TAKING OFF THE CAST
What a dreadful day! But its coming had been inevitable since the very first moment: nothing in this world lasts forever. It was time to take off the cast.
For eight weeks, now, the heavy plaster encumbrance had clung to my leg, hugging it, like a mother embracing her child in a storm, like a python crushing the breath out of its prey, like a pyramid entombing a pharaoh, protecting his journey into the afterlife. Underneath it was the broken leg, a victim of wet leaves and a steep slope in the park which was where the city left green relics of an old god, just enough to appease ancient longings that might otherwise return to overthrow it. Nature invigorates the soul, and for a brief few minutes, one might lose oneself in the woods, imagining that one was wandering through the rugged hills of the Black Forest or through the great timberlands of northern California, with their towering, centuries-old trees, which these bravely lingering New York trees could play the part of if one had never seen the mighty sequoias clutching at the ankles of heaven. Swallow me up! Swallow me up! the soul cried, running deep into the illusion of a forest. Surround me, forever, with wilderness and rocks, hide me from sickening useless things, from battles of the deaf and dumb, won by men not sabotaged by horizons, won by men on their knees, donít give me back! Let me rush with the Fenians through untamed Celtic woods, let me hunt enchanted deer and fight invaders, let my thoughts be as tall as trees and my heart as pure as streams bled into being from the pure white snow of the mountains, let me be as noble as the tree ravaged by the storm that stands tall even with giant pieces of itself lying all around it on the ground. The park hurled oneís spirit high into the air for a brief moment, in a forgetful cluster of thick trees on a fierce hill that had no ramp for the wheelchair-bound, until one suddenly burst through to see the distant road with lines of cars crawling along it, like a terrible anachronism, like the streetcar that inadvertently got into D.W. Griffithís scene of ancient Babylon. What are they doing here? They do not belong! But then the soul woke up, the spell was broken, one realized that the cars were real and that it was the freedom that was the dream. At first, it was incomprehensible. In any house that demon or God ever formed, Fionn and the Fenians could not be in bondage.  But the rumble of the heavy engines of trucks, and the occasional sound of horns honking, like fireflies of sound flickering on and off, could not be explained away, they slowly brushed the half sleep from oneís mind, and brought one face to face, once more, with the world as it was.
When I fell down the slope, not realizing that the leaves were as slippery as they were, and that there was no real ground beneath them, just a thin piece of broken branch which had ensnared them and was wearing them like a wig, and a rock face, I knew at once that I was in trouble. My leg seemed to go straight down into some kind of pit and I heard the snap and felt an excruciating pain, before pitching forward and sprawling down a slope which I half rolled down and half slid down. By the time I came to a stop, I was in unbearable agony, yet also only half conscious from the pain. I tried to stand, but couldnít, was overwhelmed by dizziness, then tried to crawl towards a path, and vomited. For a moment, I thought of the idealistic, unprepared man from In The Wild who had abandoned civilization and set off to return to nature and live off the land in the backwoods of Alaska, but only ended up becoming stranded beyond the reach of any helping hand, and starving to death. Or the protagonist in Jack Londonís story To Build A Fire, another victim of the unforgiving power of nature. But then I stopped myself, I reminded myself that this was not the Great North Woods or the unsparing Yukon in the wintertime, this was a park in New York City in early November, and all around there were people walking dogs, cyclists going by, and not that far away cars streaming by by the thousands. Even though I was without a cell phone, this was not going to be the end of me. It was only an awful amount of pain, a stupid blunder, a terrible inconvenience, and pain, pain, pain! But there were painkillers, yes, they would give me a shot of something, a pill, once I managed to drag myself out of the woods into view and offer my misery to an ambulance.
I cannot deny that I felt terrible embarrassment as my lips formed the hateful word "Help!, at the edge of the bicycle lane which I finally managed to reach like a lungfish crawling on land. The woman passing by on a bike stopped about twenty yards beyond me, half-stepping off of her bicycle while remaining on it, and peered warily into the woods from which I had crawled. After a while, detecting no trace of danger, she walked her bike back to me and seeing that my leg really was broken, removed a cell phone from her belt and made the call to 911. So she would not see, I turned my face away, which was contorted in agony with a deluge of tears streaming out of my eyes.
