I AM ON THE ROAD, dying. Wrapped in sheets and a thermal blanket, I am lying on my back, my knees up and arms at my sides. A woman holds my hand, my left hand. I don’t know her, but my eyes are locked on her face. Walnut hair in waves frames an almond shape, pale with hazel eyes; the white blouse of a nurse, with buttons yellow as antique ivory; a strong upcountry woman younger a few years than her patient. Her hands broad, grip firm. She radiates natural compassion, and talks to me. Beyond the kind temper of her words I don’t understand what she says. And I keep forgetting her name, however much I would like to remember. She is the last person I will ever see. That is what I have come to believe.
Chilled with fever, now a hundred and five, the infection in my belly has made me swollen like a barrel, and hard as an oak cask to the touch. No one can touch me, because of the severity of the pain. I do my best not to writhe. The Demerol does little unto nothing to alleviate it, the antibiotics have failed to stem the tide of rot and venom. My white blood cell count has climbed above eighteen thousand toward twenty. My fingers and feet are frozen stiff, as if with frostbite. We are traveling very quickly in the ambulance on the road which is sometimes smooth, often not. When—if—we make it the hundred miles to the hospital in the city, they will open me up to find my sigmoid colon has ruptured, the breach no greater than a penny-nail head, so that in my peritoneum there exists a small, potent cesspool and my blood has become a river of filth. Peritonitis. I am jaundiced, my hands are yellow with hepatitis. For two days I have been septic, languishing in a small country hospital, misdiagnosed with classic acute diverticulitis. Would that it were, bad as it is.
I do not struggle to maintain consciousness; am terribly awake. This woman holding my hands is a nurse—I remember her name now—and yes, we are on the road in an ambulance. It is August and the high branches of maples and willows and ash, which I can see falling behind out the square windows, are lush auspicious green. I know this road well. The Hudson River is a few hundred yards to the east, rolling along at the base of sheer red cliffs.
My question is, Which goes into shock first, the liver or brain? And if I survive will it be in a coma? My question is, Do the comatose dream? I must believe they do. And would a coma relieve me from this intimate torture? I doubt it would. My question is, Would these questions come to an end were I locked inside a coma?
The pain is difficult to pinpoint. That is, when they ask me, Where is the pain? I can answer with a wave of my hand over my middle, but it is now no longer the truth, no longer exact. The pain has grown toward completion. It embraces and envelops me so that it and I are becoming indistinguishable. Neither enemy nor perverse friend, the agony is me and none other. In my visual scape occasional corpuscle-shaped, fist-sized gray-black holes now and then float across the world inside the little silver room that journeys down the parkway. The nausea is persistent, and I am stiff as if rigor mortis has already set in. Bursts of quaking continue to surge through me from head down, or beginning in the shoulders and splitting outward into the arms. Each ripple, every seam and pothole, produces a thick searing sensation.
The driver has asked would I mind if he plays country music on the radio. I don’t want to hear country music, but say nothing. Despite myself, I hearten to the singing, the Dobro, the classic country bass line. Then, the music is forgotten. This dark room must be where the coma comes, is what I think, or thought.
Never learned to dance the fandango. Never read Don Quixote, failed to see the Parthenon, somehow never found time to visit my grandparents’ graves in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and Decatur, Alabama. The unfinished work, the unsaid apologies, the unstated affections. Never had children, failed at marriage but not at the friendships. Here on the gibbet swung high, confessionless and solitary.
Thoughts, some clichéd and some not, cascade, then center again—a distinct passage, that manner of thought—what I might have done and didn’t, what I should have said but hadn’t, where I could have gone and never did—all these just ceased. Regret gone, I am back with the woman who sits beside me on a steel bench. The plastic bag hung on a corkscrew silver finger above jigs, drips into the vial that feeds the tube which snakes down to the needle in my forearm. Saline and Cipro. We pass under a stone bridge, pink granite and shiny gray. What a gentle, beautiful arch.
Now I am in a new sphere of reflection.
What is fascinating is that I am fascinated by what fascinates me, here in this—can it possibly be called?—predicament. What fascinates me is that all these bodily doings are the source of a kind of objective interest to me. Is this evidence of mind-body duality? The mind is sharp and quick and has, I swear, withdrawn to the back of my skull, there in the lower right quadrant. That is where it has established itself. The body is going down as the imagination remains steadier than ever, and marvelously engaged. White noise impedes sometimes—the radio now bothers me and I think to ask the driver to turn it down, but then reconsider: maybe the music, which he loves, will help him get us there quicker—but for the most part, it is my imagination that may be keeping me alive now. And that fascination is, to me, fascinating.
