To start: a special thanks to @johnlorenart for drawing the most adorable cartoon of me! Seriously, I’ve spent multiple days fawning over it and showing everyone I know (and even some people i don’t). It’s inkredible (my first and only drawing pun) and I plan to replace every profile picture and internet identity I have with it (because who wouldn’t swipe right on this pants-less lil’ guy?).
And speaking of cartoons:My success with kittens emboldened me to try and make other tiny creatures, so I opted for No Face from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away! What you see here is my second No Face attempt, the first one (like most of my projects) having turned out pretty horrible and mangled (imagine a black pill with eyes). I crocheted the body in order to get the right shape and structure, and then I knit two stubby hands and a piece of gold to carry, which is classic No Face (eh eh eh).I also added a loop up top in case I wanted to hang it from somewhere, like on my stethoscope, which I’ve noticed is a common trend among pediatric residents, though I feel like displaying a faceless, genderless shadow being who represents the insatiable nature of human greed and evil and who literally consumes an entire bathhouse worth of people may be a bit much for a four year old with croup (‘oh no, don’t worry, it only eats you if you take the gold, you’ll be fine, please stop crying’).Speaking of the insatiable nature of human greed, I have made five separate J. Crew purchases over the past two months, and it’s starting to become a problem. Though I will say it’s not entirely my fault, since they keep sending me pictures of chinos and promotions that are always JUST about to end (it’s j. cruel). Maybe it’s because I recently finished my clerkship rotations, and my responsibilities went from a ten (presentations, tests, and smuggling lorna doones) to a zero (netflix, knitting, and eating aforementioned lorna doones) literally overnight, and now I have all this time to browse online and consider whether I actually need that second messenger bag (turns out the answer is yes).
Well, other than spending the past month hovering my cursor over several ‘ADD TO BAG’ buttons, I’ve also had a chance to think back on my seven rotations as a whole and reflect on all the people I’ve met–in particular my very last patient of third year. And since I wrote about my very first patient of third year almost a year ago to the day (HIPAAnniversary), I thought writing the following would be fitting.
Oh yeah. Also, in case there’s any doubt: as irreverent as I am towards the personal space and privacy of others (one time in japan i accidentally boarded a female-only train designed to protect women from sexual predators), there are some things, like HIPAA (and Yubaba and stink spirits), that you just don’t mess with.
We sat facing each other. Her bed beside us laid undisturbed and neatly made. The broad shelves and bedside table were freshly wiped, absent of cards or photographs, just a neglected vase of flowers purchased from the downstairs gift shop. Most people settle into hospital rooms the same way they do a half empty plane ride or lengthy wait at the DMV—a steady unwinding of cautious apprehension, gradually amassing an orbit of clutter, an aura of sweatpants in bed eating cold pizza. Skullcandy earbuds strangling a badly beaten phone charger, haphazardly folded receipts, sad wads of forgotten tissues, a hastily saran-wrapped half eaten poppy seed bagel. An entire existence, all within arms reach. But she had nothing. Not even a purse, toppled over to spill out a tube of chapstick or miniature bottle of hand sanitizer. It was like she had walked into the room just moments ago—a visitor, like me—rather than carried in on a medical bed by three Kankakee paramedics pulling along a beeping pulsox and a carousel of fluids.
I wish I could say that her eyes were pleading, that she signaled with her hands or held her throat, made some universally understood gesture of distress. But she didn’t. Her eyes were empty, her mind several galaxies away. She rested her hands on a pillow in her lap atop a small notepad and permanent marker. I could make out a few words neatly printed in all-caps. WATER. CLOTHES. CARL. The surviving gems of a house fire. I said hello and introduced myself, but she made no acknowledgement or indication of understanding. She stared at me indifferently. Her face was blank to the point of appearing inhuman—creepy and waxen with enough scrutiny. At one point she brought her finger to her lips and blew out noisily, the air split by her pointer finger held right beneath her nose. I felt the cold air against my face and blinked reflexively. She was blowing out birthday candles and hushing her audience of one. Maybe somewhere in her head, I thought, somewhere deep and reptilian, such a gesture made sense.
She was a woman who had forgotten language. Forgotten seems to me the most appropriate word, in a lot of ways accurate of what actually happened. Because language left her, slowly and with cruelty. It drained from her, I guess would be another way to put it, as if through a sieve, and every word she spoke was one less held in her head. Language was her currency, and she used it like a spoiled only child of well to-do parents, lavishly and torrentially and without thought. And by the time I met her, sat with her face to face in an unfeeling hospital room on a humid June afternoon, she was spent, her fortune reduced to pennies in her hands.
The big words were the first to go. The car crash of consonants and gratuitous vowels assembled into spelling bee winners and seven letter Scrabble zingers. The ones she visited only occasionally, like when Carl’s work friends would come over Thursday nights for grilled salmon and a bottle of Chardonnay. It was a chance to flex her tongue and push gently on the borders of who everyone expected her to be. Of course, she never did anything with them. With chilled wine swishing between her cheeks, she considered such specimens as perpetuity, maudlin, and indelible. Fine china high up on glass display. Her fingertips left sooty smudges on the window. She wondered if she could pull off such ostentatious verbiage, then immediately blushed and extinguished the thought. It was futile, she realized, studying these words. Like middle of the board puzzle pieces, she was intimately familiar with every curve and corner of them, and yet absolutely clueless as to where they belonged.
