They also serve who only stand and wait.
As my mother teeters on the edge of the driveway, her stiletto heels emit an angry click for the moment they collide with our fractured cement. I'm there too, standing beside her, wan and wizened and wondering when I first became an aberration. The doctors seem sure of their diagnosis. My skeleton's collapsing at a rate determined only by the capricious fiats of the human body.
It's eight o'clock in the morning, the same drill. Another appointment with a different lab coat I'll see once a year. I walk with a cane and a brace; I fall occasionally. I get back up, often with the help of someone lucky enough to be jogging by at the precise moment a jagged cobblestone catapults me to the ground. Concerned passersby tend to ask, "What happened to your foot?" Though nothing is wrong with my foot, and everything's wrong with my spine. "It's a spinal cord injury," I say, which generally elicits a concerned tilt of the head while the inquisitor's blank eyes feign comprehension.
Case in point: a car—which my mother first thinks is Dad returning to our Ithaca of a one-story ranch in suburban Ohio—comes to a halt at the end of the driveway. It's more of a pause, really, because the neighbor rolling down his window harbors no actual desire to speak with these deranged people who wait on the curb for that special bus(?) or for the nurse—doesn't he have one of those(?)—despite the fact that a van sits right there beside them. "It's good to see you back on the street!" he croons. Reluctantly now, afraid of the answer: "When will you get that thing off," referring to my brace. Never, you idiot. But I don't say that. Only: "it's with me for the long haul." We're friends, of a sort.
Neither my mother nor I explain that we're waiting for Dad to return from the dry cleaner's, nor that Mom insisted we loiter outside to save time once he gets back, nor—when asked about school—do I bother describing that I'm currently studying for the GRE subject test in English so that I can one day become a college professor. At eight o'clock in the morning, I don't feel like narrating any of this. Instead, I stare at the Coach handbag my mother purchased at the outlet off I-675 and our Honda minivan and our overgrown grass that needs a good cutting. I stare at the pristine flowerbed across the street—roses of scarlet severity, sapphire-tinted hyacinths, tulips of pastel yellow that belong on the front of an Easter egg-coloring kit—and think of the travel agent-entrepreneurs who live there.
But then I'm jolted back into the present by a nudge from my mother and the revving sound of an engine. Our neighbor pulls away; it's over. His Buick becomes one with a tapestry of houses lined in symmetric rows on either side of the street, cars in their driveways, newly-retired couples toiling in their gardens or yards or garages, some reeling away for work, none of them standing at their driveway's edge.
The task before us is nothing new: my avocation in life, it seems, consists of visiting doctors' offices. I do this sort of thing often and mostly under protest.
"Have you written some questions down?" As if this is typical of a visit to see your physician. My mother doesn't completely look at me when she says this. And I almost hurl back a retort I'd regret later—when I remember as I always do, after it's too late, that she's taken time from work, that she's rearranged her schedule, that she's lost sleep, to accompany her only son to see yet another medical professional. But for the moment, as I'm standing on the edge of our driveway, waiting abreast of her, wondering what the fuck we're doing, she evokes a singular sensation of unadulterated perturbation, and I snap like a dog defending its food from the unwary bystander. "Of course not." She often accuses me of responding this way, but then again, she's not the one living with two rods and eight screws in her back.
It's not even what I say so much as how I say it, according to her: my head jerks to the side, my eyes roll towards my forehead, farther than when your father embarrasses you at career day but not as far as they revolve eventually when you die. I'm impotent to desist this routine midway through. My diaphragm forcibly expels a shaft of air with an audible whoosh. My eyes flicker shut momentarily. "He'll look at everything in my chart, and he'll tell us what we need to do—vitamins, exercise, diet. I mean he's the one we're supposed to see, right? I'm not the expert." The family physician referred us to the surgeon, who referred us to the physiatrist, who referred us to the endocrinologist, who referred us to this bone specialist—an internist. Which doesn't seem like much of a progression to me.
"I think you're right, just don't be taking it out on me because you're frustrated about going to this guy; the reviews say he's great, although"—this is when you expect her to rip off the blazer she's wearing to reveal some kind of superhero logo of her own creation—"a couple days ago, I drove over to Dr. Williams' office to pick up the x-rays and latest bone-density tests. No one from either office thought to send or request them." Ah, the perfidy! "It comes right down to one thing," my mother adds. "You've got to have an advocate. Remember that excuse for a case worker they assigned us in the hospital?"
