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September 13, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Living in the Moment

Moving his left arm north along his chest and throat to get the left hand up to feel at his mouth made the whole right side sing with pain. A skin-warmed plastic tube led in from the right side and was taped to his right cheek and went into his mouth and went down his throat past where his fingers could feel at the back of his mouth.  He hadn’t been able to feel it in his mouth or going down the back of his throat to he didn’t want to know where, or even the tape on his cheek.  He’d had like this like tube in his throat the whole time and hadn’t even known it.  (p. 858)

Folks often mention little meaningful connections between their reading of IJ and “real life.”  I spent the last few days sitting with my brother in a Long Island hospital where he had been “Gately-ized”.  He’s a young (mid-40s young) guy, but has some long-term health problems (specifically, born with kidney disease which eventually led to two transplants over the years) that damaged his cardio-vascular system.  So, after some unsuccessful angioplasties, the doctors ordered up bypass surgery and set a date for that.  Unfortunately, he started having some ticker problems before that date arrived, so they ended up doing the bypass as a kind of urgent matter, which led to more complicated recovery.

Specifically, it led to three days on a ventilator, as his lungs recovered sufficiently to absorb on their own enough oxygen.  Three days lying on his back, tubes coming out all parts of his body, able to lift his hands and make some particular discomfort known.  Able to wordlessly ask what is going on when a nurse comes in to adjust an i.v. drip, empty a diuresis bottle, or check his swollen feet for circulation.  Able to wordlessly ask what happened when they booted all the family visitors out of the cardio-I.C.U. for three hours while some other post-op patient kicked it for good.  Today, they took the ventilator tube out, and he’s breathing on his own.

I find it amazing how much Gately’s “visitors” have to say.  I talked with/to my bro to keep him company, keep him distracted from the discomfort, but most of all to help him pass the time, especially before he was focused enough to watch television.  Tiny Ewell tells Gately a powerful just-remembered event from his distant past; the wraith explodes with his explanation of figurant-type complaints; Joelle appears ready to leave but launches into a story of the pipe-fellow and her personal daddy’s dog.  Each of the characters has a huge need to speak, and to speak in such a way that their interlocutor doesn’t interfere.  (With the exception of Joelle, by which time of their conversation Gately is more like my bro, able to waggle fingers to let you know he’s listening, able to make a facial tic or eye movement to evoke the idea of a smile.)

In my chosen vocation, I talk all the time.  I always have a story to keep things moving along, to accentuate some philosophical or literary text we’re reading.  But out of nowhere, I have no great confessions to make, no deep stories to dredge, no special fancies to describe, no regrets to consider.  I wonder if my bro would’ve preferred a bit of Tiny Ewell or even a wraith, helping him transition as he passed in and out of consciousness.  But probably not.  The best person to have by your side – after your girlfriend, along with your mom & dad, all of whom were also there –  is your brother, regardless of whether he can go off for minutes or hours at a time.

Flying back to Oakland Saturday night, images of Gately and images of my brother wound together and pulled apart.  Once again, I am amazed at the simple accuracy of DFW’s descriptions.  And I wonder, too, whether my bro was experiencing the “space between two heartbeats” as he worked so hard just to get through that first day or so.  Though he was well-drugged, no sedative can make such discomfort palatable.

A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp.  An Endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat.  And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses.  What the White Flaggers talk about: living completely In The Moment. (p. 860)

These are the lines I read on the plane that night.  Perhaps when I get back to Long Island, I’ll ask my bro whether it felt like this.  My guess is that he’ll be unlikely to remember too much.  But enough not to recommend bypass surgery as a form of meditation for higher consciousness.

[Stay tuned for Part II of “The Walk-On of James O. Incandenza”.  That post is nearly done, though finishing was delayed by my sudden cross-country trip.  And, for the first time, I have now dropped behind the spoiler by about 30 pages, here at the end when nearly everyone else has jumped ahead.  Perhaps I don’t want to give this book up, and prefer to draw it out simply as long. as. possible.]

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