Plato found that both pleasure and pain “arising in the soul are a kind of motion” and that an intermediate state between the two exists, which he termed “quietude.” My imagination was operative, I believe, in this medium realm, paradoxical as that might seem. It burst forth moment to moment, in agreement with a physical burst of agony, but generally held to quietude. It watched, as best it could, horrified and entranced. Because it harbored in quietude, language and imagery could move over its surface with fresh ease, and without my having to work at it. The imagery was dark and cast in a deep red the color of old rose hips. The words came, it seemed, in random ensembles, from memory. And it, my imagination, gathered these phrases like a herbalist might rare, curative flora. I thought they were bits of verse from different books of the Bible, plaited with passages from hymns my mother taught me. But it had been so long since I read the Bible, I no longer could be sure even if they were biblical, let alone what book of the Bible they might be from. If they were debris from hymns I once sang in the children’s choir, I couldn’t remember which hymns were which. I had been away from the church for more than half my life. The sources were forgotten.
Still, like that herbalist, I collected the phrases against the prospect I might survive this journey. If so, it would be valuable to return to them in health and look at them in a stronger light. I wait and listen.
IN WHICH MUSIC LIFTS LIKE FIRM HANDS
The Lord was my shepherd, then the Lord was not. Once, I was made to lie beside still waters, guiding perhaps with a staff veiled from my youthful eye, a rod and a staff that promised—in the perfect silence of fluid tranquility—something. Promised comfort, and promised peace. Peace, repose, serenity. Yet, my wars lay ahead of me, and peace was nothing that I might logically have yearned for back then. Of what use is repose to a wild boy growing up on the westernmost margin of high plains where the earth suddenly surges into mountains? I who could see the snow-hatted range of the Continental Divide from my bedroom window, who was far more likely to plunge into the slow, rich-brown irrigation canal near our house from a tire swing strung from a cottonwood, and make the cannonball splash as my friends howled and shrieked and raced back and forth on the dusty bank, than lie beside any still waters—what did I want with serenity, repose, peace? But yet the Lord was my shepherd, back then, and I was in the fold.
The family Bible lies opened on the kitchen table. My mother sits across the table from me as I recite. Wrote, rote; writ, rite. The words are learned by sound, as this is the only way I can hang on to them. Meaning seeps in later, or not at all. On the piano I can vault through Bach and Mozart, but these words are more slippery and difficult for me. The pure nonsense of naming the books of the Bible I find as easy as stringing together in memory consequent words such as those that make up a short psalm. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus have the rhythm of Morse Code: dit-dah-dah, dit-dah-dah, dah-dit-dah-dah. Easy enough. But if there is meaning, already I want to remold, revise. The Lord is a shepherd, I push Him away. The Lord is your shepherd, have Him yourself. The tiniest verb changes everything, including the expression on my mother’s face as she pours herself more coffee and urges me to try again. The Lord is my alphabet, no never mind.
She was the organist at the First Methodist Church. She also directed the choir. Too poor for baby-sitters, she brought me and my sister along with her to the church when she practiced. We played hide-and-seek in the sanctuary, raced the aisles between pews in endless games of tag, as the church reverberated with oratorios and hymns from the huge pipe organ. Massive ramparts of organ sound, the pedal bass so heavy it pommeled my bony chest, the carillon tinkling, the reedy oboesque and French horn notes made deliciously wavery through the speaker in the choir loft.
Religion was twofold for me. It was that swelling in my heart which I adored as I crouched in a dark niche on the altar, hiding from my sister—that swelling was the natural response to my mother’s music on the church organ. And it was that fought-for psalm that began with the words, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Sermons were lost on me. I more clearly remember the scent of the Wrigley’s Spearmint gum my grandfather was apt quietly to chew throughout the course of the service on Sunday mornings than any sermon. That, and my father’s aftershave. Somehow, however, I got it into my head that I would grow up to be a preacher. This beanpole who survived Sunday mornings because of what that organ aroused in his narrow breast and little unto nothing else, a preacher? My early desire was eclipsed soon enough by the conviction I would grow up to compose religious music for the organ. In my head, in bed at night, I would improvise music for fantastic thousand-voiced choirs and impossible pipe organs. Violins, cellos, bassoons, timpani—the orchestras were vast, seated on hillsides, and responsive to the universal and unpredictable directions in which their mighty, if small, maker saw fit to take them.
