Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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On Saturday night our cat Nimbus comes home limping. My wife, Norma, and I check for a sprain, a fracture; nothing appears to be broken. But the next morning she’s still limping.
At the vet’s office, the waiting room is jammed with cats, dogs, and the humans who own them, or maybe it’s the other way around. Norma and I sit next to a young woman who’s quietly weeping. I ask what’s wrong. She says her kitten fell from a tree this morning and landed on his back. I want to comfort her, but don’t know what to say.
After two hours the vet finally examines Nimbus and shows us what we missed: a tiny bite mark on the inside of her leg. Nimbus, he says, was in a fight with another cat. He cleans the wound, gives her an antibiotic, and tells us not to worry. Before we leave I ask him about the young woman’s kitten. The vet shakes his head: there was nothing he could do but put the animal out of his misery.
On the drive home I imagine Nimbus or our other cat, Cirrus, having to be put down, and my mind lurches like a car suddenly thrown into reverse. Ever since we brought them home a few years ago — tiny gray kittens from the same litter — I’ve been fervently devoted to their well-being. Norma finds this amusing, since it took her more than a year to talk me into getting cats. My daughters, for their part, have been surprised, and maybe a little jealous. When they visited me in North Carolina last Christmas — Mara lives in California, Sara in Massachusetts — I saw them exchange looks over how patient I was with Nimbus and Cirrus, never raising my voice or losing my temper: a model dad at last.
Back home Nimbus curls up beside Cirrus on the sofa. Norma heads out to the garden to do some weeding. I put on a fresh pot of coffee and open the Sunday newspaper. I’m still on page one when the phone rings. It’s my daughter Sara. There’s something she needs to tell me, she says, her voice a little unsteady. She pauses. It’s about Mara.
I can already tell that this is something I don’t want to hear. I know that only bad news travels this way, that Sara isn’t calling to tell me her older sister has just fallen in love or landed a great new job. I know, too, that I’d give anything right now to be able to utter some spell, part the veil between worlds, and step into an altogether different world — one in which the phone hasn’t just rung; one in which I’m not about to learn that my twenty-five-year-old daughter was in a car crash this morning, that her pelvis is fractured and she’s bleeding internally and her spinal cord might be injured. But I can’t find the curtain.
I tell the ticket agent why I need to be on the next flight to Los Angeles and ask if I qualify for a reduced fare. Of course, she says sympathetically. But the “compassion fare” turns out to be nearly nine hundred dollars. “That’s the compassion fare?” I blurt out. “Compassion for whom? American Airlines?”
Lowering her voice, she says, “I know what you mean.” She says she hopes my daughter will be all right. Her compassion, at least, sounds genuine.
I don’t like to fly: the usual reasons. But as the plane slowly taxis toward the runway, I’m impatient for the engines to roar to life. When Mara moved to LA two years ago, I consoled myself that, in an age of jet travel, she really wasn’t that far away. Right now, however, with my hastily packed suitcase jammed into the overhead bin, and the suddenly irrelevant Sunday newspaper lying unread on my kitchen counter, twenty-five hundred miles feels like the vast distance it actually is.
Sara will fly in from Massachusetts tomorrow. So far, no one’s been able to reach my ex-wife Priscilla. Before leaving for the airport, I talked with one of the emergency-room doctors who’d treated Mara — a conversation that revealed less about Mara’s injuries than about my ignorance of basic human anatomy. Listening to the doctor, I felt like a man who’d lived all his life in the same small town but didn’t even know where the post office was. Fortunately, Norma went to medical school, so I handed her the phone. I studied her face as they talked, but Norma’s features have always been hard to read — even before she became a psychiatrist. After she hung up, I asked how serious this was. “Serious,” she said. She asked if I wanted her to come with me. “No, I can handle it,” I told her, unsure which one of us I was trying to convince.
