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A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps

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Published by Lee Carlson
A chapter from "Passage to Nirvana" by Lee Carlson
A chapter from "Passage to Nirvana" by Lee Carlson

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Published by: Lee Carlson on Apr 29, 2010
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04/29/2010

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A Thousand Steps

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that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. While that may be true up to a point, as an inveterate traveler and travel writer my own experience is that a journey of any mileage begins with a thousand small steps. There are the conscious undertakings: guidebooks, magazines, web sites and travel brochures to be read; plane and train tickets to be bought; car and hotel reservations to be made; clothes and equipment to be purchased; traveling companions to be communicated with; and family, friends and coworkers to be notified of one’s absence and plans. Then there are the subconscious influences that have led to a voyage: the postcard sent by grandparents years ago from Africa that fueled a yearning for far-off lands, the childhood family ski trip to New England that fostered a love of athletic adventure, the unhappy breakup of a young love affair that sent us off in search of a happier time and place. The journey described in “Passage to Nirvana” began with a number of steps, both large and small, conscious and subconscious; it arose from the ashes of a series of sweeping personal tragedies, as well as a thousand more mundane influences. It began with despair, like the breakup of a young love affair, but it also began, like all journeys, with
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hope, aspirations, ambition and excited expectations for something better—otherwise why embark on the voyage? On the morning of May 15, 2002, I was standing in a car wash in Riverhead, New York, on the Eastern End of Long Island. I was on my way to meet a potential new client, an elegant female real estate developer who was interested in cashing in on the booming New York City real estate market. I was forty-four, a professional writer, and had been doing copywriting for prominent New York developers, writing big, expensive, glossy marketing brochures, and my friend David, who was a construction contractor, thought I could give this developer a tour of the up-and-coming areas of Brooklyn, where old warehouses and factories were rapidly being turned into luxury condominiums, popping up like mushrooms after a long rain. It was a messy time in my life: my wife’s business was failing, and even though I had pumped huge amounts of time, money and energy into helping her make it succeed, she still blamed me for its failure. After fourteen-hour days of sweeping floors, shipping orders, fighting with creditors and trying to convince investors to put more money into the company, I would come home not to a place of refuge, but to a spouse who would scream at me, telling me how awful I was as a person, a husband, a father and businessman. Maybe she had a point, maybe not, but the undeniable reality was that the stress of a failing business had soured a once-loving relationship. There had been a time where Belinda would paint cards for me with a simple abstract watercolor on the outside and a message inside, something like “Thank you so much for everything, if it falls apart we’ll move the Caribbean and live happily every after! Love, B.” But that was all in the past. Now, In spite of two years of couples therapy we were headed for an acrimonious divorce, which would separate me not only from my wife, but from our two young boys, ages eight and five, who were everything to me. The business failure had left us financially destitute, on the verge of bankruptcy and in danger of losing our house. As if that were not enough trauma, my mother had recently suffered a serious accident, leaving her an incapacitated invalid, a shadow of her former vibrant self at the young age of sixty-seven. I had spent a great deal of time traveling back and forth to Buffalo, New York, where I had grown up, helping my father and sisters with my mother’s care.