But I'm saved the entire story of how my mother insisted that I needed outpatient physical therapy more than once a week (I lived it after all!) because, by then, her attention is directed elsewhere: "Where on earth is your father?" Mom mutters—soft enough that it's plausible she's speaking only to herself but loud enough that even her hearing-impaired son can understand what she's saying. She fears I'm too protective of Dad—that I've never vented my anger since the accident. "I mean, how long does it take to drop off dry-cleaning? … I'm going to call him." The rings are stentorian—one, two, three (please, my God, pick up!), four, voicemail. Without looking, I can guess that the crinkles of skin around her mouth are pulled taught from the puckering of lips in a downward gesture of strained exasperation. There it is. My mother's tongue emerges to chafe against her upper lip in a swift and horizontal stroke.
She changes the subject to curb her swelling irritation: "When you get into the car, why don't you call Gam. Her evening caretakers have already left," referring to the litany of middle-aged women who stay with my grandmother through the night. We haven't always farmed out these familial responsibilities, my mother reminds anyone who asks, or doesn't, but looks concerned either way. Back when my grandfather was alive, in the larval stages of an un-diagnosable Parkinson's-like disease, my parents actually stood guard from dusk till dawn, handing off their custodial duties like the watchmen who warned Clytemnestra of her husband's imminent return. No more. Not since my father's exhausted judgment manifested itself for all the world to see. Mom's words, not mine.
She reaches for the phone again. Do I risk an intervention? "If he didn't answer two minutes ago, he's not going to answer now. And anyway, it's not going to make him get here any faster. He's probably driving home as we speak."
"I know you think I'm hard on him, but I said last night—you heard me say this, right?—if we are any more than ten minutes late they won't see us. End of story. This is out of network, I mean we don't show up, we pay for it. In more ways than one—you know that." But then, like Virgil appearing in the forest of error to guide Dante through Hell, Dad's car pulls parallel to the crevasse at which juncture the weather-beaten gray of our driveway converges with the smooth blacktop of a recently-paved street. Mom and I climb in. The tires seem to skitter there for a moment, before we begin lumbering down Oakcreek Road, but like many other sensations I experience these days, this feeling of stillness-in-motion is nothing more than the passing fancy of an overworked mind and an underworked nervous system.
I'm poised to call my grandmother, but Dad makes it only to the first major intersection before he asks again—he'd inquired last night too—"do I make a right or left?" Silence from the back seat. I stare at the "#1 Dad" stuffed gorilla my father has crammed into a corner of the dashboard; I make sure his West Point travel mug is settled securely in a cup-holder; I reach under the cushion to press down the lever so my seat will slide back for optimal leg-room. Anything to think about something other than what's unfolding in the car. "Diana, I'm trying here, you know how hectic it's been at work. Robert"—that's his boss—"didn't even want me taking the morning off because of the divestiture." Meanwhile, she's looking out the window; you can't combat passive aggression with explicit communication.
"I would have thought you'd remember," she murmurs.
"Diana, c'mon don't do this. Please."
"All I'm saying is that if I die tomorrow, what are you two…"
"But this is not tomorrow. This is right now, and we're going to be even later. Look, Pasquale needed the suit dry-cleaned, so… ."
"So despite everything I've done, you're still coming off as the good guy here."
"I'm begging you, Di—"
"God help me, where did you even go," she demands. "I tried calling you. Twice." I figure her tongue will wear an opening right into her upper lip if she keeps this up.
"Well, you know what, not everyone drives and talks on the phone like you do." I look over at him, the balding spot on his head that's gradually claimed more territory, the mustache he hasn't trimmed today. He's in his fifties, younger than my mother, and I used to think he looked it. Was he that bald three years ago? Before all of this? Did he used to laugh more, before the three of us shared a hospital room for that whole month of July? One inmate and two guard(ian)s.
I cringe when I realize the direction my mother's steered the conversation. "Funny, you want to lecture me about safety." It's an understated jab, but she aims for the jugular.
"That's not fair and you know it. God, all this because of some damn directions I'm supposed to have remembered."
"C'mon, Mom, it's been three years ago. I don't have it in me—" I start.
"Right! Right, you've got to turn here!" my mother exclaims. And then, her voice wavering in its effort not to betray the sinking suspicion that she's underappreciated: "You know, you don't always have to defend your father—"
"Son, I'm okay."
"We're okay," from the backseat. I think they are. But it isn't the same. I think that too.
A pause. "So, what are you reading now?" Dad asks, an effort to find out more about my preparation for the GRE subject test, which requires an uncanny ability to identity random quotes from the canon of English, and even classical, literature.
