Opelika, Alabama, 1977:
My first day of training, I faint. All week long in the trauma unit, I gag and throw up. I sway, like an old drunk, at the fraying edge of consciousness. By the second week, I learn to stand upright, to summon my senses back. I learn to make it through the autopsies and the rotting limbs where gangrene has set in, to make it through the sweet stench of burned flesh and gunshot wounds, to keep the stomach from its uprising and revolt. I keep a peppermint, sweet host, under my tongue to calm the acrid taste of bile that rises in my throat. After two months on the wards, I can look at almost anything and not flinch.
I do not flinch when the murdered woman is brought in one night, her tongue so swollen from the strangling it hangs blackly out of her mouth. Nor do I grimace when the burned boy is admitted, unable even to cry in his pain – the vocal cords scorched, black as coal – his upper body singed where his father set him afire for disobeying. And I do not flinch now facing the thousand other unimaginable things that one human being can do to another, and not for whatever cruelty or happenstance or rotten twist of fate has brought them to the ward, or to the E.R., or to the morgue and, thus, into my care. I learn to look at anything and keep my face from torquing in horror or revulsion, no matter how twisted or charred, no matter how blown open the body might be where a bullet has bored through it. I am tempered steel. I am gun-metal gray. Nothing moves my controlled countenance.
Only once is it otherwise: I lift my face from the hospital sink after morning report and I see, suddenly, the empty in my eyes. There she is before me, undeniable: my numb twin, exhausted and glass-brittle. My doppelganger. Someone who has given up on things. Someone who lives in a besieged country.
Each night, I enter again the dim underworld of the graveyard shift where I tend to the sick, to the wounded and dying. I walk up and down the dim-lit corridors, the fresh wax gleaming underfoot, the soles of my shoes sticking and squealing like some small protest. The ones who can sleep, sleep. The others merely endure, somehow, the long night and its pain-riddled hours. The rest of this town sleeps, blissful and exhausted and unaware.
And me? I am the Watcher. I have the map in hand. I know where each sleeper reposes in the dark ward. I know the precise thorn of their pain and the trellis of the body upon which it is hung. I take my penlight in hand, checking each bed, taking in hand each wrist, my fingers feeling for a pulse. I am their best angel each night, their guardian, the one who hovers, the one who keeps vigilant watch, the most faithful of faithfuls. The one who changes nothing. The one who cannot save them. The one who cannot even save herself.
Only when the sun comes up do I leave them behind, in the care of others, and I enter again the daylit world.
How sweet it seems today, the warm blanket of my ordinary life around me, the smell of strong coffee brewing, my groggy children rousing themselves from sleep, the baby’s milky first tooth finally in, the man I married seven years ago – the man I no longer can say I really know or love – leaving for work, leaving me to the wake of whatever washes over me there in my own kitchen, the whole morning slow and bathwater-warm around me. And always, in the background, tugging at me: that shadow-world I’ve left behind for a little while in order to take up, once more, this thing I sometimes call “my life.”
Two kingdoms I inhabit. One, a kingdom of darkness and the brittle stars of the maimed and sick, the halt, the infirm, the wrongly-born and badly-made, and those who are dying. And the other, at sun-up: a kingdom of spilled cereal and sticky hands, of diapers and detergent, riddles and nursery rhymes, Big Bird and Mickey Mouse, make-believe and wild rumpus, playgrounds and grape popsicles. And all the while, somewhere between the two kingdoms: a seam – holding, barely – slightly parting at the precise place, the exact latitude and longitude, where I depart one kingdom and enter the other.
In my ordinary life, there are people – parents, friends, family, neighbors – people who I once moved easily among and loved and who might love me still I think, good people with whom I’ll never again wholly belong. There are cautious animals – stray cats, a neighbor's mangy hound, two aloof deer who come to graze on windfall apples at the edge of the field – who do not seem afraid of me, who allow me to approach them. It feels like a gift, their acceptance of me, raw as I am, when they venture near me, a brief communion between exiles who do not speak each other's languages. But they are apparitions, ghosts who appear and then disappear. Each day now, I am more at peace with solitude, with the forest of pine and sycamore just beyond my back yard, with the fogged-in meadow of milkweed beyond it where a single gnarled tree stands, twisted by wind and split by lightning. Mostly I feel a deep relief flood through me in my daylight life, like someone who was to be executed but is suddenly, inexplicably pardoned. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it "peace," this thing I feel, but whatever it is called, it is surely the same stunned thing which must have washed over Persephone each spring when she left the underworld to re-enter the time of blooming and light. It is a peace, a relief, tinged with the knowledge that the underworld is still there, waiting for your return. Sometimes am I a little envious of the mud-brown river that runs fast as it can into and out of this town.
Words have forsaken me now: what words can frame them, those sufferers, what words can make them visible to those who inhabit this ordinary, lit world, a world that goes on untroubled by what relentlessly troubles these others? I do not even know, anymore, how to pray. How would I begin? And to Whom would I address my prayers?
Scripture says that if no one will say the truth of what is, even the stones will cry out.
Tell me, if you can: does the blade of grass, in its own green tongue, beseech God on their behalf? Does the clover cry out for mercy? Does the kicked stone weep? And the bunched forget-me-nots at the wild edge of these woods today - to whom do they make such an earnest blue entreaty? And what of the vines: see how they run up the trees in terror. Are they also a prayer, reaching skyward?
If so, let them pray.
As for me, I will watch children play today in the summer-scorched fields. I will tie on my apron and braid my hair and shake off my shoes. I will consider again the lilies which do not toil nor weep. I will keep my eye on the sparrow who has made her nest in the dead bough of the twisted apple-tree. I will study the cat who is stalking bugs in the weed-riddled yard. I will let the neighbor’s bony hound sleep in the cool dirt under my back stoop, his only escape from the fury of his drunk master. I will live this day to its end, drinking it like a cup of cold water on a hot day. I will give myself over to this other, lesser work. I will stake the tomato plants upright and give the garden snakes a wide berth. I will sweep spiders from this splintered porch. I will fold the towels and hang quilts to dry on the line. Also the clean sheets which will fly all day in the wind outside my window like some last white flags of my surrender.