During the next seven hours, I have plenty of time to consider every worst-case scenario and plenty of time to pray. Worry and prayer: they’re like an old married couple who argue about nearly everything and each insist on having the last word. But where would they be without each other? I worry that Mara will be crippled, and I pray she’ll soon be on her feet again. I worry that I won’t be strong enough to handle this, and I pray for my heart to stay open no matter what lies ahead. I pray, Thy will, not my will, because it’s the purest prayer I know. Then, because I’m not that pure, I pray to a slightly more personal, slightly more approachable God, who might be willing to bend the laws of the universe just a little, just for me.
I remember a summer afternoon when Mara was two. Priscilla called me at the office to say that Mara had wandered out of sight for a few minutes and eaten a handful of reddish purple pokeberries growing near our house; hadn’t someone warned us that pokeberries were poisonous? I drove home as fast as I could, not knowing whether my daughter’s life was in danger or (as it turned out) she was merely in for a bad stomachache. I remember racing through the door and lifting Mara in my arms. I remember the crimson juice smeared on her cheeks.
It’s nearly midnight when my flight lands. At the hospital, the lobby is dark, and visiting hours are long over, but a security guard lets me in. As the elevator carries me to the seventh floor, I realize that this is the first night Mara has ever spent in a hospital. Born at home, raised a vegetarian, home-schooled until the fifth grade, Mara was a healthy child, either because of the way she was brought up or in spite of it. But all the tofu and brown rice in the world couldn’t have protected her from this.
I’m surprised to see a young man standing in the corridor outside Mara’s room smoking a cigarette — just a few feet from a No Smoking sign. When he sees me, he stubs the cigarette out, extends his hand, and introduces himself. I recognize the name: he’s the boyfriend — the ex-boyfriend — who broke Mara’s heart last year. He heard I was coming, he says, and didn’t want to leave until I got here; he didn’t think Mara should be alone. I thank him for sticking around. Who knows: maybe his heart was broken, too.
Before I step inside Mara’s room, I pause and take a deep breath. I ask myself if I’m ready for this. I don’t wait for an answer.
Mara is lying on her back with her eyes closed. She has IV lines in her hand and a breathing tube in her nose. A catheter snakes out from under the bedsheet to a plastic bag clipped to the side of the bed. A foam collar is wrapped around her neck to keep her head immobilized. On her legs are bulky compression stockings that expand and contract rhythmically to keep blood clots from forming.
I walk to the bed, bend down, and whisper her name. Her eyes open slowly, and, for a moment, she seems to have difficulty focusing. Then she sees me, and her eyes fill with tears. I kiss her forehead, stroke her hair. “Everything is going to be all right,” I tell her, hoping it isn’t a lie.
She’s sorry, she says, reaching for my hand. Sorry to make me drop everything and come all this way. Sorry I have to see her like this. I tell her there’s nothing to apologize for. Besides, I say, she looks beautiful: amazingly, there’s not a scratch on her face. “Thanks for the compliment,” she says. A friend who stopped by earlier joked that she looked like a soap-opera heroine who survives a car wreck with makeup intact and not a hair out of place.
I ask what happened. She tells me she wishes she knew. She remembers driving to the grocery store Sunday morning. She remembers stopping at an intersection on the way home. The next thing she remembers is being pulled from her mangled car, barely conscious and in excruciating pain. She remembers the warbling siren of the ambulance carrying her to the hospital. She remembers being wheeled into the emergency room, someone asking her questions, someone else cutting her clothes off. And she remembers the pain — more pain than she thought it was possible to feel. But no matter how much she tries, she can’t remember the accident itself. She keeps rummaging around in her mind, as if trying to find a file that’s been misplaced. For now, at least, it’s gone: the memory of the most violent moment of her life.
The doctor looks a little bedraggled tonight in his wrinkled green scrubs. But he has kind eyes and a warm smile. My daughter is lucky, he tells me. He holds up an X-ray and points to a crack in one of the cervical vertebrae that protect Mara’s spinal cord. A half inch this way, he says, barely moving his finger, and she would have been paralyzed.