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Things were looking up in my business life, however. I had a number of good new writing clients, both commercial and editorial; I had just returned from working for NBC Sports at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. One of my favorite new clients was the Environmental Defense Fund, where I felt I was doing work that also had some redeeming social value. I had recently begun doing marketing copywriting for Lavazza Coffee, and there was talk of my traveling to Italy to visit the company headquarters and get a real sense of how important the Italian idea of la dolce vita, the sweet life, was to the company’s philosophy and products. Hope and rejuvenation were in the springtime air as I drove along the country roads from my house toward Manhattan, marveling at the beauty of apple orchards in full bloom and farmer’s fields filled with bright green shoots and flowering crops. I was scheduled to pick up David and the developer in Manhattan on that May morning, and since I had two small boys, as well as an energetic golden retriever, the car was full of dog hair and lollipop wrappers and other assorted detritus; it was not clean enough for chauffeuring an important prospective client around town, especially a sophisticated businesswoman. So I stopped at a car wash that would clean and detail the inside of my dark blue Nissan Pathfinder. Apparently I had just gotten out of my car when a car wash attendant backed a large Ford SUV out of the detailing shop and, speeding in reverse without looking behind him, ran me down. I had my back to the speeding car, and never heard it coming over the din of the car wash. As one of the eyewitnesses later told the police, I “never had a chance.” I say “apparently I had just gotten out of my car” because I have no memory of that day, or the days afterward, or, strangely enough, of the weeks leading up to the accident. I hit my head violently on the pavement, fracturing my skull and losing consciousness. Cerebrospinal fluid oozed from a crack in my skull behind my left ear. I was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where they did an MRI and realized my injuries were too severe for them to treat. Depending on who was reading the films, the diagnosis was either a subdural hematoma or a subarachnoid hemorrhage, or both, on the left side of my brain. I was rushed to Stony Brook University Medical Center, which had a world-famous neurological trauma unit. Regardless of what the MRI diagnosis was, there was no doubt I was in a light coma and had
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bleeding and swelling in my brain. The Stony Brook doctors diagnosed what the medical profession calls a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. In the pre-political correctness days, it would have been called simply brain damage, or being kicked in the head by a horse. David was left standing in Manhattan with the developer, looking at his watch, assuring her that I was usually very punctual. He called my cell phone numerous times and kept getting voice mail. When I didn’t call back he finally started the tour of Brooklyn without me. Later that day he called Belinda to see if she knew where I was. “He got run over by a car in a car wash and he’s in the hospital,” she told him, laughing. “He’s okay. He’s got a concussion or something. Can you believe how stupid he is? Only he could do something like that. What an idiot!” Months later, when I was finally well enough to ask questions about what had happened that day, David described this conversation to me; he was still marveling at her reaction. “She was just laughing the whole time, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. Certainly my wife’s reaction was extreme, her perceptions colored by our impending divorce, but many TBI patients have similar problems with family: you look fine, you’re talking, you appear alert. So you got a bump on the head? So what? There’s nothing the matter with you; why can’t you just get on with life? So you’ve got a headache? So what? We all get headaches. Snap out of it! My wife’s response to the accident would just be the beginning of many such reactions from people who didn’t understand the magnitude of what had happened to my brain. Medically I was lucky; the bleeding stopped, the swelling receded and surgery was avoided. While serious, it appeared that my injuries would not be life-threatening. Belinda brought Chas and Niall to the hospital, where these two small boys found their father trussed up with tubes and monitors and his head resting on a blood-soaked pillow. It was scary for them to see their father this way, especially since they had recently seen their grandmother lying in a hospital bed, unconscious from a head injury, unable to speak or walk. Fortunately I appeared well enough to the casual observer. I was talking and appeared alert. Appearances were, however, deceiving. I was ranked in the middle of the Glascow Coma Scale, a measure of consciousness. Like most
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people, I assumed from watching medical dramas on television that a person was either in a coma—lying in a hospital bed, eyes closed, unaware—or out of a coma: awake, talking, moving. But there is a whole range of in-between states in which the patient is still considered to be “in a coma.” On a scale of one to fifteen, the deep, unresponsive comatose state is a three on the Glasgow Coma Scale and the fully awake, conscious state is a fifteen. I was somewhere in the middle. David called my sister Debbie in Buffalo to tell her what had happened, and her first thought was, “Oh God, this can’t be happening again. First Mom, and now Lee!?” Debbie called the hospital and a sympathetic nurse told her to get down here, now, after seeing the way Belinda treated me. Debbie left her husband and children, got on a plane and rushed down to help care for her injured brother. When David came to visit the day after the accident, I was lying awake in bed. Knowing how much I liked to read, he had brought with him several