"Theyíll be here soon," she said. "How are you doing?"
If I had not been in so much pain, I would have laughed. Was she the kind of person who would try to strike up a conversation with a manís head on a pike? But she had made the call and it was my duty to be grateful.
At last the ambulance arrived, and the EMS people were both professional and comforting. After what seemed to me to be an endless, cautious inspection, and a series of unanswerable questions which I responded to with grunts and gasps, they finally seemed to ascertain what they needed to know; they then handled my body expertly, lifting me delicately yet strongly onto a stretcher and carrying me into the back of the ambulance which I always thought of as a kind of morgue on wheels, a place to conceal the dying from the living, but which I now realized was a haven of hope in the midst of human panic and suffering. A female paramedic put her hand on my head and said something which I donít remember, but which was like a soothing ray of light. The trip to the hospital was slow, in spite of the siren, which I thought, in amazement, was wailing just for me. All the cars ahead were being pushed to the side to make room for me! As though I were the king, the emperor! Make way for the Sun God! Make way for the Sun God! My whole life, I felt like I had always been the last in line, the one who wasnít given a key and was left standing outside in the rain, the one who no one wanted to be on their team, the one who got a perfunctory and irrelevant, if not subtly demeaning present, while everyone else was jubilant and delighted on Christmas morning, clutching something they had always wanted. I was the forgotten one, the neglected one, the invisible one, the deserted one, the speck of dried, toothpaste-filled spit you wash off of the mirror so that you can see yourself. But, suddenly, now, the whole world was bowing down before me, stepping aside that I might pass, strewing flowers of their own lost time in my path, carrying me on their shoulders by leaving the road open to the wailing ambulance. I was coming like a Roman general in triumph in his chariot towards the hospital, suddenly the most important person in the world! I was important! I was important! Thanks to a pile of wet leaves on the side of a precipice, I mattered!
Even in my wretched condition, and in the midst of my gratitude to those who were saving me, I could not suppress a tinge of disappointment to realize that I was not the only compassionate person in the universe, that the world was not utterly cold, self-centered and uncaring like I thought, and that I was not the sole crusader for humanity that I had believed I was. I felt jealous as the competent and caring EMS crew tended to me: jealous because the fruits of their kindness were so immediate and direct, not like my kindness, shaped into a maze of philosophy and politics through which my heart was slowly moving towards an incredible gift of gold for the human race, as thousands of people with broken legs cried and groaned in the gutters of my concern for the future. Why couldnít I be as necessary as these humble paramedics, as useful, as loved and as appreciated as them? But I could not forsake the unseen and unfelt salvation of the multitudes, which I had dedicated my life to, for the quick fix of something tangible, for the satisfaction of receiving gratitude in my own lifetime! I had chosen to save more people, by saving no one in my own times! No, I must save humanity from the heart attack of war, the stroke of poverty, the auto wreck of global warming, the fall off the ladder of unsustainable lifestyles. I must load all my human brothers and sisters into my ambulance of ideas and drive it to a future of peace, prosperity and dignity. I must study, read, network, build cities for tomorrow with the power of my intellect, struggle on a higher plane than that of the dying and the injured. These thoughts, I cannot deny, came to me in the back of the ambulance until I suddenly burst into tears again, which they thought was from the pain of my leg. And I fell off the mountain of my great pride, as I had fallen down the slippery hill in the park, hating myself, utterly hating myself, and frightened by the helplessness of being humble, of being less than these simple men and women who did not study history or philosophy, but lifted the wounded from the ground.
My wife came to meet me at the hospital, after the x-rays had already been taken, the nurses had given me strong painkillers, and the doctor had set my leg. They hadnít been able to reach her and she had found out from the message on the answering machine when she got home, and rushed to the hospital at once, completely disordered, exhausted from her work, and desperately worried about my condition, as though I had been shot down in a gun battle in Iraq. She was, as I can only think to express it, a radiant wreck! I managed a faint smile, and told her, "Sorry." Surprisingly, she hugged me, a most warm and beautiful embrace like something from the early years of our marriage. We had been having terrible rows lately, as I had been laid off from one job and was having tremendous difficulty in finding another. "You arenít really trying!" she had told me one day, in a fit of rage.