Music was religion, in other words. And Psalm 23 became my whole and exclusive Bible, because it was music more than any other passage I read, its meanings almost (almost) secondary to its melody and measure. It has always been, like my impromptu, private cantatas and konzertes, subject to improvisational reshuffling. Even now, after glancing at the text, I see I have remodeled Psalm 23:2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters, it reads. And here I remembered it so clearly that He would have had me to walk with Him in green pastures and lie down beside still waters—the ponderous muddy waters of our dear canal.
Words, then, from the old psalm streamed into my scalded consciousness and as I shored them against my ruin, my little personal apocalypse settling so naturally in on me, I recognized that “these fragments I have shored against my ruins” was itself a fragment. One later learned in life and not quite as basic, because shoring against one’s ruin was an adult act and involved a strength and knowledge I sensed I might not have available to me. Shoring things, anything—timbers, the ideas of others—against one’s ruin was work only accomplished by an able defender, wasn’t it? If so, this was, for me, an absurdity. How might I be able to stave off catastrophe? There was no shoring against this ruin, I thought. I hardly knew where I was. Or what were my chances. Shantih, the peace which passeth all understanding.
This was me clambering outside the process of this death, which was what my body was experiencing that August evening, peritonitic, hepatitic, and gangrenous, the contents of my colon awash in me. I would find out some days later that I should not have survived.
But survival is another story. In the quiet chrysalis of the ambulance, the line from Eliot’s The Wasteland helped define what was transpiring, while the other fragments were building materials borne into remembrance—and they were borne, very much so, special and somehow aloft. They were from the first book I ever read.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
No, it was not prayer. Was it a deflection, a warding off, an inept vesper service conducted in helpless freefall? I will fear no evil, more words manifest as if by their own will, and though they didn’t form themselves into prayer it would be untruthful to declare they didn’t comfort me. There was a warmth and luxury of childhood carried with them, less psychic Dilaudid than the solace of familiarity and the reminder of times that were not like the present time, times that were so plentiful with the energy of simply being alive that the squalor, torture, flesh-sadness, the inarguable defeat of life by death was not so much as a fleck of a dark star on the horizon of possibility. Yahweh understood the power of language, and by giving Adam the task of naming all the beasts and plants on the earth, He gave Adam the opportunity of understanding this power. As I lay there dying, these few simple verses learned so early in my life came back charged with similar ineffable power. That is, their weight was irrationally meaningful, indeed they exceeded meaning.
As the words angled, pitched by, I was able to wonder at them. The valley of the shadow of death, now why not just the valley of death? What was the shadow of death? And in that wondering another fragment emerged, leadeth me beside still waters, which I placed in the geography of this reverie in the synclinal furrow of the valley.
He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. All was better when the patient accepted his fate and gave up the critical enquiry and whatever regret would pool like so much worthless sludge, making the fragmentary remembrances darkened. He restoreth my soul, the chain of thoughts continued as if guided by their own imperatives. And, of course, I couldn’t resist asking that question that had made religion all but impossible for me throughout the course of my life: Yes, all right, but what He? And where? And why?
So, what happened that summer afternoon was not an objective review of childhood passages from a book, a revered and terrifying book which in all probability was a narrative of marvelous and problematic superstition, but a revival of remembered images prompted by an imagination that had become all but sure it was about to experience the death of the body that had always housed it. Or, through which it had garnered its knowledge. That is: the death of the hands that held the book in the first place; death of the eyes that read those lines and mouth that spoke the words. The pain was serious flame, a golden scorching ingot placed in my gut. With the psalm I hoped to lift the ingot away, wrest it in tendrils of word and phrase out of me.
The shepherd psalm is not without human frailties and vice. King David is a biblical figure I admire for the very reason he is so deliciously, humanly riven by mortal defect.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemy,” we read. As one scholar has noted, without comment: “A petty ruler of the fourteenth century B.C. addressed the following request to the Pharaoh:
‘May he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on.’” (El Amarna, 100: 33-35). Isn’t it enough to be beloved of a powerful benefactor, and blessed with the various gifts such a Lord would lay upon your table? Must you pray for an envious audience of rivals to watch you eat, drink and be merry?
Nor is there much largesse in the comfort that is conjured by the shepherd’s rod, since the rod would be used to crush the skull of some hungry predator—a wolf or lioness who needs to feed her young, say—who has the bad judgment and rotten luck to come skulking around this particular flock. Better thee than me, poor starving wolf! Hardly the most selfless doctrine ever contrived by the ethicist or priest.