magazines. He told me later that as he entered the intensive care unit, he was amazed and angry that the hospital had put me in a bed with old, dirty sheets. He couldn’t believe how dirty the pillowcase was behind my head. It was only upon coming closer that he realized that the “stains” were really blood and fluid that still oozed from my skull. David is a tall, lanky, bespectacled, preternaturally calm person. For him to say he was shocked is a momentous thing. In the years since the accident, what happened next has become one of his favorite stories, and he never tires of telling it. The story starts with me beckoned him over to the bed with my finger. “Come here, I have to tell you something,” I say in a conspiratorial whisper He bends his ear closer. “You have to get me out of here,” I whisper, barely audible. “Why?” “I met my mother out in the bay last night, and we unloaded a shipment of guns from her boat onto mine.” David and I had been friends since childhood; we had grown up down the street from each other in a suburb of Buffalo, our parents had been good friends. Our grandparents had been good friends. He knew my mother well; Ann Carlson was a respectable, solid Midwesterner; she did not run guns. He also knew about her accident and that there
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was no way she had been out in the bay on a boat. If my mother had been able, she would have been in the hospital by my side. “Oh, I see, and what are you doing with the guns?” “We’re going to sell them in a yard sale on Sunday.” “Oh.” The image of my mother as a gunrunning moll coming in under cover of darkness on a tramp steamer with boxes full of AK-47s brought a chuckle to David’s lips, as did the image of my mother and me selling them off tables in my driveway on a sunny spring Saturday morning. I have no idea where this outlandish fantasy came from, but it showed how out of it I really was. I was completely serious about the whole gunrunning story and at this point David realized that although I appeared fine, there were some very real problems with my cognitive functioning. He told Debbie that instead of magazines he could have just brought me a paragraph; since I couldn’t remember anything I could just read the same paragraph over and over again. There were other strange and weirdly comic moments in those first few days. The doctor’s asked me their standard neurological questions to determine my cognitive functioning. They asked me questions such as where I worked, was I married, where did my wife work? I told them she worked for Ralph Lauren, which had been true at one point in our lives, but she had not worked there for eight years. Another standard question asked of all patients in neurological intensive care is “Who is the president of the United States?” “George Bush,” I correctly answered. What the doctor’s didn’t realize is that I was thinking of George Bush Sr., who had been president nine years before, at the same time my wife had worked at Ralph Lauren, and not the current president, George W. Bush. You’d think that smart, educated doctors would come up with a better question. Another odd occurrence was that the car right behind mine, the primary witness to the accident, turned out to be my wife’s divorce lawyer. He had never met me or seen me, so didn’t know who I was until the police pulled my wallet from my pants as I lay unconscious, read the name off the license and asked if anyone knew me. “Oh my God,” my wife’s lawyer said, “if I wasn’t already suing him I’d be following the ambulance to the hospital to get him as a client!” You can’t make this stuff up.
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When David heard that my wife’s lawyer had been first on the scene, he jokingly asked if I had seen an envelope stuffed with cash change hands between the lawyer and the car wash attendant. This was, after all, Long Island, land of Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita who shot her lover Joey Buttafuoco’s wife. It was also the general locale of the famous Woodward murder case where a wealthy socialite shot her husband, which was the basis for the book “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles”, and the scene of the famous “Murder in the Hamptons” where multimillionaire financier Ted Ammon was killed by a electrician who turned out to be his wife’s lover. Stranger things had happened on Long Island than envelopes of cash changing hands in car washes. Fortunately I was not a multimillionaire and my wife had no money to bribe car wash attendants. Of course my sister, David and I knew this was just a stupid accident, but his joking helped ease the tension of my lying in an intensive care unit with a fractured skull and a fractured home life. Even though that lawyer didn’t follow me to the hospital, another lawyer showed up in those first few days. Apparently he had been sent by my own divorce lawyer. He was a seemingly decent person, but he was also an ambulance chaser. It was surreal to have a total stranger in a suit sitting by my bedside pretending to care about my well-being, when he was really there for the money. The last thing I needed at the moment was to worry about lawsuits, money, etc. I needed to concentrate on my health. The next day when Belinda brought our boys to the hospital, the boys were chanting, “We’re going to own a car wash, we’re going to own a car wash,” as my sister just rolled her eyes, indicating to me that she had nothing to do with where they were getting their view of what was important. In the days that followed the accident my wife’s behavior continued to be so lacking in compassion and understanding that the doctors told my sister they would not release me until they knew I was going somewhere where I would be properly cared for, far away from my wife, who would be “poison” to my recovery. So when I was discharged from Stony Brook after five days in the intensive care unit, my sister helped me into a wheelchair, then into a waiting hired black car with driver, then wheeled me onto a plane and flew with me to Ft. Myers Florida, where she handed me off to my father, who could care for me and drive me to various doctors, specialists and therapists every day: cognitive
