It is said that children pay for the sins of their fathers. I often wonder: what did mine do? What God or gods did he aggravate to such a degree that I would bear the burden? What god would be so vengeful to alter my life’s course? What if there were no God? He or she seemed to be hiding beneath a rock, cowering somewhere out of reach, unable to hear the plaintiff calls of someone clearly in need. I guess I wasn’t loud enough.
Although I can’t definitively answer those questions (because there may be time and place for such hypotheses to be made), there was a moment when everything changed – my cataclysm – a godless warp in my continuum of time. What was previously one way, became something entirely different, like blinking an eye and reopening it only to find a pale green sky, filled with clouds, hanging just above the ground, close enough to touch if you just strained enough. I’d know exactly what I was seeing (the sky), but at the same time, would be startled by its utter lack of familiarity (it’s green?). From one instant to the next, I was left with the unpleasant certainty that there would never again be a blue sky, so to speak, in my life, and this green would be the new normal.
Each layer of this memory is onion skin – thin and difficult to separate from the next, delicate and difficult to peel back, triggering involuntary tears. At age 19, I became, partly, who I am today, on a Wednesday morning in the fall of 2004. The exact moment I can recall with such clarity, precisely wedged between my mother’s nervous foot-tapping and my father’s vacant stares, my silent sentinels standing guard, unable to protect me from the hidden attacker. They were a useless phalanx against an invisible army. I sat on one of those doctor’s chairs, the thinnest layer of paper product separating me and a history of previous patients, still warm from whoever sat there before me. That was not that long ago for me, and it’s true what they say about memory, that you may not remember every detail, but you will remember a feeling or feelings, and that I do. Those feelings, no matter how cemented you try to make their feet in the cinderblocks of repression, they resurface from the lake in which you try to drown them. At first, the bubbles come to the surface slowly until, all at once, the memory surfaces facedown, bobbing in an otherwise placid pool, forcing itself to be addressed, swollen with the weight of history. So much for sleeping with the fishes. Looking back, I realize that there I still sit, 19, on that bed, listening to the clinical pronouncement of my future.
Doctor’s offices are places where diagnoses happen sterilly, devoid of humanity. Places where the bright white lights match the bright white walls and the bright white lab coats of trained professionals who swear to do no harm. Places where there are so many answers, but ever more questions.
The cleanliness made me uncomfortable, and I’d shift repeatedly, each time causing the rustling of the crepe-like paper beneath, like the crunching of snow beneath heavy boots, but without any of the nostalgic winter underpinnings. Smelling of some disinfectant, the room felt more toxic than clean, as though I could close my eyes, breathe deeply, and achieve some sort of half-rate high from the noxious fumes. But no such luck; I tried.. There were no clocks on the wall, so time passed at freakishly slow, as if carried by an snail through quicksand. Each tick of a second hand seemed to measure five, and I would have loved a glass of water to wet my dry mouth. The irony is that this moment is timeless, and even if there had been a clock, time stopped for me altogether.
Sweat formed around my brow, causing the light in the room to reflect directly downward into my eyes through which I bore witness to the events to follow. The entire experience was outer-body; hovering above myself was me, looking down on the room, hovering to bear witness. My heart was pounding in my chest as if awaiting some judge’s sentence, but that was to come.
Two years prior, I found myself in a similar setting, equally clinical, just a hundred-plus miles from this room. A high school senior, my routine doctor’s visit had turned dark after a series of accusations were made by a less-than-couth doctor, more concerned that his office door would revolve x amount of times per day than with the fragile state of his patients. My feet, size eight (eight-and-a-half, depending on the make), had gone into hibernation; they’d taken a long nap, and the pins-and-needles feeling of sleeping limbs persisted for the past two weeks.
You can imagine, person with two feet of your own (assuming) just how uncomfortable / annoying / infuriating such a nagging, yet benign sensation would be. It was a person talking at a movie bad. That person on their cell phone at the register obnoxious. It was downright bothersome. A varsity athlete, playing soccer had become complicated by the unnatural clumsiness brought on by the lack of feeling in my cleats. I’d lumber as I ran, one foot clumsily clunking over the other, cinder blocks in leather boots. Falling unnaturally, I looked like a clown in a striped uniform, and was pretty much useless as an athlete and teammate at this time. I may have stood more of a chance being bound at the ankles with rope.
