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from The Curvature of Certainty / After Henry
After the old man died my back locked up big time. Hilarious really, when you think about it. Couldn’t move properly for months. It had been a little suspect before I left for the funeral, and I had pushed it a little harder than usual just to keep up appearances but I hadn’t expected this kind of trouble.
Managed to keep it under control for most of the stay with the family but got drugged up for the flight home. By the time the plane got to Heathrow I could hardly stand - or sit - or walk. I was locked pretty solid.
Naturally, for the first time (in my experience), none of the conveyor walkways were operating. I had to drag my spine and butt through those endless tunnels - from the plane to the baggage collection, then from there through the customs and ID controls, and then down to the underground to pick up the train to Acton Town, dragging the effing suitcase and shoulder bag the whole way
By the time I got off the train, the pain was beginning to move down my legs. Jane picked me up and helped me clamber in and out of the car, but I couldn’t stay long at theirs. I was dreading the 2 hour drive home, but, wanting desperately to get it over with as soon as ever possible, I dragged the bags out to the old van, hauled my useless carcass into the driver’s seat, and set off.
Driving was actually significantly easier than walking. Grating nerve ends with each gear change, but no significant lifting. Reached home and dragged my wasted corpse and clobber into the house and immediately headed for bed.
…..only to discover another tortuous irony. Bed, that delusional goal of the last day and a half, was just another trap. I couldn’t get comfortable, but every move, every millimetre of re-adjustment was associated with lightning-strike, creasing agony. Couldn’t stay down for more than an hour but getting up was also associated with screaming pain. Imagine about 400 exposed tooth nerves converging in the small of your back and being spiked with a foot long syringe.
Began to realise I needed some “professional” help.
The “osteo” was just down the road, so he was the first port of call. (Strange as it may seem, I pedalled to these various places because it was easier for me to gently ride my bicycle than to walk. Had to stand in the pedals though. Sitting or, indeed, any unpremeditated stopping or turning jarred the nerves harshly and set off the screaming diodes.)
He decided I needed some “manipulation” and proceeded to tear out some vertebraec nerves by the root. The next day, in much worse condition, I straggled over to the GP who gave me drugs and a recommendation to the “specialist” at the local hospital. However, couldn’t see the specialist until I’d been processed and interviewed.
As I waited for the various processes to sort themselves out over the next week or so I began to settle into a routine of one hour down and two up throughout the entire 24 hour cycle. I became more attuned to the night time and more rat-arsed about and indifferent to the outside world. My pain was personal and impossible to explain. I could feel myself recluding.
When I finally got to see the “specialist”, she said, “Right, what seems to be the problem ?” Surprisingly, considering I had arrived there specifically to talk about my predicament, I was caught unawares by this intrusion into my private hell. I suddenly realised I hadn’t properly spoken to anyone for some considerable time. As I started to try to pull together a coherent sense of what the past couple of weeks had been like, I found I couldn’t speak. Instead, a well spring of emotion formed in my lungs and slowly, majestically, forced its way up through my throat and burst out through my eyes and nose in a welter of tears and snot. All the pain and the seclusion seemed to have built up into a massive spasm of self-pity and inarticulacy. Seemingly not too taken aback by my strangled, guttural curses and mutterings, the specialist watched me patiently as I tried to articulate through the gushing mess. She got the drift, and, overlooking my wretched slobbering state, began calmly to explain what she thought had been taking place.
As near as I can remember, she said that each of the vertebrae have tiny holes at the back through which nerves pass to join the central nerve column travelling the length of the spine. When these nerves become injured, they inflame, and become trapped in the little holes. Any subsequent movement (such as an osteo’s manipulations) then exacerbates the pulling on the nerves, dragging them screeching through those holes, for which they are already dramatically oversized, straining, pinching, and inflaming them yet further such that the oversizing increases yet again and the shooting pains escalate exponentially and careen almost randomly off through the central nervous system to give impressions of stabbings and stickings and slashes and ice pickings in various not directly related parts of the body - most notably the legs, where the “sciatic” nerves, particularly sensitive to these situations, take up hysterical signalling to the brain with the electric fervour and enthusiasm of Hitler youth ecstatically reporting the whereabouts of hiding ethnics.