"I am!" I had responded angrily, matching her despair and premature visions of homelessness with my own protective fury, wrapped around the soft and vulnerable insides of my impractical dreams. "It is just that my past is catching up with me! Look at this resume! What can anybody do with it? I have no track record in anything except changing jobs; I am overqualified for any job that could serve as a refuge, and underqualified in terms of experience for anything I am suited for! Employers donít want interesting people, they want reliable people! They donít want birds that fly, they want rocks that stay. And they want their job to come first, they donít want to see signs that their job is only the unwelcome appendage of your violin or harp, or merely the money you need to buy paper so you can write your poems! They donít want to know that the stupid product they are trying to sell matters less to you than the world you are trying to save, that the idiot work they give you is nothing more to you than a ball and chain you have to live with as you try to walk towards something that is worthwhile. But they see it, they see it! In your face! The see it in the stilted way you try to talk to them, they see your nobility afflicted with lies, like sores breaking out all over its face; the bad acting of your soul. They read it in between the lines of your resume! Itís there blaring like a trumpet, shining like a spotlight on a prisoner; and when you think youíve been clever and reinvented your past in a way that will satisfy them, they laugh at you, as though you were a child who had tried to cover over a pool of blood with white-out!"
"Youíll never get anything with a defeatist attitude like that!" my horrified wife had exclaimed. "Do you want a job or not? Thatís all that matters! There is something called willpower. You are making it sound like you were cursed, like you belonged to the House of Atreus! You have to fight! You wonít get anything just by sitting on your ass and sending out one or two resumes a week, one to be a brain surgeon and the other to be the director of NASA! Good god! And donít do anything stupid, like trying to be a messenger again, donít punish me with your exhaustion and Jesus Christ face! Itís like going on a hunger strike, and it wonít pay the bills! I hate my job, but at least I have one! Itís not fair to dig into our savings this way! We need two incomes, this is New York City, god damn it! And cut this crap about saving the world! You arenít the Buddha, you arenít Oswald Spengler, and you arenít Pablo Neruda! I should burn all your books, I should burn them!"
But now that she saw me there, before her, worn out from my ordeal, only vaguely conscious from the exhaustion and the sweet mental caresses of the painkillers, with my leg in a huge white cast, her anger evaporated in an instant, she wept tears of guilt for not being a saint, and held me with tenderness that forgave me for my betrayal of the codes of pragmatism. She gently stroked my hair, and ran her hands up and down my face, looking into my far-off eyes that saw her through a cloud, a cloud that was like a swan with an arrow in its heart. She wept again. "Well," she said at last, making a joke that was a kind of peace treaty, "at least you wonít be able to work as a messenger."
Of course, the injury was terribly inconvenient. It interrupted my job search, and it made it difficult for me to do many of the things I had done at home, things as simple as taking our clothes to the laundry, drying the dishes, and helping to carry the bags back from shopping. But with amazing good will and patience, my wife found ways to keep things afloat even as I sat at home as a cripple. She worked harder, complained less: the stoic strength of distant East European ancestors, strong women carrying great weights on their shoulders and backs, returned to her, she seemed at every moment to be spinning a web like a tireless spider, with eyes focused and loving like an artisanís on the task at hand. Then, when the work was done, she would sit down beside me and put her arm around me and kiss me on the cheek. She was the first one to sign the cast. "To Sir Edmund Hillary Ė not." After that, a whole host of friends and acquaintances took to signing the cast, whose vast white space could not be resisted. Soon, it was filled with all kinds of witticisms and well-wishes, ranging from the simple, such as "Get well soon", to the somewhat witty, such as "At least you could have been skiing", to the annoyingly wise, such as "The Universe teaches us through misfortune", to the dastardly, such as "I love Bush and Cheney" (I was a Democrat), placed in such a way that I could not reach it to cross it out, to the obscene, such as "Now, at least, one leg out of three is always hard", to the erudite: "For breaking the bones of a freeman, the penalty shall be 300 asses; of a slave, 150 asses." This, it turned out, was from ancient Romeís Twelve Tables, which were publicly posted in the city so that all might know the laws which they were subjected to, a revolutionary concept at the time. My cast, it seemed, had become a modern version of the Roman Forum! My wifeís artist friend Regina added the finishing touches with a wonderful little painting of an angel with its leg in a cast, flying away from the earth towards a star, and another of little healing fairies, handing bones to each other in some kind of magical bucket brigade that was slowly reconstructing my shattered leg. "Just look at yourself!" my wife exclaimed one day. "You have become a walking mural, like something painted by Diego Rivera, or actually, more likely, by Chagall."