Rationalizing, I gave myself countless, trite encouragements. It was probably nothing. It would go away. I would run normally again. Yes, but when? Patience was not my virtue.
By the time I found myself sitting before the least friendly doctor this side of the Mississippi (because east-coast doctors had to be even less friendly – especially those in Manhattan, dealing with endless traffic or subway stops, and in the middle of winter? Forget about it!), I had reached max capacity for the tolerance of sleeping feet.
“You have poor nutrition,” he accused, or maybe he asked? “You have poor nutrition?” Either way, it felt suggestive and accusatory. My mother would be mortified at such an accusation / inquiry.
“No,” I responded, slightly off-guard.
“You using drugs,” again a question or statement. Who could tell? Maybe it was his accent?
“You sure?” Question this time, I’m certain.
“You’re sure you’re using drugs or not using them?” Tiring of his Gestapo tactics, I sighed, sinking into poor posture.
“I am sure I don’t use drugs – “
“Because this is a safe place,” he claimed, although it became increasingly clear that this was anything but. (Didn’t he take some sort of oath? One hand, parallel to body, elbow bent at an acute angle. Or is that Boy Scouts?)
“Well,” he rubbed his chin, quizzically, as though he were thinking about what to get for lunch (because that’s what I do when I’m thinking about lunch), and not about my physical (and at this point, mental) well being. “It’ll probably just go away. Come back in two weeks if it doesn’t,” followed by the most vague of all doctor statements learned in their doctor classes, “If not, we’ll run some tests.”
There I had it – perfect clarity. It was nothing. Probably nothing. Probably (certainly) nothing.
Fan-fucking-tastic, I thought, tests, something this AP-loaded high schooler just could not get enough of. Bring them on (or don’t. hat would be fine, too).
Within two short weeks, it did go away. Magic! Oh you, human body, with your trickster ways. You almost had me panicking there, the whole numb-feet thing. So, feet rejuvenated and gait restored to typical levels of clumsiness, I returned to my normal life and over-scheduled program, soccer included. Good morning, feet! My, you feel rested. There were no more tests, No more inquiries into my nutrition or drug habits – that is, until the time when my parents came to support me with their best intentions and palpable nervousness.
Awakened by my father’s cough, I distract myself from whatever impending doom would follow, taking in my surroundings. Doctor’s offices are wretched places. Their ambiance really is shitty. Plastered around the room beneath the flickering fluorescence were seemingly infinite brochures addressing you-name-it health concerns: breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, acid reflux, obesity – a robust plethora of conditions. A who’s who of life-altering ailments.This was a veritable smorgasbord of menu items for the budding hypochondriac in such a setting. What will I choose today? Will it be one from column A or column B? So much to choose from. How does one ever decide? Do I have that? (No, that one is for ovarian cysts. You don’t have ovaries.) There was, it seemed, something for everyone, membership, if you will, into exclusive clubs for the infirm that few would willingly join. The faces on those brochures were so normal, and that’s the point; he or she on the cover could be you – you could be them, with their golden retrievers and smiling toddlers, helmets atop a tricycle or hand-in-hand with a paid-model-to-look-like loved one. The woman on the acid reflux brochure looked like my fourth-grade teacher. Was it her? Did she carry Tums in her purse and I never noticed?
It could be you, taking the trifold from its plastic casing, thumbing through the well-organized and visually appealing content, staring down the barrel of your medical future. In a split second, your mind climbs the ladder of assumption, making arrangements for your future as a member of Club Sick. Do you get a membership card? A tote bag? Is there an elected body that runs the meetings? Are there cookies at the meeting? That would somehow lesson the despair. I could use a cookie right now, maybe two. This office could really use a plate of cookies, especially when I am forced to wait in the clockless room for an indiscernible amount of time. Lost in transient thoughts of absent sandwich cookies., the door to the room opened and the doctor, heavy footed in shoes only doctors and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster should wear, ominous in their leaden thuds, steps in, and everything changes. If there had been a clock in the room, it would have stopped. I gulp. The white lights flicker and the recycled air pipes through the vents. Which brochure would I be?