“Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.”
My physical therapy expanded each day. The epic trek with Michael and Collin to the nurses’ station and back the first day, perhaps forty feet round trip. A slightly longer jaunt down a hall the next time, past a room with a bearded man lying on top of the covers, staring at the ceiling, one hand on his chest, the fingers opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing. Past a room with a man asleep or unconscious, one leg in a cast so massive it looked as if it might be something done for dramatic effect, a cartoon cast with metal rods running though it, a woman sitting silently beside him, watching him. As I went by she looked up and our eyes met; I smiled at her and she held my gaze briefly, and then looked down again at the man without any sign she had even seen me. Past a room with the privacy curtain drawn, but with the four small legs of two children, a boy and a girl, showing beneath, and inside the curtain sounds of laughter and hilarity, chattering voices. It was hard to tell if the laughter was because of the children or for their sake. At the intersection of two hallways I turned to go back, panting slightly from effort. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and looked past Michael down the intersecting hall. Someone had pushed a gurney over against wall, with a pile of sheets tossed on top. As I started to move again, I suddenly realized I could see a foot sticking out from the sheets. For some reason that image rattled me, like seeing the horrible photographs and drawings of old-time war images, when soldiers were given whatever rudimentary treatment was available and then pushed aside to live or die.
And then there was the physical therapy I did all by myself. The first was a solo trip to the bathroom to pee. It was a distance of three feet, but according to the clock on the wall, it took me over ten minutes to figure out how to use my one good arm to get out of bed on my own, upright on my own, push my IV stand into the bathroom on my own, pee on my own, and then reverse the whole long journey. Sometimes half a mile is not so great a distance. Sometimes half a mile is an impossible and insurmountable distance.
Once, after one of my solo expeditions to the bathroom, buoyant with my success, and with images of home floating enticingly in the air ahead of me, I went out into the hall and shuffled down to the nurses’ station, all that long and weary distance, all by myself. I was so carried away by my progress that I began feel almost as proud of myself and as puffed up as Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, right after stealing a motorcar: Oh, clever Toad! Brave Toad! Ingenious, enterprising, fearless Toad! And like Mr. Toad, I got my comeuppance. I exchanged a few words of cheery banter with the nurses, but when I turned around for the homeward leg one of them came around the counter and walked up behind me and discreetly tied two ribbons in the back of my hospital gown I had forgotten to fasten. I had left my best angle exposed for all the world to admire. Shades of Jack Nicholson in Nancy Meyers’ wonderful Something’s Gotta Give.
On what eventually turned out to be my last day, while Darleen and I waited for the body-builder surgeon to approve my parole or bail or dismissal or whatever they call it, we went on my longest jaunt to date, past the nurses’ station, around an interior block of rooms, and eventually back to the hall where my room was, a total distance of probably less than one hundred and fifty feet. As we came into the home stretch, two prisoners from the county work-release program came walking toward us, pushing a cleaning cart. In our county, prisoners do a lot of work in the public sector, from clearing brush in fire zones, to picking up trash by the roads, to washing police cars, but I was a little surprised to see them working on their own in a hospital. They stared at me with completely neutral and dispassionate curiosity, a weak old wreck of a man with a long fresh cut across one cheek, in a sling and an orthopedic boot, his wife pushing his IV stand, shuffling along at the blistering speed of tectonic plate shifts. For my part, still heavily medicated and surprised to see them, I stared back with an equal lack of manners. One was black, a still young man, perhaps twenty, not yet covered with the requisite identifying tattoos of his possible future life. The other man was Hispanic and older, maybe thirty, and had a good running head start on his tattoos. My drug haze finally cleared enough for me to remember that in the dangerous gang code of the streets, staring at someone was considered hostile and threatening, an act of “dissing” just as aggressive as the direct stare of a dog or wolf, an alpha challenge. In an effort to clear the air I said the first thing that popped into my head, “I’ll race you to the end of the hall,” and was rewarded a burst of delighted laughter. Two bursts, if you want to be literal.