"Actually, reviewing Milton's Samson …"
But like a football player making an interception for the win, my mother speaks up from the back seat: "Uhhh—don't we need to strategize our questions." And so we do, right to the door of the doctor's office. It isn't so bad, after all, besides that we're discussing my life—whether I'll even be able to walk in forty years. Whether the screws will stay in place. Whether I'll return to using a wheelchair. My spinal cord isn't so much the issue now—it's the fact that my bones are losing density at a rate that would put most post-menopausal women to shame. My center cannot hold. And so the obvious answer is to identify, denote, and assess. Mark in the chart. Quantify & label my newly-diagnosed osteoporosis.
If all goes well—which it isn't. The receptionist takes one look at us and knows who we are: the tardy patient and his parents. "You're more than ten minutes late. I'm very sorry, but—" She's nodding her head with performative disappointment as one might to a first-grader incapable of raising his hand. "We have to adhere to our policies." (Of course, this woman presumably isn't struggling to void her bladder in the morning either. How hard is it for her to get ready? Consider that, why don't you.) My mother slowly closes her eyes with dramatic poise, and I realize she's preparing for the greatest monologue of her career. I don't look behind me to see if any other patients have accrued. And my eyes certainly don't venture beyond the sliding pane of the receptionist's booth—a vitreous barrier that somehow pits need and emotion against the precision and order of a medical machine.
"What are you saying?" But this is my father now, so you get the gravity of the situation. "Are you saying that, that, we scheduled the appointment, we drove here, we're willing to pay you out-of-pocket, and we can't be seen—despite the lack of asses in chairs out here, that you can't squeeze us in?"
"Sir, I really would appreciate it if you didn't use that tone with—"
From rage to revulsion, at the situation, at himself, at the abject void of empathy displayed before us, a shudder courses through my father's body, visibly culminating in his eyes. He begins to choke up, then cry, then the words start to pour forth. "This is my fault, son, I'm sorry. I screwed up. I," is all he manages to say before my mother takes his arm and directs him to a seat in the adjoining room.
Meanwhile, I learn two things: my father cries like the rest of us, and one thing that discomfits people more than physical aberrance is unchecked displays of feeling—especially by men. We're ushered to an examination room, into which the doctor eventually saunters after the nurse, after the x-ray technician takes me for two additional scans, after the physician's assistant asks me his assigned questions, after we've been there for another thirty minutes. After I tell my father that it really is OK. That I had been old enough to make my own mistakes, anyway. After my mother squeezes his hand, and I kiss him on the cheek.
Then a knock. The PA and physician amble through the threshold together.
"I'm Dr. Bradshaw." He doesn't shake our hands. "About how long ago was the spinal-cord injury?" Three years. "When was your first DEXA scan?" Age four. "Have you always had them done on the same machine?" No. "You know that would be helpful, right?"
"Excuse me," my mother finally interjects, "but we went through all this with—uh—your name again," referring to the PA who defers to his supervisor with revolting obsequiousness. "And it's in the report I gave your assistant." She crosses her legs, straightens her posture.
"Yes, yes, um, right. Standard operating procedures and all that. I saw the report."
"To be perfectly honest, I'm very worried about my son. He's 22, he's been paralyzed; he's improved by the grace of God. And now I feel like I've really shirked my duties as a parent. I'm not going to stand by and wait any more. We've seen several doctors, they've referred us to you. I just don't want to wake up thirty years from now and think we could have done something differently. That it didn't have to be like this."
"I understand ma'am. I have children too," he sighs. "Let me look at Pasquale's bloodwork here—"
"I brought that over last week, I thought you were going to look at that before …." I press my hand against her thigh. The doctor chooses to ignore us completely. Probably for the better.
"Honestly, everything looks normal. Vitamin D levels are low but within range. Calcium looks good. Weight could be better, but actually obese people have lower rates of osteoporosis anyway. Thyroid and parathyroid are typical for someone of your age." Normal, everything normal. Except what's not. "Let me have you stand up here. Take off your shoes and brace." My muscles begin to spasm against the cold linoleum of a sterile floor. Leaning back on the exam table to regain my balance, I notice a poster above the computer console with a jubilant young man advertising some medical-records app.
"He's going to have a hard time with that, the brace supports—"
This time I come right out with it: "Mom, please," and then, because already I feel guilty, "I'll be okay, honestly. I walk around the house all the time without my shoes on. You know that."
"Yeah, we see this in a lot of patients: you're a little out of alignment here," he says, pointing to my hip joint, "and here, and I can see your knee wobbles when you walk. But that's to be expected for a spinal-cord patient. It's the abnormal norm." Dr. Bradshaw chuckles at the paradox.
