HELPLESSLY WATCHING

I was headed for the bookstore, I recall. I had heard about the Oscar nominations for the French film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable memoir which had been dictated by him one alphabet at a time, each blink of an eyelid representing a letter. I remember thinking how like typing a text message it must have been; one letter at a time with auto-complete kicking in. His amanuensis must have fulfilled a similar function. My useless digression was interrupted by a text message at that very moment. I glanced away from the steering wheel for just an instant and then the world went black.

Bauby had suffered from the ‘locked-in’ syndrome, he could hear, his mind could think and reason but he was a prisoner inside his own body, paralyzed. I peered out through the slit in my cast. I was told I had multiple fractures and several internal injuries. Someone had said they had found my car wrapped around a telephone pole.

I couldn’t speak but I could hear the hustle and bustle of the hospital. The doctors and nurses liked to chit-chat, the lack of response from me wasn’t relevant to them. At times I felt I was glued to the ceiling above, looking down at the people moving around fiddling with the various tubes, gauges and machines all around me, at other times I was back inside the cast moving one eye around and trying to see what I could see.

There was a TV in the room and for some reason it was always tuned to the quilting and knitting channel. I couldn’t look around but I imagined I was lying next to a patron of the quilting arts. I wanted to tell someone to switch to ESPN, BBC, CNN, MTV or 24 hours bowling…anything but this…but no I was stuck in a yarn, all tangled up and no place to go. I blinked a lot. Whenever I saw someone I started flapping my eyelids up and down a la Bauby, hoping the nurse would notice and ask me what was wrong but my blinks went unheeded and unnoticed.

I didn’t know if my parents, who were in an eco-tourism group, currently cross-country skiing in Antarctica, had been notified yet about their suffering son; I hadn’t had any visitors even though a chatty nurse had told me it was my fifth day there.

Meanwhile the knitter got a steady stream of visitors, mostly women of all shapes and sizes, some in business suits, some in casual attire some young, some old, but each carried tote bags full of yarn and needles. I could hear the constant clickety-clack of knitting needles punctuated with exclamations of awe and wonder every time an especially wondrous knitting legerdemain was executed on screen.

There was a guest on the knitting show who could knit with one hand while flipping omelets with the other – this was especially interesting to my neighbor’s visitors. They kept their friend entertained with knit and purl talk from the commencement of visiting hours in the morning till quitting time in the evening.

One night my nurse picked up my chart to review and I saw her walking away with it to the nurses’ station. Soon enough I saw another nurse walk in, she walked up to my neighbor’s bed and I heard her lifting the clipboard out of the bed next to me. I saw her walk away with my neighbor’s clipboard as well.

When your only moving part is an eyelid and your jaws are wired shut you become quite anally obsessive about things. I was starting to feel very antsy about my missing chart. I felt myself breaking into hives as several minutes elapsed and the nurse assigned to me never returned with my chart…and these were hives I couldn’t scratch!

She did come back eventually and I finally was at peace. I blinked my eye shut and went to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning I heard my nurse’s voice coming from the direction of my neighbor’s bed. The nurse was telling my neighbor what she told me everyday, “Bet you’ll never text and drive again, will you? Uh-unh, no sirree bob! I’ll be damned if you ever pick up your cell phone again. You’re goddamn lucky we could patch you up. Damn those things, we were so much better off without those thingamajigs! You should have seen that lady in here the other day, she came in here with her Blueberry things and was trying to close a deal on eBay for some kind of angora wool yarn…she looked like she was about to poke my eye out with her needle when I told her cell phones weren’t allowed inside the hospital! Wonder why they switched you guys around last night…didn’t you used to be by the door? But hey what do I know, I am just doing my job…chart says we need to take you in for surgery today…”

I heard muffled mumbles from my neighbor, I suppose she couldn’t speak either! The other nurse then appeared at my bed. She was a pretty young thing and I was always distressed when I got the battleaxe of a nurse and my neighbor got the prettier nurse, and commandeered the TV for herself. I was wondering why they switched nurses on us, and mentally exclaiming at what the odds were for me and my neighbor to have ended up in bandaged from head to toe, simply because we chose to text while driving!

But I wasn’t complaining. I was hoping I could blink her a message, an alphabet at a time, as she completed my words and sentences for me. I was trying my best when she said, “Oh dear! Is something in your eye, does it feel gritty, I wish I could take a look, here…let me see, open wide, try to gaze up for me…I mumbled something but it was useless, she persisted in making an effort to rid my eye of invisible grit or eye mucus.

When she convinced herself all was well with my sole moving part she moved on to raving about the Knitting Yogi who had made an appearance in the new segment the day before. “OMG! OMG!! Wasn’t he hot?? Did you see how he could knit with his toes while doing Shirshasana? It was amazing! Wonder what else he can do…” Her voice trailed off as she started playing with the remote to get the Knitting Channel on again.

That’s when it dawned on me that our charts had probably been switched last night. I tried shaking my head or legs, tried mumbling and of course blinking again…but the Knitting Yogi was already on as the nurse picked up my chart and started reading the instructions…she absent-mindedly informed me that I was due for an enema. I wanted to screamâ…but you know all about how clearly I had been expressing my wants these last few days. Blinking was seriously overrated as an effective mode of communication!

I suddenly realized that my neighbor had been told she was due for surgery! I panicked once again at the thought that I was probably the one who needed some sort of surgery and at the thought that I needed it and then again at the thought that my neighbor was going to be taken in for the surgery I needed!

I was wondering what to do next when I noticed a gorgeous woman walk into the room. She strolled over to my neighbor, I heard her lift up the chart and slide it back into place and then she clicked her way over to my bed, proceeding to confirm something on the chart hanging on the footboard of my bed.

I was staring, unblinking, at her when she walked up to me and told me how successful my changeover had been and that I was well on my way to becoming an anatomically correct and fully functional female after my bandages came off. She told me I would be gorgeous and that I would finally be the woman I had always wanted to be! She kept gazing at me with a beaming smile hoping I would show some reaction but I stared in shock until I resumed frantic blinking again.

The more I blinked, the wider her smile grew until she finally said, “No need to thank me, I am just following my heart and my calling to free caged birds from their confinement and let them soar as the man or woman that God intended them to be…once you’re well and the bandages are off I’ll come and see you again, I’ll hold your hand through the adjustment period…even if this is what you thought you always wanted…there are still adjustment issues that crop up and we’re there to hold your hands through that tough adjustment period…I’ll see you soon Mr…er…Miss Wilson. Take care.”

The orderlies arrived soon enough to wheel Mr/Ms Wilson out to the OR for surgery for God only knows what.

The crowd of orderlies, nurses, doctors came right back in about forty five minutes. It sounded like heads were about to roll. Apparently the true identity of the heavily bandaged person was revealed in the OR as the doctors discovered that the patient had already had all the surgery he/she would ever need.

I heard the doctors yelling at the old battleaxe nurse and the pretty one as they once again entered the room, this time to wheel me out to the OR to extract the scalpel that had been left in my abdominal cavity when they sewed me up.

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