This story begins with the toppling of a small container of french fries, although not that small, or if one is mercilessly honest about the dietary facts of middle-age, not small enough…. And naturally we are in a church parking lot. What is natural about this is that I keep finding myself in them, more particularly Jane’s Episcopal carpark, up the hill in Menlo Park, and they are all very much of a piece, paved and striped. And in this one, Bill has parked his Toyota, and the two of us are having a go at the In-n-Out Burger bag he just picked up. We have run out of time, that is the thing. How and why we spent 30 minutes in traffic backed up between the end-of-day Stanford University crush and the motorway, no one is sure. Bill has had a normal, high-pressure workday. I have had what has become a normal sleepless night.
Approaching San Francisco, Bill makes a disastrous turn toward the ocean. He is avoiding the notorious traffic backed up on 19th Ave., he says. What ensues is considerably worse, or better, depending on one’s perspective. A spectacular drive along the Pacific, a tour of the Golden Gate headlands, before the bridge itself…all of which adds up to about one hour behind schedule. And I have the sinking feeling that it is all my fault. It has come to this. I am at the mercy of others driving. Poorly rested, 64 years old, and even the notion of putting my quadriplegic body behind the wheel for this rushhour marathon is vaguely horrifying. Though the horrors are over now, and after our abandonment of dinner plans in favor of fast food, we are at the site, parked in one of the last spaces…my handicapped Department of Motor Vehicles placard proving most handy. All going well, except that we are late. Late even for this event in the church, never mind dinner. Bill has ingested his cheeseburger and is now up and out and banging together the folding wheelchair. I do need just a couple of more french fries. A fatal error, of course.
The cardboard basket slides off the console between car seats and dumps an impressive pile of french fries on the carpet. Bill tells me he is having trouble getting the wheelchair’s battery holder snapped together. I tell him just a second. If his car smelled of french fries before this moment, by now that moment has become an eternity. I am a fool, a quadriplegic idiot, a burden and a destructive one at that. Struggling mightily, I twist my torso around to grab the door opener. Somehow, my working left foot jams against it. The door gets pushed open, and I get one leg out, then the other. All of which finally turns my torso the 90° necessary to reach down with my left hand and began picking up french fries. The latter are still warm. I eat a few, eat a few more, ears alert to the sound of Bill’s progress on the wheelchair. This is madness, the time required to eat these things exceeding that available. I begin stuffing them in the french fries container, where they belong. What the hell, I grab a final bite. An unpleasing melange of french fries and dog hairs from the Toyota carpet fill my mouth. I ask Bill to throw out the container. The spillage is my dirty little secret.
When was it? A couple of sleepless nights ago, I think, although I think less and less these days as insomnia drains me of the capacity. Under my new plan of attack, when hit by middle-of-the-night anxiety, I pry the paralyzed leg out from under the covers, drop it over the edge of the mattress, place its companion limb beside, and stand up. Then sit down. In the wheelchair. Whereupon, depending on the state of battery depletion, I either stay put or roll out to the front room. Anyway. On this occasion I remained in the bedroom, staring at the humming battery charger. While coming to a conclusion. That I would do some sleuthing regarding my 1968 attack, see if I can unearth anything about the cops’ proposed suspect…. The decision put my mind at rest, and I actually fell asleep.
Hope I don’t do the same here in Mill Valley, which Michael Meade points out in his opening moments, is unique in possessing…for a burg of 14,000…two Whole Foods Markets. Thing is, I am really tired, sleep having eluded me rather consistently for quite a while. I am not feeling very ecstatic, that is for sure. And that is the agenda, what has lured me so far north of my usual haunts. Ecstasy. Illegal, as Michael Meade points out. Both the drug, and by way of irony, the experience. The Mill Valley Methodist Church is packed, all redwood and skylights and carpets and affluence. I parked my wheelchair at the end of a pew. And now, we are not late after all. The music is ending and Michael is beginning. There’s lots of Hafez and more music, and the latter comes from ethnic instruments of uncertain origin. And Meade is in splendid form, reminding us of what is going on in some alternate reality, tonight’s Republican pre-primary debate. And all 500 of us are so not there. And Michael is reminding everyone to be here. Now. And there is an African saying, he tells us, something along the lines of ‘when death finds you, may you be alive.’ Applause and laughter and more music. More Hafez, intriguing and impenetrably ironic and deserving of another read. Michael starts the poem over. Children, he says a few minutes later, almost always reflect their souls. I like kids, I am thinking. Good thing, soul reflecting.
