Friday, October 16, 2015

Extra Seat [1995]

The best conversation I ever had about the surf was also the shortest. And the quietest.

There are sounds common to every hospital, from Manila to New York City. Besides the murmur of voices and the occasional rasp from the intercom, there is the beeping associated with the various telemetry and servo-mechanisms, sometimes with the bellows rhythm of a respirator or the gurgle of a pleur-evac. I don’t know what it’s like for the patient; I don’t know if they stop hearing all of it or whether, since it’s the only distraction permitted when one can’t read, speak, or see, these sounds become comforting in their constancy.

Sitting in an ICU bay for more than a day, I know I stopped hearing them, permitting me a quiet vigil. Except for the forty-five minute ambulance ride and the six hours during which she was in neuro-surgery, I had been at my wife’s side for over thirty hours, still wearing the clergy collar and tweed suit from Sunday morning. As the ER physician had told me she wasn’t going to make it, I had given her “last rites” at noon the day before [since most people know what that term means I’ll use it; I’ll leave it to pedantic bishops to point out that “last rites” is not technically correct]. At 6pm, now at a second hospital, I had anointed her with the oil of unction, as I had been told that she might make it, but there would be lingering disability. With therapy and care she might be able to speak or even walk again. “After a fashion”, said the neuro-surgeon.

It was now 6pm the next day; two days before Ash Wednesday. I sat in the chair next to her bed, holding her hand in the noisy silence, waiting to see what the free-ranging pocket of blood still left in her brain sac would do if it came into contact with healthy tissue. If it did, it would further disable her or kill her. Then again, according to the surgeon, it could just dissipate with no further damage. If she were able to speak sometime in the next day, it would be a sign that the blood was dissipating.

I spoke to her for hours, without response, about family, pets, the daunting labor of filling out college aid applications. When those topics were exhausted, I spoke of our vacations to the various beaches we had enjoyed during our six years of marriage; about sailing the Lesser Antilles the year before, about the vacation we would take once she had recovered, maybe to Aruba or Barbados; about waves and surf and swimming and diving. I had just finished describing in lush detail a trip we could take one day to Kona when her hand, limp for a day and a half, suddenly squeezed mine. Then, through dried lips and a throat parched by the previous day’s intubation, she said, “We’ll have to buy an extra ticket for the surfboard.”

I knew that there had probably been more poignant words spoken in human history, but I really couldn't think of any. She could speak, and would in the months to come converse normally, regain her balance, walk, and return to work without any lingering effects from the sub-arachnoid aneurysm; and we would, after she was cleared by her physicians, begin to visit the beaches and coral reefs about which I’d spoken during those terrible hours of one-sided conversation.

And once, on a flight to the Palancar Reef, when we noticed that our row contained a vacant seat, we exchanged a silent smile.

[Excerpt from Reading Water, all rights reserved ©2011]