Under anesthesia, I told him over and over again: This body’s yours to keep. And though he promised me, he said he’d do as I pleased, I stand before you on these same selfish feet.
Envy on the Coast, “The Gift of Paralysis”
Later, they’d tell me that I had been in shock, that I didn’t know what I was saying. But I did. Even when I was strapped to a gurney, even when blinding white lights and the scent of latex became a thick fog that pressed in around me, even when the screams that were stoppered by a ventilator suddenly echoed out into empty gray space as I bounced in and out of my body. I knew and meant every word of it. But then, in a shattering moment, their selfish plan worked and I was back for good. I felt what I shouldn’t have felt, the searing pain that gathered behind my navel and burned a path up my spine. The cold void of my dead legs. The unbelievable weight of guilt and grief that pressed down with the force of heaven falling. “Please don’t,” I said. “They’re gone. Please don’t. Let me go.”
I knew what I was saying.
– – –
At exactly 10:30 in the morning my phone rings but I don’t answer. The intercom to the apartment doesn’t work so Ryan, my physical therapist, calls when he arrives. I buzz him in and through the thin walls I hear him bound up the stairs like a puppy, all energy and joy. “Good morning, Alice,” he says as I open the door. He flashes a broad grin. He’s always grinning, to the point that it’s distressing. I gesture him into the apartment but he says, “Go ahead,” and signals for me to lead the way. I shuffle past the kitchenette and into the living room where a yoga mat is laid on the floor.
“I see we’re not using our cane anymore,” he says, injecting himself into my failure, my willful disobedience. If Eddie and I had started earlier, if we hadn’t spent so much time waiting, our sons would have been Ryan’s age and yet here he is chastising me like I’m an insubordinate child. As I bend forward to lower myself onto the mat my knees freeze up. I start to fall but Ryan is there, my guardian man-child, jumping forward to catch me and lower me to the floor.
“Steady, Alice. You need to be careful,” he says. “Have you been doing your stretches?” Silhouetted against the cloudy sky that peers in through the room’s lone window, his blinding white teeth shine like a beacon in that insufferable, insistent grin. “You need to do your stretches, Alice. Maybe we should go back to using the cane again, at least for a little while.”
He leads me through the program of stretching and pulling, my knees and hips straining and bending, aching and hurting from actions that not long ago would have been easy and routine. Sweat beads on my forehead and trickles down my back. I lean forward, gasping for breath as if I had just achieved some great athletic feat instead of having rolled around on the floor, limbs flailing, like an overgrown infant.
“That’s enough for today,” he says. He’s all smiles and nods and compliments as we schedule our next appointment before finally, mercifully, he slips out the door. I hear him leaping down the stairs and then he’s gone. His exuberance, more than the exercise, is exhausting.
– – –
In the shower I stand totally still, my head bowed, and feel the warm water run over me like rain or tears or blood. I dry off and head to the couch, my prison, my sanctuary. All around the television, dotting the otherwise bare walls, are nails and screws. I couldn’t bear to look at the pictures anymore. But I still see them. They’re burned into my mind. Eddie and his crooked smile, the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed. The two smiling boys, one a head taller than the other but both with those same glowing blue eyes. They were everywhere on that wall, mementos of a life I no longer live.
I turn the television to a dead channel and bathe in the gray light and wordless, crackling static.
– – –
An old bench, sun stained and worn smooth, overlooks the shoreline. My brother sits beside me in the place I have asked him to bring me, trying to fill the silence with stories of his wife and their sons and the new puppy who is so cute but so naughty and when he bites you with his little teeth you barely even feel it but Jodie says you shouldn’t let him do that but how do you teach a puppy anything, anyway?
Down in the sand, seagulls flit between the families on their beach towels, hoping to steal a stray potato chip or a dropped hot dog. I watch the waves come in and in and in in a never ending repetition, the sun glinting on the blue-green water and then hiding its light behind the cover of a clouded sky. The swirl of the wind rises in my ears, drowning out the wash of the water, the cawing of the gulls, the chatter of the families, the droning of my brother. It hisses like the dead television, the constant, endless hum nesting in my head, clouding my mind and making it impossible to think or speak or feel.
I see myself on the empty beach, navigating the cascading sand with ease, the bright sun illuminating the scarred, porcelain skin of my back, my tired feet carrying me out into the water that cannot be defeated, that cannot be beaten back, my screams echoing out over the waves, shattering the wind and emptying a silence that has been overfilled for far too long. At last the truth washes over me. The water cannot listen. It cannot give them back.
“Alice?” My brother puts his hand on my shoulder. I hear his voice over the wind. “Are you okay? We should probably get going.”
I feel the pulse of life, blood pumped into my veins by a heart that will never again be whole but that works all the same. I strain to stand on the legs that constantly remind me of what I have lost and what I have survived, of the sacrifices that I could not make, of the gifts that I have been given even when I did not want them, could not bear to receive them.
My brother gives me his hand, helps me stand.
“Steady,” I say.