Looking back, she should’ve known. These were microscopic changes, but they happened at a deep, disturbingly personal level. Discussions of politics and vacations to Italy and the most recent episode of Black Mirror lapped at her feet as a slow, receding tide. Thursday dinners began to bore her, so she took the opportunity to watch Carl’s smile from across the table and indulge herself in a fourth, fifth, oh I really shouldn’t but okay sixth glass of wine. Liquid courage dulled her fears that she was slipping, becoming slow and stupid almost imperceptibly. Like a best friend, it kept her warm and helped her forget all the things she was forgetting, offering an unconditional buzz. No words, no talking, no listening. Just one chemical becoming another in her highway of arteries and veins—pleasure by the most rudimentary of terms.
Sitting across from her, I couldn’t tell that she had swallowed half a bottle of bleach. I say swallow instead of drink because even though it was liquid, I’m sure it was fire going down. She looked so composed and undisturbed in front of me, as if she had passed all her fifty years in a clean white room like this. I knew her for hardly five minutes, but suicide seemed uncharacteristic of her. It struck me as poetic once I got past the bone-crushing sadness, a powerful act of communication, the only one she had left. I imagine it was also an act of hope of sorts, a final attempt to eke out something—anything—from her vocal cords, wielding that slick, corrosive ultimatum. No one was home when she did it (she had made sure of that), so maybe it worked. Maybe she said something, recited that one line from that one poem she learned in high school that, for whatever reason, had lodged permanently in her memory like a bullet in her bark. Maybe after almost a year of uninterrupted silence she spoke with a voice of a stranger, unexpected and new. But if a tree falls in a forest—well, you know how the saying goes.
She became obsessed with movies. At first it was once a month, then it became every Friday night, and then two, three times a week. Most times she went with Carl to the theater on LaSalle but even by herself, every so often, she’d sneak away for a matinee between dropping Benny off at practice and starting dinner. She saw all the big blockbusters, every superhero franchise and global destruction action thriller and anything with half a promise of a high-speed car chase. Even better if it included intergalactic explosions or derailed trains teetering off the side of snowcapped mountains. She found herself enthralled with watching things collide, the engulfing flames and slow leveling of a parking lot structure, the clean contact of foot to face in a perfectly executed roundhouse kick. She shut off her brain and let her eyes roam the screen. No need to pay attention to the dialogue, which was reliably garbage anyway and had the grating quality of a battery in a blender, more and more resembling the deafening crashes of parallel universe leviathans collapsing angrily into a stormy Pacific. For a blissful two hours and twenty minutes, all she heard was havoc, and looking around the theater momentarily illuminated by a combusting eighteen-wheeler riddled with bullets lying helplessly on its side, that’s all everyone else seemed to hear as well.
I had just about given up, halfway to the door with foamy cleanser still suds in my hands, when she picked up her marker and began writing. It was slow and deliberate, but impossibly neat, each character fitting squarely between blue college ruled lines.
I had asked her for the date when I first entered the room. I paused, half expecting her to write out the answers to the other questions I had asked—as if she were suspended in some viscous ether, lagging just five minutes behind the rest of the world—but she didn’t. She capped the pen and removed her glasses, folding them carefully before setting them down and giving me the same placid stare. The planchette of a ouija board lifeless once more.
She was stuck in high-speed traffic, standing on the tiny island between coming and going where weeds grow between cracks in the concrete, and she knew she was safe, but fear paralyzed her. The current of fiery air as each car passed almost knocked her off her feet. They roared, these cars, with a steady, Dopplered crescendo that threatened her eardrums. The constant movement and noise made her nauseated so she focused on a point far away, at the horizon, watching an indiscriminate speck discern into two headlights around a horsefly graveyard fender. Things moved slowly farther away, she realized, a vehicle humming gently toward her, gliding along the pavement as if on glass. And for a brief moment, if she held her gaze just so, the world felt still, and a distant memory came into picture. She could see it, and she knew it, but before she could recognize it—sun faded, chipped blue paint, hood streaked with vertical gashes of metal, a windshield caked in dirt and grime lit by a harsh late afternoon sun—it picked up speed and disappeared, blurring past her in the surrounding chaos.
I was no longer sure of myself, at a loss for the correct form of etiquette. More questions at this point just felt mean. Even talking seemed like a cold thing to do. To communicate anything was a flaunting of my unchecked privilege, and so I stumbled through a quick goodbye and made my way to the door. And then she moved again.
She lifted a hand, and with her thumb and pointer finger she picked up a strand of long brown hair from the pillow in her lap, holding it up between her gaze and mine. It was hard to make out, but it looked like one of hers, a rogue escapee from the loose ponytail tied neatly at her neck. She brought it off to her side slowly like an arcade crane suspending a stuffed animal above the prize chute and brushed her fingers together, allowing the strand of hair to fall leisurely to the tiled floor in its native curls, catching midday sun on its dance-like descent. She returned her hand to her lap slowly, glanced at the floor, and then looked up at me.
I thanked her—I’m not sure why—and left.
We spent just minutes together, but her silence seemed to last ages, deafening even now as I think about it a month later. It was like outer space in there, so thick it pressed on my skin and sucked at my words. Maybe it was the sensation of loss, which emanated from her. She had no voice, both inner and outer, entirely dependent on a notepad and the patience of others. She couldn’t use a phone, read a book, send an email or text. She couldn’t tell me her name, or even learn mine. And then there was everything else: the ability to conjure a desert oasis within a glass of lemonade, to make men the size of oak trees and car horns the sound of elephants. She lost the obstinance of a walnut shell and the nagging of a pebble in a shoe. Colors could no longer penetrate, ideas illuminate, emotions flood and raze. She lost so much. She lost poetry. She lost metaphor. And then, in a biting piece of irony, an unexpected twist of cosmic reversal—like the return arc of an orbiting comet or emerging from the other end of a black hole in a strange yet familiar new world—metaphor became all she had.