I watch the back of my mother’s head in the mirror, how she turns slightly to one side to check if my skirt’s white bow is even and centered. The skirt is soft over my rigid fake form. Underneath, a body cast, a molded tank top extending down over my hips, my new ectoskeleton, my nautilus, crawled into, where I live now. A big bright yellow sun cracks through the bedroom window where my mother dresses me. Today I am going to the senior prom. Today I managed to walk up three steps by myself.
Here is what I know: I have been home for 16 days after 46 in the hospital. The hospital – the place emerges before my eyes as I slowly recall, ah yes, the car I traveled in rolled and rolled and rolled.
Jacob, a 73-year-old man living 15 miles north of along this Michigan lakeshore, begins writing me letters each day. I now have close to 24 of them, all on pale blue paper with a scrolling embossed border and curving penmanship laid down with a fountain pen. He writes because my story appeared in a newspaper column along with my address: Tell her you are thinking about her. You know the sort – the local paper’s columnist taking someone under his wing. Now I have many correspondents, but none as devoted as Jacob. He gives me ideas about things to think about, tells me how the day’s weather is shaping up. Try recording the weather every day, he tells me, it is a fun hobby! I now know there are forces at work on the very air we breath, moving it around, slamming it up and down the length of the planet. This force has a name and, I imagine, a face as well.
While the weather does its thing, all these high and low pressures, the endless iterations of cloud, my broken neck figures out how to heal. My mother pushes milk, because milk builds strong bones. So I eat a lot of vichyssoise and cream of potato, canned soup made with milk; comforting white foods eaten from bowls, spooned into my mouth by my older sister, Beth, while I am propped in a bright green and orange slipcovered chair in the den. Beth watches the evening news, summer stories about pleasure boats caught halfway to Canada, nearly run down in the shipping lane by Ford freighters. She scoops white liquid, doesn’t notice the soup running down my chin, mops in broad strokes across my face. Hey, listen, I try to tell her, we’re not waxing the car here.
But I need the help. I cannot lift the heavy milk container from the fridge; I cannot even lift the straw that goes into my glass. Laurie the Cheerful works on this each morning in the physical therapy suite conveniently located in the hospital’s basement. She calls me her star patient. Boy, she says, playing with the zipper on her uniform, pulling it up an inch to the collar then down a half inch, back and forth, talking: we’ll sure fool those doctors!
When I was an inpatient, they would line us up in our wheelchairs to wait for physical therapy. It was mainly old women and me, women with thin strands of white and gray hair combed haphazardly over naked scalps, with purple veins looking like yarn under their skin, knitting up and around bones now a yellow sawdust composite, ready to give way. One brings a naked Baby Tender Love doll with her every morning. The orderly’s name is Kirk, and he lines up our wheel chairs. Kirk is a thin guy around 20 with feathered-back, parted-in-the-middle hair, sporting a pale-blue smock worn over white pants and a tee shirt. Kirk always stops and talks to Baby Tender Love. For some reason his talking to that doll makes me want to bawl. Maybe I remember my own Baby Tender Love. All I know is, each day I listen to him, in a genuinely nice voice say, how is your baby today? He crouches down by the naked doll and says, hey, how’s your baby today?
Once inside, the other people, moving, capture my imagination. New elbows or knees, working them out as if they are the Bionic man. Boy, will they fool the doctors, I think. One tread-milling man looks like Tom Selleck. I see that while I can stare at him, he cannot stare at me, or even look my way. Right now, I am fooling no one. I weigh about 80 pounds, have a neck broken in three places, and may never use my arms again. Here is what I know: right now I am not fooling anyone. In therapy my arms are raised above my head. I never think, what if I cannot use them again. I never think this. I think about how I never think this, and how great it is not to have to think such depressing thoughts. I see other people in therapy who will never lift their arms. Some are not so old. People who have fallen out of trees while climbing to retrieve a Frisbee on a summer afternoon, slipping and falling and ending up on the ground under the tree, and now unplugged from the central nervous system, their brain wondering what happened, arms and legs indifferent, stick arms that say, well this is how it’s going to be now. Now we see how it is. What if I learn that swinging my arms into place, up onto my lap, onto a chair arm, onto a table is all there is. Gravity now means business.
Jacob recommends several books about the weather. I get interested in the weather maps they show on Channel Nine during my white soup dinners. Why do they make those concentric circles? What does it all mean? Does anyone watch the weather on TV and see those circles and get what they are talking about? Or have we all agreed to not know? I flip through the books, find illustrations of something called the Coriolis Force. In a used copy of Weather in the Life Magazine Science Library, the pictures dominate – old-timey black-and-white photos decorate the pages, showing how weather works. Men in Brill Cream and creased slacks stand to the side in these shots, pointing at maps and diagrams. The Coriolis Force is illustrated using an LP on a hi-fi. The camera is directly above the turntable so you look down at the LP. From the spindle in the center are eight black strings. They spoke out from the spindle, then begin to curve like a nautilus shell as the LP turns. The curvature signifies the Coriolis Force, the effect of the spinning earth, deflecting and steering all winds in general circulation. If the Earth did not spin, the winds would blow directly north to south, vice versa in the Southern Hemisphere. What would that world be like? I learn that Coriolis “Force” may not really be the most accurate nomenclature. More accurately an “effect” than a “force.” Effect designates something that necessarily and directly follows or occurs by reason of a cause. The Earth rotates out from under the moving air, introducing, voila, the effect called Coriolis, named for Gaspard Gustave de Coriolis the French mathematician who first described it.
