Like a mist curtaining from the surface of a black deep pond, I rise up into voices, slabs of hard sound, scrapes of metal, thuds and clinks. I realize I lie on my side. And just across from me, on a wheeled table like mine (we are two reclining figures on a tomb) in this huge brightness that allows us no modest hiding of blemish or sag, there looking back at me is a man whose skin gathers the light at his naked shin.
He is as dark as the pond from which I have risen, but his skin, unlike that deadness, gleams with highlights of warm mahogany. He is trying to pull himself to a sitting position, elbows jabbing air, the hospital gown falling back from his wrinkled thigh. No one comes to help us, we're utterly alone with each other here in the bowels of Highland Hospital, the long crowded corridor and warren of rooms that is Emergency.
Now we are joined by an intern clutching a clipboard. She has a lovely Asian face like Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion.
"What symptoms are you having?" she asks me.
I can't quite manage a response. One day I had begun to vomit and then couldn't stop: Didn't I already tell two groups of interns about this?
I lie back, imagining this white-coated young woman in the elaborate headdress and flowing robe that Kwan Yin wears, her dress blown by the sea wind. Kwan Yin of the South Seas, savior of fishermen--help me through this storm. In ancient times, in each of the bays and inlets of Southern China, there resided a local goddess. She would be called upon in the midst of rain and lightning and violent seas to rescue the fishermen from danger. When Buddhism came to China, these salvific female figures were reborn as Kwan Yin.
My week of not eating and regular retching did feel like a perilous journey. Racked by my body's revulsion, I had found my capacity to meditate fading away. I arrived in a condition beyond choice and discernment. If I was still an actor in my own drama--that pale wispy production--it went something like this: Imagine looking at a stage, dim and shrouded, with willow trees and distant moon, a fountain amid dark shrubs, a spooky 19th-century stage set, fit for the appearance of ghosts. Then, enter a shadowy figure who announces in a thready voice, "I will try to eat again." That was the only willed action I had participated in for the last several days; the rest--the vomiting, the falling asleep, the waking up--all happened by itself.
"What seems to be wrong with you?" the intern asks, and I am brought abruptly back to this gurney on which I lie.
|I am able to see this intern, whose face is tightening with impatience, as a graceful, all-loving embodiment of divinity, or perhaps of our most precious human attributes.|
I look around for help; glancing down to the foot of the gurney, I'm relieved to see my friend Crystal, who looks so pale and tired that she frightens me.
"She's been vomiting for seven days," Crystal informs the intern.
As if to convince them, I feel my stomach lift, my esophagus clench, tighten, and then surrender. Next to me on the gurney, I see, is a shallow metal pan. I lift my head and let the foamy liquid erupt out of my throat and splash into the pan.
"Cancer," says Crystal. "Chemotherapy."
My white-coated Kwan Yin and her cohorts write on their clipboards, their smooth foreheads earnest.
When they have left, I wonder if I am smiling at Crystal. I would like to express my gratitude that she is here--it's a softness in my chest--but I don't know if my face smiles.
Each time I arrive out of the darkness into consciousness, I become more aware of the noises, the endless bustle, the endless clangs and bumps and raised, tight voices outside my curtained cubicle.
Next to my gurney, now, stands Deborah. I am so glad to see her round, kind face, to feel her hand stroking my arm. Deborah tells me, because she is a nurse and knows these things, that the drug dripping into my hand from the IV has stopped the vomiting.
"Deborah," how late is it?"
She lifts her hand from my arm to look at her big-faced nurse's watch. "It's 3:30 in the morning."
I stare at her in astonishment as I calculate. I have been on this hard gurney for 12 hours. The thought plunges me into a puddle of weakness, Jell-O body melting. I try to focus on my breath, to experience the flow of warm air over my upper lip as I inhale, to feel the touch of breath on my nostrils--to experience life when it actually takes place.
"They'll be sending someone down for you soon. Till then, I'm putting you in the hallway."
The hallway! Deborah looks as stricken as I feel. "Oh no, please," I beg. "Not the hallway. Don't put me there."
|Suddenly I am in a realm where all has become wide and still. Maybe this is the realm that Kwan Yin inhabits, beyond my limited perceptions and expectations, beyond boundaries.|
"It won't be long," the nurse answers. She leans to release the brake on the gurney, and I find myself gliding out of my curtained haven, a sacrificial victim in a wicked sorcerer's canoe, pushed from shore to shore into the crocodile infested stream. For the second time tonight I am afraid; curtains of fluttering wings beat inside my chest, brushing my ribs.
Gurneys line the walls of this bright loud corridor. Nurses and interns rush through a collision course of crutches and wheelchairs and IV stands. Patients lie, swollen, bloodied, with great angry bruises, wearing patches of gauze hastily stuck over holes in their skins; rent, opened, struck down by a cramping heart, a drug-induced mental full-stop. Some twist and moan. Policemen lounge at the entrance, radiating authority.
And then something trembles, rips, and falls away. And I feel myself pass through. Suddenly I am in a realm where all has become wide and still. I have lost what solidity I had, and become a shower of musical notes tinkling like glass in the silence. Maybe this is the realm that Kwan Yin inhabits, beyond my limited perceptions and expectations, beyond boundaries, the truth explored in the Heart Sutra, that "form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form."
I look around me, seeing the tired, tense faces of the nurses and the young interns, seeing the man lying deathly still with a huge white bandage on his head, the young man in the wheelchair, huddled over his bloody leg, the woman clutching a sobbing child. Their distress enters this spaciousness and hovers, held in a radiance of infinite tenderness.