Save Me

The physician will ask–if I see one–was there any trauma? And I will have to answer: I was lying in bed.  

I hurt myself lying in bed. Suffered an injury to my shoulder. Two days now I’ve gotten out of bed lame. It’s a lame excuse for a shoulder, not doing what a shoulder is supposed to do, assist with the raising and lowering of one’s arm. I fell on a ski hill, maybe thirty years ago, and did something to this same shoulder, the one on the left, tore a rotator cuff or aggravated some connective tissue, and for months afterward felt sharp pain shooting down the length of my arm. That wasn’t lame. That was actual pain, legitimately earned, pain you could own, you could announce with pride. Yeah, shucks, an old skiing injury. I think I was at Tahoe. . .  That pain took months to pass. This pain is lame-ass. I got hurt sleeping on my left side. 

It’s age catching up with you. Maybe a doctor would say that, dispassionately observing the obvious.

At the moment I’m trying to enjoy some post-prandial ease, sitting on a poofy chair testing my shoulder, raising and lowering my left arm only when absolutely necessary. I can lift a coffee cup with my right hand; not sure I could manage with the left.

My wife and I are chatting. She has just observed that my new haircut looks strange. Well, I want to say, it’s only one day old. 

No hair-do professional has ever been able to make my hair look fresh-from-the-chair good. Stephanie, my current clipper, parts it on the wrong side while she cuts. It’s not just me looking in the mirror and right being left and left right. She actively brushes it against the flow, cuts against the grain, sweeping everything east when it’s supposed to be west. I can tell by my hair’s resistance that it’s not happy about this. It’s counter-intuitive, it’s against all hair logic, but what she does actually works. 

Once I’m out of Stephanie’s sight, out in the parking lot, I tousle it, disturbing her arrangement, and settle everything back in its customary lay, sweeping left, heading west. Back home, I drop my keys in the drawer just inside the door and duck into the bathroom, checking my head in the mirror, making minor adjustments with my left hand, which is attached to my left arm, which is attached to my left shoulder. Today I can’t fix my hair properly without feeling shooting pain in my upper arm.

This could well be a shoulder doctor diagnostic measure. 

“Can you fix your hair for me, please?” 

“Does it look strange?”

“No, in fact that’s a nice haircut.  This is just a test. Raise…” 

“Ouch!” 

“Right, so you have an injured shoulder.”

I don’t plan on going to a doctor. I’ll sleep on it and hope it gets better.  Though sleeping is the so-called trauma, the mechanism of injury. And I am not an ambidextrous sleeper. I sleep leftward, westward.  

“It looks weird,” my wife says. Meaning my haircut.  

“I’ve got other stuff to deal with. My arm hurts and my ear is clicking,” I tell her.

“Clicking.”

“I do this thing with my head, my ear goes click.”

“Thing.”

“I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out. Open my mouth. Clench my jaw. Yawn. Smile. I think I can do it on purpose. If I wince.”

“I’m sure it will go away.”

“Come and listen.”

“Listen to your ear?”

“See if you can hear the click.”

“It’s an internal sound. It’s in your inner ear. I won’t be able to hear it.”

“Sounds outer to me. Just place your ear next to mine and listen.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“Come on. It would be like a kiss.”

“No.”

“An ear kiss.”

“Let’s get in the car and take those things to Purple Heart.”

“There it goes. You missed it.”

“Where is it?”

“In my ear.” 

“Purple Heart.”

“Westland.”

Resting on the floor by the front door is one of our Maina Panettone boxes. Every year, a few weeks before Christmas we buy a case of panettone. Sixteen in a case. We give most of them away. By Twelfth Night we have a large empty box, the size of half a coffin, robust enough to make the journey from Italy to Cantoro’s of Northville. This has been going on for 15-20 years now. We save the boxes.

“This year can we throw away the box?” I’ll ask every year.

“I need the box. I keep stuff in it.”

A few weeks before Christmas I walk around the house counting Maina Panettone boxes.  Some are empty. Most are full.  Some contain boxes.

“Do we need another one?”

Stupid question.

In the box by the door are four suits I bought, wore to weddings and funerals, then stopped wearing over the past 40 years; also two suits that have hung in our son’s closet for 15 years, also a dozen dresses my wife stopped wearing 25 years ago. We carry the box out to the garage, slide it into the back of the van. Lugging, I’m surprised to learn, is less painful than flicking a light switch or fixing my hair.

“You realize,” I say, “that we will have to leave the box at Purple Heart.”

“Of course.”

“The box, I mean. Leave the box.”

“That must make you happy.”

One year we spent a night at my parents’ home. This was forty years ago. We had a new baby. It was New Year’s Eve. The baby had a cold, one of her first, which came with low level fever, sneezing and coughing, and blurry eyes. First baby, slammed by its first cold, is terrifying. Like a low level earthquake. We thought we had stabilized her.

Frank Johnson and his wife were having a gathering at their house down in Saginaw Township that night. 

“It’ll be nice to see Frank and his wife,” I said.

“Marianne.”

“Yes, and Chris and Tim and their wives.”

“Is it far?”

“Off Center Road and Brockway.”

“That means nothing to me.”

“When I was a kid we used to drive around the subdivisions down there on Christmas eve, looking at houses all lit up.” 

“Happy memory.”

