They give her a mirror, over her face, turned at a forty-five-degree angle, attached to the submarine, the submarine that pumps away, with its engine pumping away. They give her a mirror so that she can see the world, so she doesn't have to look at the ceiling, the light green institutional ceiling, with the flies, and the single naked light bulb. She is given a mirror, her own mirror, so that she can watch the world go by outside her door, there in her hospital room. She doesn't know if her room has a view out the window, because she isn't turned that way, but rather, turned so that she can see out into the hall, see the nurses and orderlies and doctors, who come in to do things to her body, her new body, a body which has come up with such new experiences of pain, of new pain. She never thought she would be capable of surviving such pain. She never thought she would, my sister didn't: but she did. For a while, for a while.
They bring in a television set, into her room, and she becomes a fan of baseball, watching baseball through her mirror, on the new-fangled television set. She never cared for baseball before, before all this happened. She cared for sailing, and tennis, and some golf, from time to time (she was very good at the long stroke, in the first, fourth, and eighth holes at Timuquana Country Club), but she never really cared for baseball, at least not until now, but the afternoon nurse, Miss Butts, likes baseball, so they watch it together, and my sister can watch the Dodgers (whom she never heard of before) playing the Pirates (whom she never heard of before) and she watches the occasional home run in the mirror, when the batter hits the ball, and takes off, and runs to third base, then to second, then to first, and finally to home. It is comforting, in a funny sort of way, to know that people still play, think of, watch, write on, report on, worry about something like baseball.
They never taught her very much about life, and the body, and muscles and things, before this. When she was at Stephens College, they taught her dance, and music, and a smattering of literature courses, and some math, and a little chemistry. But they never taught her about the catheter stuck into her urinary tract, which stays there to drain the piss that won't come out on its own, and how urine crystals grow, so that when they pull the catheter out, it is like they are ripping out the whole of her insides, her entire urethra shredded, to ribbons, by these crystals, that come out of her, and no pain-killers, they give her no pain-killers, because this is a disease of the nervous system, and it might affect the regeneration of nerves. They taught her some math, and a little chemistry, and how to dance, at Stephens College, but they never taught her the new dimensions of pain, which she never ever thought she could bear, never, in a thousand years, but she does, she does, even though she never thought she could.
They taught her how to diagram sentences; and they taught her about Mozart, and Beethoven. They showed her the difference between the Samba and the Rumba, and between the Waltz and the Foxtrot, she remembers her teacher played "Besame Mucho" over and over again, so they could learn the Samba - - - but they never taught her about her lungs, the beautiful rich red alveoli that lose the ability to aspirate themselves, so that one night, they think she is clogging up, suffocating, and the doctor comes, with all the lights, and slices into the pink flesh, at the base of her neck, the blood jets up all over, and she can see the reflection of her neck in the mirror of his glasses, as he cuts into her neck (no anesthetics permitted because they affect the dark grey nerves nestled in the aitch of the spinal column, and polio got there first) the blood goes all over his smock, a drop of her blood even flecks his glasses, and of a sudden no air comes through nostrils or mouth, and she is sure she is suffocating, the very breath has been cut out of her, and her doctor punches a three-inch silver tube down into her lungs, so that every two hours they can pump out the mucous, that collects in her lungs: they never taught her what it feels like to breathe through a little silver navel in her throat, never taught her about the feel of mucous being pumped from her lungs. They never taught her about the kiss of the trachea, the silver kiss, at the base of the neck, the kiss of this silver circle, the silver circle of the moon.
She was quite good at chemistry, my sister was: quite good. She got special honorable mention, at graduation, from Stephens College, there in Central Missouri. What she remembers most about Stephens is the spring evenings, when the smell of hay would drift into the classrooms, make her feel so alive, in the rich fecundity of Central Missouri, the rich hayfields, and the people moving so slowly, on a spring day, through the fields, those rich fields of hay. Or in the fall, when the moon would peer up over the fields come hush by midnight: the moon growing a silver medallion, hanging there in the sky, the sky so black, the moon so white-dust-silver. They gave her a silver medallion, for her chemistry, she was surprisingly good at it, not so good at literature, she never cared for Dickens, or Jane Austen, but she was so good at H2SO4, and NaCl, and MnO2 that they gave her a special ribbon, with a silver moon on it, which she hung on her neck, which hung where the new silver moon of the tracheotomy hangs now, her badge, the badge of a job well done, a job well done, in the new education on the nature of the body, and its diseases, and the way the body will try to kill off its own, because of the diseases, and the deterioration of the kidney, bladder, lungs, heart, mind, under the sweet kiss of the disease, under the sweet new kiss of the disease.
My sister: the new student! The student of the body, and a student of disease, and perhaps even a student of sainthood: Sainthood. The questions of the nuns and priests and ministers of all religions of all times. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, and no one hears it, was there really a sound? Or, can God create a rock, such a huge rock that He Himself cannot lift it? Or, can God create a disease, such a painful awful burning disease, of the nervous system, that invades the tender spinal chord, and scars the nerves therein so completely, with such pain and destruction of the self, that one can wish not to live any more? To live no more.
My sister. An innocent saint. For slightly less than four months, from 2 September 1952 to 29 December 1952, she will have ample time to work on her sainthood. She will have 2,832 hours to recall growing up in the sun of Florida, her shadow a black hole on the burning white sands of the beach.
169,920 minutes: she will have almost a hundred and seventy thousand minutes to remember running for a fast lob on the white-line tennis courts at the Timuquana Country Club. She will have over ten million seconds, there in her new submarine, to remember that for twenty-nine years she had a constant companion, namely her body. A companion that asked little and gave much and, of a sudden, in the early fall of that year, turned a dead weight like a tree which has had the life leeched out of it. So dead, so weighted, that she must ask the good nurse to scratch her forehead, move a leg, adjust the hair, or brush away the wetness that forms of its own accord at the corner of her blue-gray eyes, just below those beautiful ruddy lashes, that match her beautiful ruddy skin - - - turning quite pale now. remembers a spectacular day from last summer, with the sun coming down over the water, a spectacular day on the St. Johns River running before the wind in a White Star sailboat. She remembers the wind in her hair, and her body riding, riding on the swells from the great dark Atlantic near the jetties, and that great flowing expansive feeling of having all of life before her, of having the wind and the river and the freedom to ride them and be alive, so full of the "This is not happening to me," she thinks. She cannot believe a termination of self and being in this huge room of clanking machines on a snow-dawn in North Carolina. "This is not happening to me," she thinks, but she is wrong. She is drowning in the liquids of her own body, and there is no way she can call out, to tell the nurse that she is suffering.
My sister! My sister. She is quite alone in her struggle as the sun begins to break through the grey waste outside. She tries to breathe in, cannot, and suddenly there is no spirit in her. My sister. Eyes, mouth, heart, single moving muscle in foot cease. There is no more warmth within or without, beyond the artificial heater placed inside the submarine which, as of now, has discharged its last patient. The iron maiden continues to pump dead lungs for over an hour before the night nurse discovers the drowned creature, grey froth on blue lips. My sister, who never did anyone any harm, who only wished joy for those around her, now lies ice and bone, the good spirit fled from her.--- Lorenzo Milam
A Manual for Survival