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City Desk

The View from Mediland

by Richard Brookhiser

The first moderately unpleasant episode began when I noticed that one of the end caps of the front gutter was leaking. So I went up the stepladder to see if the gutter pipe was blocked. I have done it 20 times — I know the ground there is uneven — yet this time, from haste or distraction, I did not ground the ladder properly. I went four or five feet up, then I was on the sidewalk.

Thirty-two feet per second per second, the rate of acceleration of falling bodies, is pretty quick. I landed on my hands and knees, but I must have turned as I fell, smacking the back of my head on the rain barrel. I did what any red-blooded homeowner does when he injures himself — I called for my wife. She said I was showing a lot of red blood. Our friend Doug, the builder/artist, offered to come over with his staple gun. We went to the emergency room of the local hospital instead.

The hospital is in the nearest town of any size, maybe 20 minutes to the south. It was built by the local rich guy, who made his money by making television antennas. The rich guy became a politician (liberal D.), then the factory moved to South Carolina, then the town went into its long slow slide. Mass culture, wealth, taxes, no wealth: a koan for the history of upstate.

These pious reflections came later; in the moment I was moving through mediland. We hit the emergency room in the sweet spot of a slack period. Registration and triage went as smoothly as a double play. The physician’s assistant briefly weighed the merits of sutures and staples and plumped for the latter: The gash was deep, the scar would not be on my cover-girl face. After a little lidocaine in went the staples, sounding much like home repair (so Doug’s instincts were correct). We were back at our front door, beneath the offending gutter, only an hour and 45 minutes after setting out.

I spent the next week boasting of my misadventure, as we will if the ending is happy, when the second moderately unpleasant episode unfolded. I was seeing my internist in the city to have my staples removed and told him that all of a sudden urinating hurt (I shall spare you the details). Next morning I had a fever, and the internist checked me into urgent care.

Triage in the city has no true slack periods. I was deposited into the canvas of a Flemish master, a little bit of Brueghel, a lot of Bosch. Our ward was presided over by a high-spirited Filipina nurse (after the typhoon I wondered what island she had come from). The nurses, PAs, and attendants all shared an esprit that I have often noticed in ERs, and that is both the adrenaline rush of doing good with comrades and a carapace against the long grind of woe. My gurney was a magic carpet — I was pushed here and there, sometimes into rooms, sometimes into the hall.

Somerset Maugham supposedly said that if you sit long enough at the Café de la Paix the whole world will pass by. It passes by much more rapidly in an ER. Babies wailed. A woman was waiting to be moved into the psych ward after a second suicide attempt (in the first she had jumped off a bridge at night — at night somehow adds an extra squeeze to the dark embrace). A Hasid in a dress frock coat, what the Polish nobleman was wearing in 1713, asked the Filipina to press the elevator button for him: “It’s shabbos.” A Chinese woman waiting on her husband wandered up and down, with no place to sit. There was no place — unless you made one. Inertia is the most prevalent illness in hospitals. They will give you a chair if you ask, but you must ask, and if they do not find one for you, you have to find one and commandeer it. This is no country for passive men.

My fever spiked at 103, and I was given a shared room for overnight with a grand river view. I had had the same view when I was taking chemotherapy 21 years ago. My roommates were a Russian getting a stress test and an old Jewish man who had fallen from his crutches and spent the evening telling the nurse where he and his wife spent their winters in Florida. I had my wife’s iPod so I listened to Bach played by Glenn Gould, Jesus’ younger brother with Asperger’s.

Dawn was spectacular. First the lights on the 59th Street Bridge went out, then the eastern sky showed rose; then you could pick out the stubs and tails of jet trails, like punctuation. After breakfast (I did get breakfast out of the deal) my fever had fallen; they plucked out my IV, gave me discharge papers to sign, and sent me home.

I want to use my moderately unpleasant episode to talk not about our health-care system, though my two hospital visits surely make me more knowledgeable than our president and his minions, but about our living system. So much of living is a set of repeated actions that not only accomplish their proper tasks but also create a sense of fullness. What we do is what life is — and so it is, until sometimes quite suddenly it is something else. We do not normally wear plastic hospital ID bracelets. But then we do. And equally suddenly we don’t. Snipping those bracelets with a scissors and throwing them away is one of the great moments of homecoming. But you are not really home yet, because home has become momentarily strange. We are completely comfortable only with what we do not notice. The prayer of the world is, So teach us to fill our days that we need not apply our hearts unto wisdom. But wisdom like beauty will break through at 32 feet per second per second.

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