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therapists, physical therapists, neurologists, neuropsychologists, vestibular therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and others. Unfortunately my father knew all about traumatic brain injuries from my mother’s accident, which had been more serious than mine. On Friday evening, September 28, 2001, eight months before my accident, My mother had fallen down a f light of basement stairs while looking for the bathroom at a dinner party in an unfamiliar house. She had opened a door, stepped into the darkened space and tumbled down the steps, landing on her head on the concrete floor. She was rushed unconscious by ambulance to the hospital, where surgeons were forced to remove the part of her brain that had been critically damaged. She was in a deep coma—the dramatic television kind—for weeks. When my mother regained consciousness after a month she was severely disabled, confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk, talk, feed herself, go the bathroom by herself, bathe herself or perform the thousands of other small daily domestic tasks we all take for granted. I spent the months after her accident helping my father and sisters with my mother’s care, traveling back and forth to Buffalo. After several months of therapy in a nursing home, my mother was mobile enough to travel, and I helped my father wheel my mother onto a commercial jetliner for the flight down to their winter home in Naples, Florida. The house was a single-story, two-bedroom old-style Florida bungalow, with a white pea gravel driveway, carport and a combination living room/dining room. My father slept alone in the master bedroom while the second bedroom became a hospice room for my mother, where round-theclock caregivers bathed her, dressed her, and watched over her while she slept. The house also had a small porch where my mother could sit outside in her wheelchair, looking at the water in the small canal behind the house, watching birds flit from orange tree to avocado tree to palm tree while caregivers spoon fed her and wiped spittle from her mouth. Just when our family was recovering from the shock of what had happened to this vibrant matriarch, my accident occurred, and my father suddenly had the burden of being the caregiver not only for his wife of forty-six years but also for his forty-three-year-old son—both with traumatic brain injuries. In the next few months my wife abandoned me, sold our house to her boyfriend, took our two sons and moved to Wisconsin, leaving me
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with no money, no health insurance and no home—no place to sleep other than my parent’s living room couch. (It sounds like a bad joke, but it’s all true.) My mother continued to deteriorate until her body finally gave out and she mercifully died in her sleep, leaving my father and me both grieving and grateful for her death. One of my most vivid memories is of the parallel tracks left in the white pea gravel by the coroner’s gurney, and my father in the driveway with a rake, smoothing out the gravel, erasing the evidence of her long passing. When my doctors finally released me from rehabilitative therapy in Naples after a year, I moved back to Southold, New York, on Long Island’s North Fork, one town over from my previous home, and I spent the next five years trying to work my way back to some sort of normal life: renting and furnishing a house so I could have a home for my children when they visited; trying to find work and get back to writing; trying to find a woman who would accept me as I was and be supportive and loving not only to me but to my children. In the midst of trying to regain some sense of normalcy, my brother-in-law Kevin, who was married to my other sister, Kristan, and who was also a good friend, was diagnosed with throat cancer at age 47. He was a vibrant, intelligent person, a lawyer who had forgone entering private practice to instead help the poor and underprivileged. While many lawyers become public defenders for a few years after law school and move on, he had stayed with the public defender career path, choosing public service over private financial gain. He took a personal interest in helping his clients, acting like a social worker as much as a lawyer. Why had cancer targeted him? I returned to Buffalo to help Kristan, who had two young children, while she went to the hospital every day. I would take the kids to Buffalo Bisons baseball games (Buffalo’s minor league team), or play with the kids in the backyard—basketball, street hockey—or help Elizabeth, who was only six, throw the ball for my golden retriever Henry, trying to do whatever I could to take their minds off a dying father who looked like a skeleton, his emaciated body and hollow eyes staring out like a ghost from his hospital bed in the terminal patient ward at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. His dying was prolonged and painful, leaving all of us emotionally drained and leaving my sister a widow with two young children.
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Then only a few months after Kevin’s death my aunt Leslie to whom I was close died of ovarian cancer at age 59. She had been a successful chef in New York City, the first woman ever hired at the Waldorf Astoria, a personal favorite of James Beard, and a well-known innovator and food personality who had been featured on television and had several successful cookbooks. I had often visited my aunt and uncle Phil’s home in Bronxville with my boys, laughing around the dining room table as we shared family stories and home-cooked meals. How could cancer have taken her too? The cost of my mother’s care nearly bankrupted my father, and my accident did bankrupt me. All the dying and illness and loss in our family left me physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially drained. It was a difficult time.

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