“Pete Wilson and Craig Parling, along with their wives if they have them, will probably be there.”

“Pete Wilson.”

“You met him once. And maybe Terry Gould.”

“He or she?”

“He.”

Bringing a sick baby to a party is like bringing a bomb. You could leave it with your parents. They have experience with bombs, but not this particular bomb, not this new, very special, very tempermental explosive device. Only you know how to defuse it, should that become necessary. So you bring it, and you hold it carefully to your chest the whole time, shielding it, calmly rocking it, careful not to jiggle it lest it go off. 

There was beer and snacks. There was music.  Craig Parling did have a wife. Pete Wilson did not. Terry Gould was not there. Around nine o’clock the baby began to make noise.

“We should go,” my wife said.

“Change?”

“No, it’s not that.”

Sensing potential danger, everyone gave us space. 

“Look at her,” she said

“Hey,” I said to the little red face, kind of scwunched, surprised, and sad, “hey it’s New Year’s Eve.”  

“Do you think she’s hot?”

“Look. Doritos,” I said.

“Where are our coats?”

That night the three of us slept together in the full-size bed in the bedroom next to my parents’ room, the baby lying between us coughing a gicky cough and definitely getting hotter. We administered a couple drops of Baby Tylenol, dropped off to sleep, woke back up. She coughed.

“Do your parents have a vaporizer?” my wife asked.

I knew one existed, remembered a clear glass electric device that looked like a tea kettle with a metal spout. The device boiled and bubbled and emitted a jet of steam like smoke from its metal chimney. I said they might have one, an antique. I couldn’t imagine it worked. 

“Can you ask?”

I pushed the covers back and crawled out of bed. 

“Dad,” I said, standing next to their bed. I remembered being ten years old, unable to sleep because I was worried about a school project, I had to make a speech the next day that was going to be tape-recorded, I think it was a speech about fish hooks, and standing next to my parents sleeping in their bed, the hushed silence, the smell of Old Spice and Vicks, it all called me back to being young and vulnerable. “Dad,” I said again.

“Son?”

“Do we still have that vaporizer?” We, I thought, it felt weird to say that now. 

He tossed the covers back, got out of bed, and walked the length of the house to the door out to the garage. I heard that door open, then the screech of hinges as he pulled down the ladder into the garage attic. By now I was standing at that door looking into the garage, watching as he climbed up the ladder in the dark, disappeared half way into the attic for 10-15 seconds, then climbing back down with a black cardboard box in his hand.

“Here you go, son.”

“Do you think it works?” my wife said when I got back to the room.

I fumbled with the cord and plug, trying to be quiet.

“I wish we had some tea tree oil,” she said.  “Do you think–?”

“Not a chance.”

“What are you doing?” my wife asks.

I’m standing next to our bed, my hands joined behind me like I’m under arrest, drawing my shoulders back as far as I can and down as far as I can. In this posture my chest is thrust out, like I’m a big man, a preening bully man.

“Frank,” I say. 

Frank, the other Frank, is our physical therapist friend who, when I sent a text for help, responded with one word, impingement, attaching a link to a Youtube video illustrating stretches to ameliorate shoulder pain caused by pinched nerve. 

“It’s either this or drugs,” I say. “Either way, I’m going to have to sleep on my right side tonight.”

“Okay.”

“Facing you.”

“Okay.”

“What if I snore?”

“I told you you don’t snore anymore. You go mpghhht-shhhh, mpghhht-shhhh.”

“That sounds annoying.”

“It is. Very.”

There were years when, 10-15 pounds heavier than I am now, I snored. She had a low tolerance for it. That’s understandable. But she would give me light shoves and go SHHH!! waking me. I would wake up from a wonderful deep, snoreful sleep, apologize, and roll. The shove and SHHH! really pissed me off.    

I climb into bed beside her, lie on my back, and read on my Kindle for a while. Just now I’m reading novels by Christopher Shevlin, about a ridiculous man named Jonathon Fairfax. They’re really outlandish and droll and funny. I laugh out loud on just about every page, laugh myself to sleep. After I shut my light off she continues to peck at the last cards of a solitaire game she’s playing on her iPad. I turn on my right side, facing her.

“I’ll shut this off in a minute.”

“It’s okay” I say, “I like to gaze upon you.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I go to sleep laughing. And gazing upon you. What could be better?”

She ticks at her game. She’ll rewind it until she wins. Which seems like cheating to me. To her it’s coming to closure.  

“Maybe you’ll hear my ear click.”

“Don’t start on that.”

Pressed to my pillow, in my right ear I can hear the soft beat of my pulse. There’s no click tonight. 

Downstairs there’s still a lot of Christmas stuff to put away. Boxes to be filled. I shudder to think of it.

He must have thought it would come in handy. My father must have moved that old vaporizer from place to place over the years, over six decades, keeping the box intact, remembering the exact location of the device so that he could climb up to the attic in the middle of the night, in the dark, and lay his hands on it. 

Forty years later, I think I could find the green pajama the baby wore that night. It would take a while. It’s in a box, possibly it’s in a box in a box in an upstairs bedroom closet, also a box, where my wife saved baby clothes. What we keep, it seems like, is basically everything, in a box, in the house somewhere. Our house is a box. 

“That’s enough,” she says, shutting off her device, then the light.  We lie there in the dark, breathing, listening, welcoming sleep when it comes.

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