The doctor’s Middle Eastern accent is a little hard to follow, but I’m right on his heels. He wants to keep Mara’s neck immobilized tonight as a precautionary measure, but he doubts the spinal cord is injured. I feel a wave of relief. It doesn’t last long.
Mara’s fractured pelvis is another matter, the doctor says. For one thing, it’s an extremely painful injury that can take months to heal. For another, a broken pelvis is a lot more serious than a broken arm or leg. That’s because pelvic bones, rich in marrow, often bleed heavily when broken. Also, there are major organs inside the pelvic cavity. Even when people survive the initial trauma of such an accident, complications are common.
They’ll have to observe Mara closely for the next couple of days, he says. There’s blood pooling in her abdomen that could be coming from anywhere: the pelvis itself, a torn blood vessel, an injury to her intestine or bladder or spleen.
Actually, this isn’t exactly what he says. Twice he refers to Mara as “him” instead of “her.” I consider correcting him, then remind myself that if he’s going to make a mistake on a night when my daughter’s life is in his hands, I’d just as soon he mangle a couple of personal pronouns.
I ask how much danger Mara is in. “Let’s hope the bleeding stops soon,” he replies. “And if it doesn’t?” I press. He pauses, as if deliberating how much to tell me. Surgery might be necessary, he says, but abdominal surgery can be risky, so they want to wait and see. In the meantime, there’s no need to worry. “We’re watching him carefully,” the doctor says.
© Sylvia de Swaan
Mara encourages me to go to her apartment and get some rest, but I don’t want to leave. Despite regular doses of morphine and OxyContin, the slightest movement still makes her wince. She can’t sit up. She can’t move her legs. I’ve never seen her look so vulnerable.
I’m grateful when a nurse wheels a cot into the room for me, but I don’t get much sleep. I hold Mara’s hand. I massage her feet. When she asks me to move her legs to a more comfortable position, I lift them gently. She gasps: not gentle enough. I apologize and start over, cradling one leg at a time, as carefully as if I were handling a newborn. Here we are, where we started.
When Mara finally drifts off to sleep, I lie down, put my hands behind my head, and stare at the ceiling. The room begins to fill with memories — tender memories, mostly, but also a few uninvited guests. I, too, was gorging on poisonous berries when Mara was growing up. In love with another woman, I was leading a double life. After the demise of my marriage, I surprised Priscilla, my ex, by being more devoted as a father than I’d been as a husband. I spent every weekend with Mara and Sara. After Priscilla moved out of town, I drove seven hundred miles every other weekend so I could read to them and play with them and cook for them and put them to bed at night and stand in the doorway studying their sleeping faces, one tired man drinking in the sight of them — and it was never enough: never enough to make up for the days and nights I couldn’t be with them; never enough to make up for the shameful infidelity that had brought us here, to my sad little apartment where every clock in every room told me how much quality time was left in the day.
The affair ended when my lover and I actually tried to live together. A few years later, I married Norma. When Mara was twelve, she asked to live with us. She said the public schools were better in our town. And then there was her increasingly contentious relationship with her mother. Regardless of the reasons, I was grateful for the opportunity to be a full-time father again.
I delighted in my dreamy, artistic, sensitive daughter — so sensitive that she often knew what I was feeling before I did. As Mara’s adolescence unfolded, I tried to be kind but firm. A father, I thought, needs to help his children understand not only what life freely offers, but also what it can rudely demand. Of course, it was easier to protect Mara from the dangers outside our door than from the tyrant who sometimes held sway within me: a petty tyrant with rigid edicts about neatness and manners and curfews, not the kind of asshole who raises a fist or hurls an insult, but a tyrant just the same. I’m sure I hurt her in innumerable thoughtless ways. Despite our difficult moments, though, I like to think that Mara never doubted my love for her. It helped me to remember that the only thing more challenging than raising a teenager is being one. Mara lived with us until she went off to college to study filmmaking. After graduation, she moved to LA.
