Running on Empty

Late at night, perhaps 3 AM, that transcendent and translucent time of  sleep. I hear a retching, more feel it. That is to say, I pick up the purely tactile sensations. I feel none of the nausea, and none of the horrible sinking feeling that goes with vomiting. After all, this isn’t happening to me. It isn’t even happening to a human. It is happening to a cat. And although I care about the cat, I really do, I care much more about my own sleep. Oddly, what I don’t seem to care about is the very real possibility that a load of cat vomit has been deposited right next to my pillow. I don’t even think about it. And this is good.  After all, it is night. This is when people sleep. It is not when animals sleep. Which does not mean that we are not together in this thing called life, floating down the great river of existence. But it does mean that some of us are actually sleeping, while others of us are flying about or purring. We share the night. We do not share the sleep.

Neither do Jane and I a few nights later. Now we are In North Carolina, Visiting Jane’s daughter, a graduate student at Duke University, and Martin, her fiancé. It is Thanksgiving, and we have much to give thanks for. For example, we are here. One of us is an aging quadriplegic, but nonetheless, is making this 5000 mile round-trip. We have barely arrived, having spent only one day here. Nonetheless, I have made the overland journey, my wheelchair being what it is, to Eleanor and Martin’s house. In this quest, I have traversed one mile of Durham, North Carolina. More to the point, I have found a way to get here. One of the secrets was to book extremely early, the Thanksgiving period being what it is for airline travel. I have found that it is possible, seemingly miraculous, to fly nonstop to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. I have used up most of my United Airlines miles. I have gotten two seats in first class, right next to the toilet. Life does not get any better than this, not airline life, anyway.

Still, there is an underlying anxiety. For example, on the eve of Thanksgiving, after various family have dined at a local restaurant, Jane and I discuss making our separate ways back to the hotel. I am tired. She wants to spend more of this precious time with her daughter. So why not? The hotel is less than a mile away. I know the route, having gone from there to here. Still, it is cold, quite cold for a Californian, and I imagine things going wrong. Principally things with the uneven footpath and roadway. There are cracks, buckling, the usual sidewalk phenomena. So what? So, I am actually 68, considering venturing out in a cold unknown city on my own…and at recent points in my life, did this all the time. So what is different now? Hard to say, except the general sense of weakening and increased vulnerability, vis-à-vis age.

As it turns out, Jane and I head back to the hotel at the same time. It is cold, the sidewalk proves briefly impassable, and the hotel is a bit farther than I recalled. Nonetheless, it is doable. Almost half a century since being shot in the back, I am happily married and turning up for family events in a strange city, 2500 miles from home. The whole crosstown journey amounted to a couple of miles, and according to my wheelchair battery indicator, I have more miles to go. Before going to bed, I plug it into the charger. Wheelchair batteries do well with a nightly boost. Except that things aren’t boosting. The accustomed green light does not come on. Jane tries another outlet. I wiggle the on/off switch, but there’s no wiggle room for failure…no wiggling out of this one. The charger is broken.

I berate myself for not checking it before departing from California. I cringe at memories of other chargers, the same model in fact, that failed in various ways. Loose cables, broken cooling fans…. I should have checked. And now the entire visit hangs in the balance. Getting me and my 200-pound wheelchair to and from Eleanor and Martin’s house is predicated upon batteries. It’s a straight shot, a tried and tested route of about a mile…but my batteries do have to be charged.

There is a workaround. We will borrow a folding wheelchair from the hotel, transporting me and it in Martin’s car. And when I have to pee, approach the Thanksgiving table or otherwise change locale, someone, e.g., Jane, will push me. And what is there to do now but sleep?

Turns out there’s a lot. I am so upset, so deeply and mysteriously shaken, that sleep never comes. I stay awake all night. Rage…and some deeper terror…keep me unpleasantly alert. Alert for what? The facts of life, I think. I am getting older. My independence, at least in its current form, will wane. Or from another perspective, my disabled life is full of denial. After all, I got us here so elegantly. In my mind, the entire experience is utterly seamless, easy. The jerks and jarrings are supposed to be few, perhaps even nonexistent.

At such times, I really need to get out of bed, to sit up…and think. Usually I can get to my essential feelings, just sitting in the dark and staring into space…and then on to some sobering awareness. In this instance, my body remembers. I have experienced total paralysis, then recovered substantial mobility and freedom. Now, let us be frank, I am losing it again. Yes, rationally, everyone does. Still, something in me panics.

Unfortunately, I did not get out of my bed in the Durham Hilton and have a panicky muse for an hour or two. Instead, my mind spun like a top until the earth’s spinning brought on the light of day.

I may not have been totally alert for Thanksgiving day, but the holiday and the meal passed warmly and comfortably. The Hilton had a very good folding wheelchair. We borrowed it for the day. Jane – and others – pushed me around when necessary. All went well, of course.

Black Friday it was, or more accurately, bleak Friday, for anyone trying to buy a wheelchair charger in this part of North Carolina. Still, Jane and I rolled out for breakfast in a most pleasant off-campus eatery. I say “still,” because of what was at stake. Simply put, the more I used the wheelchair batteries, the less power I had to get home. After all, I would have to roll some distance through Raleigh Airport, and some greater distance at San Francisco…then get on and off two trains…and roll through the streets of Menlo Park to my home.

Can’t say that I trust the battery gauge on the wheelchair. Getting dressed at 4:30 AM, Jane urged me not to roll around the room. Why worry about this, I thought, having squandered plenty of battery power in yesterday’s half-mile trip to breakfast. But this is the thing, who knows what is squandered, what is spent wisely? The question touches the heart of existence. Still, watching the battery indicator had a way of making me regret everything. First the green dots disappeared, then remarkably quickly the yellow ones, and then there was nothing but red. The warning zone.

At San Francisco, there were two dots left. Then the two red dots began to flash – a warning in the warning zone. I gently nursed the chair aboard one moving walkway, then another. Then Jane left to pick up the car…and more nursing aboard the little airport train…to the subway station. Here, I cursed myself for descending on the wrong elevator to the wrong platform. Or was there another elevator and another choice?

Either way, I arrived at the Caltrain transfer point…just as an hourly southbound pulled out of the station. I sat and read about 1950s Dublin for an hour, and 90 minutes later the wheelchair lift deposited me on the platform at Menlo Park. Jane was there…and with her presence, the worst anxieties weren’t. I even elected to cross the busiest streets. The battery indicator was now reduced to a single flashing red light. And we were about a quarter of a mile from home when the wheelchair speed suddenly dropped. Dying, dying and soon dead. Would Jane be able to push the weight of me and this massive lead-battery-powered chair? She did have to stop at one point to catch her breath. There was some question about whether she could push me up the wooden ramp that leads to our apartment. But there was no question about the most important thing. I was not alone.

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