At first, I decided, the 1991 British studio recording of Brigadoon was overblown, the big orchestra somehow too big, the voices too perfect, even operatic. But by the end of the first half mile, my reactions were shifting. It may have been the endorphins, of course. You’ve got to admit that it’s perfect exercycle music, stirring but not challenging. And in my case, homey. Positive associations with my early home life being rather scarce, but this seems to remain happily intact. Old records, the first of which were 78s, of popular musicals, operettas, operas, stacked on a shelf in our desert dining room. All far away and long ago, and here I am, a 64-year-old paralytic, nearing a virtual one mile on the exercise machine, if the digital display is to be believed. And it is. I believe it. Just as I believe it is downright funny, this song from Lerner and Loewe about the Scottish lass trying to find a husband. Two Jewish boys writing this tune about the Highlands being even funnier. And damned if I haven’t hit the one-mile mark, legs still flying.
It’s a race against time, this exercycle marathon. At 9:20 AM Lorna will return to help me get off this thing and out of my bicycle shoes. I don’t have quite enough time to do a virtual five miles, but that isn’t stopping me. Only Lorna herself stops me, and the digital readout says 4.33 miles which is close enough by any reckoning. Lorna helps me stand up, and I am going to help her by getting off this machine fast. Hard to say how I do this myself, but it happens all the time. Just a matter of twisting the right paralyzed foot enough so that I can raise the left leg up and over the center bar of the exercycle. While leaning to my right against the handlebar.
Today the right foot swiveling doesn’t go quite as easily as it should, but not to worry. After all, I do have help, in the form of Lorna, standing by. As I raise the left leg I can see the angle still isn’t right, which is no big deal, for I’ve adjusted this process enough times. Lorna grabs the left leg, tries to pull it over the center bar. This only jams one leg against the other. Lorna’s response is to yank even harder on my ankle. Somehow this worsens the jam, and now there’s something else. One leg is digging into the other, making a limb somewhere spasm. I can feel myself collapsing, giving way. Falling now seems so inexorable, I wonder if I shouldn’t just allow the process to take over. I am half imagining the descent and wondering where I will fall, onto a corner of the exercycle seat, straight to the ground…. Stop it, I tell Lorna. Let go, I add. The right leg makes it over the center bar. I make it back into the wheelchair, intact, unbruised and alive.
Lorna departs for mass, for this is Sunday. I should be attuned to whatever she is up to at the local Catholic church, scene of requiems, funerals, and other ritual acknowledgments of death. For the moment feels deathly enough. A narrow escape from a routine activity, and this is my life. I sit there for a long moment, trying to pull threads together into a day. Shopping, I must go shopping for Jane. E-mail, I was going to answer it. And this near fall is not a defeat, a sign that things are failing, age taking its toll. Really, shot in the neck at age 21, I am supposed to be dead. All this is extra, if not borrowed, time. Existence is fleeting, and why not catch the joy as it flies?
I am extracting a message from this moment, perhaps the wrong one. I stare long and hard at the exercycle and try to piece things back together. After all, I do get off this thing alone and successfully. Just now I was trying to rush, to please Lorna, to dance to someone’s non-quadriplegic tune. This knowledge settles around me. I breathe it in, such is the advice of my anger management book. The carport is all about cold concrete and open space sheltering me from the rain, which is coming down hard.
There is a truth to things. David Mamet says that when someone at a party promises to tell you about himself…he is always lying. Which is why when the president of United States says it is morning in America…clearly it isn’t. And why I find the voiceovers so annoying at space shuttle launches…we have lift off for Trailblazer Seven, a bold step for mankind…which it probably isn’t, because someone is saying it is. No need for promo, the space shuttle. It is what it is. Big and blasting, beyond phallic, its own truth. Just let the thing roar and rise and shut the fuck up.
And having eliminated false truths, thank you very much, what to make of this? No answer comes to me. I go about the work of the day, the buying of foods, the reading of books, staring deeply into the cover crop…last year’s lone brussels sprout hanging on for no purpose, certainly not the production of vegetables, just growing inedible leaves and doubtless preparing to blossom in one big botanical fuck-you. And the truth to things, well, it becomes no clearer on this day. But maybe in the sum of days.
Which adds up to grief. It keeps adding up, that is my problem. It takes two years, someone said, to get over a death…and in April, early April at that, surely this will be behind me. Surely I can find something cheerier by way of mood. Or maybe not. Grief, Robert Bly says, is an essential male feeling. For American men in particular. And why is hard to say. Except that our culture makes little room for loss. Americans are winners or losers, in the conventional view. So loss is for losers. No one I know believes this, but no one I know is not regularly exposed to the message. Which sparks a grief all its own. There is something demoralizing about upbeat hucksterism. Yet infectious. It’s time to lighten up, I keep telling myself.
Yet the opposite seems true. Maybe I need to build in an official grief hour. Every day. Get down in every sense. Necessitating a bit less of the anger management book, perhaps. Grief. For losing a wife. For losing a body. For losing the natural world. For losing our way. Grieve and grieve and grieve. Then go out for a beer and pizza. Or plant more brussels sprouts. And get back on the exercycle, carefully, confidently. And pedal your way to cardiovascular health or cardiovascular demise. Throw neuromuscular caution to the winds, the cold winds, the ones that will blow you down. And eat chocolate. That is the other thing. As long as there is another thing. For which one must be grateful.