Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Curve

It's a white balloon that floats from place to place through space and time.  The string remains firmly tied to my corporeal self, but my memory goes where it will, buoyed by the lightness of immaterial thoughts.  At present there is a name scrawled in blue marker on the balloon, "Angela."  She is my older sister by two years, two years that might as well have been twenty years in terms of maturity when we were growing up together.  The balloon with her name on it descends on a hospital in Southern Indiana and winds its way through well lit corridors to find a particular exam room.  A doctor is entering that room and the balloon bobs down under the door frame brushing his crew cut as he shuts the door.

She is twelve, maybe thirteen, wearing pants and a hospital gown partially open in the back.  I am ten, maybe eleven, and I am there with her and my mother listening to the doctor try and explain what concerns him.  He has my sister bend over while standing so that her arms dangle below her.  The gown is tied at the bottom and her bare back rounds up out of it like a smooth-shelled sea turtle.  It makes me a little uncomfortable, but things like this are possible in a doctor's office where body parts take on a peculiar significance.

He uncaps a blue ink pen and does something remarkable. Starting at her neck he draws a line on her skin straight down her spine, only it doesn't quite work out that way.  Somewhere around the top of her shoulder blades the pen travels out and away from the center a good little ways before eventually making its way back to center, crossing the line again slightly, and then back to the middle.  It is a visible gesture so that even I understand that something is not as it should be.  As it soaks in, the friction that exists between the siblings doesn't seem quite so tangible as it did just a moment ago.  The balloon floats out through the roof and heads South, forward into the future a bit, drawn on by a stream of thoughts and emotions.  

She has moved on to Louisville, an hour or two from home, to stay at Kosair Children's hospital, by herself, off and on for weeks at a time, for an entire year.  It is an old and sprawling building, built at a time when some thought was given to aesthetics and not just pure practicality.  From a ten year old's perspective it appears to be a giant castle with wide verandas,  stonework, wooden beams, and sharply angled eaves.  As an adult I would recognize it as resembling a very large Swiss chalet.  The front grounds are large expanses of grass dotted with towering trees.  I flew a kite on those lawns, played tag, and even set off fireworks with a cousin who came along with us on the Fourth of July that year.  I see myself crawl under a pine tree and hide on a soft bed of needles.

The balloon floats through the front doors and bounces along the high ceilings.  Below are children wearing contraptions on their arms, legs, or torsos, some shuffling along with the help of crutches and others in wheelchairs.  It is a place unto itself, where things have gone terribly wrong and need to be made right. The balloon finds my sister lying in a hospital bed rigged up to what appears to be some kind of medieval torture device. Surrounding her ankles are leather straps connected to a pulley at the foot of the bed off of which hang weights dangling in space.  Around her head and under her chin are more leather straps connected to more weights hanging off the back of the bed.  She is being stretched, a week at a time, and body-casted intermittently throughout the course of a year.

When she is able to be free of these constraints she joins us on a second story veranda where I see myself running with a large soap-saturated ring making elongated bubbles.  The balloon enters the ring and makes its way down the bubble's interior.  Flowing down this thin walled tube it passes my father, my mother, my four year old sister, and Angela, all comically distorted through the warped surface.  I feel it pop and watch tiny droplets spatter over my freckled face.

She has a roommate named Wendy, like in Peter Pan.  They pass the time sharing stories while staring at the ceiling, strapped as they are, only able to see the other through the corner of the eye.  Their chins are always chafed and red from the pressure of the straps.  These markings leave my young self with a sense of disquiet tinged with awe.  It is a concrete sign of what my immature brain cannot really even imagine and makes me shudder even now thinking about it.  The balloon hovers over Wendy's bed as she is telling a story, a story of when Baryshnikov was in Louisville for a performance and she acquired a beer bottle that he'd drunk from, fished from a trashcan it would seem.  She treasured it as a sacred souvenir, having touched the lips of one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time.  She herself went on to become one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time, this preadolescent girl who is better known today as the recently retired Wendy Whelan.

