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The best part of the day was the last part of the day. Bill and I would sit outside with our backs to the walkway between wings, looking out at the courtyard and the neighbor’s fences. Nurses came out after dark to wait for the city bus to take them home. I stayed there as late as I could. There was comfort in talking to the ladies…the comfort of knowing I was a person, not just a patient. And knowing they were people—regular people—as well as caregivers.
There was a black woman, probably in her late fifties, who sat with us sometimes. I knew her to be a sweet lady. A tough lady, but very sweet. I’m not sure what her title was, but there was no doubt she was in charge of the place at night.
I sat out there with the nurses every night, but only once did I miss the call for lights out. The call for lights out wasn’t really a call unless you were in the building. Apparently I missed the memo that said we were supposed to be in our beds by 11:00 PM for our medication. I was alone when I finished my last cigarette for the day, and the halls were still lit when I wheeled myself to my room. Unlike the previous nights, no one came to give me my meds.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep without them, so I headed to the nurses station. That’s the one to the left outside my door. The Head Nurse—my smoking buddy lady from outside—was in the hall, about to lock a cart in a closet. I asked if I could have my meds.
“You missed lights out.” She shook her head. “You’ll have to go to bed without them.”
“I didn’t know there was a lights out.”
“No meds after lights out.”
I recognized the finality in her voice, and I wasn’t going to argue with her. I wasn’t trying to manipulate her with what I said next, but now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t think I could have played it better if I tried.
“That’s okay,” I said as I turned my wheelchair toward my room. “This seems like a big place. I’m not even sure where the kitchen is. The food is good, but I’d like to see the kitchen. Take a little tour.” I looked up at the ceiling and around the walls as if seeing them for the first time. “Don’t worry. I won’t touch anything if I don’t know what it is, and I promise I won’t bother the other patients. I’ll explore quietly.”
“Mr. Steele, come back here.”
I turned. Her tone of voice didn’t give me much choice. She looked like she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or yank me out of the wheelchair and put me over her knee. I have that effect on people sometimes—I don’t know why, but I’ll confess that I enjoy it.
“I’ll give you your pills,” she said, “but next time you have to be in bed at 11:00.”
I didn’t mean to do it, but I think I gave her what my wife calls my “cute little boy” smile. She couldn’t seem to help herself and thawed her face.
She gave me the medication. “Promise me you won’t go exploring.”
“I promise.” I kept the promise. No exploring for me. Maybe that’s why I got ice cream…
One night as we sat in the dark I said I missed ice cream. I wasn’t asking for it; just feeling nostalgic. One of the nurses promised to bring some to my room. It would be there when I went in for the night.
I was surprised when I got back to the room. The table was pulled over the bed, and on it were two little white cups of vanilla ice cream and one of those flat wood spoons, the kind with points on both ends. I laughed like a little kid and slid in bed to enjoy my treat. It ceased to be ice cream sometime before I got to it, but I didn’t care. I peeled back the paper lid and stuck the plank in the goo. There might have been one clump in the puddle. The rest was a sticky, white, slightly cool, messy, sweet substance.
They told me I would have a visitor that day. Mike Stone—my boss. He’s a good man.
I was sitting in the courtyard, smoking a cigarette. Bill wasn’t there. I was parked in my wheelchair in the shade. I saw Mike walk through the walkway between the wings. A nurse pointed me out to him. I waved, glad to see him.
I don’t remember much of our conversation. He was on his way to camp. He looked great in his white shirt and tie. He wore the tie loose in anticipation of changing into his uniform. We chatted about small things. I told him I planned to leave the Boy Scouts.
If he hadn’t left me magazines, I might not have remembered his visit. That’s terrible to say, I know. But my memory was patchy at best. He left me two, I think it was two, magazines.
After Mike left, I sat in the room. I wanted to read one of the articles in the magazine. Ironically, it was about some aspect of men’s health. I struggled to read it—the words weren’t hard, but reading wasn’t automatic. I had to think through what each word meant as I read it. I set it aside when they brought dinner. Afterward, I went out to smoke. The magazines were no longer important; forgotten completely until I found them with my stuff after they let me out.
The old guy in the bed across from mine finally spoke. I came in from my last cigarette of the night and he was sitting in a wheelchair at the foot of his bed. A restraint tied him to the bed by one arm. I don’t know why he was restrained. I had a vague recollection of him moaning the night before. Staff came and took him away.
Now I looked at him strapped to the foot of his bed. His face was slack, almost tortured. His thin hair barely covered his shiny scalp. He looked at me and asked for help, raising his arm as far as the binding would allow. “They forgot me. Please help me… I want to go to bed.”
