Funny how time slows when something really bad is happening. How you notice little details, and those are all that you remember later. Funny how time slows and you can see everything, but all you remember later are the tiniest little things. Like how the kilometers on the speedometer are marked in red, not white like the miles. How you are doing sixty-two or sixty-three of them, and how the sound of locked-up anti-lock-brakes buzz through your brain. How the silence strikes as the tires leave off the pavement, and how the branches of the small tree in front of you are gray, not brown like the trees in all the pictures you drew as a kid. How time really seems to stop then, when the car is almost airborne over the ditch of the median, and then, how funny that suddenly time is racing. At that point, when the other car hits, how time suddenly accelerates so fast as to make you black out. And when you are finally back into your senses, you are in a crumpled car in the bottom of a ditch on top of a small toppled tree. How funny it all is. How funny that Einstein’s Relativity is so much more real when you experience all this, how you suddenly understand it all.
These are Mike’s thoughts in his few minutes of lucidity, when the doctors have to restrain the drip long enough to explain this or that procedure, and “would you mind signing here? And here.” When they leave, and restore whatever drug is in his I.V., it takes him a moment to remember that these things all happened years ago. And once he remembers, a few more increments of time pass before he wonders, What am I doing here and now, then? By then the drugs are taking their toll, and the pain starting to seep into his mind slides away.
Pain still comes in through his haze. But it is like the tide on a long gentle white beach. Subtle and slow, and more a realization that the tide has come in, and the beach is smaller, and the next time you turn around, and care to notice, the tide has gone out again. Mike’s tide of pain undulates with his dreams and hallucinations, instead of gravity. In the low tide of dreams, Mike swims in saltwater of deep green and purple, flies with winged dolphins in red skies, walks a long garden full of geese twice his height. Plants are blue and the geese are iridescent, color changing, full of greens and blues and purples. The sounds are like the ocean heard in a conch shell, in and out and constant. Smells linger through his nostrils, the dolphins with the rich dungness of horses, like they are some kind of Pegasus, and the geese are featherless and smell of fried apples and they cannot fly.
Women he barely knew from grade school walk and fly and swim beside him. Some he only knew from dreams in grade school, people he had never actually met, or even seen. Whole conversations slide through him, in languages he does not know. Words that mean everything at once and nothing at all. The women come in black, and cream, and cocoa, and butter with hair green and yellow and purple and orange and black. But they all invariably wear the same things: a black t-shirt, white shorts, and black tennis shoes. And every one of them makes him smile, makes him love.
High tide rages in silently and suddenly. More women he does not know walk around him, clad in white and pink and pastel sea-green. They move about him, in and out of his vision, and say things like “He’s so lucky,” and “Okay, you’re lookin’ good today.” Mike does not really understand what they are talking about, and the voices come well after their mouths shift. The ceiling undulates in a way that makes him sick, because the bed he is laying in swings in opposite amplitude. He is floating in a full straight jacket, arms and legs pinioned and motionless, lips wired shut as in bad horror movies, and his eyes held wide open. He sees everything projected on the sliding ceiling above him. Women burning alive screaming until the fire sucks the oxygen out of their lungs, men strapped to tables and drawn out of their bellies, inside out, children packed five deep and three tall in shelves like cordwood. Falling snow.
Not falling-from-the-sky snow, the gently swinging snow of childhood through the kitchen window with hot chocolate. Not the gotta-make-it-home blinding snow at the end of a six hour drive back to Boston. Falling rumbling snow like a wall. Snowflakes like boulders, bounding in the air, carrying trees and rocks and slabs of ice. Snow moving like a tsunami of solid earth. Snow so heavy and dense it could not possibly fly like it does, from above. Snow with the chest-shaking, mind drenching determination of a tympani-only orchestra. Not even white snow, but grey snow that hasn’t seen the sun in ten or twenty years. Death snow. This is when Mike starts moaning, shaking, and trying to run his broken body away. This is when the nurse puts an extra shot of whatever in the I.V. and tells him to “Calm down. Go back to sleep.”
Five rounds with the doctors in the O.R. That is what the physical therapists tell Mike, six months later. It took that many surgeries to get all the bones and ligaments in his legs and the one arm pieced back together. The shrink tells him he needs to try to remember everything about the day, and the week of, the accident. That is what everyone is calling the avalanche, “an accident.” It seems rather weak to Mike, when he thinks about it. An avalanche is not an “accident,” a car wreck is an “accident,” falling down the stairs is an “accident.”
Mike cannot convince himself that it was anything other than God. He has not yet decided if God hates him profoundly, or was just making a correction to some paperwork one of his interns messed up. Mike supposes God hates him because he is still alive. His wife of all of three days is still missing. Anna’s body is unrecovered on a mountainside in Colorado, and they had to bury an empty coffin in front of the granite headstone outside Boston. Mike was still in a wheelchair and had to be pushed through the three feet of February snow. Even at that point, Mike was really unsure of what had happened. He was still on a strict diet of pain-killers and anti-psychotics, and was generally seeing things and feeling pain. He swears he saw and talked to Anna a couple of times, and that is the reasoning behind the crazy-drugs, as he calls them.
Now, in August, in Boston, he’s finally off the crazy-drugs. The pain drugs are still around. His bones hurt deeply inside. The kind of feeling that makes him want to tear his skin off, but he’s actually just happy to be able to scratch his legs again when he gets an itch. The casts came off just over a week ago, but he still has to wear braces to stand and walk, and the doctors said he may never run or bike or ski again, with the damage to his knees. The therapists urge him to get up and about when he feels like it, on his own. The shrink tells him to try to remember, and he tells the shrink he’d rather not.