"Except for the fact that I am not walking," I said. But now, whoever came to our apartment stopped to admire me like a work of art, and to see if they could fit in some word of their own to leave behind on the cast that imprisoned me.
But, of course, it was not a prison! Sometimes, to be sure, it felt that way: especially at first, when the pain was awful, and all the throbbing was buried beneath an inviolable crust of plaster, through which I could not reach my flesh. At such times, I felt like my heart was in a cage with a lion and I, on the outside of that cage, could not get to my own heart, and it drove me mad. I wanted to hold myself, to put my hands on where it hurt, to be my own nurse, but I was thwarted, thwarted by the savage discipline of the cast that held my leg together, preventing any stray blow or act of mercy from penetrating the ruthlessly loyal armor. Then, later, once my poor, suffering leg began to itch with a capital "I", it became even worse. My fingers wanted to rip through the cast, to dig through it to the treasure of relief, but the subterranean torment lay buried below the hard white shell of the cast, I felt like screaming and setting my leg on fire, to replace the itch with something new and different, something more ferocious and intense, to blot it out and to shame it as it destroyed it. If there must be destruction, let it be done by soldiers and not by vandals! And then there were the times when my immobility in bed drove me insane, when I needed to toss and to turn, to lie on my stomach and clutch the pillow, to face the window instead of the ceiling, but I could not. Hours passed by without a minute of sleep, hours of discomfort and exhaustion, made worse by the calm face of my sleeping wife beside me, who I could not disturb by shouting out and cursing, especially now that she was struggling so hard on my behalf. I felt like Gregor Samsa from the Kafka story, the human cockroach trapped on its back with its helpless legs wiggling in the air. In vain, I counted sheep, then horses. I closed my eyes, and saw myself on a beautiful tropical island with gentle waves washing up on the beach and palm trees swaying in the breeze, then I was lying down in a little cave in the ground like the kind of cavern found at the bottom of a tree, with roots for its ceiling, that leprechauns hide their treasures in, and I was resting there amidst emeralds and rubies and olden coins of gold, but still without the jewel of sleep in my hand. In angry, resentful mornings, I would sit up on the sofa with my leg on a stool, after half-walking, half-collapsing there, staring into space and telling myself, "Go on, then, die; if you canít sleep, you will die! You will die from exhaustion, go on, then, no use resisting! Go ahead and kill me with insomnia!" Who I was talking to, I do not know, but whoever it was seemed to listen and to feel sorry for me, for almost immediately, I would fall asleep and wake up hours later, refreshed, still sitting, on the sofa. "If horses can sleep standing up," I told myself, "why not? If dolphins can sleep, in snatches, in the sea which could drown them. Sleep - go to the surface for air. Sleep - go to the surface for air. Yes, I can survive this way." And the thought calmed me down until finally I was able to sleep again in my bed.
But these inevitable drawbacks could not overcome the wonders of the new world that my injury spread at my feet like a carpet. From being a stubborn, impractical, maddening husband, a man who counted stars in the sky while dollars blew out of his pocket, I suddenly became a sorrowful victim, a precious, wounded soul, a magnet for any woman who had a mother or a nurse inside of her. My sins were forgiven, my faults overlooked, my blunders buried in the past, I was now the recipient of enormous sympathy, nearly constant attention, and renewed love; the absurd pressure of life which blinds us to souls was ruptured by my small disaster, and my dreams were pushed to the surface of the earth where their beauty sparkled like diamonds in spite of the pain they caused to those who must live in a world that is pointed in the opposite direction. My wife recognized my nobility once again, saw the silver lining of my foolishness; gently she kissed my white plume, the first time in many years.