I picture Mara behind the wheel of the blue Toyota we bought for her last year. She was so thankful for that car. I picture shattered glass and crumpled steel. She could have been snapped in half, just another pile of bones on the bone heap.
It’s one thing to meditate on the nature of impermanence; it’s another to be reminded of it by life itself. Sara’s phone call was like a whack on the head from a stern Zen master: Wake up! Wake up from the lazy dream that tomorrow will be just like today. Wake up from the illusion that anything can be known about the future. Life is too mysterious for that. I can’t take for granted that I’ll ever see any of my loved ones again, or that my house will be standing a week from now, or that I’ll be standing. The thunderstorm is always whipping up a tornado. The other driver is always getting into his car after an argument. The phone is always about to ring.
Mara wakes up and says she’s thirsty. I fill a glass with water and hold a straw to her lips.
We raise children and do what we can to protect them. Then one day we open the door and let them run down the street without us. When they get to the corner, will they look both ways? Of course, we assure ourselves. Of course they will.
By morning, some color has returned to Mara’s cheeks. After a brief exam, the doctor says the cervical collar can come off. I ask whether the bleeding is still a cause for concern. They’re keeping an eye on it, he says. If all goes well, Mara will start physical therapy in a few days. A week after that, she’ll be able to leave the hospital on crutches. In two or three months, she’ll be walking on her own.
After he’s left, Mara looks me in the eye. She’ll be walking a lot sooner that that, she says. I’ve seen that look before. I believe her.
I finally talk with Priscilla, who was out of town yesterday. The earliest she can be here is the end of the week. In the manner of seasoned ex-spouses, we divide things up: I get the first week; she gets the second. I also talk with Sara, who will be arriving tonight. As it turns out, she arranged some time ago to spend this week with her sister. It will hardly be the vacation she planned, but she wants to be here just the same.
When one of Mara’s friends arrives for a visit, I decide to get some fresh air — or whatever passes for it in this congested city. Walking along a busy boulevard with palm trees overhead and hundreds of cars streaming by every minute, I recall that I didn’t pretend to be thrilled when Mara told me she was moving here. She knew that for me LA was a symbol of nearly everything that was wrong with American cities. She knew I viewed Hollywood as a propaganda machine for the worst this culture has to offer. “Doesn’t New York offer plenty of opportunities for an aspiring filmmaker?” I asked. “LA offers more,” she said. And the only way to discover whether LA was the right place for her to be was to be in LA. How could I argue with that?
When Mara was growing up, I thought the best way to keep her from watching too much television was not to own one. I wanted to raise a girl who loved to read, a daughter who worshiped beside me at the altar of the written word. And now she’s living in LA and working as an assistant editor. On a cop show. On tv.
At least she’s working steadily, she’s reminded me. One day, she’ll do something to make me proud. I’ve told her that I’m proud of her already; that it’s not her job or accomplishments that matter to me, but her aliveness, her intelligence, her compassion.
I still think the odds are against her creative spirit being nourished here, but hasn’t my own life taken some unlikely turns? My father didn’t understand why I left a promising career in newspaper work to hitchhike around the country. He didn’t understand why I started a magazine. Perhaps my difficulty in understanding the trajectory of Mara’s life has less to do with a failure of imagination on her part than on mine.
At least I’ve come to understand that the condescending attitude I once had toward LA is as disagreeable as the prejudices some people have against New York, where I grew up, or against the South, where I live now. Once Mara moved here, LA ceased being merely a symbol for me. Now it’s my daughter’s home: this is where she gets up in the morning; this is where she lies awake at night thinking about her future; this is where she closes her eyes and dreams.
In the afternoon, we get the police report about the accident: No one was speeding. No one was drinking. It was the kind of accident that happens all the time: a driver gets distracted and doesn’t see something he or she should have seen. According to a witness, Mara started across an intersection without noticing an approaching car that had the right of way. The other driver struck Mara’s car on the driver’s side, pushing the door halfway into her seat. Into Mara. The other driver was unharmed.
