(As an anniversary present to myself I decided to share this essay with you all. I wrote this last year.)
#21. grow a new eye
Last night I read that they cleaned off the matted dried blood from my face and the grass sticking out of my hair. Apparently I was repeating myself, “What happened? What happened?’ It didn’t make sense, so I asked again and again like an old woman with Alzheimer’s, and as the rescue angels swooped me up in their helicopter, all faded to black.
Cyclops, cyborg.. whatever I am now, I will never be the same. Then I tell myself snap out of it kiddo – the world doesn’t revolve around you, and besides you could have died, you should be happy that you’re alive.
Yesterday, I started working on my bucket list: I call it the Pausch list, named after the professor who died from pancreatic cancer 8 months after he delivered his farewell speech at Carnegie Mellon. I watched the inspirational video of his speech, about how to live and die well and how to achieve your childhood dreams. This video, by the way has four million hits on you tube. Online last words i.e. instant pausch-humous fame.
Things on my Pausch List:
1. sing in a band
2. study flamenco in Spain
3. own a vineyard
4. fall in love
In a restaurant in Mt. Shasta right after their entrees were served my parents got a call that I may not make it. I was being helicoptered to Redding, they drove and tried not to speed. The next call was that it looks like I will live, but I would probably have brain damage. My dad tells me that they had two cases of Crystal Geysers in the trunk and drank every last one before they got to the hospital. I guess when traumatized one becomes extremely thirsty. To this day they keep the trunk packed with water, just in case.
This upsets me more than anything that had happened to me, the hell that my parents went through. Then they got the message, “Well, she may not have brain damage… but she’ll be blind.”
I woke in the hospital drowsy from the morphine, wiggled my toes, and then did a drugged out shimmy. Literally my first conscious thought was, oh good, I can dance. And they were wrong about being blind, I can see through my right eye just fine.
5. go on a cruise with all my extended family
6. help the disabled
7. go on an archaeological dig
8. learn to cook
Recently hired for a position that I had only dreamt of, a theater manager for my favorite struggling avant-garde theater space in the Mission. In the 70’s a bunch of artists / soon-to-be-burnt-out-hippies had squatted in the complex and now they run it. I worked my ass off to prove my worth – considering administration was never my thing. I was successful, the theatre’s golden child in a time of crisis. Weddings were looming in the fall and so I went on vacation.
Another test appeared suddenly and as shattering as an earthquake. I borrowed my dad’s jeep and it was packed solid, complete with bikes, coconuts, hoola-hoops, i.e. supplies for an adventure. Leaving my cousin’s wedding in Ashland to embark on my own single wild woman first time excursion to Burning Man. And afterwards the plan was, mad dash back home, then fly to Rome, and train down to Calabria for my oldest friend’s wedding. Then reluctantly go back to work a quick two and half weeks later.
“How has your accident changed you?” Pepe, one of the artists at the theater asks me, while he’s carving away at his humungous alien looking sculpture, the question I hate the most, also a question I desperately want to be asked. The crux of it is that it puts into focus that I have no answer. I stumble over my forced words. Try to brush it off. Or struggle to try to come up with something profound. But all I can think to say is, “I want to live more, I value everyday…” Trailing off, like it’s a question more than an answer.
I was extremely grateful for life, the days immediately following the tumble. It could have been from the euphoria from surviving an extremely close call combined with the morphine drip. These were life altering close calls. You can measure the close calls with millimeters. Whatever sliced the flesh between my eyebrow and my eye was millimeters from right eye-lid, my lens, iris, and pupil. Then it would have been a world of seeing eye dogs, brail, and darkness. I was millimeters away from knocking my frontal lobe on the dashboard so hard I would have had paralysis from brain damage or worse death. These millimeters I hold dear. They contain the space between life and death.
9. road trip across the U.S.
10. live on the beach
11. live in the country
12. own horses
13. grow vegetables
After detoxing from the pain medication, my beloved elixir, a wonderful combination of vicodine and codeine I remember sobbing and shaking uncontrollably in my Father’s arms, finally sobering to the reality of my eye.
If my parents were a body, my Father would be the flesh, blood, and the heart. My Mother: the skeleton, spine, and the brain.
The way Mother copes is by cleaning. She’s not just a clean freak; she’s a cleaning Nazi. She sweeps through the house and no matter if it doesn’t belong to her it is thrown out. For weeks after, I received several sympathy flowers and cards wishing me well. I began to imagine creating an art piece, a sort of collage with hospital bracelets and dried flowers. After flowers wilt they transform into a slightly different color, the color of the inevitable and beautiful nature of death. This is what happened to my eye. It faded from blue to a milky sea green. It was dying and I wanted to make a memorial with the beautifully faded fragile flowers.
One morning I awoke and they were gone. She had thrown out every sunflower, every rose, and every tulip. Every single consolation flower gone. She said they died. That night in the attic of my parents Victorian, I dreamt I grew a beautiful dark rose from my dying eye. It opened and flowered.