And the pain became manageable; it diminished and at the same time I got used to it. When you want to live, you can get used to almost anything. Little by little, I learned to get around, it was like learning to ride a bicycle, the bicycle of my bodyís heaviness and inflexibility, until finally I could get up and down without fighting like a gladiator, go to the bathroom and wash myself without risking death on the bathroom tiles, go up and down stairs without the terror of plunging down them like the baby carriage at Odessa, and walk on the street, flying gracefully like a pendulum on my crutches and moving so quickly and vigorously, in fact, that I cracked the hand support of one of them and needed to get a replacement. Though people who were well passed me by, it was as though I were traveling faster, or just as fast as them, because I was injured and they were not. We now lived according to different standards. Doing less on the outside, I was their equal, because I was doing more on the inside. It was an amazing feeling to lag behind them, and yet not to be considered slow, not to be despised by them and not to despise myself. And I thought: you cannot march to the beat of a distant drummer, only limpÖ
At the public library, which only one week earlier, before I mastered my condition, had been as far away as the moon, I got out some books that interested me, books I had wanted to read for a very long time, and lugging them home inside a backpack as I conquered the world with my crutches, I set down to reading them in absolute peace, without having to bear the stigma of irresponsibility or to face the charge of escapism as in the past. My leg was broken, what else could I do? I might as well read, I might as well blossom like a flower in my unrealistic garden before the world got me back!
In one book, a military history of the western world, I studied and was amazed by the courage and brilliance of ancient warriors who had taken stands and, unlike me, materialized things in the world. I read about the battle of Marathon, and how a small Greek army charged down from the hills upon a vast Persian horde before it had been able to properly deploy after disembarking from its ships. The audacious exploitation of the perfect moment had delivered a victory that would not have been possible under any other circumstance. How could you be so ready, so ready to strike like lightning through the tiny windows of opportunity that fate provides to the nonconformist, to the true individual seeking to break free of the herd, to the democratic experiment in the midst of tyrannies? Then, I went on to read about the incredible exploits of the Theban general Epaminondas, who, with his unique oblique formation, overwhelmed the undoubtedly superior army of Sparta before it could bring its full force to bear against the whole of the Theban front. Concentration at the decisive point, this was Epaminondasí great contribution to the science of warfare; strike furiously with your strengths, while your weaknesses are kept out of range! Then there was Alexander the Great, who had the imagination of Scheherazade and the decisiveness of a falcon diving from the sky upon its prey, and Caesar who was both shrewd and bold, but more than that, a cultivator of loyalty, a man who won the love and trust of the human beings he turned into his weapon. Incredible tales: tales in some ways dark and sinful, yet somehow inspiring, written from the pit of human violence and from the peak of human accomplishment. Anyone can dig up a jewel on a calm and sunny day; who can find one when the whole world is crashing down on his head? I read these tales of ancient heroes and bygone struggles with glowing eyes, I flew beside the greatest heroes of history because I was crippled and did not have to take a step in the world.
Besides this passionate, strident book of extremes, I turned to a giant volume of Buddhist teachings and essays. It was a wonderful book, profound and illuminating, with something so clear and liberating in the style of the principal commentator, and even in the way the letters of his words were printed on the page, and the size of the margins, and the amount of white space left between the lines and between the words, and the thickness of the pages, and the way they felt as they were being turned, and the way they smelled... Just holding the book in my hands, I felt something incredible and powerful flowing into my soul, I felt that my life might be on the verge of changing, after years of stagnant daydreams of a new me. And for those few weeks I was injured, with nothing to drag me away from that book, I raced towards enlightenment, like a wind gathering force over the sea. In the monastery of being a cripple, I grew and grew, alone and sheltered from the temptations of the world and the terrible demands which it recruited those who you loved the most to make on you. I did not have to fight with a boss, I did not have to endure the treachery, cowardice and indifference of coworkers, I did not have to carry an angry gorilla on my shoulders across a tightrope, I did not have to climb into a can of sardines to get to work, or put up with the disappointment and grotesque visual of watching out-of-shape people rush for seats like miserable pigeons battling for a pretzel. I was here, by myself, in a temple of wisdom, saved by my broken leg, which was like the great tree the Buddha sat under. Without the world, I was the great, shining Buddha, himself! Who was there to strike me with a stick and tell me I was wrong? Who was there to throw me off of the bridge into the raging river, to gauge how deep were the waters of Zen? Passing from one chapter to another, I hardly noticed the poem: Oh bird, what perfect wings you have in the tree!