The balloon floats forward in time to a scene in my early married years as a Medical Student before kids have come into the picture.  My wife and I are watching a program on PBS.  I am intrigued because it includes jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in the process of creating music in collaboration with a choreographer. My father played trumpet and I played trumpet, but by this time I had not played for many years.  My wife is intrigued with the dancer because she had danced when she was younger and knew this particular ballerina from the dance magazines she had consumed as a teenager.  The dancer on the TV screen with Wynton Marsalis is Wendy, though I don't make the connection until some time later.

Time flashes forward again and now I see myself as a young psychiatrist at a conference in downtown Louisville.  Nearby is Kosair Children's Hospital and out of curiosity I wander down the street and into the front lobby.  It has long since moved out of its old building on the outskirts of town and instead inhabits this glass and steel building amongst other glass and steel buildings.  Inside there are brightly colored banners and large stuffed animals to make it more child friendly.  The balloon fits right in, but there is not a single blade of grass or even a solitary tree here. Practicality has won out.  This is a place to fix the human machine, a realization that makes me feel blue.

The balloon labeled "Angela" finds its way back to me sitting here at the dining room table typing these words, back curved over the keyboard, touched by what I've seen, finding it hard to believe I was ever the age my son is now or that my sister had to go through such a thing as a young girl.  Life threw her a curve, as it were.  I should call her.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Gesture

The giant hand
gestures at
the homeless man
as if to say,
"See there,
a person in despair,
who must firmly grasp
his shoe straps and
hoist himself
into the air."
He is unaware
of the hovering attention,
the condescension.
The "invisible hand"
offers little
in the way
of a plan
that he can follow
or understand.
She pulls away
as if to say,
"You are not worth
the time of day"
and shoves up
her sleeves
to do nothing.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Re-entry by []Aaroneous Monk[]
Re-entry, a photo by []Aaroneous Monk[] on Flickr.

Life is a fall
from a great height
a star-heart birth
and journey
through endless space

meandering, until
picking up speed
with mounting terror
as temperatures rise
in the middle years

a growing realization
that the extreme heat
is burning away
impurities of the soul
until a final plunge

into the cool
ocean depths
of death

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Purple Foot

Purple Foot by []Aaroneous Monk[]
Purple Foot, a photo by []Aaroneous Monk[] on Flickr.
left foot forward
right to the rear
a quick counter-clockwise
spin of the torso
arms flung outward
holding the hips still
as long as possible
until the tension
is too great and
the right foot lifts
from the ground
whipped around in
an arc of unwinding
energy until meeting
a piece of piano
with an abrupt halt
and the failure of
vascular integrity
accompanied by
a rush of pain

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

An Utter Fool

My son is asleep in his bed
and he is beautiful.
He sleeps soundly,
at peace,
because love
tucked him in.
Watching him breathe,
my mind winds its way
back to a troubling past,
the days before I was married
and had little thought
for my own safety.
Seeing him lying there,
his life dependent on mine
both now and in the days
prior to his birth
for the sake
of what was to come,
I shudder in thinking
of the numberless times
I put myself in danger,
without a care,
on some adventure,
giving my physical wellbeing
over to chance,
whether here or overseas,
with friends or alone,
and I feel like an utter fool.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Medical School Dropout - a cautionary tale

Somewhere in the back of his muddled brain he seemed to recollect he'd been a medical student once; before the cognitive decline, the skin problems and the muscle stiffness. When he could still put more than a few thoughts together, he had speculated that he must have come into contact with some exotic disease in the tertiary care hospital on campus. He should have sought medical attention at the first sign of symptoms, but he was someone who kept to himself, always in fear of being called out or considered a slacker. He was not one to self-diagnose like many of his classmates who were eager to utilize their newly acquired knowledge. He made do even as his grades plummeted and he began to sneak into the gross anatomy lab late at night for a little snack.

There was a time when the idea of eating brains would have greatly disturbed him, he was not ignorant of the risk of prion disease after all, but that was before the hunger began. He'd been studying in the medical library one Fall evening, a futile endeavor as he could retain little, when a picture of a brain in his anatomy text triggered a growl in his midsection. This was quickly followed by the thought that the anatomy lab was only two floors above him and maybe he would just put in a little time working on his cadaver. The books were doing him no good, so why not some hands-on work?

