I am hosting an end-of-winter series featuring stories from the trenches of pain. My hope is that in sharing these breaking points, we will feel less alone. Thank you all for your bravery. You are helping the world to heal. To participate and for more info go here.
The days staring at the plain white ceiling were so many that I’m surprised I didn’t go mad. I didn’t want so much time to think about what had happened to me, and too often that white ceiling became a movie screen where horrific images flew at me, playing and replaying themselves like demons. Because they could. Because I couldn’t get away.
The people who came in and out didn’t help me at all with the struggle I was having. They couldn’t. The only part of my face that was still visible was an inch of forehead over my eyes, and my eyes themselves. My great grandmother, at 93, came and sat on a high stool, to be able to reach. Everyday. At the time this great feat was unremarkable to me, though her two fingers, which she traced back and forth over the one bare inch of my forehead, brought me more comfort than any single act anyone has every done in my lifetime to make me feel better.
I couldn’t tell her.
There are days now that I wish for those cool fingers, and sometimes I wish so hard I can feel them again. Almost. There was a mylar balloon, which was new back then. One of the aunts had written in black marker, “This Too Shall Pass Away” on it. Because it floated so high, I could see it. The weird thing about one’s first experience with mylar balloons is how long they last. This one made it from the seventh through the eleventh surgery. Yet instead of being a comfort, it made the strangeness of it all much deeper. Like I was suspended in time, stuck forever with this white ceiling movie screen and this balloon, and no one was going to come and get me out of here. Balloons only last a day or two. This was endless weeks. If the balloon is there though, isn’t it still the first day? What day is it?
My mother came every day, and I dreaded it. I wanted her so much. I wanted her to hold me and stroke me and smile. To tell me it was over and that we were never going back. To comfort me. But she couldn’t. Instead she would walk in with a smile that never made it to her eyes, which were already crying by the third step.
“This is just terrible. It’s just terrible. And I’ve spoken with your father, I’ve fought with him. He won’t come. [sobbing] He just won’t come. I want you to know that this is wrong. That he should be here.” She would turn her back and wipe her face. And then I would comfort her. I would tell her that it was all right. That I understood she tried, and that I understood he wouldn’t come. Because I couldn’t stand to see her in so much pain. She couldn’t tell, since she never touched my face, that the bandages around both my eyes were completely soaked, because I was crying too. I cried because she cried, I cried because I was in so much pain. Most of all I cried because I knew that the next time I would be dead, and that she actually expected me to go home for that next time. I was so glad for those bandages. Glad that she didn’t know.
After awhile she would leave, and I would feel so much worse. I didn’t know why then. I didn’t know that she was supposed to be comforting me, rescuing me, or that the way I twisted myself in half to comfort her was more painful than watching him, feeling him smash my face in, over and over, on my white ceiling, which became the orange carpet of my room stained red, which became the white ceiling, which became the orange carpet of my room stained red …
But this place, this blank room with the many roommates who came, healed, and left, this time out of time where I had too much time to think, gave me a gift. The gift came after I heard the boy down the hall who I thought was in worse shape than me. Who would start to scream at the beginning of the second hour for the morphine that he wouldn’t be given until the fourth. I couldn’t take his screams. They hurt me in my chest. I asked who he was, and my nurse told me he
was a boy my age who had tried to commit suicide by jumping off a five story building. Problem was he lived, and broke every bone in his legs multiple times.
When I finally could be upright, I asked if I could go see him. Walking down the hall to his room was a terrible journey of nausea, of the hallway spinning even after I stopped and waited. But I got there, and I sat with him, and I gave him my teddy bear that my brother had brought me. It was a Gund and I really liked it. I told him to hold onto that bear when the pain got too bad. It turned out that he was seventeen too, and I was told later that he heard me in a way that the doctors and nurses said he didn’t hear them.
I told him he didn’t need to go back to whatever he had lived in that made him want to jump off a building. That he could go somewhere else and be happy. And then I realized I wasn’t just talking to him, so I went back to my room.
That night I stared at the white ceiling and I broke away from everything I knew. I made myself look at a different movie, a movie of a happy life. My life. And when the demon movies came, I let them, I bought them a ticket for the seat on the train next to mine, and as soon as I could I replayed my new movie of happiness. And somehow I knew I was never going back.