Mike sees the shrink twice a week, right before his daily (except Sundays) visit to the physical therapist. The sessions last an hour, and the head-doctor asks him probing, personal questions about his life before “the accident.” “What was your typical day like?” “How many times did you eat a day?” “Have you suffered depression before?” “What really made you smile?” “How much did you sleep?” “What was Anna like?” “What made you want to marry her?” “Did you like your job?” “What did you really like to do, above all else?” To this last he replies, “To spend time with Anna. To get to know her better. To hold her in front of the TV, to make her dinner, to make love with her.” The doc likes this and asks him to expound on the use of ‘with’ instead of ‘to.’ Mike does not really respond to this. Instead he wonders if he can discreetly check his watch without the man noticing.
Mike’s daily (except Sundays) physical therapy sessions go something like this. He is wheeled in to a room on the other side of the hospital, where he is greeted by one of three people. The first therapist he sees is a woman a little younger than him, in her mid-twenties, blonde, bright and way too enthusiastic. The fake enthusiasm that is immediately grating and uncontrollably irritating. The only word he can think of to accurately describe her is ‘pneumatic,’ the way desirable women in one of those books he had to read in high school were described. She is certainly pretty enough, and she had to be smart to get through school for this job, but she is also definitely full of air. She strikes him as patently false. His second therapist is another woman. She was a little younger than his mom, graying, and has the build and attitude of nurses in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He likes her because she does not take any bull, and her opinion of the younger girl is the same as his, and they get to laughing about her. The third therapist is a guy. The kind of guy you expect to meet in the gym, being a personal trainer so he can meet beautiful, in shape or soon-to-be in shape women. Slimy. But he is upfront and honest with Mike, even more so than the cartoon nurse, and he expects a lot of Mike, which makes him work harder.
The sessions always start with his arm. His left arm was broken in several places and pulled out of the shoulder socket, and he lost the two smaller fingers to frostbite. He now wears the wedding ring around his neck on a chain. Mike starts with finger exercises, squeezing a ball and pushing or pulling against the trainer’s hand. Then the wrist, then forearm, then biceps and triceps and finally shoulder exercises. Then they put his leg braces on and he is stood up, wobbly. Mike is walking about ten feet on his own right now. His trainers all encourage him to continue practice at home at the ends of his two hour sessions, and sometimes he does. Mostly though, he does not.
Mike usually sits in the easy chair in front of the TV and drifts in and out of sleep, taking pain pills when he needs to, and more when he wants to. He drinks beer thoroughly and aggressively, putting four or five or six down so he can fall asleep and forget about Anna, and “The Accident.” Mostly he is successful in this, and he has finally convinced his doting and worried parents to leave him “the fuck alone,” so he can be miserable by himself. Anna’s parents came to see him a couple of times, but they have left off in the months since the funeral, and Mike is secretly glad about this. When he takes enough of the meds with enough beer, he can see Anna again like she is standing right in front of him, right there. He likes this and uses more and more, until he starts missing his therapy sessions. His friends start passing on bringing beer over, and after one day of going without the percocet or codeine or whatever, he snaps. He yells at everyone in earshot, curses them all to high hell, and curses God. He stops eating. Three days he sits in the brown and sagging La-Z-Boy with his feet up and his sweat pouring out of him non-stop. Then he finally quits.
He asks his mom to bring a journal and a pen, because the shrink said writing might help him deal with his emotions and recover more quickly. He writes, and writes, and writes. Everything that comes into his mind goes into that little black book, and by mid September he is asking for another book. He makes his final entry on January, 5th 2006, exactly one year later.
05 Jan, 2006
I can finally walk without the braces. I tried it myself last night, and then showed the p.t. today. She said I would be okay to get around without them bits at a time, and to take things easy. And easy I will. I realized today that I have started talking about the avalanche as “the accident” as much as everyone else has been. As much as I hated that when it was fresh and I couldn’t remember anything, and everything seemed like a complete abject failure, I’ve started doing it, too. I’m not sure if this bothers me or not. Seems like it should, like I should hate myself for it, but I don’t, and I don’t really know why. Something to ask the shrink about tomorrow. I even started titling the journals that way. This one is “Journal of The Accident, vol. 4.” I really don’t know about that. I have been thinking about writing a book. These journals will be a great resource, because I can’t exactly remember when I started calling it “the accident,” or when I first fell over trying to walk, or how I felt when I went to crutches instead of the chair.
They still say I’ll never run or bike or ski again, but I am thinking differently, and I really want to do those things, and so I’ve made that my goal, for August. I have joined a gym, and started going at night to get stronger, in addition to the p.t. sessions.
I went to Anna’s grave today. Her parents were there, and there were hugs and tears all around. I really like them, and plan on staying in contact with them. We had dinner at their house, my parents came too, and we shared pictures and talked for a long time. I realized I still love her. I think about her all the time, and sometimes, I still cry. Sometimes I cry for what I lost out on with her, and that makes me feel like a total self-absorbed shit-head. I miss her though. I think I will still think about her and miss her when I am 60.
Things I’ve learned:
I can survive anything. I can get better. God is not interested in my little existence. Salvation rests in myself, not in church, and not in pills or alcohol. And the sound of salvation is the sound of a dog barking and scratching, and the sound of boots crunching in snow, and the sound of shovels hitting ice, all eight feet above a small dark hole at the bottom of an avalanche.