Earlier that day, just after I had started into my afternoon cappuccino at Peet’s, who rolled up beside me but Karen, a friend not seen in years. An experience halfway between pleasant and challenging. She had lost weight, an enormous amount. Remarkable, and from my perspective, most enviable in a quadriplegic. Of which Karen is a true specimen. In neuromuscular reckoning, I can only lay claim to half this title. Karen is genuinely and totally paralyzed from the neck down. Her tenodesis splint, a metal mechanical device worn on one hand, well, it makes me cringe. With unpleasant recollections of trying one on myself years ago. The occupational therapist gave up. I did not have the wrist muscles to make the thing work. Miraculously, my left hand provides enough prehensile power to accomplish the thing Karen is trying to do now, glimpsed in the distance, as I await her return from ordering a tea. I see her lingering by the barista’s counter, one of the staff opening her purse. I cringe because this is how she goes through life. And but for the presence of a millimeter or so of spinal cord, I would do the same.
I had offered to do this very thing, place Karen’s order for her. Now she is back, and I am making more such offers. She is trying to get her straw open. The paper wrapper grasped in her mouth, the other end of the straw in her splint…well, it isn’t working. Can I help? She doesn’t exactly say no, and I am loathe to intervene. And it is happening, exactly what people experience with me. Does he want help or doesn’t he? What should one do? Indeed, what I should do remains elusive. I point out to Karen that I am used to being on the receiving end of help, and would be more than delighted…. Her tea arrives. She drops the straw on the floor. I will get her another, I say. No, she has a red plastic one, a spare secreted somewhere on her wheelchair. No need for help, she says.
Karen’s hands are shaking. More exactly, her entire upper extremities are shaking. Having a bad spasticity day, she says. I cringe at this too. For this is what comes of having too much go
wrong too high up your spinal cord. A whole lot of shakin’ going on. She is here, in Menlo Park, for a dental appointment. Killing a little time before it starts.
The straw she has produced is intended, watching her splint motions, for the popout area of her plastic drink top. She tries to maneuver the straw through the opening, or where the opening will be if she can force the plastic tab out of the way. I hold the tea for her, feeling even in my numbed fingers how hot it is. Any plans to try this forcing-the-straw-through-the-cover maneuver seem raught with peril. Be right back, I tell her, rolling toward the barista. I can just see it, one quadriplegic (partial) spilling a boiling liquid on the lap of another…. The barista arrives, gets instructions, and does a rather splendid job of getting two cripples set up for safe beverage ingestion.
I’m getting used to this, getting used to Karen. Which is to say, getting used to myself. We exchange notes on aging. Everyone’s hands shake more as they get older. I can sense what’s going on for her, how it has happened. The quadriplegic nervous system amplifies spasticity as reliably as a Sony stereo. Big and loud surroundsound of neurons in chorus. Which turns shaking into jerking. Which turns aging into disaster. Definitely not her words, all mine. But she is a lovely woman, that is what I am rediscovering. So much we have in common. I can’t tell if her habit of being too quiet is the result of the introvert beaten down, or pulmonary paralysis. I can’t tell if the ambiguity regarding how to help Karen is equally present on her side. Sensitive and kind and humane. She is all these things. I am too. That and wise enough not to spill tea on her lap.
I can see it, something within me that not only cringes, but flinches from proximity to people of sorrow. Losers, some small part of myself believes. And life is so much better when we embrace it all, the whole gesheft. The heart opens, that is the thing. We like kids, all of them, the broken ones, inside and out. Sparking the question, are they broken down or broken open? The question, the only question perhaps, hanging over the evening with Michael Meade and 500 others. There is joy in this knowledge, ecstatic knowledge. Just as there is music, poetry, and the difference between submission and giving up now coming at me clearer than ever. Not that it was ever all that clear before.
Time to pee. When isn’t it time to pee? Fuck these 1970s suburban churches and their wheelchair-inaccessible toilets. I roll out into the night, toward an unlit portion of some forgotten wing of the church’s classrooms, stopping by a post I can barely see, perhaps holding a lamp, a sign, a shadow. I stand, perilously pushing my hips forward of my center-of-gravity comfort zone. Without even thinking about it, the task done before I can be afraid. Which I normally am in such circumstances. If I fell here, in the dark and far from any logical destination on a night like this, the toilets being 100 meters or so behind me…no one would know. I would know, that is the thing. I zip up and return to Michael Meade and us, his 500.