So. Now we prepare for the prom; the cast ingeniously masked. I see that this is a miracle, as outfits go. My mother has outdone herself; I look as if I am getting better. The best part is the shoes, lavender espadrilles the exact color of the shimmering Indian cotton blouse. God was with me on this shopping trip, she tells me. Downstairs my friend Jean waits; she will drive me to the prom for the thirty minutes or so before I get too tired and the burning pain begins to shoot down my left side. The body cast rests on my hips but my left hip is not up to the task. The piece of hipbone shaved off for the cervical spine graft makes its absence known. Pain defies words, I find. Hence, the graphic language: burning, stabbing, sharp. You get caught up in it and it’s like being entangled in a wind directed only at you, forcing you, pushing you, an effect only on you.
Jean and I drive over to the War Memorial, a Greek Revival public building overlooking the bright azure waters of Lake Saint Claire. I do not have a rose corsage, something I really wanted but felt was the last thing I should be thinking about at a time like this. The War Memorial with its stepped terraces and ornate stone fences dividing carefully tended, artful gardens designed for strolls. The sky still bright as time edges closer to the solstice, the longest day of the year. The main ballroom almost dark, like some purple fairy dusk. I hear the Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, The Knack, the Electric Light Orchestra, Rod Stewart, guys from England and Michigan urging us to understand how they feel strange and lonely, searching for some place to call home. I don’t really listen to the words, although I know them, will most likely always know them all. Jean leads me to a chair inside, set to one side of the dance floor in the midst of dozens of white-clothed tables, a chair set up for me – the person who needs a particular seat for her thirty-minute prom – a chair decorated with crepe paper. My legs are thin pegs, still tan from the holiday right before the accident. My closest friends are used to seeing me like this, but many others have trouble making their faces fit their smiling mouths.
Jean wanders off to find me a pop and I sit, alone for a moment, taking it all in. Black tuxedos are not the fashion this year, so the dance floor is pastel pairs, girls in slinky, butter yellow halter dresses, and boys in white or dove-gray or pale-blue tuxedos. The muted hues move with rock and roll songs and talk and look out floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the darkening blue of the lake, where freighters steam by, heading north from the Ford plant at River Rouge to Duluth to pick up taconite, then bring it back to the ironworks where the ore pellets will be forged into Mustangs. They are long, straight ships, the largest stretching 1,000 feet. I see a ship sitting high in the water, empty, making its way north toward Huron, Sault Ste. Marie, and then Superior.
My friend Peter sidles up to me, in a gray tuxedo and bright red face. His date, a girl named Greta, is a nut about Steve Martin. Martin has two schticks we all know: I am a wild-and-crazy guy, and the arrow through the head. Greta will not stop acting like the wild and crazy guy, Pete says, exasperated. I’ve just seen him hollering at her above the music: what is wrong with you? Do you think you are Steve Martin? Because I didn’t want to come to the prom with Steve, got that, or some wild and crazy guy. And I’ve seen her response, leaning back and waving her arms side to side over her head, exactly like that wild and crazy guy. So Pete takes my hand and heaves me gently up from the chair and escorts me onto the dance floor. It is a slow-fast song, “Night Moves” by Seger and we begin dancing together, holding hands, swaying. I forget I cannot turn my head and feel the push of the metal screws where the halo brace is held in place on my skull when I try to glance to my right or look at something specific?]. My arms behave little better than wet noodles. The hand that is not held flops at the end of an arm that is not strong enough to hold its own weight for more than an instant. It must look like some weird rag doll dance, but no one is watching. Pete tries to hide from Steve Martin; other couples bury themselves in the bear-hug style dancing we all favor. My hip begins to scream. I catch Pete’s eye. Pete came to see me every day in the hospital. I look at him and he half lifts me, gently takes me toward a car and bed. Outside in the still, warm June air, I look at the water. Small floating instances of radiant light crawl across the dark. Shining silver masts, crosses, and metal boughs blink as they slap across the water, sails down, waiting.
Jacob’s right: weather is a fun hobby. It says, see it’s real. How air moves. In the small weather book, a call to participate in understanding: try these experiments, the author urges. What is more, a number of very interesting hours can be spent in experiments that will contribute to our understanding. No need for devices that will tax the pocketbook. Jacob who sits in his garden and writes a stranger everyday, writes of air and his wife of 42 years, now dead, and talks about glories. He says, I copied something from one of my books that might be of interest to you. You mentioned wearing a halo brace. I don’t really know what this is, but I thought you would be interested in another type of a halo, a glory. Glories are created when sunlight is diffracted and scattered back toward the sun by water droplets in clouds. You need to be up high to see these; above the clouds helps, because glories usually happen when the sun is high above the horizon. People see them in the mountains and when flying in airplanes. Some hikers call glories “mountain specters.” By the way, Jacob says, imagine this: when you see a glory, your shadow is often visible at the center of the rings, which alternate red and blue hues. I dream of glories lifted high in the air. Air. Air pressure, the weight of the atmosphere on a square centimeter or a single vertebra in your neck, is measured in millibars. A millibar is one-one-thousandth of a bar, or one-thousand dynes per square centimeter. What does that mean now? Imagine curvilinear lines, called isobars: they describe gradations of air on a weather map, the way topographical maps describe elevation. Air with mass, pulled down by gravity, moves.