I've never thought of my life as particularly parabolic, but that's beginning to change the more I find myself standing and waiting, serving in the only way I know how, ensnared within the delimited confines of the sick person's story: a "normal" person gets ill or "stupid" or hit by a truck, as I did while following my father across an intersection on my bicycle, aged nineteen, home from college, still reveling in patriotic fervor one day after the Fourth of July. An intersection yards away from our house, nothing but the convergence of two roads I've driven through without incident nearly every day of my life. Which means we traversed its ashen asphalt despite the glaring refulgence of three stoplights, despite the neon ruddiness of the "Don't Walk" sign my father ignored. I don't begrudge him this—only that I was too slow to follow, too slow to balance myself, too slow to cross. By the time I registered some distant blaring of an obstreperous horn—the unabashed cry from a scarlet pickup truck which careened into me at a jaunty forty miles per hour—I was sprawled across the street. My father desperately, frenetically, moaned "Oh God." Tires squealed to a halt. Two passersby, nurses, bolted over to help until the screeching wail of the ambulance's siren eventually hurtled toward my yelping and paralyzed and somehow still-conscious self, an entity unable to feel the heat of a typical July midmorning seared into the boiling blacktop below.
It's then that the self becomes a Patient. The Patient sees a Doctor, then another, then another. None of them knows what it is he or she is looking at entirely. And lest this Patient catalyze the fatigue and eventual, inevitable, ineluctable opprobrium of his or her friends, he's expected to wait it out and stand firm, though he can't stand, for a long time anyway. Most people forget this.
So too, Shakespeare's deformed Caliban waits upon Prospero, for respect, for a break, for freedom; Woolf's Septimus Warren Smith waits for someone to recognize his pain, to affirm his mental tumult, until they don't, until he flees beyond his balcony; Sophocles' Philoctetes waits, alone, bewildered, festering of mind and body, until his comrades return because—turns out!—they need the disabled guy to win their war. Odysseus cozens him for the sake of the state, or that's the rationale for their epic contrivance. And Milton—ah Milton!—the blind bard. Well, he waited for decades to write his epic poem. It came, though; indeed, it came. The parable of the disabled man. Stand and wait, our mantra.
"What I think I'm going to suggest is that you drive up to the Cleveland Clinic and see a geneticist there. She's the real expert on biological bone aberrations. My office will make the referral. She'll have a better sense of what's going on. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what's wrong."
"I thought you were the bone expert," I jab. Because I can't help myself.
"I'm coming more from an internal perspective. Does that make sense?" I know he doesn't want to hear my answer. "Stand by," he says. "Wait for my office to call."
We load into the car, a troupe of children shuffling back to school after a field trip to some petting zoo. Two turns later and I can no longer see this latest medical complex: better coffee, messier bathrooms, less personable office staff, hotter physician's assistant, so that makes about the only difference. He didn't say much, but they never do.
Not so for Mom. She's the only one talking, prattling, on the ride home, an odyssey I would've been content to traverse in the hushed quietude of repose—or something akin to it. But she's looking up this Dr. X—what's her name again?—on Google: her latest, favorite, most grating weapon in a war over the freedom to accept that our long day's journey will eventually yield to an all-encompassing night. My mother rages against the dying of the light. "Listen to this," she says. "She actually did a fellowship after her residency and then went back for a Ph.D. too. An M.D., Ph.D. She's the one we need to see."
I stare out the window, watching a cluster of trees blur into one transient stream of amber and emerald. Such is the way of the world. I try my hardest to discern one from the other, thinking then, as I do now. I think of Caliban and Prospero's language, the language of the oppressor. I too must harness those words for the sake of imprecation. I think of Septimus and Philoctetes and Samson in his agony. And I think most of all of Milton, his epic vision, blinded sight.
Even so, I can't escape the haunting pale of a new doctor, a new office, another (longer) road trip. I'm struck anew by fear and loneliness—by the vapidity of a world with ever-metastasizing opportunities—and paralyzed anew in this land of solutions, terminology, diagnosis and cure. Or so they say. Feelings of stillness-in-motion wash over me once again, stillness because I yearn only to sit and be—alone with my body, alone with my mind; motion because we're moving in a car that reverberates with the humming anxiety of two parents' unquenchable lust for their child's wellbeing. This mounting frustration of mine, my cascading fear, the inexorable disconnect I feel with the world of the real, the breathing, the expiring pulsates through my osteoporotic bones, threatening to crush them absolutely.
But there exists another world, and I will discover my way within its capacious bounds.
I find myself waiting again—waiting to pluck a book from the shelf, to open it, to find my eyes glancing across the title, flying along symmetric lines of black type. These ordered rows give shape to a disordered world not unlike my own. To read—that's something, isn't it? More than something.
Mom talks. Dad drives. I wait for home.