Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Long Visit

From a hospital bed everyone looked the same size--bigger than me. By pressing a button on the side of the bed, I tilted into an upright position, and slowly John Long filled his muscular, six foot three inch frame.

John cast a large shadow. In his youth, he had dominated the California climbing scene. 1974 saw John and two friends wearing bell bottoms, flowing pirate shirts, and technicolor bandanas around their heads. Their outfits suited them well for the first single day ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, a three thousand foot granite face. The men shaved the route down from five days to a mere eighteen hours. At the meadow below they posed for a picture, which would be plastered in the magazines; their youth was written in the bravado of their exposed chests. John traveled between Yosemite, where he worked for the Yosemite Search and Rescue team, and Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. He moved from adventures on rock to extreme expeditions, rappelling one of the largest waterfalls in the world. His adept story telling took him from a popular campfire figure to a career as a columnist and successful writer. My friends and I spent weeks in Joshua Tree, the old dad’s stomping ground, reenacting his countless stories; sometimes failing.

The first week in Palm Spring’s intensive care unit found me agitated. I ripped the I.V. from my arm twice. My brother held me down and a nurse sedated me when I tried to escape my hospital bed. Admitting to myself the severity of my climbing accident was hard. My mother had been praying and reading Bible passages to me to pass the time while I recovered from the numerous surgeries and bone fusions. John's surprise entrance invigorated me, an escape from the pains of recovery. The chair scraped against the hospital floor as John pulled it to the foot of my bed.

“Ho man, it was a long swim out here. Torrential rain in So Cal right now,” John’s voice boomed. A nurse checked my heart rate, pulse, and shoveled pills down my throat twice daily. The visits at seven a.m. and five p.m., not the sun, marked the passing of the day, and I hadn’t noticed the weather. My ears strained to hear the thunder of the storm but there was only a gentle knocking against the window at the head of the bed. “You sure got the fluff knocked out of ya. How are you?”

“I’m fine.” The brace around my neck itched and the pins in my elbow felt foreign. The days of being confined to a bed had produced a blood clot in my femoral artery. A vena cavity filter, a tentacled ball of metal, was inserted into my abdomen to keep the clot from moving to my heart and stopping the beating. The clot combined with the doldrums of the hospital made my obsession with climbing fester inside my body; neurosis rampaged inside me. I yearned to hear the legendary tales of the Stonemasters: Tobin Sorenson's huge parabolic falls or John Yablonski's heart shaking free-solos.

“How are you? Have you been to Yosemite lately?” I listened greedily as John began to talk.

Can’t say I climb much anymore. Had to do serious rehab on my shoulder; it was a whitewater, not climbing, accident. Ho-man, nothing harder than physical therapy. It’ll take a hundred ton psyche to get you through that.” His deep voice resonated against the bleak white panels of the ceiling. “My family is in Venezuela. I commute between a job in L.A. and seeing them.”

A polite smile creased my face as my interior boiled. John talked a little more, not on climbing, and gave me a walkman with a number of meditation tapes. “I listened to the tapes every day while I was recovering. Helped me stay present and struggle on.”

“Well, looks like the end of the flood; got to swim back to the homestead. Stay strong.” John laid the walkman along with a set of fresh batteries on a stand next to my bed. He nodded and strode towards the door with broad steps and a languid ease.

For a week the walkman sat on the side of my bed. The series of eight tapes were neatly stacked with the headphones wrapped around them. At night I listened to the tape’s chant. The slow melodic voice of the man speaking would put me into a dreamless sleep and I'd wake to the click of the walkman hitting the end of the cassette. The walkman moved from my bed, to a table on the other side of the room, and eventually into a box with insurance forms, magazines, and get-well cards. After Palm Springs, I was shipped to a spinal rehabilitation center. My bed was no longer a prison; I moved to a wheelchair, then a walker, then a cane. Learning to walk again was painful. There was nothing inspirational about it. Eventually, after three more surgeries and four months of physical therapy, I fell back into climbing, albeit with more sobriety. I listened to the first cassette a dozen times but never made it to the second. The walkman and the meditation tapes were given away.

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