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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

I am just back from a visit to the hospital. I had not intended to go; the day was mapped out and included the usual round of errands, work, and procrastination in order to avoid the first two. And then came a phone call.

Morbid is my middle name. I have been borrowing trouble as long as I have known what Valentines were all about; I have long ago written in my head the teary eulogy for a friend who is so dear to me that he could be my brother and husband in one (but is neither, so the law is grateful), ever since college when I learned that his father's heart exploded when he was not even out of his fifties. I cross rickety bridges before I've come to them, and they give way when I am imaginatively right in the middle, tossing me into the dark, heartachey abyss

This particular phone call was not unexpected, then, especially since its subject was a man who is both lodged like shrapnel in my affections and chronically ill. Boy, I can go to town with a combination like that.

My breath was panicky, but my actions were direct: phone the family; Google map the hospital; call the petsitter and get Nelly's leash and dinner together. Car gassed up, pee break so I wouldn't have to stop, cell phone in pocket. Out the door.

Two hours later and I walk boldly through the softly swishing doors. They let you in if you act like you belong there. Go straight in; do not ask questions, just search for signs. Elevator bank for Jefferson wing floor 5: neurology.

Down long halls past a repetition of open doors through which are seen only feet: feet in socks, feet under white cotton sheets, feet that might as well belong to cadavers, and will, sooner or later, as always. Is it possible to walk into a hospital without feeling a quivering, inchoate fear that but for one small detail--and you are not privy to what it is
--you might be told to lie down in one of these beds yourself? Why am I here in my street clothes, and this man, the emblem of strength and determination and fearlessness, is seen sock-first through this door?

I walk in and he looks up, a small sandstorm of confusion and wonder in his eyes. Before he is able to quiet the winds, I have kissed his cheek and laid my hand against it. For just an instant that neither of us is sure has really passed. Because, at the moment, he does not remember anything, even the greatest of his many great feats. But he does remember who I am: I ask him that first.

He gets off the bed and sits in the chair; he wants to get out of here, and who that can walk would not? The fluorescent light that is probably what each of us will see in the moment before death; the smells, the chemical fluids that can both keep us in life and would push us out with one sharp whack; the aged, curled slivers of humans who breathe, but not much else--they remind us: It is coming. It is coming.

And so we want to get out of there as fast as we can, and forget this ever happened. But it did, and stay he must, at least for another day. I am already anticipating the drive back up the Thruway later that night, the cup of coffee I can get, the thoughts I will be alone with in the car. But for now we talk, and he tries to remember. It is not so much that he is struggling: he applies the same quiet concentration to this task that has taken him far, so far, to other destinations out there. He asks questions about where he's been, what he's done, and when. Disbelief, sometimes, when the deed seems inconceivable, or utterly irretrievable: most things, when described, come back, though in pieces, or slightly frayed. Then his questions repeat, as if new: How long were you without a motorcycle? Eleven years? (This is beyond his ken, so five minutes later he asks again, again incredulous of my answer.) I ask if he knows what kind of bike I have. Yes, K75, he says; but what color? Burgundy. No. Not that. [A beat pause.] Blue--a sort of electric blue?

Yes, the blue K75 he bought on my behalf.

He sits and looks at his feet, for a long time.

We revisit other memories. Then the male nurse comes in with two hypodermics. This is something he remembers how to do; like riding, it is in his muscle memory, not the shriveled synapses of some tiny portion of his brain that has taken away everything he is--his past.

So, while he's in the bathroom, I ask, with my eyes, cocking my head to one side, and the nurse knows what I want to know. "Oh, it's always this way. He'll get it back, don't worry."

So that he has something to do--he is a person whose worst fear is not moving, not having somewhere to go--I ask him to walk me to the elevators. Slowly, in his sock feet. The door opens; a quick hug, and I back in. The door closes.

On the dark highway I move forward into space. Random songs on the radio speak only to me, as they have been doing for a couple of years now. I wonder how it is they can be so specific, then I realize: they are only ever about two things, love, and loss. Both of which are behind me, down the hospital corridor, and ahead of me, in a place called home.