I thought it highly unlikely they forgot him. “Do you want me to call for help?”
He shook his head. “They won’t come. It’s too late at night. They left me here. Please help me.”
I’m pretty sure there’s a rule against one patient untying another patient when the caregivers find it in their hearts to leave a poor old man lashed to his bed. I would have left him there if and only if: 1) they bothered to tell me why he was tied to the bed, and 2) the answer made sense to me. They didn’t tell me why, therefore there was nothing to make sense of. That entitled me to do what I felt was right.
I said, “I’ll untie you, then help you get in bed. Stay there. If you need to get out of bed, wake me up or call for help.” He nodded, but that wasn’t good enough for me. “Promise me.”
“I promise.” He made eye contact and gave me a weak smile.
I untied him and lifted him into bed. He felt frail under my hands. Once in bed, he leaned back on the pillow and sighed. The exhausted smile on his face warmed my heart.
“Thank you,” he said. It came out a whisper. He asked for his glasses, then picked up a book from the table and pointed to the cover. I didn’t understand everything he said, but he was trying to tell me about the book. It was some sort of Christian book. I don’t remember the title.
In the way of a true evangelist, he demonstrated a complete inability to recognize he was preaching to the choir. The older I get the more that annoys me. I smile as I write this, but I have to admit I felt the very human urge on Christian feels when another Christian tries to convert him to what he already knows. I wanted to haul his scrawny ass off the mattress and strap him to the frame again. Don’t shake your head at me—you know what I’m talking about.
“I know Jesus is the Christ,” I said. “I accepted Him and He me.” The memory of the red mountains came back and I tried to suppress a shudder. “Go to sleep. He’ll watch over you.”
Something got through to him. I don’t know if it was my voice or my words, or the lateness of the hour. He nodded and smiled over his thick glasses. I think he was asleep before I crossed the room and crawled in bed for the night.
My nephew Timmy and the Green Goblin both had a hand in saving me and neither one was there. Timmy is my brother’s son—a sweet little blond boy, about three years old at the time.
I was sitting on my bed in the middle of the afternoon. One of the things Mom and Sarah brought me was a small black and white television. The news was on—someone the police thought was a terrorist had been shot in an airport. In other news, there was a subway bombing. I didn’t know where the shooting took place or which subway was bombed. The outside world seemed like a terrible place. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back.
I was half listening to the news and coloring with crayons. The picture was of the Green Goblin of Spiderman fame flying his scooter-thing near the edge of a skyscraper. When I was a kid, I was terrible with coloring books. I couldn’t stay in the lines to save my life, and although I knew what color things were supposed to be, I didn’t always color them that way. Now that I think about it, I think we lose something when we stop coloring the way we want and start coloring according to what we see. Maybe the three-year-old has something when the grass is red and the sky is green. Yeah, I know—I just sent forty-three kindergarten teachers screaming out of the room. It’s okay, though. They probably needed a time out.
I thought of Timmy as I colored the Green Goblin’s armor with the magenta crayon. I could picture us coloring together on a sunny afternoon. I had very little to worry about. Soon someone would come with food on a tray. I would eat dinner and go out to smoke with Bill until darkness fell and we swapped stories with the nurses.
I was about to glide to an epiphany. Self-awareness is the key to sentience. If you choose to say it more poetically, you might say it as Descartes did: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I’ve played with the phrase a bit. I think the more accurate way to say it is Cogito, cogito, ergo sum. Translation: I think, I think, therefore I think I am. Or try it this way—perhaps most accurate of all: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum…cogito. In English: I think I think, therefore I think I am…I think. Play with the phrasing long enough and you’ll get dizzy. It’s a little buzz I call recreational philosophy. There’s probably a 12-step program…
The Green Goblin’s armor looked okay. The magenta wasn’t dark enough, but it conveyed the idea. The skin threw me off. My box of Crayola crayons had several shades of green. I had an internal debate with myself. I think it was with me, maybe not. I didn’t say anything out loud; it wasn’t necessary.
What color is the Green Goblin?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
Who says it has to be green?
It’s the Green Goblin.
Yes. An enemy of Spiderman. One of many. The Green Goblin.
Who says it has to be green?
Mr. Stan Lee of Marvel Comics.
The Marvel Comics of which you own 400 worthless shares? The Marvel Comics that was bought out by ToyBiz…of which you own no valuable shares?
Ouch. Got me there. Who says the Green Goblin has to be green?
You, tell me
I say the Green Goblin has to be green. It’s my coloring book.
Whichever green I choose, ya bastard.
