They sent me home on a Sunday, which struck me as an oddity. “Are you sure we shouldn’t wait till Monday—when the business office is open?” I asked as the aide helped me into the clothes I’d chosen for my reentry into the world: black pants, a wrinkled sweater, mismatched socks. The aide’s name was Sadie. I liked her because she was the only one on the ward whose smile was wide enough to reveal her teeth.
This time she laughed so broadly I caught a glimpse of her tonsils. “Don’t worry, the business office knows where to find you. Besides, the insurance company ain’t about to pay for Monday morning coffee, if you’re able to walk out a here on Sunday night.” She then added a quick, “Sorry.” It was the word walk that caused the problem. An ordinary enough word, but one that regularly caused people around me to fidget and stammer.
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “I’ll be walking soon enough. Right, Matt?” Sadie whirled around to see if she had missed something, but there was no sign of my husband. I kept staring at the doorway though; only seconds after I said Matt’s name, he appeared. It was almost as if I’d conjured him. We’d been performing this particular parlor trick for years, though neither of us could say how it was done.
“Sooner,” Matt said emphatically.
Sadie smiled again, though more cautiously this time. But who could argue with him? With Matt prodding me, I had already defied many of the doctors’ dire prognostications. On the way out, Matt navigated my wheelchair down the hallways at dangerous speeds, the two of us laughing recklessly for the first time since the accident. What we would come to think of as That Night. For those few moments as I left the hospital, high on OCs and escape, it really did seem like everything was going to be all right; we had our lives back.
My team of doctors and therapists had recommended that I go to Atlanta for rehab, but Matt wouldn’t even consider it. “Too far away,” he said, scowling at the doctor who had the temerity to suggest it. Then he added, “Obviously, he doesn’t understand how much strength we draw from our city.” Our city. Like we owned it. It was another part of our mythology, another article of faith I was not sure I believed in anymore. But like any former zealot speaking to a true believer, I was hesitant to admit my lonely doubts. The doctor shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and cleared his throat, but Matt spoke only to me. Sometimes he seemed to think we spoke at a pitch that no one else could hear in a language of our own invention.
Matt had replaced the Saab, which had been totaled in the accident, with a new van. He lifted me inside, pointing out the handicap features with the kind of enthusiasm he usually reserved for stereo equipment and fishing gear. When he saw me turn away, he apologized. Then he kissed me right there in our illegal parking space.
“You can’t let words like that touch you, Lyd,” he said, stroking the hair which sometimes felt like the only part of me that was unchanged. “Because handicapped is not what you are. You’re just someone who was in an accident, that’s all.”
I blinked, almost feeling sorry for him. Obviously, he didn’t know that was who all handicapped people were: People who had an accident, or were suddenly forced to become experts in diseases they never thought could touch them, people whose genes slipped on the proverbial banana peel before they were born. I now understood so much that had eluded me when I was healthy. But instead of enriching me, all this knowledge felt like a wall: lucky people on one side, the rest of us herded to the other.
“You’re not going to let this thing control you,” Matt said, intruding on my thoughts. “Besides, you’re getting stronger every day. Right, Lyd?” As he spoke, he nodded vigorously in case I forgot the right answer.
But for once I couldn’t agree. Something was happening inside me that was stronger than anything on earth. Stronger even than my feelings for Matt. It was pain. A knife in my spine that no one could remove. With enough OCs, I could temporarily forget it was there. But as I would learn, they would extract their price. And when they abandoned me, as they did just outside the hospital, there was nothing in the whole bright spinning world but pain.
Seeing me wince, Matt still didn’t understand. “I wanted to wait till we got home to tell you. But I think you need to know right now, Lyd. I took a leave of absence. No impersonal aide or nurse is going to take care of you. I’m going to be right with you through all of this. We’re going to do it together.”
I closed my eyes, trying to clamp down on the pain, wondering if Matt had any idea how ridiculous he sounded.
“I thought you’d be happy. Don’t you have anything to say?” Matt said with undisguised disappointment.
Looking up at him, I had a strange first-time-ever thought: the man I’d always considered the most brilliant person on earth was a child in many ways. He honestly had no idea that whether I went to Atlanta or Australia, or if I just slept in bed beside him holding his hand, I was alone now. My nation was my body, a republic governed by pain.
Still, I tried to thank him. I knew how much his work meant to him, how hard he’d worked to make partner in his firm, but somehow, I couldn’t remember the appropriate words of gratitude. All I could muster was, “That scrip—you know, the one the doctor wrote for pain? We have to fill it right now.”
Now it was Matt’s turn to look mystified. He glanced over at me beside him. No longer his Lydia, the girl with the quick laugh and the spill of silky hair he loved, I was someone else. Someone he clearly didn’t know.
“Did you hear me, Matt?” I said in a ragged voice I hardly recognized. “I need those pills right now!”
“Sure,” Matt said, restarting the van. “We’ll stop at the pharmacy before we go home.” As he drove toward CVS, I saw an unfamiliar furrow dig itself between his brow, a new confusion in his eyes. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who would be transformed by what had happened on the night of the accident. Matt, too, would become someone new. Someone I didn’t know. Someone he didn’t know himself.
Matt was in the drug store when the door to the church across the street opened and the congregation spilled out, each holding a palm in hand. “It’s Palm Sunday,” I said out loud, speaking to nobody (a friend I’d met in the middle of the night at the hospital.) I hadn’t been to church in years, but I spoke as if the liturgical cycle still meant something to me. I struggled to sit up straighter, to get a better view of the waving fronds. Maybe it was just the drugs—or the pain—which was itself a kind of drug, but I was more strangely moved.
Most of the people leaving the church seemed to be elderly women; they clung to their palms the way they clung to the church bulletin or their purses or their own weakening hold on life. But there was a cavalcade of school children in uniforms that suggested parochial school. Uniforms like the ones I had once worn. I struggled to roll down the window so I could ask if they had sung in the choir during the mass, perhaps even participated in a passion play, but no one seemed to see me. Three of the boys were chasing each other, flicking the palms like towels in a locker room. When his parents called to him, one of the boys dropped his palms on the ground and ran.
By the time Matt returned to the van, the abandoned palms had been thoroughly trampled by distracted parishioners as they made their way to their cars, and tears were streaming down my face. Matt struggled with the pill bottle and opened a bottle of water. “I’m sorry, Lyd. There was a line; I got them as fast as I could,” he said, placing a tablet into my hand.
For a long still moment, I stared into his strained, earnest face. How could I make him understand? It wasn’t the meds; it wasn’t even the pain. It was the palms. They had been thrown away and ground into the sidewalk by dozens of shoes, and they were holy. Holy! Didn’t he see? It was all of it—the sky cut into shapes by the windows of the van, and the wild faces of the boys, the path of tears etched on the old women’s cheeks as they clutched their palms and disappeared, and Matt, worried and optimistic and foolish, too; all of it was holy beyond description.