Mara is incredulous. Although still unable to recall what happened, she insists that she’s a safe driver who wouldn’t do something that careless. The police, she points out, are relying entirely on what they were told by the other driver and just one pedestrian. I ask why a disinterested passerby would lie. Plainly irritated, Mara says that people see what they want to see.
I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt. In eight years of driving, she’s never been in an accident (though, to my mind, she sometimes drives too fast). But I wonder why Mara won’t at least acknowledge the possibility that she might have made a mistake. For the last couple of months she’s been exceptionally busy — continuing to work full time on the TV show while trying to learn the ins and outs of being an independent filmmaker. Her mentor is a man she’s met only recently, one of those Hollywood types who are always on the verge of making a deal, and who sees in Mara a great deal of “potential,” he says. I’ve worried that Mara is juggling too much — including her cellphone when she calls me from her car. But what do you say to your busy daughter when you’re always rushing to meet another deadline? Busy me, busy busy bee: so many flowers, so little time.
Unfortunately, there’s another piece of bad news we need to talk about today; at least, it’s news to me: Mara doesn’t have health insurance. Even though she listened to my advice and got insurance after she graduated from college, she let the policy lapse. Ironically, she says, she applied for a new policy just a week ago, but there’s a waiting period before it will take effect. I shake my head in dismay. I start to say something, then stop myself. Too late; Mara saw the thunder god flit across my face. “I don’t need to hear you say, ‘I told you so,’ ” she says.
“I haven’t said a word,” I reply.
“It’s what you’re thinking,” she says.
Actually, I’ve moved on to thinking about the quandary in which I now find myself: Should I let Mara deal with this problem, or should I reach into my own savings to help her out? If I don’t help, am I being ungenerous? If I do help, am I sabotaging my efforts to get her to be more financially responsible?
I know we’re dangerously close to a trapdoor neither of us wants to fall through. Amid the sudden intimacy of caring for her, I don’t want to forget the struggles we’ve weathered: she, to assert her independence; I, against great resistance, to let go.
Given how vulnerable Mara must feel right now, it makes sense that she’d be especially sensitive to any criticism from me. I imagine what she’s thinking: That now that I can afford to pay my bills, I assume it ought to be easy for her to pay hers, including an expensive insurance premium that, until now, had seemed like a luxury, not a necessity. That driving ten miles over the speed limit is acceptable so long as I’m the one behind the wheel. That when I was her age, I was working for a mainstream newspaper, paying my dues just as she’s paying hers. Or had I quit the paper by then? Wasn’t I living in London, being supported by my first wife, while I spent all day smoking hashish and rewriting the same paragraph fifty times? Trying to be a real writer. That is, when I wasn’t hanging out with my downstairs neighbor, the drug dealer. Being neighborly.
From the moment Sara walks through the door, I feel calmed by her physical presence. At twenty-three, she radiates an innate strength that years of yoga have helped cultivate. I couldn’t ask for a better ally right now.
Even as a toddler, Sara was pensive and strong-willed, whether concentrating intently on a complex jigsaw puzzle or squaring off for a turf war with her older sister. Oh, how the two of them argued back then. Had sibling rivalry been an Olympic event, my daughters would have won a gold medal — then fought over who got to wear it. Too bad I didn’t wise up sooner about the futility of trying to get them to agree on a road map to peace. As they’ve gotten older, their love for each other has deepened without any help from me.
Sara accepts suffering as a fact of life and does what she can to alleviate it. I’m struck by how tender she is with Mara, and how skillful she is at keeping Mara and me from stinging each other like two confused bees whose hive a bear has just shredded. The bear, Sara reminds us, has come and gone.
The hospital is so much quieter at night — fewer doctors and nurses, most visitors gone, patients asleep. Sara has gone to Mara’s apartment to get some rest. Mara is drifting in and out of morphine dreams. An orderly walks by, pushing a laundry basket and humming softly. I’m just about to fall asleep when, from across the hall, a woman calls out. She wants a nurse, she says. She’s in pain. She wants something for the pain.
