Friday, 19 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 8-Lydia

Return to Table of Contents My name is Evan Pickering. Even if I had total amnesia--even if the shock of the crash which destroyed my wife , smashed my knee, and shattered the complacency of the life I was leading--even if all this had wiped out my collective memory bank, I would still know my name. It is written on the light blue plastic wristband the emergency room put on me after the accident. It stares at me as I lie here like a tortoise on its back, mocking the history of the life which is mine. I am cursed to be lucky. Lucky because I am still alive and will walk again, maybe even be able to play the sports which are dear to me. Cursed because the person who has been and always will be the most important person in my life--my wife Lydia--is gone. She is not gone out of my mind. The time I spent with her, the mixture of the "ups and the downs and the great in-betweens", as a friend of mine once described married life, is etched permanently on my soul and on the broken ridges of my heart. I want to share with you some of the most private words I ever heard. They were read by my brother at my father's funeral. It was at that moment that I learned about the power of language. What he said now acts as something to grip onto to prevent me from falling into the abyss of the sadness which looms before me. He read this while looking at his wife and his son and in a voice that was clear and strong and betrayed none of the deep pain he felt. I am the son of my father and the father of my son. In this way life goes on. I know now that there is a meaning to life. I know now that God has a purpose. The world is flesh and idea. The flesh withers, but the idea lives on, and the fuel which keeps the fire of idea burning is love. It is a simple thought, but simple things last. This is the meaning of life, and this is God's message for this world. These words I now press to my chest to help against the pain I feel. My emotions have decoupled themselves from the control of my mind. I know that this is a direct result of the emotional and physical shock I have gone through. Thus in my thoughts I relive experiences in no particular order or with no particular link. Pleasure and pain have become confused so that nice memories are painful, and painful ones easy to bear. I think of small things: her perfume which was so difficult to buy because it wasn't made anymore; her voice--that deep perfect pitch which cut through a crowd; the line of her figure which blended function and form; the feel of her body against mine. These things all cause a physical pain in me, a longing that emanates from the center of my chest and wells in my throat and makes me want to cry without stop. What I really miss though is her mind. She was and still is my best friend. She had a strength about her which made her counsel valuable about almost any subject. She was the truest person I have ever known. The trait which made her so valuable to her patients, the fact that she could give totally of herself to these children on the verge of death from an invisible and painful disease, was what separated her from others. She had no pretense, and what you saw was exactly what she was. She wasn't a saint. She could be stubborn, and depressed, and angry, and unyielding. She lived with the pain that we would never be able to have children, and her work became her child. She took the loss of her kids, as she called her patients, very badly, and violated the cardinal rule of physicians not to become too emotionally attached to their fragile lives. Yet each death seemed to fuel her resolve to find a solution to the puzzle of cancer. I remember the time I was angry with her for canceling our holiday at the last minute because she had promised to bake a pie for a boy. We were going to miss our non-refundable flight while she made it from scratch. "Why not just buy something from a bakery?" I asked. "He'll never know." "You don't understand," she said. "It's what goes into it that counts." I knew she wasn't talking about the ingredients, and I knew that the next week when the boy died he felt special, and he felt loved by the doctor who was with him at the end. All these things make me feel unworthy to have survived, and I blame myself for not having reacted quickly enough when the other car jumped the median. I was making a joke to her, and not paying attention. I had never before had an accident, and didn't consider it a possibility. This was the hubris of being a male. I know now of the foolishness of pride and the random justice that God metes out to those who take things for granted. This is a lesson that serves nothing, as I cannot go back except in my mind to change anything. It is too late for that. I am confused about the way forward. At this moment, the first thing I must do is to repair my body. The doctor has shown me the magnetic resonance image of my shattered kneecap, and explained how time and physiotherapy can bring me back. The bruises on my ribs and the cuts on my head will heal more quickly. It hurts me to breathe, and I wonder how the human body can come back from such destruction. My mind and my heart will take longer to heal. I have the support of my friends and family. My mother called immediately, and will be here soon. So has my brother. He is a strong Christian, and though I have never been very religious, his sympathy was heartfelt and his words about healing were like balm for my exhausted soul. Stokely and Tess have also called. Stokely now lives in California in Los Altos. His life has been rocky in the last few years. He has never been very good with women, and divorced his wife last year. Following in his great grandfather's footsteps, he is working with computers, something to do with quantum mechanics. I read about him in a magazine on a plane a few months ago. He said he will try to fly here to the hospital in Asheville. He said he was coming back this way anyway, as Thanksgiving is next week and he is going back to 1819 to meet the family. Tess lives near here in the mountains of North Carolina. She is a writer, and she has never married. I have read all of her books. They all seem to have a similar theme--the breakdown of families, and they leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth. The first one, called The Tea Plantation, was about a British family in Ceylon during colonial times. I could see trace elements of her own family in the story. There was a Stokely-like character who eventually ended up destroying the family's plantation by overplanting and offending the local employees. It was very successful, not only in the States but in England, where she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her success has allowed her to be independent. I haven't seen her in three years and I was surprised to hear so quickly from her. She was the first person Stokely called when he heard, and calling me was the first thing she did. She is coming tomorrow. I have also heard from Dewey, who is a lawyer in Charleston, married with three kids. He has also done very well. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Leyden, Holland after Duke. He then went to law school at UVa and clerked for a Supreme Court Judge. Now he is partner. It always seems in life that the quiet iconoclasts seem to do very well and show up suddenly at the summit. As Stokely said, in life there are two kinds of people who rise to the top: cream and pond scum. Dewey is a force for the good guys. He was a steady calming influence on the phone. He has always been quiet and difficult to read, but he has always been there for me, whatever the circumstances. Last night I was also surprised to hear from Jonah. We hadn't spoken since the wedding, when we had a long talk the night of the bachelor party about the strange twists of fate which had driven Lydia to me. They had long since broken up, and I was in business school in Philadephia when I heard someone asking directions. Her voice was so distinctive. I remember standing at the bulletin board and my heart skipping a beat. When I turned around and saw her standing there, it was as though a weight had been lifted from my body. She was doing a residency at the university hospital, and I felt like I had won the lottery. When he called I recognized his voice immediately. "E-man," he said. It was a rarely used nickname that he had for me, and it could only be him. "Jonah?" More than any of the others, Jonah had gone his separate ways after Duke. He was back in Kansas, in Omaha. Like Dewey, he was also married, a hometown girl who had gone to the University of Kansas whom he had met at the national basketball tournament when Duke played her alma mater. He was working as a stockbroker for institutional clients, and had landed the account of Hampshire Barkway, the billionaire. He also played golf with Tom Watson from time to time. I always knew that his easy going drive would attract success to him like flies to fruit. "Are you okay?" Jonah asked me tentatively. I appreciated him asking about me first. "I'm hanging in there," I replied. There was a silence at the end of the phone. I knew he was wondering how to ask. "Did...she suffer?" "No, they said that she was ki.....killed instantly." The words caught in my throat and my chest tightened. Jonah was not one to show his emotions, but this cut too close to the quick for both of us. His voice shook, and I could tell he was crying. "E-man, I'm so very very sorry." More than talking to the others, talking to Jonah drove home the cruel finality of Lydia's death. He knew her, perhaps less well than I did, but they had still shared a part of their lives together. It is not physically possible to hug someone over the phone, but in the only way two grown men can comfort each other, we said nothing and shared our own private grief. We didn't talk too long, and though he promised to come East soon, I knew it would be a long time before we would see each other again. After the comfort of talking to my friends I feel alone again. I can only doze. Hospitals are good places to do everything but rest, as there is a constant stream of people coming to check your heartbeat, ask about your bowel movements, give you inedible food; anything but leave you alone to recuperate. I find myself talking aloud. To Lydia. I cannot accept that the unique characteristics of the soul which make up a human being can disappear from the face of the earth just like that. Perhaps they get blasted apart like some of Stokley's Leibniz balls, but they are still out there, and the soul, I have to believe, lasts forever. That is what Lydia thought. Once we were talking after a film, sitting alone in that same car in an alley, crying like two sentimental old fools. That was one of our favorite pastimes. Not crying, but going to films. We had been to a Belgian film, about a year or so after my father died. Even though I had cried and cried the morning after his funeral and for days afterward, there was still grief built up inside me, and somehow this film had unlocked it all. For Lydia it was the death of her mother. We always joked that our two parents should get together, but they were as different as chalk and cheese. "Which one of us will die first?" she suddenly asked. "Why do you ask?" I responded. I was convinced anyhow that it was going to be me. "I don't know. It just seems that whenever I think of going through every day without you, I sort of hope it's me." "Don't ever say anything like that," I chided her. "That's pissing into the wind." That was a saying my father always used to say. I was trying to kid, a defense mechanism for that moment when you realise that the worst might happen and something bad suddenly grabs hold of your bowels and sends an electric jolt up your gut. "Well, we have no control over it anyway," she said. She was always fatalistic about death, having seen so many people die. It was a strange but realistic attitude for a doctor. To laymen, they were supposed to have power over life and death. She knew differently. "Can you promise me one thing?" she suddenly asked. "What's that?" "Even though I believe that the body and soul are completely separate, I still want our ashes to be together in the same place when we're dead." "In the Mobjack?" "Out by the hawk's nests at Valhalla." Even though we had not started going out until five years after that weekend, she too realised that the trail we had walked together began at Valhalla and that it would end there. "I'll take you back, Lydia," I suddenly say out loud to nobody in this hospital room, even though my mind is back in time in the front seat of that car. I realise how foolish I must sound if anyone is watching me. I don't care. I am past the point of caring. This will be the first thing I ask Stokely and Tess when they come to visit me tomorrow. I will ask if they will come with me to Valhalla, where together we can scatter the ashes of the woman who was my wife and their friend to the waves in the Mobjack Bay. Return to Table of Contents

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