That ended the discussion. Me, myself and I—a committee of one—decided that the Green Goblin is green. I no longer cared what color the Green Goblin was in film or comic. I cared only about the color green I chose. I selected a light shade of green, one that seemed more powerful against the magenta background than the shade Mr. Stan Lee and his bankrupt editors chose.
That was a crossing moment for me. As pleasant as it was to sit on a bed coloring in a book and chatting with a nephew and comic book villain who weren’t there, I had to pull my mind together or I would remain a man rolling around in a wheelchair, ignoring news of subway bombings and airport shootings while I ate meals from an unseen kitchen and sucked down melted cups of vanilla ice cream.
This time it was my voice.
“…Time to go.”
It was sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas when I remembered the intervention. By that time, the desired results were already in play. I’m sober.
They wheeled me into a small conference room. There was a table and several chairs around it. A window opposite the door let in the sun. Sarah and my mother were there with the physical therapist and a couple other people I had seen before but didn’t know. They pushed my chair next to Sarah. The woman running the show was on my left, at the head of the table. Mom was across the table from me. There was some discussion, perhaps explanation. Details are sketchy. Someone asked me how much I drank.
“Four to five beers a night,” I said. That was a lie, and not a lie.
When I was in Chicago, my boss recognized my drinking problem. He sent me through our employee assistance program to an alcohol education program. They did an assessment and put me in a ten-week class. As part of the assessment, they ask you about your drinking habits, etc. I answered the questions honestly and accepted the help willingly—allowing I might need it, but never believing it. It took having my brain explode to make me see the light.
In my research of drug and alcohol counseling—let me back up a bit. When I hear something that doesn’t make sense to me, I research it. I want to know what makes it tick, what causes what, and how to deal with whatever it is. I found that substance abuse counselors are trained to ask the addict about his consumption habits and then multiply by two. When the counselor in my assessment asked me how much I drank, I told him the truth. He then multiplied by two because addicts lie…which meant he thought I drank sixteen to twenty beers a night. The real answer was eight to ten.
“When I said four to five, Sarah said, “Stop lying! It’s eight to ten beers a night!”
It wasn’t a long meeting. I listened to what the people in the room had to say, and they were right. I felt loved—exactly as intended. The people in the room were there because they love me and wanted to bring me back from the hell I put around them and me. I’m grateful for that.
Then one of the people around the table—I think it was the physical therapist—wanted to know where I got the beer I consumed on the premises. At first I thought it was a trap to break my spirit by getting me to betray a friend. That thought came from Viper. He was wrong.
I realized they didn’t know where I got the beer. That pissed me off. If part of their job was to make sure I healed and part of that healing was abstinence from alcohol, there was no way I should have been able to get beer in my hands at all—let alone drink it. I had no memory of what put me there. I didn’t know I couldn’t drink, but they knew and didn’t or couldn’t stop me. Now they wanted to know which patient gave me beer right under their noses? I wasn’t gong to tell them. We could sit there for days, and I wasn’t going to tell them.
Mom surprised me. “He’s not going to tell you. I can see it in his eyes.”
I don’t remember the rest of that meeting. Meeting, intervention, whatever you want to call it. Soon it was over. Mom gave me a hug and told me she loves me. Sarah did the same. I was sad when they left, feeling small and guilty. Less than an hour later I was my old self. The intervention was gone from my mind. Blacked out.
Mom came to pick me up the next day. I was surprised and delighted to see her, and even more delighted to find out I was going home. She had some paperwork to do, and I went to my room to pack my stuff: the cell phone, the black and white television, my clothes, and my coloring book.
There was a guy in a white lab coat standing outside my door. I thought he was an orderly, but he might have been a doctor. He gave me a couple cardboard sheets with Propranolol—the medication I took for essential tremor—in plastic bubbles. I asked about the sleeping pills.
He looked confused. “Sleeping pills?”
“The little yellow ones.”
“Oh, those. You can’t have them when you’re not here. It’s a narcotic. You have to stop taking it before you get addicted.”
I could have slugged him. I thought about dragging him into the room and beating him to death with one of the chairs. What kind of sick bastard gives a drunk narcotics? But I didn’t beat him, or even yell at him. “Can I take melatonin?”
He smiled. “Sure. Melatonin won’t hurt you.” He gave me a discharge form to sign. “The other thing you need is thiamin—Vitamin B1. Take it every day. You should be able to get it at the same place you buy melatonin. If you can’t find thiamin by itself, take a multivitamin. Just make sure it has thiamin.”
“How long do I have to take it?” I forgot the answer until much later. I won’t forget it again.
“For the rest of your life. Forever.”
