Hospitals

A Bangkok hospital view

Some parts of life don’t bear talking about. Factories, mostly. I spend a lot of time in factories, time that forms a base of knowledge I have spent so many hours on the road to acquire. And yet it’s hard to talk about factories. Complicated, really.

Hospitals are like that too. Except I didn’t mean to spend so much time in them. Some days I remember the details. I remember waiting in the UCSF hospital while Tara got ACL surgery, nervous and uncertain in a tiny sitting area with no windows. Reading bad old magazines and trying not to stare at the only other visitor, an old man. Wondering over and over what or who he was waiting for but neither of us in any mood for talk.

The next time I had to wait through Tara’s surgery I went sneaker shopping in Siam Discovery, a fancy Bangkok mall. I had a couple hours they’d said, and knew better than to sit still. Sneaker shopping sounds fun, and often is fun. I remember walking the BTS stations almost surprised how normal everything felt. How normal my body was, despite the huge scrapes on my arms and legs. I felt worried, but also lucky, the doctor having cleared my shoulder after an exam. Only Tara’s wrist broken, after the motorcycle crash in northern Laos. Just the small bones. Just her right hand. Five years later it’s still a hard week to think about.

The third time wasn’t even surgery. Just stitches and a lot of cleaning, a lot of cutting dead skin away. She was awake. I left the room, pacing the entry to the fancy Hong Kong hospital for an hour at midnight on a Sunday. Nervous and tired but pretty sure she’d be ok. That was easier, but still too hard.

In March of last year it was again voluntary, or scheduled: one night in the hospital alone after shoulder surgery. My left, beat up by years of climbing and frisbee. And probably never a hundred percent since New York. Or since that motorcycle crash. Overnight hospital stays, like Ben Watt says in his book Patient, are strange things. Peaceful but without rest, the body either shutting down or being woken up for pills, for checks, by pain. It’s hard to sleep, even in a private room, even with luxury. I got laid off that morning, by phone, before the nurses brought more pain killers. Overnight hospital stays, when they’re going ok, are an awful lot of time to think, and no energy at all for thinking.

And then New York, of course. Two different hospitals. Five nights each. Surgery with fingers and biting on sweatshirts. A lot of pain and long waits to try walking. A lot of slow hellos with nothing to say. A lot of time to stare and think and no energy at all.

Hospitals are hard to talk about. Like factories.

All we can see

The story of growing up, for me, is the story of learning how to manage my body. This story doesn’t happen all at once, or evenly. There are good years and bad, months of quick progress and months lost to sloth and adventure. Some years I take up running in the mornings. Other years I rise early to bike to the climbing gym before work, sliding into my desk at nine thirty am having ridden 6 miles and spent an hour on the walls of Dogpatch Boulders.

There are other years, like perhaps this one, where I am held back by injuries and instead focus on muscle control, on single-leg squats, on planks and on the ability to raise my left arm above my head. These years are productive too: in twenty fourteen I spent much of the summer learning how to walk in the pool of the Park Lane in Dongguan. That stretch remains a high point of patience and growth.

Our lives, I have written, are written on our bodies as much as on the rest of the world, a topography that can be learned by others, or hidden from view. Our skills are not stagnant, they require maintenance and patience, diligence and some semblance of desire. Ten years ago I had never bouldered, had not yet taken climbing seriously. Perhaps I still have not, unwilling to put on harness or rope, unwilling to follow rigid routines on fingerboards. I still prefer the small self-built habits of the amateur over the youtube rituals of the practitioner. In this preference so much of my life can be found; the habit of writing five new characters a day to remember my Mandarin born of the park in Xujiahui some fifteen years ago is still with me in our Hong Kong apartment, though my knowledge of words has not improved as it should have given such repetition. In some ways this desire to build my own rituals is invigorating, and in some ways limiting. As with the body, the mind is an exercise in growth that rewards both dedication and new attempts.

For the most part I manage to avoid this kind of introspection, focusing instead on the expansion of scars, the patchwork of criss crosses that now adorn my left shoulder. They compliment the two slashes that match the gaps between ribs on my left side, now mostly faded and unremarkable. All are, when clothed, less visible than the scar below my right eye. None of these are large, a minimal presence like the first scattering of stars as night falls. In this I am lucky, the product of a body that tends to good balance and has benefited from good medicine, in not-quite-equal parts.

And still, doing repeated exercises in our apartment in the quarantine days, trying and failing to raise my arm over my head with both hand and elbow flush against the wall, I am grateful for the slow pace of both recovery and growth. Halfway through my forty first year I am still learning new sports, still learning new exercises, and still able to devote hundreds of hours to each. This is the clearest kind of luck, and so I try to record my gratitude, despite the discomfort and tedium.