Dear Maker, why, in the name of all that’s holy, would you ever come up with such a stupid design.?
So, what can you do ? Well, nothing really, it seems. Take anti-inflammatories and painkillers and try not to use your back!!
“Try not to use my back?” Yes, that’s what she actually said. Bit of a tall order, by any measure. As I pedalled my electrocutive way home, I realised I was in for a long run. A long run of torment, isolation, anger, and inertia.
Back indoors, I resumed my life of slowly accelerating crabby solitude (crabitude) in 3 hour segments – one hour down: two hours up. I had no choice. I could only sleep if I was exhausted and only until I awoke to the first vicious stab from an inadvertent sleep movement. As soon as I moved, the pain flashed up and down the back and legs like a hideously animated torturer’s electrodes. Staying still became impossible – as did moving. Caught in stasis, cursing and spitting with rage, moving eventually becomes the only option and one is forced to proceed towards verticality through a series of horrendously jagged pain barriers. One time, quite early on, half way through one of the barriers I made the mistake of trying to retreat back to a previous one and was punished so fiercely that my vision began to tunnel and I almost blacked out. Drawn and quartered on the serrated fulcrum, I cursed and swore and spat as I strained to reach out and grab a nearby railing and haul myself across the incommunicably searing threshold into a pathetic half crouch, there to await the fortitude for the next stage.
In the long moments between pain barriers I would find myself contemplating pieces of floor or items of domestic detritus (never knew I had so many dust balls) in prolonged bouts of forced meditation. Stuck in strange, unnatural, contorted body positions, I could feel the pounding blood pressure in my face and the trapped air in my lungs occasionally escaping in a sort of involuntary feline whine. I could hear the outside world passing by; traffic mostly, but occasional snatches of human voice. I would wait for a moment of calm before gambling my nervous system on trying to extend a crouch or take a next step.
I very soon learned that you can’t piss about with unplanned movement. Everything requires careful consideration, and over the next several days I completed my isolation by rigging my home for the accommodation of non-negotiable pestilent pain. I tipped a mattress on to the floor under the ladder to my sleeping platform and abandoned the platform altogether. I rigged a rope from the ladder to near where my head and shoulders lay to serve as additional leverage in the matter of getting up. I kept drugs and water near to hand. I didn’t bother to switch lights off. I didn’t shave or bathe for days on end. I basically limited most movement to getting from the mattress on the floor to the computer work station about 6 feet away.
Occasionally, hunger or thirst would force me to make my way downstairs to the kitchen. This was a whole new experience in humiliation and self-loathing. Like a man of ninety I tottered along a series of potential disasters, close brushes with vertigo combined with assaults from normally inanimate objects and furniture. Planned resting/meditation stations had to be worked out every few feet; places where a man could lean without fear of interruption or sudden unpredicted movement.
As it happens, my isolation was not complete anyway. I had lodgers and much of the planning also included the avoidance of other occupants of the house. A disturbed mother and her disturbed 13 year old second son had recently arrived and were in the throes of separating themselves from an allegedly even more disturbed husband/father and first son/elder brother. They came my way by word of mouth and, possibly, because nobody else would have them. Much of the time I managed to steer clear of them just by listening to and learning their cycles, but the occasional exchange of pleasantries in the shared kitchen were inevitable.
The mother’s disturbance could be very other-worldly at times, and, much as I might wish to avoid “normal” contact, she became attuned to my nocturnal wanderings and began to appear out of the silent darkness at the kitchen door and endeavour to engage me in conversation.
