around in my head: "They say that hope is happiness..." It springs to mind every so often like a persistent hiccup and then dominates thought like a sore point in an old argument. I turn it over and over again never sure if it's bitter or sweet until the next line of confirmed melancholy pops into consciousness. "But genuine love must prize the past."

It's been that way ever ever since a girl I did not appreciate wrote them out for me as we sat on a bench high above Lake Austin at a long forgotten pot party. It's baffling. What is it about these unwelcome lines? And what about the present? Is it just lost between future and past. And then just at the point I think I am free, I half-remember the last line, "Alas it is delusion all," which I know is wrong and is the reason I'm standing on the chair.

"What did they say?!" she shouts. We often shout between rooms. I usually act as if I didn't hear because we are a house divided by rooms and spousal politics. One one side of the divide you become a subject of whim; on the other a domineering cad. It's hard to imagine any time or any place short of tyranny where a man was king of his house which is probably why household tyranny is commonplace elsewhere. But now, with the whole verse before me, the words have knotted me up. Present. Past. Hope. Happiness. Surely this delusion is folderol. Then it starts again: "They say that hope is happiness..."

She appears in the door. "What are you reading?"

"An old poem."

She crosses her arms. "The preqs of the retired. Are going to keep me in suspense?"

I put the book back behind the front books and climb down. "Sorry. I am preoccupied," which is an excuse that's long since lost its currency with Lilalee who just levels a steady, silent, disconcerting glare. I want to ask her to try to boil a cup of water with that glare, but think better of it.

"They've scheduled an MRI."

"About goddam time," she proclaims. Her impatience is understandable. I've been dragging my feet, but I don't much like it. I don't really want to talk about it. "Anything else?" she asks.

"Nothing much. The Doc just said she thinks something is pushing on the sciatic nerve. Depending on what they see, she'll figure out what comes next."


"Physical therapy, or a cortisone shot in my spine, or surgery."

"Back surgery? Isn't that a big deal."

"She did say that surgery was a last resort."

"Would you do that?"

"Maybe. Don't know."

"Maybe you should find a new passion," she says. "Something that won't make your leg go numb. Like dinner. Let's go get some pizza."

And just then I realize I am really starved and the words are no longer in my head.