Sunday Stories: Coma

by Shelagh Power-Chopra

When I think of Arthur falling into the coma, I imagine him diving headlong into a mud puddle. Slip sliding down a dark abyss and drowning–his hands like stunted flippers, getting him nowhere. But he’s like that; a beautifully angular man, all sharp corners but clumsy as hell as if his body were carved by an amateur puppeteer. Noisy in life but an avalanche of man when unconscious: heartbeats that galloped across monitors, cacophonous wheezing and gaping leg sores that cried throughout the night.

The doctors were hopeful–this is a temporary situation, a sort of “prolonged concussion” they called it. A “charmed respite”, I liked it call it. So, I felt no immediate danger, knew he would pull himself out, sit right up and begin again the many discourses that occupied our silly existence. At first I read: caught up on magazines, newspapers, medical journals I had bought but never read, soulless blogs about design, poetry and a little fiction. But after a few weeks, I took more time off work, began knitting, dabbled in crewel work, starting drawing birds outside the window, Robins and predatory Blue-jays swooping down, and then I started to tear the Styrofoam pieces of my coffee cups–piling up pieces of foam that began to resemble sloppy Gehry museums.

Soon, the walls of the hospital room grew interesting and for hours, I stared endlessly at the small nicks and flecks on their surface, then the doctors would come in pretending to be bustling, bursting with good news: Yes, if you look at the charts, we saw a surge of momentum here. I liked that term and the young doctor who had used it, so enthusiastic with his slender, surgical fingers. Are you studying to be a surgeon? I asked him. No, but I like the brain, the patterns, the paucities of movement. I felt disappointed that those lovely hands should be wasted–only used for whisking eggs or signing release forms, but such is life.

After a few months, I lost my job and it was evident Arthur seemed to be in it for the long haul. I applied for disability and was able to just get enough to eke a living from along with a small inheritance from my mother. I’d roam the halls, drift into other patients’ rooms and grill them about their conditions, often giving bad advice, taking away their apple juice and Popsicles but never eating any. Sometimes, I’d sit in triage and watch the doctors crack rib cages and shoot adrenaline into hearts.

Months went by, then a year. I drank a glass of champagne with the day nurse in the room as my husband lay motionless. Here’s to one year, I said and she nodded solemnly. But I didn’t feel sad, somehow my life seemed to have developed a purpose, I felt like a caretaker but a caretaker of something ephemeral like clouds that needed little maintenance. In retrospect, it was the perfect little world, as there was no guilt–one pretended to look after the patient, staring vacantly at the monitor as they held their hand and bathed their forehead with a cool towel while really it was more like a mini vacation of the mind; it could wander, skip about and produce little–the inertia proved exhilarating.

I thought of my job before, checking in psychotic patients at a clinic, methodically questioning their very existence. Why did you attempt suicide? How is your home life? What drugs are you taking? And I never cared for the answers–they proved always to be the same: My mother is abusive, I’m pregnant, he molested me, I’m bipolar. Compared to that existence, the hospital seemed inviting with its sterility, its drab waiting rooms, the harried doctors and nurses and the dozens of exhausted, crying and bleeding people milling about. Even Arthur proved to be more interesting now, he listened now as I carried on about catatonic schizophrenia and cluster sampling and new trends in advocacy as before he would simply walk away and mumble something about cupid bones and phalanges. It was ironic that he was a doctor–yes it was, and a podiatrist at that.

When I first casually mentioned his occupation to the row of doctors as I was filing out his paperwork, their faces fell. Podiatrist, is that right? Hmm. Arthur always said, I work with the base, the podium of life, he liked to say and without the stand we have no backbone, can’t get by through life without the feet, can we now? What about those Indian sadhus who roll for miles, I thought but didn’t say so. Now, my favorite doctor–the one with the surgeon’s hands–looked straight through me when I told him and after that he never appeared again. After all, the feet were far less interesting than the heart or say the kidney–I performed three transplants just last Wednesday in a span of two hours–sounds so much more riveting than, I discovered an entirely new fungus on Mrs. Josephine’s left toe!

After a year, one or two doctors would peter in, scan the charts quickly then abruptly leave. Soon enough, I sat there eating Jell-O and dry spaghetti from my hospital tray and realized I hadn’t seen a doctor in a week, or a nurse for that matter. I started to hit the buzzer, but it didn’t seem important really. I decided to roll in a table from the nurse’s station, put it next to the small cot I had been sleeping on and set about writing an article on the art of the relationship. I began with several examples of past conversations Arthur and I had. The dull exchanges: The milk container’s empty, he said one day, well, so one of us will go to the store, I answered back and that was the end of that. The weighty understatements: The mold in our bedroom reminds me of my childhood, he said one day and then brooded for hours. A real doozy was over a comment I said while we were watching Nosferatu; a favorite of his–we watched it every Christmas morning. When we were first married, he’d slink around the house naked and follow me, stilted upright, slinking along sideways, his teeth shoved over his bottom lip. There’s something really silly about this film, I said but what I really meant was our life.  For Christ’s sake, he said, he burns up in the sun, after gorging himself, isn’t that enough? From then on I saw him as sort of like a parasitic adventurer and I sulked the rest of morning as he tore open packages of socks and sweaters.

I was silent for a week until one day he ran out to the garden as I was plowing over some rotten squash. That’s it then, eh? he yelled like a cockney on some old English sitcom.  I suppose so, gov’na, I answered back. We hadn’t had sex in weeks–months maybe, he seemed to forget I was there and his colleagues were always popping by, endless rounds of Bocce ball on the lawn–why did podiatrist always play sports where foot play was so unimportant? He moved into a hotel and stayed for a week. And when he returned it was all the same, long silences, endless chewing and long showers in the morning.

Before long, my desk had piles of paper on it, pencils, erasers and an old typewriter that I clanked away on. It was so noisy, much nosier then Arthur’s bodily functions. But the doctors never heard anything, and soon we were moved to a room in the far corner of the hospital, windowless and smelling like lye. Just as I finished my “treatise” as I liked to call it, Arthur woke up. I rolled him out on a cot and waved to the doctors and nurses in the halls but they looked at me in a quizzical manner. as if I were a patient trying to explain an unidentified pain. Until at last, I wheeled Arthur down to radiology and saw the doctor I had fancied. He peered over at Arthur and said, You see, it was a “prolonged concussion, simple as that.”

Arthur wasn’t quite the same after that; he didn’t seem to remember his profession so I tore down all the medical posters in the den detailing foot diseases. Then one afternoon, sitting in his wheelchair in the garden, he saw a dozen or so butterflies flying about, I’d like to be a lepidopterist–wasn’t Nabokov a lepidopterist? he said, twisting his face towards mine as I watered the lawn.

Shelagh Power-Chopra’s work appears or is forthcoming in BLIP, failbetter, Juked, Electric Lit’s Outlet Blog, The Significant Objects Project, Used Furniture Review, Fwriction and elsewhere.