When something terrible happens to someone else, people often use the word "unbearable." Living through a child's death, a spouse's, enduring some other kind of permanent loss--it's unbearable, it's too awful to be borne, and the person or people to whom it's happened take on a kind of horrible glow in your mind, because they are in fact bearing it, or trying to: doing the thing that it's impossible to do. The glow can be blinding at first--it can be all you see--and although it diminishes as years pass it never goes out entirely, so that late some night when you are wandering the back pathways of your mind you may stop at the sudden sight of someone up ahead, signaling even now with a faint but terrible light.
Mike's accident happened to Mike, not to me, but for a long time afterward I felt some of that glow, felt I was giving it off, so that even doing the most innocuous errand, filling my car with gas or buying toothpaste, I thought everyone around me must see I was in the middle of a crisis.
Yet I didn't cry. The first days at the hospital were full of crying--Mike's parents crying, his brother and sister, and Rooster, maybe Rooster most of all--but I was dry-eyed. My mother and Jamie told me it was because I was numb, and I guess that was part of it, numb and terrified: when I looked at him it was as if years had unwound, and I'd just met him, and I couldn't stand not knowing what was going to happen. But there was something else, too: everyone was treating me so carefully and solicitously that I felt breakable, and yet I wasn't broken. Mike was broken, and I wasn't broken. He was separate from me, and that was shocking.
He was in a coma. Thanks to the combination of drought and a newly banked-up shoreline, the water in Clausen's Reservoir had been three feet lower than usual. If he woke up, it would be to learn that he'd broken his neck.
But he didn't wake up. Days went by, and then it was a week, ten days, and he was still unconscious, lying in Intensive Care in a tiny room crowded with machines, more than I ever would have imagined. He was in traction, his shaven head held by tongs attached to weights, and because he had to be turned onto his stomach every few hours to avoid bedsores, his bed was a two-part contraption that allowed for this: a pair of giant ironing-board-shaped things that could sandwich him and flip him. Visiting hours were three p.m. to eight p.m., ten minutes per hour, two people at a time, but it seemed we'd no sooner get in to see him than the nurses would ask us to leave. It was as if, merely body now, he belonged to them.
Near the nursing station there was a small lounge, and that's where we mostly were, talking or not talking, looking at each other or not looking. There would be five of us, or ten, or twenty: a core group of family and close friends, plus Mike's co-workers stopping by after the bank had closed, the Mayers' neighbors checking in, my mother arriving with bags of sandwiches. There was a rack of ancient magazines by the door, and we offered them to each other now and then, just for something to do. I couldn't read, but whenever the single, warped issue of Vogue came my way I flipped through it, pausing each time at an article about a clothing designer in London. I'm not sure I ever noticed her name, but I can still remember the clothes: a fitted, moss green velvet jacket; a silver dress with long, belled sleeves; a wide, loose sweater in deep purple mohair. I was getting through the evenings by sewing, a pair of cotton shorts or a summer dress every two or three days, and those exotic images from London kept appearing in my mind as I bent over my sewing machine, reminding me at once of the hospital and the world.
The two-week mark came, and when I woke that morning I thought of something one of the doctors had said early on, that each week he was unconscious the prognosis got worse. ("Unresponsive" was the word they used, and whenever I heard it I thought of myself in the car on the way to Clausen's Reservoir, not answering his questions.) Two weeks was only one day more than thirteen days, but I felt we'd turned a corner that shouldn't have been turned, and I couldn't get myself out of bed.
Excerpted from The Dive From Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer Copyright 2002 by Ann Packer. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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