My daughter is suffering. The woman across the hall is suffering. Is the suffering in 704 more important than the suffering in 705? Of course not. What would it mean, I wonder, to let everyone’s suffering be as important to me as Mara’s suffering, to love everyone as much as I love my daughter? Impossible, my mind insists: my heart would be breaking all the time. That’s why I often turn away from other people’s pain or try to put it in perspective by suggesting (if only to myself) that it’s “God’s will” or someone’s “karma.” Yet my heart knows the deeper truth, which is that there’s no way to feel my kinship with other living beings unless I let their suffering in.
I lift myself up on one elbow and listen for the sound of footsteps. If no one comes soon, I tell myself, I should find a nurse. When I finally hear shoes squeaking against the polished floor, I relax and lie down again.
How similar a hospital room is to a monk’s cell, I think. Except for the TV mounted on the wall, everything is stripped to basics. In a monastery, God is all you need; in a hospital room, God is health.
In the middle of the night, Mara wakes up and says she isn’t feeling well. She sounds as if it’s hard for her to think straight. Her hands are clammy, her face pale.
I hit the call button to summon a nurse. Several minutes go by. I can’t wait any longer. I tell Mara I’ll be right back, then hurry to the nurse’s station, an island of light in the darkened hall. To my surprise, no one is there. I race up and down the corridor, looking desperately for a doctor, a nurse, an orderly — anyone. Then I hear laughter coming from a small room with its door ajar. Breathing hard, I stick my head inside. I see a nurse — no, three nurses — drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. I stare at them dumbly for a moment. Then I tell them my daughter needs someone. Now.
One of them follows me back to Mara’s room. By the time she’s finished taking Mara’s vital signs, a doctor shows up. Mara’s blood pressure has dropped, she tells him. Her pulse rate is up. She’s running a fever. He pages another doctor, then tells the nurse to increase the IV fluids and start another antibiotic. A moment later, he’s joined by an older doctor, the wings of his white coat flying open as he strides into the room. This doctor studies Mara’s chart. He examines her abdomen. When he’s done, he asks me to step outside with him.
He can’t be certain what’s going on, he says. The bleeding might have increased. Or bacteria from a damaged organ might have gotten into Mara’s bloodstream — from a ruptured bladder, perhaps, or a perforated intestine. This kind of infection can lead to septic shock. I tell him I don’t know what that is. He explains that it’s a condition in which one vital organ after another starts to fail. Unless Mara shows some improvement soon, she’ll need surgery.
I sit down beside the bed again, holding Mara’s hand until she falls back asleep. Then I get up and pace the room. I sit down. I get up again. I worry that my nervous energy is making things worse. She’s going to be all right, I tell myself. Western medicine excels at treating acute trauma, and this hospital is one of LA’s finest. But I know, too, how fallible overworked doctors and nurses can be. I know that people die in hospitals every day because of surgical errors or because they’ve been given the wrong medicine or because healthcare workers don’t wash their hands thoroughly enough.
To calm myself down, I try to meditate. Forget it. I might as well be in a crowded theater, trying to meditate on the word fire while everyone around me bolts for the door. If I meditated more regularly, I think, maybe I’d be better prepared for something like this. But I know I’m kidding myself. What difference does it make how many times I sat cross-legged last week, following my breath? I could have followed my breath down the stairs and around the block and across five continents, and still there would be no way to protect my loved ones from suffering.
My persistent and insidious sense of being unworthy — not good enough, not holy enough — dissolves for a moment in the face of what is. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been meditating every day, or that I’ve gained a few pounds in the past year, or that I’m always working and always falling behind in my work. What matters is that I’m here. My daughter needs me, and I’m here. No, I’m not radiating Buddha-like calm, but I’m here. Being present isn’t about being more spiritual. Human presence is very . . . human: as human as sleeping in my clothes last night; as human as making sure my daughter’s pain meds come on time; as human as worrying that I’m not doing enough.
