“Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in a hammock.” – Herman Melville
I am a great admirer of that sentence. Much less so of the experience.
Yet there I was, “lying stretched together with anguish” in an ambulance cot on the way to a hospital emergency room in Charlotte, NC.
Anguish was, indeed, the perfect word for it – involving both physical and emotional pain. And we were lying together (anguish and I) in one confined place and time. Stretched out in it.
Mine was far the less dramatic or life-changing a situation than Ahab’s, of course. Mine involved my rushing feet tangled in microphone cords at a convention; falling face first to the floor, landing somehow on one shoulder hard enough to break a bone in it. I was hurrying to finish my duties of introducing a team of speakers and then getting to a booksigning that I was scheduled to do down the hall. We were placing literature and chocolates at each seat in the audience. As many of you will understand, if one has a handful of chocolates and starts to fall, one will save the chocolate. Or try to. Although, in the end, I believe my allotment went flying around the room, as did both my shoes and all of my dignity.
The anguish came in waves – waves of pain and fear (I could not breath or move my arm), in waves of humiliation and humility (there were gentle, concerned voices and hands all around to comfort me immediately; lit from behind with ceiling lights, they even appeared as angels to me), and in waves of anger and frustration (I wanted to stand up and start over and take back those seconds).
The anguish also came in a flash of inborn pre-evolutionary denial: if I hadn’t fallen, if I were not hurt, then I won’t be left behind to be devoured alone by lions. And then that thoroughly evolved human moment of denial that this wasn’t what I had planned; it interfered with my perfectly timed agenda.
Over the next few days I was constantly aware of this dichotomy of emotions and thoughts, physical experience and mental response, reality and perception. I was reassured of my eventual healing, and terrified by the inability to move my dominant (right) arm. They said the bone was a “good” one to break – it even has a delightfully playful name (the greater tuberosity). But the pain wrenched and flowed through my entire limb and across my back. I was housed in a luxurious hotel room with a soft bed and plump pillows and down-filled comforters, where I stretched out with my anguish and wept all the more in the midst of it – somehow because of it. I was surrounded by consideration and love and support – and I wanted them to believe that I was fine and good, and I did another booksigning and smiled and had my picture taken.
The swings and surges of anguish have continued at home now. Unimaginable kindness and thoughtfulness from friends and neighbors and even strangers. A cat who has assigned herself as guardian. Slow yet steady healing. And then the world tips and I drop scalding hot food on my bare feet because I can’t steady it with one hand, and I stub a toe so hard I break it on a door jam that I’ve stepped across successfully for years. Insatiable self-pity. And irony that refuses to escape me.
The moments of grace and gratitude far outweigh those of anguish. But this experience is still rearranging my heart and head and for now I am just the observer.
And, also for now, I suspect I should just lie back down in my hammock – stretched together with the cat in place of anguish – and let her fend off the lions that may be lurking … and perhaps the occasional whale.