Such Light, Above Ground

Last week, I was assaulted by a group of 4, or 5, or 6, young men who knocked me off my bicycle and punched and kicked and stomped on me. I don’t know why they did it; in fact, while they were pummeling me, I kept asking them: “Why? Why are you doing this?” They had no answer for me. Then I blacked out, and shortly after that, two car loads of young men and women returning from the drive-in stopped and scared them off, then waited with me until the police and ambulance arrived.

The damage tally, as is usual for such events, was weird: right ankle broken in three places, jaw broken in two, ribs severely bruised, but my glasses are still intact, internal organs are fine, and nothing was taken from my wallet. I lost a shoe and my bike helmet, but my wife found both the next day. A senseless act produced results difficult to make sense of, in other words. I am not sure I need to make sense of it, really, although the looks on the faces of everyone I tell the story to begs the same questions: how could anyone do such a thing, what’s wrong with people, is our society crumbling… people want to make sense of it, fit knowledge of events like random assault into their worldview. Some have offered me their own scaffolding, while taking blood or checking my temperature, opining on young people today, or suggesting race or class were somehow involved. I hate telling people about it because of that look, the way my story leads people to peek over the edge of a hole into the underworld.

As a result of the assault, I have spent the last 8 days in 2 different hospitals, undergoing 2 different surgeries, and countless pricks, prods, and palavers. I have become a connoisseur of several different kinds of pain and of the drugs that try to relieve them, and have felt my consciousness, in concert with my body, pulled and punched and wound into unimaginable knots and unwound into base thread. I did not peek over the edge of the hole, I was shoved into it from behind, and so began a katabasis, a descent into the underworld—but I had no quest, other than survival and healing.

My memories of the Emergency Room are disjointed, full of bursts of pain, needles and oxygen masks, a nurse screaming across me at another patient who wouldn’t stop saying something offensive, a confused, squirrelly cop trying to take a statement from me, my wife crying in a chair at the foot of the bed. And noise. So much noise that I can clearly remember a moment where the noise stopped, no one spoke, no one yelled, no one raced across the room, just the tap tap of computer keyboards. It lasted a few seconds, then the noise exploded again.

I don’t remember the elevator ride up to the second floor, but there I was, more needles, more bizarre pain, but less noise. When Ishtar descended into the underworld to be with Tammuz, she was ritually disrobed at 7 different gates: one for her crown, one for her jewelry, one for her outer robe, and so forth. I expected the same treatment, and though I spent the next three days lying in my shorts and underwear and belt, I did feel more than naked, as though any defense between myself and the world had been stripped away. I am most grateful to all the nurses and aides who took such wonderful care of me, monitoring my pain and my vital signs as the doctors decided how to proceed. They couldn’t be at my side constantly, of course, nor could my lovely wife, and so I came to think of them as guides, lending me strength for my chthonic journey.

My first surgery, to repair my ankle, was scheduled for Saturday. Friends and family visited and made me smile. Doctors asked me questions. I had cat scans, x-rays, and MRIs. My room mate was a man who had lost short term memory and so kept asking me what hospital we were in. At no point, other than when I was waiting to get an x-ray, was I not in the presence of another human being, and yet I have rarely felt more alone. The drugs and the pain and the frequent intrusions of needles and probes and fingers into my body all combined to push me far, far away from the world, and reality broke into shards, like when the film flutters through the projector at the end of the reel.

My identity, too, fell apart at times. After Saturday’s surgery, which I was semi-conscious for, I was given a large dose of pain killers and fell asleep. I woke a few hours later, convinced I was in Japan, which was not unusual, as I had just visited there, but I also had no idea who I was, which was unusual, and scary as hell. I gradually understood enough words on a dry erase board at the end of the bed that my identity began to coalesce, and I knew where I was, but I will never forget the sensation of not knowing, the terror of feeling the absence of identity, and knowing that it was lost.

I was transferred to another hospital for my jaw surgery. I was put in an ambulance at 4:00 am, driven through a thunderstorm severe enough that travel warnings had been issued, then deposited on the seventh floor. Three nurses immediately descended upon me, stripped off my robe, and examined every inch of my body. They flipped me on my side, causing a large abscess on my jaw to burst and fill my mouth with pus, then gave me more pain medication. The sun came up. Doctors visited. More needles. Someone came and pulled my mouth open, tearing the corner of my lips. More pain killers. More pain. The Japanese women’s football team beat the Netherlands.

My last surgery, to put plates into my jaw and wire it shut, was Wednesday, luckily, as we were on a waiting list for the operating room. I woke when they yanked the breathing tube out of my nose, which felt like someone pulling a steam shovel through my nasal cavity. Oddly, I could smell dim sum, even saw a platter of dumplings floating the air. I can only assume someone had eaten something like dim sum recently and I could smell it. I could smell everything, more keenly than I thought possible, and the recovery room was not the best place to acquire that particular superpower.

One more night of recovery, and I was discharged. An aide wheeled me out into the sunlight, out of the underworld, and I sat, waiting for my wife to pull the car around, wondering what my quest had been. I had been pulled apart and remade, had endured a lot of physical pain, and had seen so much good, so much love and care from friends, family, and strangers, it was hard to find any core to the experience. I thought about the men who had attacked me, out of nowhere, rushing from behind, from between buildings, beating me for no reason—why did they do it? I could only think that their lives were similar to the time I had just spent in the underworld: full of bursts of violence and pain and powerlessness, identities tenuous, dependent on pathetic expressions of power, naked as Ishtar, but without all the loving friends and family helping them along. I wished many horrible things upon you, my attackers, and now I see that these wishes for revenge were just as foolish and pathetic as your initial attack on me was, and were motivated by similar desires. And of course, that was my quest all along, to reach this point: I do not like what you did to me, but I forgive you, and if I find you in need, I will help.