Saturday, August 30, 2008

Involuntary & Intravenous

My recent 5-day hospitalization for a serious and potentially aggressive bacterial infection (I’m fine now, thanks, very much!) was much more than a mere assault on my audacious and assumed sense of invulnerability. The whole thing was a powerfully loaded learning experience, despite my patented resistance to reading life’s sign-posts. While I have only begun to “mine” the depths of this incident and will likely have more to say on this later, here is at least one category of my initial reflections.

The first framework for interpreting this rude educational experience came to me in an uncertain and discomforting moment, when, with eyes tightly shut and arms close to my side, my body was being backed into one of those ginormous machines which takes electronic pictures of your brain. My tiny head now surrounded by a metal and plastic apparatus about the size and shape of a large tractor tire, I began to detect the buzzing, whirring and churning of a busy electric motor. Accompanying this was what seemed the slight sloshing of water and the occasional ping reminiscent of the radar sounds from an old submarine movie.

And then, it came to me! The sloshing sound did it! I was instantly transported across time, all the way back to my early childhood. Lying prone and at risk, in this perhaps “Freudian” moment, I was, once again in my parents’ humble rental house. The sounds dredged up on the screen of my mind a grainy image of a tiny infant, sprawled in a crib; in the background, his mother’s yoeman wringer washing machine was rotating dirty clothes in a small tub of clean soap and progressively dirty water.

Returning to my hospital room, with lots of time to reflect, I noted many parallels between an adult hospital stay and the typical experience of being an infant. Babies and hospital patients share the reality that:

· an inordinate amount of time is expended waiting and looking at the ceiling!
· one’s schedule revolves around a preoccupation with sleeping, eating and attending to basic bodily functions!
· there is an enforced priority on taking medicine!
· most of the time, you look up and out at others, while others look down on you!
· you often spill things on yourself and usually learn quickly to accept the mild inconveniences of sharing the bed with crumbs or various, minute remnants from previous meals!
· you are wheeled everywhere you go in an uncomfortable, rolling conveyance constructed of cold metal sides and flexible, plastic webbing!
· a small room is, of necessity, perceived as the center of the universe, with little awareness of reality beyond what can be immediately seen!
· clues, suggesting life beyond the immediate setting, can occasionally be derived from the ominous sound of footsteps in a corridor!
· the world and access to it are controlled by well-meaning care-givers!
· these generous others express enormous compassion, usually in a slightly patronizing way!
· at first these faceless “invaders” seem sinister, but they soon become friends!
· although at the mercy of others initially, after a while, they learn how to make wants/needs known to those in control!
· schedules and routines, determined largely by others, can be upset by “accidents” or “emergencies,” over which one has, if not power, at least some measure of responsibility!
· the timing, quantity and selection of food intake is divined by others, guided ostensibly by health concerns, but always because they “know better!”
· the world can be frightening and confusing and almost totally dependent on the “supreme” knowledge of other, more experienced, “big people!”
· it is quite nice to have someone to prepare, serve and deliver meals, as well as to make the bed and “tuck one in” at night!
· anonymous others often talk about you, usually outside your hearing!
· the difficult act of putting on new clothes, even though minimalist or lacking in fashion or flair, usually makes things better, notwithstanding the inconvenience!
· other “actors” in life’s drama usually have more elaborate and colorful “costumes!”
· a bath, clean towels and bed-sheets can change your entire outlook on life!
· usually, you are blessedly ignorant of and, at best, largely unconcerned about the actual costs of the care provided!
· slightly nervous, but polite persons from another world often come and look at you, say pleasant things to you and say even more pleasant things about you!
· some visitors from this other world excel in their visitations; others do not!

Well, here’s the last word – for now. Both babies and patients, in the most optimistic of scenarios and the most normal of instances, make progress, grow, get better and move on to new challenges; and, thanks be to God, so have I!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pigeon-Talk (a Parable)

The common street pigeon in Athens waddled across the pavement, his calloused little bird feet immune to the boiling August temperature, near to melting the asphalt. With a characteristic, calibrated turn of the head, he seemed to be taking notice of the exotic birds in the cages of the nearby street vendor.

On my way to pay a parking fine, I was in need of some comic relief, so I paused to observe this serendipitous avian interaction. Backing away, so as to provide both an unencumbered view and an unobtrusive presence, I rested my weary bones on an old rectangular piece of pipe, intended to prevent automobiles from driving on city sidewalks. I caught my balance, leaned back against the city market light pole and watched a pricy, foreign-export bird in a cage commune with an ordinary, nasty peristeri (Greek word for pigeon) on the street – the kind that my prejudice insists we have far too many of.

Although my linguistic fluency is improving, thanks to language studies in both Albanian (Shqip) and (contemporary) Greek, I really have no competence in bird-speak. But my imagination translated the dialogue between these two feathered creatures.

The cocky, bright colored cockatoo seemed to be speaking down to the pigeon. From his cooler, lofty perch in the swinging cage, this articulate and pompous prima ballerina of the feathered classes seemed to be saying: “Oh, you poor, sad creature! Destined by fate and genetics to tread the filthy streets, scavenging on a scatological diet and savaging to survive, it’s just too bad that you could not be like me. I was born to privilege, destined by DNA to be among the higher of the bird species. People treat me like royalty; they bring me food each day; they talk sweetly to me; they clean my cage and ensure that I have fresh water. And all I have to do is sit here on my perch and occasionally peck at the little bell. It takes so little to make some people happy!”

The pigeon fluffed up his filthy feathers, leaned back on those well-worn street feet, cocked his tiny head, and said: “Yes, my dear fine-feathered friend, you do seem to have some advantages that I do not have. When I am tired of the street life, sometimes I long for your life of leisure and security.”

Now lifting his massive wings and catching the hot, steamy updraft rising from the city street, as his aerodynamic body began to rise swiftly, the pauper pigeon seemed to say in retort. “But, I am free! And freedom, my fellow bird friend, is far better than pedigree or luxury!”

I'm working with Albanian immigrants in Athens and praying that, despite their limited opportunities, they will know the truth, which sets one free!