I threw my stuff in a bag and walked out the front door. Mom and Bill were waiting for me. It was a beautiful morning. Not early, but still cool before the heat of the day. Mom was driving my car. Her husband Tony was at a hotel, and Sarah was too sick to leave the house.
Bill stood by the car, waiting to say goodbye. He looked sad to see me go, but happy I could go…I think. The big guy actually hugged me. I’m not sure I would have made it through the days in that place without him. I’m glad I didn’t have to try.
Soon I was home. This time I recognized the place.
Bookmarks and Bar Mops
It’s been two years since the Wernickes and life is good. We moved to Sarah’s hometown, a great small town in the thumb of Michigan. She teaches in the middle school she attended, and I’m writing. I haven’t sold anything yet, but I will. I was lucky to survive Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. I had no idea how lucky, until I did some research. Wernickes is an alcoholic’s disease…you won’t get it otherwise unless you happened to be starving to death, and then only maybe.
I found a few statistics regarding Wernickes:
- 1 in 10-12 alcoholics will get it.
- Of those who get it, 1 out of 5 will die.
- 3 of the 4 who don’t die will have permanent brain damage.
I found out the hard way what happens if I stop taking thiamin. There’s no reason not to take it. Vitamin B1 is inexpensive and available at most drug stores. The pills contain 6,667% of the daily-recommended dosage. Sounds like overkill to me, but apparently there’s no such thing as too much of that good thing. I mentioned I forgot what the man said when I asked how long I had to take it. Shortly after the first of the year, I stopped. I’m not cheap, but I didn’t see the sense in paying money for a bottle of pills that has no effect on anything.
One day in March, with the sun shining and a hint of spring in the air, I was alone. Being alone never bothered me before and there was no reason for it to bother me that day, but something clicked the wrong way in my mind in the middle of the afternoon. I crossed the living room to go out for a cigarette. Fear hit me like a cold kick to the chest. My pulse hammered in my ears and my mouth was dry. I felt like I bit a piece of aluminum foil. There was nothing to fear, but I was scared to death. I clocked my pulse at two hundred forty-five beats a minute. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead, the back of my neck, and under my arms.
I forced myself to go outside in spite of an overwhelming feeling that a hostile force was watching me. It took every bit of determination I could muster to smoke the cigarette and I only made it halfway through before stubbing it out. I wanted to hide, but from what I didn’t know. I opened the door and staggered back into the house. I ruled out driving to the hospital. I knew I would drive too fast or pass out at the wheel. I thought about calling 911, but was afraid the operator would laugh at me.
“What exactly are you afraid of, sir?” the voice would ask.
“Nothing. Please send an ambulance.”
“Sir, this line is for emergencies only. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“I’m scared shitless.”
“Of what, sir?”
“I told you. Nothing.”
I didn’t want that conversation to take place. I suppose I could have said I was having a heart attack. For all I know, I was. I didn’t make the call. I went to our room and fished out a thiamin tablet. I took it and lay on the bed, bedspread clenched in my fists, closed my eyes against the terror flowing over me, and forced myself to breathe slowly—counting to ten before each release. The fear lasted twenty minutes.
There were other episodes prior to hat one. It took me a while to figure out the attacks weren’t madness, and not imagined. Forever. That’s how long the guy at the recuperative care facility said I had to take thiamin. At $4.50 a bottle for a two-month supply, I think I’ll keep taking it.
One more thing before I let you go…
I’m not sure the red train is real. It may have been a symbolic conjuration of a damaged brain. The train may not be real, but the destination is. Here the rules of logic fail and faith takes over. I believe there is a Hell. It is a real place, as real as the one you’re in right now. But there’s good news, too. If there is a Hell, there is a Heaven. I hope I’ve seen all I’m going to see of Hell, and plan to spend eternity eventually in Heaven. Next time I’m going to take the white train—no matter how long I have to wait in line.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This isn’t about trains. Not yet, not really. Frankly, I’m not sure what it is about. I only know I had to write it, and thank you for reading it.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled book. Please remember to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times….
Section Three – Recovery, Aftermath, Job
I think it’s important to tell you this, and it might be hard to believe, but it’s important to know:
Within a couple of hours after I got home, I had no memory at all of any of the events in the previous section.
Hard to wrap the brain around that idea, isn’t it? It is for me. I spent almost two weeks in neural intensive care, and recuperative care: fought enemies that didn’t exist, met my wife again for the first time, and all the other things you just finished reading about, and I didn’t remember any of it. Not then. Memory came later.
I walked in the front door of the house, much like anyone would walk into their house after they’ve been gone a few days.