Initially, I resented these intrusions into my bitter solitude, but, over time, I became distracted by the weirdness. She occasionally worried that she might “upset” me with her ramblings. She actually asked me once if she was frightening me, but, quite to the contrary, I began to find the workings of her mind hugely diverting from my own shit – the petty but brutal hate relationship I had going with my own central nervous system.
For example, during one of my nocturnal 2 hour shifts I found myself in the kitchen, quietly cursing and wincing and muttering, only to look up to see her early hour wildly staring eyes fixing me from the kitchen door. She was clearly agitated and asked did I mind her sitting down and talking. I said, no not at all, and she began to explain about how she feared her own powers. The whites of her eyes stood out in the half light as she explained how she could control the wind. As she spoke the windows rattled and a wind I hadn’t noticed earlier suddenly sprang to life. “See.?” she said. I didn’t feel competent to pass judgement on either her state of mind or the extent of her powers, but I was certainly enthralled by the idea. I asked her to explain the origins of all this in some detail which she happily did – in considerable detail, in fact. She seemed to have no qualms about revealing the inner workings of her mind and seemed to appreciate my similar lack of qualm about hearing whatever she had to say.
Over time, as my private struggle with a useless and hatred-inducing back and the 1 hour down and 2 hours up sleeping / waking cycle and the regular flashes of searing pain punctuating the ongoing bouts of steady agony stretched into weeks and months, my only real contact with the outside world was through my lodger’s weirdness. Through our irregular nightly rendezvous we became regular rencontrants, regular confidantes as we each grappled with our own hellish misery. Her stories continued to enthral and distract me and she continued to see me as a sort of non-judgemental auditory receptacle.
As it turned out, her family really was pretty dysfunctional, and I became reasonably convinced that her state of mind was more a product of the mind-fucks of her husband and sons than any inherent madness she might have generated for herself. They really were quite piggish. Sort of thing you might expect from a nuclear husband in this day and age, but picked up happily by the sons, mirroring their father’s strange combination of meticulously calculated cutting indifference and overwhelmingly deliberate desperate helplessness. He sometimes dropped by and hovered in the middle distance,not sure whether I was a threat or competitor. Even after he’d received reassuring signals from me (plus the obvious fact that I was usually propped up against something for support and couldn’t move more than about a centimetre at a time) he still didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.
It seemed he was there primarily to induce guilt and occasionally whinge about the destruction of the family. The eldest son appeared once or twice, and seemed nice enough, but had that slightly foreboding air that apparent imbeciles can sometimes generate. He sort of wavered between peering shyly and glowering menacingly from under his tilted brows. I later discovered that he regularly threatened his mother with violence – throwing furniture and such like. Sometimes she would cower in her car outside the family home rather than go indoors and confront him.
These glimpses, plus the domestic presence of number two son, gave deep background and credence to the sometimes chilling tales I was hearing in the silence of the night.
Number two son, even out of the “proper home” scenario, seemed to be progressing down the same path as father and number one son and taking on many of the same characteristics with regard to treatment of the mother. Initially an apparently shy, retiring boy, his confidence grew in the light of the fullness of her attention, her desperate attempts to compensate for having “broken the family”, and his confrontations with and dismissals of her seemed to grow both in strength and in sheer effrontery.
One day, stooped over the kitchen counter, in between pain barriers, trying to gather the strength to achieve the next threshold, I was a prisoner to their argument. I was forced to listen as his cruel deliberation skewered her and I suddenly found a huge anger swelling in me and I turned my eyes to him sitting at the kitchen table and slowly began to lurch toward him. He sat like a bunny transfixed in the headlights, his mother hovering uncertainly by the door, as words began to spew from my mouth.
“If you HAVE to speak to your mother like that,” I began, “if it is absolutely essential to you that you treat her like a DOG,” and, concerned that I was losing his attention as he sensed that I was resorting to hyperbole, I raised my fist as I advanced, “Do NOT”, I said, and brought my fist down with such a crash hard on to the table just in front of him that everything on the table, including him, jumped about two inches, and, with my face centimetres from his, hollered, “EVER, do it, while I am within earshot. I can’t STAND it. It drives me CRAZY.”
