A Shell of Tears

First you have to know that I was one of those kids who would weep at the drop of a hat when I was growing up. My various family members thus changed my name from “Lorenzo” to “Lucy,” or “Sissy” or “Brat.” The message was that boys don’t cry, no matter how much they are hurting.

Thus it was passing strange that during the days and weeks after I found myself in the hospital unable to move, friends and family told me that I was stoic, many said wonderfully brave.

Many of you know what it is to wake up in a new world with a new body. My new world was a long ward of 40 beds in a charity hospital where terrible meals were served on dirty trays and the orderlies, nurses, and nurses’ aides were underpaid and overworked and harried. But it was also my school, the place where I learned to ask to be cranked up, to be fed, to be cranked down, to be turned over, to be allowed to pee, to be allowed a bedpan. In my new school, I learned to be a baby again.

As I say, I was very cooperative. And from the perspective of 50 years, I suspect that my stiff upper lip came not from innate bravery, but from shock (this is not happening to me) and innocence (this will soon go away).

This bravery lasted for a full three months. No matter what demands put on me (by the staff, by the nurses, by the physical therapists), I was a patient patient. Uncomplaining. Dutiful. Cheerful. A brave new boy in a brave new world.

It all broke on a foul day in late fall, the day after Thanksgiving. I had just wet the bed. It was raining outside — cold and windy and blowing. Inside the ward the kids, ranging in age from 5 to 20, were running about (at least, those who could run), raising hell, a bedlam of children screaming, laughing, shouting.

They were all very lively, despite the fact that the hospital heater had gone on the fritz and was replaced by kerosene heaters that sent great gushers of black smoke throughout the room.

Back before, November had been my favorite month, for that was when the Northeasters came to the beach: Waves thundered, the water turned dark and tumultuous, gulls floated motionless on the wind, foam scudded along the sands. Often I would go alone to the shore to immerse myself in the tempest.

That day on the ward, a part of me thought, “I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get to the beach.” A new part of me, one I had never heard before, said, “You are never going to get out that door.” The innocent boy that was me had fled, a ghost … and I was left behind in this ward where there was no privacy, no escape, no hope. Nothing was now left to me: no dreams, no faith, no need nor desire to live.

A kind nurse, Miss May, saw me huddled under the sheets and pulled my bed down to the empty physical therapy room. There, amidst the pulleys and chains and torture tables and electric shock machines they used on me every day, she changed the bed clothes, the ones I had soaked with my urine, the ones I had soaked with my tears.

Miss May said that I shouldn’t be sad — that it was all right, that everything would be all right, but I scarcely heard her. All this time I had been holding onto something called hope, but now it was melting away. Something new was being born, a shell, a mother-of-pearl, not unlike the shells I used to pick up during the storms on the beach. The new me would grow into that shell, seeking protection against the hurts within and without.

Miss May said that I shouldn’t be sad — that it was all right, that everything would be all right. She was lying, but it was a kindly lie. She and I knew that I would not be all right, not for a long time, not until I could begin — years and years later — the process of melting down the carapace that had been born on that dark and windy day, amid the chains and pulleys and the great salt tears.

** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/08/a-shell-of-tears/

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