He put his books away and shuffled through the door and into the darkened hallway. He held his arms out in front of him because it felt right somehow, though he told himself it was just to feel his way through the dark. The elevator was an old fashioned affair that could only hold a few people with a metal-cage door that folded to one side with a tug. He stepped into the center under the sickly hue of the single light that cast shadows over his eyes and then turned awkwardly. He pulled the cage door shut and the elevator jerked and rattled upward. A blank stare on his face hid a growing single mindedness.

Standing over his assigned cadaver he clicked on the low hanging fluorescent light above his head illuminating the dissecting table and not much else besides. His eyes kept wandering up to the head before he forced them back down to the dissected abdomen. The brain dissection was not for several more weeks into the curriculum, but his own pre-frontal cortex appeared to be misfiring. An impulse had him reaching for the bone saw and plugging it in. A flick of the switch and its half-circled cutting blade buzzed to life with a kick in his hand. He found himself breathing quicker as he applied it to the forehead and pressed downward. Flecks of skin and small bone chips began flying off into the darkness of the room.

It took some doing, but with the help of a small crowbar-type tool he was able to eventually pry off the top of the cranium as the subarachnoid layer separated in web-like strands. He paused and took in the sight, a shiny gray surface of what appeared to be intertwined sausages. A pleasurable shudder shot through his body. It was a welcome sensation after what had been a growing sense of numbness over the past few weeks. He pushed down on it and it pushed back with a kind of rubbery resistance. He pushed harder and his finger broke through the surface, buried to the second knuckle. He retrieved his finger and placed it into his mouth. It was a little bland, but not too bad.

The next few days he noticed that he had little appetite for his normal fare and was not visiting the cafeteria or making his typical late night Taco Bell runs. His thoughts kept returning to the anatomy lab where he'd made a few more trips taking thin slices of the brain before carefully replacing the top of the cranium. He'd discovered that the slices tasted even better when laid on a Ritz cracker, yet something was missing. This was quickly becoming his sole source of nourishment and he was growing paler by the day, preferring to come out only in the evening hours. He also began staying in his apartment less and less, hanging out instead behind a back alley dumpster that he could crawl into for shelter when needed.

His clothes were getting a bit raggedy and hung loosely on him. He couldn't remember the last time he'd changed them and he didn't seem to care. His main preoccupation had become one of trying to figure out how to get fresh brains which he was sure were much tastier than the formaldehyde scented slices he'd come to depend on. Before he'd descended into what appeared to be a premature dementia, he'd had the wherewithal to put the bone saw in his backpack which he kept behind the dumpster near a covered electrical outlet that was conveniently located on the alley wall.

The days passed and the lonely former medical student became increasingly depressed as his slow movements frustrated attempts to acquire what he needed to feed his hunger. The occasional nighttime passerby easily eluded him. He was dismissed as a mostly harmless and malodorous drunk by those who found their way down his alley. This went on for quite a long time as technology and human habits began to change, changes that resulted in an upturn of his fortunes.

He would never forget that first time. She was likely a college student or may have even been attending his former medical school. She was using the alley as a short cut and was thoroughly engrossed with a glowing rectangle of some kind in her hand. He watched from behind his dumpster in dumb amazement as she approached, her face and blond hair cast in a bluish light from the thing that she held. He stepped out and she almost walked straight into him as he closed his hands around her throat to cut off her scream.

From that moment forward more and more distracted persons made their acquaintance with his bone saw and ended up in his dumpster. He learned to use their small devices by tapping them with his mottled finger until the batteries were dead. He no longer had to feel the anguish of hunger and their glowing boxes provided hours of mindless entertainment inside his darkened dumpster. He did not seem capable of introspection, but he thought he might be happy.

Friday, February 21, 2014

High Street

driving home
'round midnight
on High Street
steady rain falls
putting a thick
shine on every
conceivable surface
the lane lines
barely visible
floating sensation
like a small fish
skimming along
the back of a
Killer Whale
neon lights from
Tee Jaye's create
a psychedelic slick
on the street
colors running together
over the washed windshield
puddles sending out
splashes of synesthesia
ambient music of
Tangerine Dream
flows from the radio
like liquid sound
a pseudo-experience of
sensory-altering substances
striking the cortex