By this time we were eyeball to eyeball and I was staring at him through the red mist and added, more softly, “You understand?” He nodded, and I tried to straighten with dignity and headed, hobbling, for the door, wordlessly passing the stifled, confused, distracted mother en route
One night, we got to talking about the difference between male and female love. She was talking about how she reckoned she’d failed her boys by not loving them enough. I said I thought that there was a profound difference between the love she was offering and the love she was likely to get in return. Hers was bottomless and unconditional; theirs was reflected. I said I reckoned that men are made stupid by woman’s love. Woman’s love is so strong and unwavering that men make the mistake of thinking they deserve it. They don’t realise that it is not a case of their attracting love by virtue of their own “unique” qualities. It is more a case of their happening to have had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time just as a woman happens to be looking for a chance to beam her love.
I said I thought it is like the goslings which fix on Konrad Lorenz. He is the first living thing they see and they assume he is their mother and follow him around. Women seem to have times when their love is ready to switch on and at those times, they too assume that whatever they happen to choose to love deserves it. Men, standing in the beam, puff and swell as if in sunlight and begin to conclude that this is also how the rest of the world should see them and yet, strangely, as the rest of the world continues to demonstrate indifference, they begin to turn their rejective bitterness not on to the indifferent world (which wouldn’t notice) but on to the source of the beam.
Her wide eyes stared at me, and I could see she was probably deriving considerable comfort from the fact that I was clearly madder than her.
Over time, this symbiotic relationship ran its course. She and number two son eventually found a house of their own and our lives separated. My back eventually straightened and, if I am careful, should last me to the point of brain death.
So, was there a connection between Henry’s passing and my useless back?
In truth, I don’t feel as though we had that much in common. In his presence I inevitably felt compromised. On the one hand he could talk such rubbish; on the other I was certain I didn’t wish to criticise or compete. On the one hand he was hugely entertaining and funny, on the other I always felt I merited less of his attention than any passing visitor.
As it happens, the lessons of my own life have led me to conclude that paternity, just like everything else in the cosmos, is coincidental and circumstantial. That I happened to be a son to this father came to have little meaning for me. But for not particularly complex twists of fate I feel we could just as easily have ended up playing these roles with completely different partners.
Perhaps I’m intellectualising. Perhaps I’m avoiding emotional issues hidden away deep in my psyche and getting it in the back as a consequence, but I doubt it. They say that paternal death brings a man face to face with his own mortality, but I don’t feel any more or less face to face with it now than before.
What fatherly stuff there was is too far removed now anyway. At this stage in life, it is no longer significant. I think that what happens is that, as one passes into adulthood, one has the option of becoming friends with one’s parents and he and I didn’t take up that option. I remember him best as a separate human; an acquaintance almost. I’m not entirely sure I necessarily wanted it that way myself, but I remain pretty sure it suited him and I was certainly happy to go along with it.
I left home fairly early and kept away quite a bit, perhaps partly to avoid having to examine this any more closely. There were one or two occasions when I made what I considered to be an effort and found little in the way of intelligent response. I also didn’t wish to compete for his wife’s attention. The man was so clearly in love with her that I couldn’t bear to interfere, however subliminally or unintentionally. As it happens, I feel I paid a price for this. When the option of becoming friends with my mother availed itself, I think we both took it up with some considerable enthusiasm and we became and remain very best friends to this day and I love and value her beyond words.
But this friendship was constrained by his presence and it wasn’t really until we began to meet on our own that our friendship flourished in the way it deserved. As his medical problems and then his passing took him away, I felt a belated surge of partnership with and affection for my mother. Again, I would stress that I don’t think this stems necessarily from the fact of our relation. I know many people who are not friends with their mothers. Although, as a mother and having experienced what only mothers can, she might have deeply contrary views, I’m reasonably sure that our friendship arose out of an adult recognition of commonality over and above chance biological connection.
