Week 4 in the Big House, with a brief respite for wasted good behavior. I’ve known nothing but hospital nomenclature since early March, when I was readmitted to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis for complications from a stroke. It’s my exclusive language now. I haven’t prepared (or, more likely, purchased in godlessly inadvisable amounts) any food in weeks, and I’ve devoured so much hospital fare I may legally be a fat-free, sodium-free, taste-free omelet myself. I rarely speak with anyone who isn’t a doctor or nurse; my friends are but memories, my life a series of masks, and my own parents are relegated to the sidelines as disembodied voices in the storm, pleasantries at intervals in this coronavirus-maddened world. (Thanks to the virus, visitors are restricted to patients under 18 and the terminally ill; and no more than two people can occupy an elevator at a time, maintaining 6 feet of distance with the aid of strategically taped Xs. Guess fistfights determine who can walk the narrower halls.)
But I have nothing as sexy as the coronavirus, just the stale aftermath of a ho-hum stroke. A “hemorrhagic” stroke, they call it, as if describing a lovably disobedient child who craps on the carpet but kisses his mommy at bedtime. Yet I’ve never been this sick or doomed in my life. They outline it as a small explosion that took place inside my head. Phrases like “Stage 2 kidney disease” are tossed my way as minor inconveniences (I fight it with low blood pressure and water) and not harbingers of peril to my continued existence. I’m on enough blood thinners to drain a cavalry. I swallow four to six pills daily with names I can’t pronounce. One resembles a cashew but tastes of plague-laden socks. I get a shot every morning to a very bruised tummy. For a sequel, this blows.
Meanwhile, I learn to walk again, sliding my feet into position like I’m 2 years old, cheered for every successful step forward. I feel woefully inadequate in my own skin; how’s that for a how-do-you-do? Like I’m a suddenly ill-fitting suit. My legs are too long, arms too jumbly, and my hands are too big to control. I’d been intensely independent for most of my 47 years; now I’m required to answer endless intrusive questions, discuss personal matters with my parents and attorneys over the phone about the limits of my mortality, and be naked in rooms with young, strange women.
Yet my right leg, deadened by the stroke, along with my right side, is slowly returning to me. Mobility is my long-term goal. One foot steady before the other, a careful, every-part-for-itself stagger two weeks ago — a lunge for credibility, really. I could barely even speak, honestly, my voice an elongated creak, like a slow-opening door. I now have ideas and words for them, not complicated soupy purrs. My right hand remains the stubborn holdout, momentary flashes of strained digit movement. I can’t grasp anything with it yet, or get dressed, but I can hold a sandwich like nobody’s business, as long as it has something, like my palm, to stop its descent.
Sleep has proven impossible. Every morning the bloodsuckers arrive at dawn to empty my left arm. “We need to draw some blood,” they explain, pouring it into a pitcher to drink on their lunch breaks. What’s wrong with yesterday’s bucket? Others enter my room at intervals to jam available appendages into cuffs and squeeze ’em ’til the bones explode. “Checking your vitals,” they say as you watch your vitals vanish.
My neighbors have been loud in tragic and infuriating ways. Nurse magnets. One called endlessly for people who weren’t there, demanding release or assistance. He also squalled at every touch. Day or night, he yelled into nothing. Another was a cutup who sought a captive audience for meandering stories with fetid punchlines and otherwise demanded constant attention. She too wailed at night for salvation when the pain arrived. Still another speaks in a series of startled, exhausted moans. Anyway, all have gone home in various stages of delusion and rancor, hopefully to sons of bitches who exist. I remain in lockup, a rarity: well-heeled, well-behaved and fully cognizant of who and where I am.