But still, self-sacrifice does not come easily, even to the most magnanimous. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, as Jesus well understood at Gethsemane. Indeed, all four evangelists concur that when it came time for Him to fulfill scripture and make His sacrifice, He did not go quietly into that good night, but let out a cry so anguished that even the centurion was moved to believe.
Just as the naming of the beasts of the field and fowl of the air was the first act of man (Genesis 2:19), perhaps a gradual loss of language is one of his last.
She told me her name, and I looked up at her, when we began to cross the bridge into the city and, as I say, I could not remember. The rigging and silver tower and the long graceful curve of the main suspension cables, lit now with white beams, the afternoon having drowned in evening dark, was visible out the windows in the back. I could not remember the name of the bridge. Words were being left behind, replaced by the visible. Words, which above all human inventions I had loved most, began to leave me. Adam had named the birds, and though I had worked hard to learn their names they were not with me anymore. Out the windows I saw a (seagull) drift through vertical cables of (the George Washington Bridge), and was horrified to see I couldn’t touch those simple, specific words. I saw faces and forms, hue and shading and movement, but the names that signed what they were, identified them, were shimmery and evanescent.
This is why the phrase Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death struck me with such power. The normal clamor in my head having abated, these earliest memorized words advanced with resonance and import that shook me with the thrill of discovery. It was as if I myself had invented the phrase. My cup runneth over, for His name’s sake—what did that mean? Because there was some One Named, named and therefore somehow comprehensible or kin, I was rich and even here in this difficulty there was abundance, something to be earned, or fulfilled.
But still, I wasn’t so delirious that I claimed for myself full authorship of any of this. It was shared, but I couldn’t tell with whom. These were sweet old Bible phrases, I thought, and more the pity I could never bring myself to accept any savior, take a leap of faith into the invisible arms that promised me that surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
I will fear no evil, that comes next. And I didn’t fear evil or death or much of anything, not even the ugly and continuous and mortifying pain, nor did I hope to make some deathbed covenant—ah, how American to die in a car—strike some deal, also so American, the usual business of “Please, God, I know I have not believed and know I could have done more and could have done better, please if you can see your way clear to letting me live through this I will, promise promise, cross my heart or hope to ... I will do more and better in the future, will follow the rules and ...”—no, that never happened. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, and it would be dishonorable and a lie to claim that I felt altogether alone. As we crossed the bridge a thread of hope must have woven through some of these thoughts and staggered remembrances. After all, I was fighting for my life.
The river, the wide river, the murky light-lined river whose waters were never still, the river beside which I hoped not to lie, we crossed that river and made it to the hospital and within an hour I was anesthetized into oblivion while they opened me right from breastbone down to pubis, heart to loins, lifted out the entire contents of my body below the lung and heart and above the pelvis, washed my gaping cavity with saline and laved my intestines before replacing them inside my gut, sewing me up with an elaborate series of heavy cross-stitches, and saved me. All the way into the operating room I carried these jumbled fragments, like votive candles, like uncomprehended offerings against my ruin.
SEVENTH MEDITATION: RETROSPECT
The valley of the shadow of death is, when one stands just there, in it, not much different from the valley of the shadow of death one imagined as a child reader, memorizing the psalm for Sunday school, haunted by it at night alone in bed. The comfort, plain and sweet, promised to the vulnerable child by the majestic, mysterious, benevolent shepherd of the psalm is attractive—no matter how resistant we can be—to the dying adult. But beyond the message, the language of the poem remains of the same surety. There are laws upheld in its construction, laws of wisdom and serenity, and yes of common sense as well. What this psalm offers the child it offers the adult in equal measure. Therein lies the genius.
“In my beginning is my end,” Eliot once more rewords the Bible,
Now the light falls
Across an open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes.
Life is music, death the pedal point. Life is the dance. Death the stamped earthen dance floor. The pedal point grounds the variation, the ground must be impressed. The shepherd psalm has been my C major scale, my Do-Re-Me. A place to begin, to move from the dominant to the next note, the D, or Re—king, beam of light, the dee of death —and thence up the scale until the octave is reached and repetition is possible. Bring us back to Do—the dough of food, the dew of drink, the do of accomplishment. Bring us back to the end which was again a new beginning for me. Back to the dark in that afternoon, where the van passed through the valley.
INTO THE DARK
Photograph by Diana Michener