And that recognition of commonality never took place between me and Henry.
But even acquaintances can have a major impact on one’s life, and his passing was an emotional time for me too. The sheer “not-there-ness” of someone you’ve known for a long time is going to make itself felt. In his last years he suffered the indignities of graduated memory loss. For the latter part of the long decline he lived in an institution, physically cared for but mentally in the wilderness only sufferers can know. I avoided going to see him. I didn’t want to see him in that depleted state, and, strange as it may seem, I thought he might resent my witnessing his final helplessness.
Nor was I there when he died, but my younger brother, to whom I am indebted, read these emailed words to him through his dying dementia in the final stages:
“I remember many of the things you've said to me; things which were simple and succinct and often in the form of a sort of "sound bite". Many of these have stayed with me to this day. Especially that "good communication is the responsibility of the communicator" and that "all ideas are derived from the convergence of two or more previously occurring ideas". They still permeate my world view. I still use them in presentations. Also, one of the most consistent memories of my childhood is of laughter and the buzz of conversation emanating from the dinner parties you and Mari-Ann used to put on so seemingly effortlessly. I used to go to sleep against this gentle acoustic backdrop. But I also have a clear memory of, on occasion, sitting at the dining room table with adult guests and struggling to figure out how they could converse so easily, marvelling at how they could think and construct their sentences at one and the same time; often embarking upon a sentence without apparently knowing how precisely it might end. To me as a child, this seemed overwhelmingly impressive. I suppose these are skills I would have picked up eventually, but it was those sonorous evenings which created my appetite both for conversation and for the sound of humans nattering. In fact, I have, sometimes, in the past, fallen into the trap of regretting that I did not receive a specific skill from you. Many fathers seemed to pass on tangible practical skills, such as those of a mechanic or a musician. But you were a generalist, in the Bucky Fuller mode. And that's what, I eventually realised, I got from you. I think of you more than you might suspect - every time I go to Bedford, for example, and every time I emulate your technique of wiping the surface of the kitchen counter into the palm of the hand. But I didn't come to see you. I was afraid. I didn't want to see you as you are. I still remember playing ice hockey with you on the beaver pond. You're still the big, strong man you always were, and it’s my desperate hope that you know this. Your loving son.“
Even now, years later, the sheer exuberant joy of that last scrub hockey match is still with me. It took place during one of my rare visits as an adult. Played on the small pond, nestling like the palm of a hand in the silence of the surrounding hills, with the crackling winter air cascading down from the high white trees, shafted with the kind of sunshine you can breathe, dusted with the sounds of calling voices and skates and sticks on ice, and sprinkled with the frosted exhalations of intent players of all ages.
He was as up for “winning” as ever and being, for once, on the same side, we were able to shout encouragement to each other. I vividly recall shouting “Henri, Henri!!” in absolute hysterics as we emulated the past greats of the mighty Montreal Canadiens.
At his funeral I said: “I don’t know where Henry is now, but I reckon that I have a better idea of where he might be now than I have had for the past few years of his incoherency. And I’m guessing it may even be easier for him to observe and hear from us now than it was during those past few years. But I also reckon that we humans are not just individuals. It is ridiculous to think of a human being existing alone. It is a contradiction in terms. We are who we are, but perhaps even more so, we are also the composite of memories and impressions in the minds of the human communities and networks we create. And few people could create communities like Henry. In that sense, Henry could be said to be very much here, now, among us. He is the common thread running through those of us here today, and through many others of us scattered across the globe. We are all parts of many communities, but Henry brought this particular community together, and this Henry community has its own characteristics, and as I look out at you people here assembled and think of others who could not be here today, I suddenly realise what an enormous pleasure it is to be contained within it, and that alone probably says more than I could ever say about the man himself.”
with every ounce of my being,
with every particle
of my soul,
© 2016 Deacon Martin