I glance at Mara’s hand on the crisp white sheet, at the flowers Mara’s friends have sent. Some are already wilting.
Years ago, I heard the spiritual teacher Ram Dass say that everything that happens is an expression of God’s will, which means that everything is grace. There are no accidents, Ram Dass said. Even so-called accidents aren’t really accidents. Suffering, too, is grace.
There are moments when this makes perfect sense to me. But tonight there’s no point in pretending to be any less attached than I am, is there? If I want Mara to walk into the sunset completely healed, a Hollywood ending, then why not pray for that? If God knows my innermost heart, if God is at the very center of my being, then there’s no point in trying to impress God with my advanced state of spiritual evolution. After having a stroke a few years ago, Ram Dass thought he was dying. As he was being wheeled on a gurney through a hospital, he later recalled, he knew he was supposed to be having spiritual thoughts. But all he did was count the pipes on the ceiling. He wasn’t the dying person he would have expected himself to be.
I imagine Mara being wheeled into the operating room. What if the surgeon isn’t at his best tonight? I picture him making an incision, then mumbling under his breath at what he finds there.
Daughter of my flesh, of my bones, does it matter that I became a father with about as much intent as a leaf being blown by the wind? Mara’s birth wasn’t planned, but even if Priscilla and I had chosen to conceive her under a brilliant full moon on the most astrologically auspicious night of the year, could I love my daughter any more than I do? It’s impossible to imagine losing her: the word loss isn’t big enough. There should be an altogether different word for the grief of losing a child, a word that takes weeks, months, years to pronounce. It might take a whole lifetime to get to the last syllable.
I try to hold back, but can’t: tears roll down my cheeks.
Mara stirs. “Dad,” she asks groggily, “are you OK?”
“Yes, sweetie,” I say, my voice cracking. I don’t want Mara to see me crying, so I turn my head and look out the window, as if gazing at the stars, except I can’t see any stars because the sky is too smoggy and the streetlights are too bright.
I close my eyes and start to pray. I don’t understand what prayer is. I can’t say whom or what I’m praying to. But I know that, tonight, praying feels as necessary as breathing, and I don’t need to understand how my lungs work in order to draw my next breath.
In the semidarkness of Mara’s hospital room, I sit on the lumpy cot and pray. I pray for Mara’s body and I pray for her soul; for her obviously destructible body and her not-so-obviously indestructible soul. In this city named after the angels, I pray. Here, amidst the angels, on this balmy spring night in Los Angeles, I pray.
© Mark Dolce
Just before dawn, utterly exhausted, I lie down and close my eyes. Just for a minute, I think.
I wake with a start at the sound of a doctor’s voice. I have no idea how long I’ve been out. Has Mara taken a turn for the worse? Anxiety grabs me from behind while guilt aims a kick at my groin. How the hell could I have fallen asleep?
But there’s mercy in the doctor’s words: Mara’s pulse is back to normal. Her blood pressure has stabilized. She’s no longer running a fever.
Relieved, confused, I ask how this could be. The doctor rubs his chin. Frankly, he says, it’s as difficult to understand why Mara is out of danger this morning as it is to understand why she was teetering on the edge last night. Maybe the bleeding just stopped, he says. Maybe the antibiotic they gave her knocked out an infection that was starting to spread.
And maybe, I think, doctors understand as little about the body’s innate healing potential as I understand about the power of prayer. And maybe that’s not so surprising. What are “body” and “spirit,” after all, but different names for the same mystery? As long as Mara is no longer in danger, does it really matter what the explanation is? Wouldn’t my rational mind doubt the answer anyway, even if I saw it written across the sky? Wouldn’t I suspect a forgery? A clerical error? No, I don’t need to call it a miracle, as long as I remember that everything is a miracle.