My friends, coworkers, and community threw a benefit to help offset the medical costs. This paid for my artificial eye. I went back to work, but I wasn’t the same: not focused, unable to stay on task. Remedial necessary details, like the budget didn’t interest me, partially because I couldn’t compute the numbers. I was unhappy, biding time until I figured something else out. Then I was fired from the place that was like my outer skin. Pealing it off exposed all the internal damages that were left undiagnosed: depression and brain injury.
The three-year anniversary is next month. I have finished my counseling at the trauma recovery center, the neurological study that I was in was over. My hospital debt could have bought me a house. But I have a face, and the hell if I’m going to trade that in.
14. own and design home
15. have a baby
16. write a book
One day I was curled up on my parents couch and my sister came over, gave me a hug, and asked me how I was feeling, still lacking a way to articulate my feelings, I pointed to some lines from the book I was reading, “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Murakami…“… I have this strange feeling that I’m not myself anymore. It’s hard to put it into words, but I guess it’s like I was fast asleep, and someone came, disassembled me, and hurriedly put me back together again. That sort of feeling…”
I have no idea which words to use to explain who I am now and what has happened to me. This is why I write; this is why I read Murakami. Like baking a rich pie for the right occasion and not knowing which fruit to use and what the occasion is and who will be eating the pie. Perhaps it’s a pie that needs much trial and error. And one I will be eating over and over all by myself.
17. sail the Mediterranean
In the gloaming, my eyesight was stolen from me as the sun set; the darkness sealed my left vision. Borges, also blinded speaks of twilight and at the creeping of “nightfall the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes.”
Like life, it dissipates, and now I have a gentle dark reminder everyday that death is in my face. When I wear my patch I wear it like a badge, that’s what a war wound is — a death badge, not only to show off, but a personal trophy. I have survived, and nothing will be the same again. I wear death in my face.
18. dance salsa in Cuba
I ran into a writing teacher of mine after a reception at the theater. He asked me how I was and after some dancing around, being tipsy, I blurted out that I wear death on my face. I was feeling very proud and strong it must have been the cuba libres, to say that. I mean you don’t go around telling people that kinda stuff; I don’t want to freak people out. His reaction wasn’t what I had expected. He said that hopefully one day I wouldn’t feel like that anymore.
I’m not done figuring this out. I’ve tried to be strong and callus. And there are more reminders than wearing death in my face. My memory escapes me; it’s like watching a fuzzy video with an overzealous editor, leaving what’s left fragmented and not cohesive. My relationship with my father is different now. My sister used to joke that my dad and I could talk or hours about the ocean. I’m not doing this anymore with him. I’m afraid to go there, that I don’t know how. Or maybe that I won’t see the beauty anymore. Instead I get irritated with him. Irritated with how damn feeling he is all the time. And I can’t.
19. be happy
My acupuncturist said that my chi was shattered. Remarkably, with my fake shell of an eye and all my reconstructive surgery I pretty much look like myself to the outside world, but inside my face bones have shifted, I have auxiliary titanium between my zygomatic bones or the cheekbones. I know you want to ask and no I don’t set off metal detectors at the airport. The nerves are still repairing themselves. I am told they grow a millimeter every six months, so the flesh above my right eye all the way to the top of my right scalp, the flesh above my left upper lip, and my left upper gums are numb. I have discovered that I don’t know when I have food in the teeth below my non-feeling gums. On the upside, my teeth are straighter than before. Five years of braces and several thousand dollars did nothing compared to a swift crushing of the jaw. Chewing is different. My nose was set after being broken, but it wasn’t set straight enough, it curves slightly to the left. I have a scar above my right eye. And the biggest shift of them all is in my left orbital cave. There are two eyes inhabiting the cave. The real one is dead; the fake is an acrylic shell sitting on top, like a mask it pretends to glance, to look, and to see. Tricking those who don’t know into thinking that it is real.
I know there are so many others out there that are also dealing with loss, trauma, psychological bull-shit that swoops us up knocks us down like Katrina, like Iraq, like a car wreck. And then maybe we’ll feel the same again, but for many we will never be the same. We might look the same, but there are invisible injuries weighing us down, and the process to receive any kind of aid from the government while in recovery makes you the slave to your own trauma. And what do we learn from all this? That shit happens? That we are more fragile than we could ever imagine? That even with bullet wounds, paralysis, brain damage and the complexities of the system on top of it all we are stronger than we can ever imagine? … That it does not define us.
I know when I refuse to feel and pretend I’m fine and normal, that I begin to build up steam faster, miss bus stops, yell at family members, and become more and more frustrated with absolutely everything. Pretending defeats the purpose of normalizing, so damnit I’m not normal, I’m a one-eyed swashbuckler. Yo ho ho!
So after big foot jumped in the middle of the road, the aliens zoomed down to my aid, they took my eye in exchange for my life, and somewhere out there my retina is cruising the universe. She is one step ahead of all of us, gazing into the beyond, into the afterlife.
I wonder what she sees.
20. meet the rancher who saved my life