I’ve been more emotional this time around. A chance hearing of Mike and the Mechanics’ “Living Years” reduced me to a snotty, blubbering mess for most of Week 1, and I played it without end. Not for my sainted father, mind you, but for myself as a potential corpse riddled with regret, Paul Carrack’s anguished vocals an accusation through the heart. I imagined myself without breath or life, beneath the ground, incapable of reaching out, those “living years” a pipe dream, as parades of loved ones somberly ambled past. I imagined us all younger again, with me evaporating helplessly from the frame. I was no longer the son, the friend, the older brother, the cousin, the potential other leaving too many severed links behind — I’d carelessly ended that through poor diet and personal neglect at age 47. I was dirt. I was ash. Refuse for aggrandizement. Now, I didn’t die, felt nothing like it, nowhere near it, but I came too damn close for my own taste. My own mind almost threw me out.
My third week relievedly saw a first: my first steps outside in a 21-day period. I saw the building’s first floor for the first time from an upright position: walls, floors, doors and elevators instead of overhead signs and ceilings. I passed people in masks en route to somewhere, absorbing the COVID-19 world for the very first time, scrubbed my own hands with sanitizer and stepped from antiseptic interiors into breezy vacant gardens where no one spent any time reflecting on anything.
On a dull Saturday in Week 4, I took my first reciprocal steps — i.e., climbed one foot at a time — up a staircase in weeks. My right foot, minus a limp, was back. Week 5, I could open and close my right hand and press my nurses’ “call” button with my right thumb. I could slide into a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, abandoning my hospital gown for human adornments.
I have learned that the piped-in Brahms "Lullaby” (more colloquially known among non-swells as “Lullaby and Goodnight”) heralds the birth of a baby, not a disruptive patient finally going to bed. A nurse told me on our afternoon sojourn past the darkened nurses stations and down empty third-floor corridors. Over the last two weeks, I’ve made great strides — literally — going from full-on walkers to a cane. I feel rather dashing, almost continental, as we promenade, her in her scrubs and me in my Redd Foxx T-shirt and shorts. I still struggle with dressing, using a funky scoop for my right sock.
And pants? Forget it. It ain’t pants weather anyhow. The sun is out. The wind is light. Spring has shown itself. I’ve been outside almost every day since my initial escape, learning to navigate gravel, inclines, obstacle courses, stairs, uneven blocks in walkways, and grass, things I once knew instinctively but now had to rewire myself to handle. The new ugly way, overcoming new fears of pain and bodily damage. Otherwise, I’m in a good place mentally, calm and rested more than I’ve been in a lifetime, laughing with a girl about babies cutely closing their eyes to Brahms, dreaming of futures unspent.
All told, I was in the hospital — for a second time — from March 18 to April 27, or 40 days, way beyond what I wanted. Some 40 sessions of occupational and physical therapy with multiple therapists of varying ages. Some talked books and tested me beyond my parameters, others talked methods and tested me beyond my parameters. I went from needing supervision in the bathroom to very little, then none. I eventually showered with minimal assistance, though the nurse who helped me the most helped me mentally in immeasurable ways. Eventually, I dressed with only an occasional helping hand, though jeans continued to vex me. My right arm rose high above my head, and I could make both a fist and a middle finger with the hand, which amused one of my doctors to no end. A brace on my right leg replicated natural walking.
And I could finally see my father again, as my nurses loaded umpteen weeks of merchandise onto a separate cart and wheeled me down to the first-floor emergency room entrance, where two nurses and I awaited his arrival on a Sunday afternoon. I was at least 15 to 20 pounds lighter, blood flowing peacefully through my body for the first time since I was a child. I remained the same Cory Frye, but the events of the previous weeks felt like an erasure of the past. Honestly, I could barely remember anything prior to the experience I enjoyed at that moment: re-entry into a strange civilization of masks and uncertainty. The old me felt ill-equipped for this new universe. He couldn’t have survived it without extreme change. In a way, this deathly weirdness had prepared me to traverse this reality, strengthened my heart, cleared blocked, damaged passages. At the end, I stood to my feet, grabbed my cane, wrapped a mask around my face and ambled headlong into the unknown.
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