I did not doubt my resurrection as I sat there, alone, with my leg in a cast, I stood like the boy with his finger in the dike, keeping out the sea of everything that could crush me. I could sense its power, hear its roar on the other side of my time off, feel the wetness of my finger, but where I was was dry and I believed in that dryness in the upper stories of my mind, above the unspoken fears that crept about in the basement of my holiday, threatening to spoil the wonderful vacation of my misfortune! I could clearly hear rats, in the shape of clocks, searching for food in the darkness; anything precious to me was their food, they had a hunger for what made my life meaningful, they had always, since I could remember, preyed upon my dreams, sneaking into my world through the gap between who I wished to be and who I was. There, in the center of my unguarded soul, they ate the means to my ideals, but left my ideals standing as a source of torment, like the grapes of Tantalus. They left me with my words, but turned my most eloquent and impassioned writing into a Potemkin village. They left me with the ambition of Alexander the Great, but with the morality of a monk who is afraid to squash a fly; but in the end my great and paralyzing morality was actually, as Nietzsche recognized, only the fear of not being able to get away with the crime! For surely no crime is graver than abandoning the world, than withholding oneís gifts from it, and that is precisely the one that is the easiest to get away with, and the one I had committed, instead of any other that might have saved even a single life! Now, with my broken leg, I was blessed with the most beautiful amnesty; a white flag was flying over the no manís land between my divine purpose and my noncompliance with God. I did not have to solve the puzzle of how to walk over the flypaper of the world, as it was, to something better; I was sidelined, free of the flypaper and free of paradise! But the clocks were ticking! Reginaís innocently cruel fairy healers were methodically rebuilding my leg, and soon, I would be hurled back into the great test of the world, thrown into the deepest waters of Zen, torn from the gentle place where you can be an angel because no one is beating you with a club and no one is stretching their hand out to you for help because you are stronger than they are. All over again, I would have to begin the hateful task of looking for work, I would have to put away my frivolous, beloved books, endure my wifeís desperation, which would return, I would have to split in two, like Janus, with one face pointing towards what the world wanted from me and one face pointing towards my heart, I would have to keep my roses hidden or face real lions, I would have to jump out of the coffin of my diaries and poems and advance like Epaminondas against armies of simple-minded Spartans, with something that was hopefully peaceful but as real as a spear, or else admit that Epaminondas was far beyond me and become a creature of science fiction like Captain Nemo, plowing endlessly through the seas between my ears! I would have to make the choice to be a fantasy or a truth! With both legs back, I could no longer revel in the beauty and innocence of incapability! I would have to walk!
On the day the doctor finally took off the cast, showed me the x-rays, and told me, beaming with pride, "Your leg has healed magnificently, youíre as good as new!", I could only pretend to smile back, as deep inside, my heart was flooded with an awful sorrow, in which I nearly drowned. I felt as though someone had just expired, someone very dear to me, someone who I could not live without. Books, books how many beautiful books must be buried now; how many more would die in the plague to come? I thought of the precious objects in my room, pages with my handwriting, books held long ago by a dreamerís hands, and souvenirs from trips to places that time had made sacred, and I thought "they are no longer yours. Once more, nothing belongs to you."
But then I resisted - I resisted the collapse of being well! Epaminondas! Epaminondas! I thought. He had marched his underestimated warriors into the field with the brilliant fire of his mind, the love of his city, and the will to emerge from his motherís womb; he had not clung to the semi-conscious visions and heroin-like comfort of the watery haven between her thighs. He had won a great battle, because he had let himself be born. I felt a surge of utter terror, black and bottomless, rush into my heart and soul, I could walk again, I could walk again! The cast was off my leg!
God help me, I thought on the day I was finally healed: theyíve taken off the cast!
From The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus (Devin-Adair), page 71, from the Agallam na Seanorach.
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents