1) (I fall for Wapama)
We strap into N95 masks and cross O’Shaughnessy Dam on foot. This far corner of Yosemite looks less murky than yesterday was at Glacier Point, where wildfire smoke obstructed the Half Dome view.
On the service road, a parked trailer houses life preservers and an orange vinyl trauma mannequin. The human replica’s articulated joints splay as if being shocked by electricity. The road dead-ends at a tunnel hewn through granite. The far bore exits to the trailhead vista: a hundred billion gallons of snow melt cradled in Hetch Hetchy Valley’s lap.
Three years ago my son photographed these boulder-lined waters, glacial blue at the time, unlike the gray-scape today, October 7, 2020, no one’s favorite year. On top of leading the nation in COVID-19 cases, California’s been burning for two months.
Fright nearly put the kibosh on this trip: shifting winds, conflagration, toxic “red air,” fellow tourists ignoring coronavirus. But the husband and I were too desperate for an offramp from pandemic stress to waste a National Park entrance ticket. We arrived with air purifiers and high-filtering masks.
Wapama Trail winds through liminal patches of high forest. I’m energetic despite troubled sleep last night. Our rental’s mattress craters to the middle. The tree-branch bedframe looks straight out of a fairytale deep woods cabin. At midnight, I heard bat wings brushing down the wall’s confines. Nightmares intruded on my sleep, the last ending with me plummeting off a cliff. I jolted awake before dying in my dream.
The dam makes a perfect social media post backdrop. Today’s photos, unlike our son’s, are somber. Even so, they document my fellowship with this land whose pines and Sierra oak don’t benefit from the massively pooled water down the embankments. Twisted Manzanitas are equally parched, bark pale pink, gouged by animals. Scant rainfall is converting the West’s open land into tinder.
Ahead, a family horses around, no masks. Five kids skip, shove, hoot, snorfle, their small lungs clogging with microscopic ash particles.
To avoid their breath streams, I choose lumpy off-trail footing, frowning in my mask at parental neglect. Once the passel is behind, I revel in the soft sunshine penetrating the smoke drifts. No bulky jacket tied around my waist or hiking poles dragged behind. An easy jaunt.
Kolana Rock rises from gray water like a behemoth of legend. Compared to the recent fire disasters, today’s conditions are tame. September’s blazes grew so huge they became known by letter groups, CZU, LNU, SCU. One day, from sun-up to choked dusk, the Bay Area sky refracted shades of orange only. You barely dared breathe the whole apocalyptic day. Never was a dun dawn more welcomed than the next morning’s.
Two pair of walkers converge in a clearing. This backwater is not unpopulated nor quietly Zen. One woman wears a gaiter mask, ineffective for blocking coronavirus. The other faces are bare. Vaccinations are in trials, not yet available. I stay a stone’s throw from them.
“Hi,” Gaiter says to the in-bound women. “Was the waterfall running?” In the city, friendliness between strangers has been in short supply amidst COVID paranoia.
“Both falls were dry,” turquoise shawl lady answers. “Sorry.”
I dodge dirt clods.
Lone Male in Foursome: “You went all the way to Rancheria?”
I’d entertained the thirteen-mile circuit to the second waterfall but too time-consuming, paired with lengthy drives.
Turquoise: “Yes. Pretty the whole way, even in October.”
We leave their chatter in our dust.
In spring, the waterfall volume, according to online Wapama lore, has blasted men off the viewing platform and drowned them in the churn below. Dry, early autumn poses no threat, though I was hoping to see a trickle.
Even with a sore knee, the husband keeps up. Yesterday our pace up Mist Trail drew commendation from younger visitors. Diverted off the Vernal Falls route by “Maintenance Dynamiting,” we got spooked by a deafening boom that seemed likely to trigger an avalanche. The only danger turned out to be exhausting switchbacks. We turned back without reaching a goal. Today’s outing is more predictable and straightforward.
“Look.” The husband points to large turds. “Coyote shit?”
“Bear,” I say, mask muffling my voice.
Vented N95 masks aren’t permitted for indoor retail, but they’re fine for outside use. On yesterday’s climb, catching my breath wasn’t easy. With little elevation gain today, being masked is no strain.
Wapama is one of North America’s largest waterfalls. This land is sacrosanct. Native Americans worshipped and fed their families from this dominion for millennia, until Euro-Americans dispossessed them of their ancestral tract.
Beneath the fall engineered wood bridges span tumbled crags. Young laborers squat in crevasses, assembling what looks to be a larger, downstream viewing platform. Their carpentry might be redressing the springtime water volume problem. Some workers mumble greetings.
“Hi,” the husband answers. “We were wondering about the large scat near the trail.”
“Black bear,” the lone female worker says. In durable trousers, she looks as physically capable as the crew boys.
“You—ever see—black bears?” the husband gasps.
“All the time.” She works a knotted length of yellow rope. “One walked where you’re standing when we were eating lunch.”
Spooked, we scamper on to observe the upper gorge from the current bridge. The waterfall drop spot is marked by an indistinct notch in the granite. A dry, pale streak descends the spillway like a vapor trail on rock face. Feeder tributaries clearly evaporated.
I unscrew my water bottle and push my mask down. Smoke scratches my throat. I take a gulp and re-mask. We start back over sharp rocks. Mission somewhat accomplished.
“Loving my new boots,” I say and take a sure-footed leap. Online yoga has improved my balance. Admittedly, this terrain is easy waygoing. Insects drone in hiding places. The leisurely couple re-appears. I maintain a wide berth, COVID on my mind if not theirs.
“We made it to Wapama,” the husband calls.
Woman: “You’re fast.”
The drive back to Mariposa is 2-1/2 hours. The past two nights the air cleared. We took IQ-Air’s moderate index as permission to use the pool and hot tub in the yard. Night Three awaits. No neighbors. No swimsuits. Just kicking through silky water.
The big family swarms our passageway along the flat stretch, forcing more re-routing. I had a premonition of danger before this trip, and everything has seemed ominous since: bats, dream, smoke, dynamite, family. Trauma mannequin.
My mate checks over his shoulder for bear lumbering from the shallow dell. We’re half a mile from the car and lunch sack. Gentle downslope. I picture my teeth sinking into a Baby-bel cheese disc.
The ground races up. I’m plunging headlong, confused, helpless, about to collide with terra firma. Echo of last night’s dream.
This dead-drop’s no dream. My left brow bonks a half-buried rock. Hard. Is this how I die? My body drops onto my left hand. Wrist bones crack like glass under pressure.
2) (The smoke is no hoax)
Blood drops swing off my forehead and smut to the ground. I bleat. The husband lunges to me.
With his steadying, I get to my knees and wail, “I fell!” Slashes of dark red appear on my shirt and leggings.
Did I slip? Trip? Stumble? No. Between anticipating cheese and nosediving, a loss of situational awareness struck. Long enough to cause a faceplant.
The husband sinks next to me.
“I blacked out,” I say.
“It’s okay.” He pulls a crumpled tissue from his pocket.
My cap lies on the ground. My right fingers float to my temple. “Sunglasses!” I recently replaced scratched, decades-old Wayfarers with chic shades that have flown off my face.
He points his chin at my Zeals in the dust. “I’ll grab ‘em in a sec. They didn’t break. Right now we need to stop this bleeding.” The tissue presses my throbbing forehead.
“Oh God,” exclaims a young woman rounding the turn. “Need help?” She and her companion stomp closer.
“I’m okay.” I stand, thrusting the tissue off my brow.
“You sure?” She sees a senior citizen caked in dirt, bearing a head wound, bent like a crone over a mangled wrist, white mask bloodied.
Stubborn, coagulated crone: “Yes.”
“Thanks for your concern,” my husband tells her.
The duo move on. I hunch over my swelling wrist.
The husband taps his thigh. “Sunglasses and hat are in my pocket.”
His pocket capacity reassures me. “Would’ve been better,” I gulp, “to break the glasses instead of the wrist.”
The husband peers at my braced feet. “Maybe you need to be helicoptered out.”
“No,” I scoff. “Give me a sec to overcome shock.”
The boisterous family advances like a many-headed Hydra, kids whooping. I bet the parents consider COVID a hoax. The lurking fire smoke is no hoax. I compact myself as if to repel their ignorance.
“My wife is injured,” my husband calls, eyes flashing. “She fell. You mind socially distancing, since you don’t have masks?”
The mother sizes me up. The father, mid-forties, wiry and tanned, comes up from behind, sneering, shaking his head. “Can’t you people just enjoy life?” he says.
I’m flabbergasted. I must not look mangled to someone who can’t see past his nose.
The mother’s arm chops air. “Shut up, idiot!” she spits. “She’s hurt!”
“I’m alright,” I say.
“She broke her wrist and banged her skull,” my husband says.
“Why don’t I run on to get help?” the wife says.
“If someone at the dam can call 911,” my husband says, “I’d be grateful.”
The woman sprints ahead, leaving her brood behind.
“You need assistance,” my husband tells me.
The other husband lingers, left in charge. He clears his throat. “Sorry,” he says, looking sheepish. “I must not of heard you right.”
“Please go on after your wife,” my husband says.
The man herds his spawn and disappears. What a relief to listen to leaves rustling in the wind. If I don’t move, my wrist stops smarting.
“No one here can help,” I say, dissociation curtaining over me.
“Let’s get the hell out.”
Words make sense. Get the hell out. My senseless feet stay rooted.
3) (Three young men appear)
“We should keep moving,” the husband coos. “Slowly.”
I growl. Stupid cooing. Where do I sign up to begin this day over? Sleep ‘til 7. Not faint.
Three young men appear on the trail and beeline to me like a TV safety patrol episode.
“We heard someone got hurt,” one calls.
Though dazed, I do not fail to notice their underwear model bodies, barbered hair, fitted garb. Not your average hikers. I back away from their mask-free faces.
“We’re doctors,” one says.
What doctor eschews a mask during a viral epidemic? I don’t want these groomed strangers in my face. Doctors? Scammers.
“I’m an orthopedic surgeon,” the pretty blonde says.
I stare at his blue eyes and ripped arms in a rolled-sleeve shirt. Could this encounter be another dream?
“A woman at the dam said you broke a wrist,” he says. “May I see?”
Almost giggling, I extend my forearm. I suddenly know this doctor is gay, from the hug of cloth to physique and how pliantly his hand skims toward mine. All the better. His palm is warm and strong.
“Hurt?” He presses spots on my wrist. “You have a distal radius fracture,” he says. “Surgery’s required. Move your fingers, please?”
I wiggle them.
“Very good,” he says. “Nerves are intact. You must be in a lot of pain.”
“Do you have Ibuprofen?”
“No,” the husband says. “Might be a couple in the car.”
A small pop-lid bottle emerges from a pant pocket. Ibuprofen capsules clatter like beans in a maraca. His golden fingers pour four blue gems into my palm. I swallow them with water from the husband.
The dark-haired doctor examines my forehead. “You’ll need a couple of stitches in that gash,” he says, backing away politely.
“I’m glad it stopped bleeding,” the husband says.
“Head wounds gush at first,” the brunette doc says.
“You’ve been so helpful,” I say, glancing at the younger third guy who looks on with warm concern, gold highlights in his locks. “We’ll drive to the nearest facility for treatment.”
“That wrist should be splinted until you can be seen,” blond Adonis says.
He hunts the forest floor and scoops up a curved piece of tree bark he fits onto me like a Disney prince tending a wounded doe. The husband passes his thin sweater to the surgeon, who uses it as binding.
Surgeon: “How’s that feel?”
“Secure. I can’t thank you enough. Please go enjoy the scenery, while the light’s good.”
The doctors steal off, the tall, dark-haired one waving goodbye, the younger, shorter doctor looking cutely shy.
Me, watching them move out of ear shot: “Did that just happen?”
4) (If only I hailed from Ireland)
The doctors’ ministration gets me walking even before the analgesic kicks in. After a few steps I hear a motor’s Gerraw! Gerraw! A pick-up truck crunches on the trail’s gravel border.
Husband: “Looks like you’re being rescued.”
“God, how unnecessary.”
The truck disgorges four beefy dam workers, revved for action. Not one sporting a mask.
“All I need now,” I mutter, “is exposure to COVID from science deniers.” I think of the orange cadaver dummy in the trailer atop the dam.
“They drove out to help. We can’t ignore them.”
I wish he hadn’t commissioned the clan matriarch to sound the alarm. The workers step forward. I stare them down. They arrived to be evacuation heroes, and here’s a walking, physically fit person. Even wounded, I could beat them to the dam in a foot race.
No man lets a woman bleed out or collapse on his watch. I’m loaded into the passenger seat. It’s impossible, in good conscience, to reject their mission. Cross talk and radio communiques crackle.
One worker, declaring himself a former EMT, sizes up the surgeon’s improvised rustic splint. “No good,” he says. “I’ve got a SAM splint kit in the back.” He scoots to the truck bed.
Another guy asks if I feel dizzy. The fourth stares into my eyes. I glare at my husband and forlornly watch the former EMT fling my tree-bark to the ground. He re-immobilizes my wrist into a more protective splint and fits a cloth sling across my chest.
A wide truck can’t U-turn on a winding foot path. It drives in reverse, slow, bouncy. On foot the men yell navigation instructions to the driver. Slow up, hard right, watch the drop-off! We back through the tunnel, pass the mannequin, park in the clearing.
I’m raring to flee to our car. The truck driver whisks a camp chair to me. “Park police,” he says, “are on their way to take an accident report.”
“I went down,” I say, remaining on my feet. “End of story.”
“You tell ‘em that, Ma’am. Are you thirsty?”
“I am dehydrated.”
“Bill,” he calls to the quietest of the four. “Grab a water.”
A bottle appears. I shrug. “Help opening it?”
Bill wrests off the cap, jerking the bottle and squirting water onto the canvas seat of the camp chair. Looking mortified, he brushes the splash off the seat.
Former EMT: “Please sit. You don’t want to fall again.”
I grudgingly lower myself and feel the seat’s wetness seep into my tights’ backside. The husband is taking down dam workers’ names, to commend them to their supervisor. The one with a scruffy red beard kneels at my side with a dopey smile.
Red beard: “You remind me of my mother.”
My smile is forced. Oh, for solitude.
“She’s no longer with us, but you look just like her.” His blue eyes tear up.
“Sorry about your loss.”
“She grew up in Ireland. Are you from Ireland? You’re her spitting image.”
He must be projecting. He’s at least a decade older than my sons. Do I look eighty? Maybe his mother birthed him at fifteen.
A pair of National Park SUVs come up the road. Tourists notice the rangers and eye me as if I’m guilty of a capital crime.
“My family comes from Russia,” I tell red-beard.
“Russia!” He looks crestfallen. This is criminal.
Me, reassuringly: “My husband’s family is Irish.”
“It’s like I know you.”
Behind him, the rangers’ doors slam.
5) (A ranger wipes the sufferer’s face)
Three park rangers commandeer the scene in stiff shirts and thick belts laden with radios, mini-packs, weapons, regalia. Overkill. I’ve already been “rescued” twice. My gratitude is wearing thin.
The dam workers, yielding to the badges, form a peripheral ring and look on proprietarily, thick arms crossed.
One ranger gauzes blood and dirt off my face. He nods at the splint. I swivel my head and see satisfaction on the face of the dam worker who applied it. The ranger with the clipboard fires questions: What is your name, miss; How’d the mishap occur?; Do you know where you are? My answers evince alert consciousness. Asked who the U.S. president is, I say Trump with no editorializing. The men surrounding me probably voted for him. Our rental sits among properties displaying Trump Pence 2020 yard signs. Red America in California.
The sun dips over the Tuolumne River. The medical ranger struggles with a blood glucose test kit. The packaging rips, spilling components to the asphalt.
Watching him collect kit bits, I bite my tongue. The doctors return to the parking lot. I wave at the surgeon. My husband videotapes the docs like some sort of infliction documentarian.
The ranger jabs my finger with a tiny lancet. Ouch. He swipes a blood drop onto the test-strip and strains to read the field meter. I feel feeble and damp, encircled by Charleston doctors, dam employees, rangers, looky-loos. I want the comfort of my car. The glucose test doesn’t work.
Keystone Cop: “Battery might be dead.” He scrounges up a different kit from his SUV. My light-headedness from low blood sugar should be proof enough there’s no problem with diabetes. The lead ranger lifts his hat, scratches his head, announces an ambulance is coming.
Me: “I don’t need–”
Interrupting Ranger: “Ma’am, we can’t order you to take medical transport, but we recommend it in cases like yours.”
Cases like mine? I gesture to the husband for backup as he works the crowd like a master of ceremonies, slapping men’s backs.
“Think I need an ambulance?” I demand as he joins me.
He looks at the ranger. “Not sure.”
“I’d rather not.” The car’s air conditioning has a good air filter. The seats are soft and clean. There’s food, music.
“Your injuries might be more serious than you think,” the ranger says. “Not only will an EMT monitor you, you’ll reach treatment faster than in your car.”
Husband: “Sounds wise.”
I hem and haw.
The husband crosses his arms. “Fine,” I cave.
Ranger: “The unit should be here in a few minutes.”
The couple we kept seeing returns. They notice my bloody eyebrow and slinged wrist.
Gaiter, like an old friend: “What happened?”
“Fell and broke my wrist. Great finale, huh?”
“You poor thing.”
“Was your hike nice?”
The ranger reappears and directs my husband to follow the ambulance to the hospital in Sonora.
“How far is that from Mariposa?”
“Hour and a half.”
This ordeal keeps expanding. I’m weary and need to pee. People stare at my matted curls and soiled clothes. I want to be at the house, decompressing, eating toast.
“Does Mariposa have a hospital?” I say.
6) (The only offering is Tylenol)
Lying flat in an accelerating ambulance makes me dizzy. The stretcher is stiff. A new EMT ranger sits at my side. The quarters are cramped. His mask keeps falling under his nose. I regret being aboard.
The back window frames my husband piloting the Prius. Behind him, a little white rental car also leaves Hetch Hetchy. Its occupants look like the adorable southern doctors tagging along to ensure no further harm befalls me. I train my eyes on the cars to fend off motion sickness.
“Can I not face backward?”
“That wouldn’t be safe,” the hang-dog ranger says. His name is pinned on his shirt. James something Italian.
“I’m sick to my stomach.”
“What’s your pain level?”
“High.” I hope Demerol’s on board. “Is medication available?”
“Have you had any?”
Hope zings. “Ibuprofen.”
“If it’s not working, I can give you Tylenol.”
He rifles through a pouch. The vehicle’s flashing blue lights reflect off the smoky air outside, creating strobe effects. We drive over a pothole. The pill container jostles out of James’s hand and rolls across the floor. He scrabbles after it.
My husband tosses peanuts into his mouth. James hands me a tablet. I gesture for water.
“In the park just today?” he asks, watching me swallow.
“No.” I hand back the bottle. “This was day two of three.” I thumb moisture off my lips. “Tomorrow’s a lost cause.”
“At least you got two days.”
“You live in Yosemite?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Near Tuolumne Meadows.”
“Great hiking spot.”
“I don’t actually like to hike.”
“Too bad. What do you do on days off? Read?”
“I’m not into reading. There’s basically nothing to do up here.”
“Yow. Ever think you’re living in the wrong place?”
“Are your co-workers friendly?”
“The tourist facilities are closed because of COVID. Only two or three employees are on duty at any time,” he says. “Just one small store is open. There’s no internet or phone service. I can’t contact family or friends.”
“That’s the word for it.”
“Where is home?” I imagine a boring inland town engendered this boring lad. Clovis. Or Hanford. A dot on a map.
My ranger cub doesn’t seem like any West L.A.er I’ve known. “Lucky you. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and always wanted to live in Santa Monica. Bodysurf, boogie board, jog on the shore.”
“I hate the ocean. Never went when I lived nearby.”
“What a shame.”
“It’s funny, ‘cause my family comes from a seaside town in Italy, with ancestors who survived by fishing.”
“Where in Italy?”
“Amalfi Coast. Heard of it?”
“One of my favorite places. Near Sorrento?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been there. Just my parents.”
“You should see the gorgeous place you come from. You’re making money, right, to afford a vacation?”
“I don’t get much time off. And I just committed to another year’s contract.”
I close my eyes, fed up with cricking my neck to engage with him. How this bland ranger will survive another year without hiking or reading or surfing the web, I don’t know.
“There’s this girl from the store I’ve been talking to,” he says.
I open my eyes. “Aha. Sound promising.”
“A few of us up there talked about gathering tonight in an outdoor staging area.” He stares down at his boots. “I might go.”
“Might? What else is there to do?”
He smiles. “Are you retired?”
“Not yet. I teach at a community college. English.”
“I took English classes at Santa Monica City College. Prerequisites for the police academy.”
“How were they?”
“Good. Except one teacher said I plagiarized, which I didn’t.”
I nod, reminded of cheaters over the years. Some must re-tell their plagiarism accusation stories and claim innocence. “What’d you do about it?”
“We met twice.” He warms to his topic. “She kept refusing to give me a second chance.”
“I dropped her class.”
Our driver bleeps the siren sailing through an intersection. We’ve taken forks in park roads, and the doctors’ car is gone. The Prius tails us. The husband better save me some of those peanuts. “You re-take it with someone else?”
“Uh-huh, and passed. You seem like you’d be a good English teacher.”
“I try. Class is online from the pandemic. I’m playing hooky in Yosemite. Breaking my wrist.”
“I wish that didn’t happen to you. In this line of work we see accidents all the time.”
He ticks down the season’s highlights: car crash, fire rescue, rock slide, campground overdose. No calamity he’s handled sounds faintly dramatic. His voice nearly puts me to sleep.
We’re approaching a transfer spot. This ambulance operates in Tuolumne County, and my destination is Mariposa County. I consented to being charged twice for medical transport.
James is recounting sluggish high school years when we turn into a wilderness motel parking lot. “Here we go,” he says.
The driver opens the back door. I step down and pull in deep breaths. James hops out behind me.
“We’re a little ahead of the other team,” the driver says. Unlike chatterbox James, he’s all business. “They’ll meet us shortly.”
The husband appears. “How was that?”
“Want your cloth mask instead of the N95?”
“Yes.” He returns to the car. Surrounded by woods, the dated Cedar Lodge looks abandoned and moldy, closed due to COVID no doubt. But a friendly-faced woman comes out of the office, a caretaker or manager who nods like she got the memo about my appointment in her parking lot. Displayed out front of the green-balustraded lodge are bears carved of wood.
The husband delivers a cotton mask and flipflops. He helps remove my dusty boots and socks.
“Better?” he says.
I nod, toes spreading in the cooling air. I’m dying to tell him that best of all is not being trapped with the ranger. “I got to hear about James’s English class.”
James looks embarrassed. “I kept talking to take your mind off your pain.”
The relay ambulance whizzes into the parking lot, a newer model. A pretty EMT hops out.
“So, James,” I say, “You’re going to that party tonight, right?”
7) (Liam Neeson jumps to mind)
En route, EMT Jessica inserts a port into my forearm and injects morphine. My vein goes cold. My pulse races. Forehead and wrist pain subsides. I relax for the first time in hours.
Jessica rules out concussion, administers oxygen, covers my legs with a blanket. She affixes EKG sensors on my chest.
“You are looking good, my dear,” she says. “I need to ask if you plan to have your surgery today, to determine where we take you.” She removes the oxygen mask from my nose.
“I’ll wait until tomorrow at my usual provider.”
“That’s fine.” She replaces my oxygen mask. “We’ll go to a smaller regional hospital, no orthopedic surgeons. They’ll take x-rays, stitch that gash.”
“Perfect. You’re very good.”
“We’re a half hour from John Fremont Clinic. Hang in there.”
It occurs to me that blows to the skull can turn fatal. The actress Natasha Richardson fell skiing and bumped her head. Afterward, she thought she was fine. Her case later was categorized as “talk and die” syndrome. You think you’re okay, because you’re up and talking. Little do you know…
Me: “Should I worry about a brain bleed?”
“We’ll get you in for a CT scan straightaway.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Their machine’s in a shed. Scanners keep getting bigger, and it’s a small facility.” She smooths my blanket. “Most patients stay at Fremont for quick evaluations. One patient’s been there three days, though.”
“Not with COVID I hope?”
“No. First it was an intestinal obstruction. Then imaging revealed metastatic cancer. She needs treatment. No area hospital has space. It’s my mother.”
“Wait, what?” I twist toward Jessica. “The patient is your mother?”
“She won’t agree to be transferred to a Bay Area hospital with room for her, because the distance will burden me,” she says, a world of anxiety weighing on her. “I just got married on Saturday, I’m in online nursing school, and I have a 10-year old son.”
“Lots on your plate.”
“It’s agonizing not being able to help her.”
I close my eyes and think of Liam Neeson losing his wife to a traumatic brain injury everyone assumed was a harmless bump. Lucky me, getting care. I won’t die.
“We’re ten minutes away,” Jessica says.
“Ah,” I say, the morphine wearing off.
That movie line where Neeson says what I do have are a very particular set of skills... He’s warning his daughter’s kidnappers that if they fuck with him, he’ll make them pay. In a movie, there’s an opportunity to get revenge on the antagonist.
In life, random calamities get you, with no one to blame except, perhaps, yourself.
8) (A tech plumbs my brain)
In-take medical providers slide the pad from Jessica’s gurney out from under me.
Banished to the parking lot, the husband is filling out billing forms. Non-patients aren’t allowed inside.
A tech in floral scrubs pushes my gurney to the trailer housing the scanner.
“Doing okay?” She noodles a wide turn onto the ramp.
“Other than fainting, yes.”
“I thought you were in a car crash.”
“Nope. Hiking in Yosemite.”
No reaction. To someone whose job is all about internal body damage, an elderly lady getting a little roughed up is boring. She inputs the door code.
I lie back obediently for ruling out talk and die. The machine launches me into the tube. Afterward, the tech keystrokes on the computer. “I sent your data to an affiliated physician in Fresno,” she says. “He’ll review the images and report findings.” She rolls me out to the sidewalk. “All done.”
“Great, and one other thing…” I shiver in the evening cool. “You might wanna tell the Fresno doctor I’m aware of my brain tumor. He should focus on injuries from today.”
“A meningioma, but old news.”
Maybe she thinks I’m raving, bump to the noggin and all. I just don’t want the Fresno guy thinking he has to break brain tumor news to some unfortunate tourist in Mariposa.
The tech moves me to the ambulance entrance and sets the brake. Over a year ago my primary care doctor did a terse, tone-deaf job of conveying my brain diagnosis to me on the phone, making me feel stupid for not instantly understanding her words rattled off from a radiology report. Worse than her appalling insensitivity was me having to face the fact that no matter how much I exercise and how healthy I eat, and all the cigarettes I never smoked, shit still happens.
9) (Patients Weep)
A curtain separates my space from Jessica’s mother’s. When Jessica fusses, her mother protests, “No stressing about me. You’re busy enough.”
Back in the ambulance, Jessica subdued her worries by taking care of someone else’s mother. Now, I’m invisible to her. Doctors, a moon face nurse, robotic med techs and a chummy administrator will take her place handling me. Jessica reluctantly exits back to work.
I squeeze my phone out of my tights’ pocket and am about to reply to a “You alright?” text from the husband, when a tech removes my SAM splint for an X-ray. The other tech prepares a new plaster splint, but before he slaps it on, I insist he cleanse Hetch Hetchy dirt off my forearm.
“Uuuuuuh,” Jessica’s mother moans, daughter no longer in hearing range.
An old man is wheeled to a treatment bay across the hall. As staff help him stand, he plops back down, sobbing like a bereft child.
“Patients are weeping,” I text the husband.
“Not you, I hope,” he fires back.
“Need pain killer,” I tap.
“Restaurant closes at 6:30,” he texts. “Still want the fish dish we talked about?”
“?,” I text. Last night was ages ago in fish time. I want rice.
“Back in fifteen.”
My thoughts return to the black void I was in before hitting the ground. Did I pass out from dehydration? Low blood sugar? Oxygen deficiency? Guilty on all counts. Plus a poor night’s sleep. For decades I’ve thought of myself as a minor superhuman exempt from biological needs like water and food. I power through on insufficient quantities. A split second, I see now, usurps control without warning. There’s a lesson here about respect for the flesh.
The blank-affect tech brings more supplies. There’s no bedside table, so he drops emptied wrappers on my sheet. He sprays antimicrobial wound cleanser at my eyebrow laceration, its pointed stream irrigating crusted blood and embedded dirt.
“Finishing up.” He swabs drips off my cheek and presses a gauze pad to the exposed wound. “The doctor will close the cut.”
He leaves gauze hanging from my damp, raw temple. The empty cleanser bottle and pinkish, soaked gauze litter my bed.
I wave down an assistant. “I need to pee!” She helps me down. The forehead gauze drops near my feet. I kick it away. The assistant points out the toilet and abandons me. Locking the door and yanking down my tights are difficult one-hand tasks, but I’m motivated. I last relieved myself at the Mariposa house seven hours ago. Even a superhero eventually must pee. My eyes avoid the mirror.
When I’m back on my gurney, the doctor with the long chin examines my head wound.
“I can insert a couple of stitches,” he says, holding a tiny tube of Dermabond. “But sterile gel adhesive works as well and leaves less of a scar. Stitching along the eyebrow can be tricky. Okay if we use this?”
“I guess,” I say, too tired to challenge convenience.
He blobs superglue across my eyebrow, discards the tube on the bed, disappears before I bring up the missing pain pill.
Cold glue adheres to my eyebrow. I have to fight the urge to touch it. A reeling sensation in my head makes my eyes close.
A text alert pulls me back. “Got salmon with broccoli,” the husband writes. “Put gas in car. Much longer?”
The medical admin skims to me and says, “Your brow got glued.”
“Doctor said closing the wound this way was better.”
“Hmph. That eyebrow will never be the same.”
I frown. Apparently this day can keep getting worse.
“Your brain scan report came in,” she says, glancing over the top page on her plastic clipboard. “No skull fracture. No ruptures, hemorrhage, cisterns, or fluid leakage. The radiologist notes a 1.6 centimeter mass in the front lobe near the vertex.”
“Calcified tumor. Old news.”
“We’ll ready you for discharge.”
“I’ve been waiting ninety minutes for a pain pill.”
She disappears. I raise my phone and text, “No brain bleed.”
“Phew,” the husband replies.
My hospital stay concludes in five fast minutes. The nurse delivers Norco and water, a doctor drops off a prescription. The administrator presents little squares of paper with QR codes to access X-Ray and CV images. I’m wheelchaired and rolled to the waiting husband, who collects my documents and helps me into the car.
We drive into the darkening night. The smoke has cleared. The scent of food fills the car. Even though I haven’t eaten since morning, smelly fish and broccoli aren’t mouth-watering.
“I didn’t want to say much before,” the husband stammers, “but breaking your dominant hand…gonna be a tough ride for a while.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
His mobile phone rings. He answers, says thank you, executes a U-turn. “A couple of your QR code papers were found in the parking lot. Must’ve dropped when we got in the car. I have to get them.”
“Not a clean getaway after all.”
10) (The pharmacy wait is ungodly)
First thing come morning, I call both Mariposa drug stores. One is out of Norco. The other claims a prescription will take two hours to fill.
Practicality dictates a three-hour ride without opiate relief. When waves of pain overpower my full dose of Ibuprofen, I breathe through my teeth.
Last night a bite of dinner and washing up wore me out. I graded student assignments on my I-Pad, typing with one hand in the learning management program. Work felt uplifting until I glanced outside at the swimming pool under its steamy plastic cover in the moonlight and tasted the bitter regret of maiming myself.
Today’s sky looks shades bluer than yesterday. The husband steers silently on the wooded highway. I think about the kind people who offered salvations after my fall. Yesterday’s trajectory was like the Stations of the Cross, without the cross.
A Jew and lifelong agnostic, I knew nothing about the 14 Stations until spotting placards commemorating them on a hiking trail above Norwegian fjords in 2013. The Stations depict events from Christ’s final day, when he walked to Golgotha, the place of the skull, along the Way of Sorrows. Physical renderings of The Stations are intended to inspire people to pray and contemplate.
I’ve been contemplating my falling dream and premonition of danger—not idle paranoia, maybe. Was I supposed to heed these psychic phenomana as warnings?
In scripture, being nailed to a cross awaited Jesus at the last station. He knew he’d been betrayed. The Greek word cheir in the New Testament, the body part the crucifixion nails pierced, can be translated as hand or wrist. A fall on my wrist set me on my Via Dolorosa. So far I’ve passed through nine stations of my fracture, succor dispensed at each. “A stranger’s kindness, like time itself,” a character reflects in a story by our book group author Yiyun Li, “heals our wounds in the end,” though she means psychic wounds.
Station 10 is Via Restauro, Way of Restoration, along which I presently travel.
Some historians claim Jesus was crucified because the world’s darkness could not comprehend the light. Jesus cried in pain and fear along his Way of Sorrows. The Stations of the Cross service gives worshippers permission to feel the Passion of Christ, acknowledge their own pain, forgive both.
I’m no moralist and lack a talent for forgiveness, but this I know: Had I fainted in a more treacherous part of Wapama trail, yesterday might have been my last day on earth. I was saved. All I need is surgery. The husband is driving 75 miles an hour. Thank you, Jesus.
11) (A Die Is Cast)
A trauma surgeon and orthopedist at my local hospital attest my “comminuted fracture” will fuse together equally well with either a “closed-reduction” cast or full-out surgery followed by casting. They recommend avoiding surgery.
I get a cast and make an appointment with the hand surgeon for her opinion.
“The question is,” the surgeon puts it later on a video call, “do you risk an open wound infection if you don’t need to?”
The orthopedic surgeon on Wapama Trail and the urgent care doc at John Fremont hospital both said an operation was necessary. Surgery sounds more precise than a hastily applied plaster restraint. Fifty-fifty is a coin toss. Still, if the easy way is just as likely to succeed, shouldn’t I take it?
Me: “I don’t want to get infected.”
Hand surgeon: “That’s not a given. Just a possibility.” Working from home, she wears what appears to be a decorative bathrobe. Of course she’d rather avoid the germy hospital and let the cast room fix me. She has a newborn to protect. Of course my health care provider would rather avoid the expense of surgery.
Me: “This hulking Munster cast is already on. I suppose we should let it do the job.”
Surgeon: “In three weeks, you can swap the elbow cast for a shorter one.”
12) (Inevitably the future becomes the present and then the past)
The 12th Station of my Fracture is a block of time with defined milestones. At three weeks, the over-the-elbow restraint is sawn off, replaced with a shorter cast. Initially elated, I quickly discover my hand feels locked in an abnormal twist. The too-tight cast grinds my bones raw.
Orthopedist: “Casts can be uncomfortable. If you can tolerate another 15 days, great. If it continues to bother you, have it X-ray’d.”
The X-Ray shows aligned bones in the cast. No change called for.
Me: “Hard to believe, when my wrist hurts this much.”
Orthopedist: “Maybe you’re feeling tendons stretch beyond what they were previously able to do with the first cast.”
I feel the wrongness of her interpretation in my bones. Yet fifteen days of chafing and squirming go by, unrelieved.
The red letter day the tight cast comes off is like a holiday, despite my skin being chicken-yellow, wizened and flaky. My weak wrist is pocked with red cast sores.
Icing ensues. Heat pads. Hand therapy. The pain won’t decrease. I no longer measure time by met and unmet goals. I just add therapeutics: wax bath, compression gloves, squeezable putty, Voltarin arthritis gel. No matter what, my ulna bone sears. The final appointment with the orthopedist is New Year’s eve. When we booked the date, I’d joked about bringing champagne to toast my recovery. Silly exuberance. Blame scar tissue for the poor recovery, I’m told. Blame arthritis. A cyst on my thumb. Bad luck.
One March day when weather and COVID 19 prohibit much else, I pore through boxes of papers from graduate school. Most of the course materials go straight to the recycling bin, but I pause over a copy of philosopher Arthur Prior’s 1962 Lindley Lecture, “Changes in Events and Changes in Things.” Prior, a philosopher of logic, was preoccupied with verb tense and how time gets represented in language. Amazingly, his proof that time objectively passes lies in his stating, “or else the relief when a painful experience ends is not intelligible.”
Exactly. My wrist torment has not ended. I’m stalled in sore-wrist present tense. Time has become an insubstantial entity that never passes, unlike Prior’s temporal space. Of course someone named “Prior” believes in past, present and future!
I request a new hand therapist. A new x-ray shows something. “What’s ‘mild post traumatic positive ulnar variance’,” I ask the orthopedist. “Misalignment in need of fixing?”
“We measure radius and ulnar heights compared to each other,” she shoots back. “There should be no further shortening of the site, so it’s expected to stay stable. Severe ulnar positive variance can require correction. I don’t think impingement is your issue.”
Half a year of pain and limited wrist use suggest otherwise. The OT sees how glum my crippled hand makes me. “I can’t wipe my ass,” I say.
OT: “At this point, you have two choices. Accept the wrist as your new reality, or do something about it.”
A pivotal point, finally. “Surgery?”
“I’ll recommend an MRI to determine.”
Arthur Prior’s philosophic field was called Tense Logic. No double entendre was denoted in his academic discourse, but the pun intrigues me. Prior says that whatever has happened is becoming more past and yet will be ever present. That’s tense logic. I want my present tense wrist to become past and stay there. I get the MRI.
13) (I fall again)
In his fourth memoir, “No Time Like the Future,” Michael J. Fox, according to a radio review I hear, recounts an arduous year: on top of coronavirus quarantine, Parkinson’s disease, and a complicated surgery to remove a spine tumor, the celebrity fell and broke his arm, the day before he was to film a cameo appearance in a Martin Scorsese film. There he was, writhing in pain on his kitchen floor, arm shattered, assessing life as terrible, but he decided to embrace optimism.
My MRI: Impingement and malunion resulting in cartilage perforation.
My nothing-to-see-here orthopedist can’t deny this evidence. Waiting for her new input, I discover a medical journal article, “Radiographic Evaluation of the Wrist: A Vanishing Art,” and realize how easily practitioners reach wrong conclusions from X-rays. Radiography is a subtle art you can’t condemn doctors for being imperfect at.
Then again, the orthopedist refused to listen. She presented excuses rather than solutions. I expected more from a female healthcare professional. She was wrong. Surgical correction of “positive ulnar variance” is definitely indicated!
Having an action plan is satisfying, though surgery can cause side effects. Hankering for appeasement from pain and worry, I walk a few miles to UC Berkeley’s blossoming cherry trees. The stand of trees on the west lane is at peak bloom, tiny pink petals drizzling down, a cheering sight. Pushing home uphill, I feel strong but step carefully, aware of my frailty. Four houses shy of my address and already plotting dinner prep for a friend’s visit, I glance up for a second and trip on uneven sidewalk. Baying in fear, I hurtle forward and splat onto the cement. My right hip and both wrists take impact. The breath’s knocked out of me.
More than clumsy, I feel doomed. Maybe Michael J. Fox felt like this when he fell in his kitchen.
I rise tentatively. A miracle-I haven’t broken multiple bones. I’m just sore. A blaring wakeup call. After this tumble, I use hiking poles religiously. Lift my feet on uneven ground. Keep eyes trained down. When safety is first, you last.
14) (A bathtub ring is an unsightly drawback)
I may never revisit the land where I broke my wrist. There are many places to see in this brief life. I think about Hetch Hetchy with awe, though. Its habitation dates back to Pleistocene America, 10,000 years ago.
At the turn of the 20th Century, controversy raged about whether preservation of wilderness land, leaving it pristine, or land conservation instead, the conscientious use of it, was the better goal. Neither approach appears to have been operative when flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley to create a reservoir of San Francisco drinking water was proposed. This radical prospect led to an unprecedented eruption of environmental activism. John Muir opposed the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, citing, among more profound drawbacks, the creation of an unsightly “bathtub ring” which would be visible when water levels dropped and lichen washed off the granite. On the gray day of my visit, no bathtub ring was apparent.
Deaf to public outcry, in 1913 Congress passed a bill enabling the dam construction. The outraged preservationists’ rally cry led to the creation of the U.S. National Park System. An auspicious remedy for a poor decision.
I know about poor decisions. Hiking dehydrated. Letting myself be talked out of needed wrist surgery.
This time in consultation, the hand surgeon predicts pain alleviation but no restoration of wrist function. Unwilling to settle for so little benefit, I seek a second opinion and find the hand surgeon thought to be best in-system. It may be a difference between over-promising vs. under-promising, but the much older doctor’s post-surgery prognosis beguiles me.
And where the younger surgeon rushed through her planned procedure’s details, including “ICBG,” which I assumed referred to a section of my wrist, the older surgeon clarifies that ICBG refers to “iliac crest bone graft.” The younger surgeon intends to cut out a wedge of my pelvis bone to insert in my wrist, creating a second surgical site and potential for trouble.
The old surgeon says, “There’s only a 50% likelihood you’ll need the graft.”
Get a third opinion, friends say. I want to believe doctor number two’s promises, but he’s 76 years old. In our second video meeting, the white of one of his eyes is bright red and the skin underneath bruised purple, from running into a cabinet or something equally cloddish. The injured eye seems portentous.
But I never get a third opinion from a surgeon less young and less old. I count down to surgery and stick with Michael J. Fox optimism. It’s more likely than not that my outcome will be good, a 15th Station avoided, the broken wrist journey ending at Station 14. Arthur Prior finishes his lecture about identifying change over time with an applicable formula: ‘It was the case that p but is not now the case that p.’
I imagine myself soon saying, “It was the case that my wrist was debilitated and now is the case that my wrist is healed.”
Waiting through the last restive hours for that eventuality to come to pass, I can’t in good faith pray to a crucified Jesus for my desired result. Logic will have to do.
Mindela Ruby is an educator, writing consultant, California Arts Council member, and collector of cool footwear. Her prose and poetry appear in Santa Monica Review, The Writing Disorder, Coachella Review, Rivet and other journals as well as the anthology Unmasked. Her work has been Pushcart and Sundress Best of the Net nominated. Her novel, Mosh It Up, was hailed as a “literary marvel, complex and rich and humane.” She received a doctoral degree at University of California.