The doctor reminds me that Mara still faces a long recovery process. But when her pelvis finally heals, it will be stronger than before; that’s what happens when broken bones knit themselves back together, he says. I wonder if Mara will grow stronger in other ways because of this ordeal. Will she slow down a little? Will she reconsider what genuinely matters to her? I’d like to think so, but I have no way of knowing what this experience will mean for her. I need to resist putting my own interpretation on her suffering, or even insisting that it has meaning.
After the doctor has left, Mara is in good spirits and makes a couple of phone calls. Later some friends drop by. In the middle of the day, she says she’s feeling talked out and just wants to watch tv.
She picks up the remote, and, in an instant, we’re plunged into the intensity of a hospital emergency room: A doctor is shouting orders. There’s blood. There’s chaos. We’re watching America’s favorite medical drama: ER. I wait for Mara to change the channel. Surely, after what she’s just been through, she isn’t in the mood for this. To my surprise, she keeps watching. The real world and the dream world intersect as my daughter and I sit in a hospital room watching a paramedic wheel someone through the swinging double doors of the er.
I’m not really watching the show, though. Instead, I keep stealing glances at Mara.
I recall how, when she was an infant, I’d walk the floor with her at night when she couldn’t sleep. And every so often I’d look down to see if she was getting drowsy, and she’d stare back at me with wide, unblinking eyes. And though I was exhausted and ready for those eyes to close, I knew that you didn’t get many chances in this lifetime to experience such intimate, wordless communion with another being. I knew, too, how easy it was to ruin it, either by resenting the loss of another night’s sleep or by trivializing the intelligence behind those eyes with an endless stream of baby talk.
On ER, a young man is laughing, an old man is dying, a woman is falling in love. There are only two or three human stories, Willa Cather once wrote, which go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before. Suddenly, the screen is filled with the crimson lights of an ambulance pulling in. One more story repeating itself.
Does it even matter how close to the edge Mara was last night? We’re all close to the edge all the time, no matter how healthy or safe we think we are. We don’t need to be in a hospital room having our vital signs monitored to know that our lives are precarious.
I look again at Mara. She’s fallen asleep. The remote has slipped from her hand.
I run my fingers through my thinning hair. Didn’t I start losing my hair about the same time I became a father? I was thirty when Mara was born. How distant that time seems now. The young man I was then, that baby girl — they live inside a handful of photographs and memories. They’re not here in a hospital room in Los Angeles. No, here in this room is a beautiful young woman with long, dark hair, and a man old enough to be her father.
I shake my head. How presumptuous to think I know what’s best for my daughter. All I know this morning is that she’s alive, and that her existence is no less a miracle today than on the day she was born. Perhaps she’ll leave LA; perhaps she’ll stay. Today, she’s breathing. What else matters? I think. What else has ever mattered?
I reach for the remote, turn off the TV, and sit there watching my daughter sleep.
In “When They Get to the Corner” [July 2004], Sy Safransky writes, “In a monastery, God is all you need; in a hospital room, God is health.”
In the sixties, I had a lumbar fusion, which at that time kept one in the hospital for days. I made friends with an older Mexican orderly, a quiet, intelligent, funny man who came in to change my bedsheets.
The shock of the operation stopped my bowels from moving. Having had no bowel movement for days, I could feel death quietly, slowly entering my body. On the third day my orderly friend gave me an enema and set me up on the bed-pan, and there was a sudden and complete evacuation. The feeling of death left me. Watching my face, he said, “Out in the world, it’s gold and silver; in here, it’s piss and shit.”
I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Sy Safransky’s Notebook. But his essay “When They Get to the Corner,” about his daughter’s car accident and injuries, grabbed my heart. I was riveted by his beautiful story of love and vulnerability.
I’ve just left my sons’ room, where I watched them sleep, safe for the moment as we hurtle into an unknown future.
Following the publication of my essay, I received numerous letters expressing concern about my daughter’s health. Happily, Mara is completely recovered: able to walk, to run, and, when she reflects on her good fortune, to leap for joy.