I spent last weekend in Charlottesville with Cecil, then came home Sunday night for a few days’ work. At 5:30 Monday morning, a text called out from my nightstand: he’d fallen; plunging blood pressure; fever spike; hallucinations. They were transferring him to the ICU.
Hallucinations? I’ve been prepared for any number of calamities throughout the stem cell transplant process. We’ve already been visited by many of them, but hallucinations were not on the list.
I jumped from bed, maybe brushed my teeth…not sure…then threw the dogs into the car. The sun came up as I sat outside the kennel, waiting for it to open, so I could board the pups. The poor girl who arrived tried to comfort me as I conducted business through a stream of tears that fell, unblotted and unexplained.
Racing up the highway, I prepared myself for what was waiting. Maybe he would die today. Maybe the graft had failed and he would fade away gradually. Maybe he’d stroked out and would never be the same. When I got there, I found a man I didn’t recognize. There were many things going on, but the hallucinations have stayed with me most of all.
He spoke more like a child than anything else. The trashcan was stalking him, but cleverly jumped back into place when I stood up to catch it in the act. We peeked under his covers to look at the potatoes he had gathered there, and the hand that was arranging them. Billy Bob Thornton pulled up a chair alongside of his bed to sing to him. And, of course, the wallpaper was waving (in 3-D), there were insects crawling on body parts, and squirrels were plunging to their death off high-rises out the window.
Reality snuck in around the corners from time to time. “I think I’m seeing things that aren’t really there,” he said once, just as his eyes darted off to follow the glitter that was raining down upon a stack of Ziplocs that were mobilizing in the street below.
I didn’t know what to make of all this. Cecil is a highly educated man: an engineer; a physician. Suddenly, he was talking nonsense. His reality at the time was a place I couldn’t get to. We were in different spheres, like two planets orbiting independently of each other. Meaningful communication was not an option. It reminded me of when we were fending off the feds.
Nothing they were doing made sense. Cecil was the kindest, most dedicated doctor a person could hope to have. His population of pain patients was among the most difficult to treat, but he never gave up on any of them. Yet, the feds pounced on him like he was some drug dealer barely in disguise. They had to know Cecil was a good man and a wonderful doctor. That information was all around them. It just didn’t seem to matter. They were committed to a reality that, for us, didn’t exist.
Cecil’s legal team was ready to defend his medical decisions. It turned out though, the feds had a different theory of the case. They put on evidence that was so far afield of the allegations it was almost laughable – except it wasn’t. The jury was presented stories of dead squirrels, Beetle and Bailey living in the basement, prescriptions exchanged for nasty old wine racks, and pot billowing from bongs all day every day in front of, and with, patients. They attacked Cecil for being eccentric. They made fun of his eclectic office décor, and they had a field day with a ‘coffee stained patient list’ they’d found in his truck during the first of their raids. The lead prosecutor flashed Cecil’s driver’s license picture on a theater-size screen throughout the trial. It had been taken on a bad hair day.
In looking back, the whole case seems now like a grotesque hallucination. It was as far-fetched as the potatoes under Cecil’s sheet, or the trashcan that was stalking him. If you look around, though, these kinds of disconnects are everywhere. One doesn’t have to have IV drugs running through his body, or be an ambitious prosecutor serving a political agenda, to see things that aren’t there.
Every day in my law practice, I hear stories of people talking at each other without being heard. I have a case now in which neither party can see the spouse’s point of view, no matter how legitimate it might be. She is an evil bitch, that’s all there is to it. He is a domineering bully who draws the line at nothing, for no apparent reason. Each comment is taken as menacing, and neither party is above bending or stretching words or intonations to mean something they likely never did. I spent fifteen minutes with a client last week debating the significance of where the spouse had placed a comma in an email.
It’s easy to take up position and miss the things that don’t mesh with your sense of reality. When Cecil and I have arguments, the only ones that end well are the ones that find one of us willing to let go of our self-conviction. When I make my point from every conceivable angle, without considering what he is saying, the only movement in the conversation is in the volume and the level of sarcasm. If I find it within myself to stop and listen, and admit when he is right, the whole dynamic changes. Suddenly, we are laughing at ourselves. We become friends and lovers again, instead of antagonists bent on toppling each other. Our realities come together rather than collide.
Reality can be distorted by perception or context as it moves among us. It is upon common ground that we can communicate and mean something to each other.
On the way from the hospital to the cottage the other day, I stopped at a light. Two young men were sitting on the curb, each with a bottle of liquor in hand. They were both clearly well on their way to wherever the bottle would take them.
One spoke loudly in a string of vernacular and epithets, gesturing wildly as he berated the other. “How dare you, M…F… place your hand on my body,” he screamed. “You had no right to lay your hand on my body when you spoke to me, you son-of-a-bitch. I don’t put my hand on you when I talk, you M..F..ing bastard.” He ranted and he raved, unfazed by the other man’s disinterest. The second man was not available…his headphones and sunglasses had taken him elsewhere. Undaunted by his friend firing off next to him, the second man swayed to music, tapped his feet and smiled to himself. The two sat together, joined in separation from most of the rest of us, but isolated from each other in what looked like a Woody Allen mockery of communication.
It takes work and effort to reach people. The challenge is to see the issue or the situation from someone else’s perspective, and then be willing to move toward it. I can forgive the guy who finds himself lost in hallucinations. I have come to dismiss the individual who cannot see that others likely have valid points to make. If you’re going to be so self-absorbed as to listen only to yourself, you might as well be a blithering outcast sitting on the curb, or the guy next to him in headphones.