Kevin R. Anderson, M.D.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
His words came out almost monosyllabic at first. With each question, it was like trying to pry open an old paint can lid to get a glimpse of the color inside. He was clearly cautious of me, a stranger. I had noticed him recently as I would walk through the park. He was always alone, but somehow he did not seem alone. I was drawn to him, I felt compelled to know his story. One afternoon I summoned the courage to approach him. As I neared the bench where he seemed perpetually stationed, I first noticed his face. He was not looking at me, but off into the distance beyond the creek. His face belied that of a man who appeared older than his years, but not old. I could not guess his age. It was almost as if each line in his face told a story, as story that contained his entire life, worn for everyone to see, yet no one to notice.
As I came near to sit by him he looked up at me; there was no surprise or annoyance at my interruption. His countenance seemed to welcome me, even if uninvited; it seemed that I was expected. I introduced myself and asked his name, “Arthur”, he responded. He looked up at me and I first saw those eyes. They didn’t seem to fit his face or anything else about him. They had the youthful fire of a 14 year old boy. And even as he looked directly at me, regarding me tightly in his attention, those eyes seemed to simultaneously look beyond me as if he saw something grand off in the distance. I was almost tempted to turn around to see what he was looking at, but I knew the gaze was not toward anything physical.
We began to talk, but not small talk. It was as if words were too precious to him to be wasted on idle chatter. He asked me some pointed questioned about who I was and what I did, not as an inquisitor, but as if he genuinely wanted to know me. I embellished a little too much about my accomplishments and feigned some sense of importance beyond the reality of my true self, but he took each response as sincere and un-judged.
Finally, as that train of conversation lulled, he became quiet again and looked off over the creek. Then I asked, “What about you, tell me about your life.” He turned quickly and again those eyes tracked me. With a slight squint he studied me, as if it was the most important thing ever, he studied me; seeing whether I could be trusted. Finally, not quite convinced, but rather committed, he began.
“What I am going to tell you, I have never told anyone else in my life. Not even my wife, you understand, not even my wife.” The last ‘my wife’ he added with powerful emphasis. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. I am at the end and it seems somehow more appropriate to tell you, a stranger, than anyone else.” And thus he began to tell me about his ‘ability’.
At the age of 21, Arthur had an ‘experience’. He apologized that he had not a better word to describe it. A religious man might have called it an epiphany. He just referred to it as the experience. One day he woke up and knew two things. First he knew that he had the ability to give seven years of his life to another person. It had to be volitional, never accidental. But he knew with complete certainty that he could do this. The second thing he knew was that he would live to be 84 and then die. He would not die until 84, unless he gave some of his years to someone else.
Arthur had no idea where this ability came from. Could it be from heaven, could it be hell, karma, the universe? He had no idea. At that time in his life he wasn’t a particularly religious man. He thought there might be a God or some enlightened influence out there, but he had no real inclination in the matter. He had just gotten married and was struggling to start a new carpet cleaning business. His wife was pregnant with their first and ultimately only child. This revelation caught him completely off guard. He tried to imagine that it was only fantasy, but he knew otherwise. He could not deny it, no matter how hard he tried.
The fact that he knew he would live to be 84 was strange to him, but at that time did not really bother him. At 21 you still think you are immortal anyway, however, that nonchalant approach to the weight of knowing the definitive date of your mortality would drastically change over time. Arthur was not a reckless man, so there was never any temptation to do something foolish in an attempt to intervene with fate.
He decided to just keep this knowledge to himself and hope that he never had occasion to use his ability. And so it seemed for some time.
His son, Randy, was born a few months later and life went on. He worked hard at the carpet cleaning business and eventually built a stable client base. He hired assistants and eventually a manager. He was not a rich man, but careful with his money and eventually leased a small shop in a strip mall and opened a small engine repair business. He loved tinkering with things, and while working on engines, there was little need for conversation. He and his wife were happy. Randy was doing well in school. And there were times when Arthur forgot that he ever possessed that ability.
Randy was a big kid, by age 14 he was taller than Arthur by 5 inches. He loved all kinds of sports, but especially wrestling. As a freshman in High School, he was already on the Varsity Team and only got better from there. Arthur attended all of his meets, even when they went to State. He was very proud of Randy and he kept all of the local news clippings of the meets stapled to the wall of his shop and was quick to point out Randy’s prowess to any customer that might be lingering near the wall.
Then the unthinkable happened. Randy was in his senior year and at a meet at another high school in the county that would determine who went to State. Everyone expected Randy to win. Arthur was there in the stands and Randy had done well all day. In his final match of the day, he was paired off with a lanky young student from the rival school. They were in the same weight class, but his opponent was a full two inches taller than Randy, and all arms. Somehow, in one of the moves, Randy was flipped over and landed on the back of his head and neck with the full weight of the opponent on top of him. There an audible snap and Randy went limp.
The room was silent. The opponent got off backing away with his arms waving frantically as if indicating, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault’! The coach and trainer were immediately at Randy’s side, not knowing what to do; they seemed to yell at him, “Can you move, are you OK?” But Randy could not move. Randy could not even breathe. He was awake his eyes filled with terror, as Arthur raced to his side in the confusion nobody even noticed that Arthur was there. Arthur cupped both of his hand around Randy’s limp hand and he said, “Son, I am here.” He then let seven years of his life slip into that of his son’s. Randy felt a gush of air enter his lungs and just said, “Dad.”
Randy never wrestled again. He did, however, recover completely. Ultimately, the coach and trainer just figured that he had the wind knocked out of him and left it at that. The truth was that he would have been dead within 4 minutes had Arthur not been there to use his ability. What happened, and no one would ever know, was a neck fracture between the 1st and 2nd cervical vertebrae. The bones subluxed and completely severed his spinal cord at that level. It is commonly known as a ‘Hangman’s Fracture’.
Arthur was, of course, thrilled that his ability had worked. Although he never had any doubt that it would. But there was so much that he didn’t understand. Would those seven years just be added now to a normal life span now that his son was returned to normal health? Or was his death a given, a predetermined event that had only been delayed? He pondered this for some time, but no answer came. He could only hope.
Randy finished high school and went to college at the University of Washington to get a degree in business. After his first year, he came home and married his high school sweetheart. A year later, Eva was born. And then 18 months later, along came Mark. Arthur absolutely adored his grandchildren, but there was always a special place in his heart for Eva. Her smile always reminded him of his wife. Eva was always happy and quite gregarious. He spent what time he could with them, even though they were so far away. Randy finished college and opened an insurance agency just outside of Seattle and did quite well.
Normality had resumed in their lives and Arthur had stopped wondering at what might happen. He just assumed that things would stay as they were and he lost himself in his work. Time passed.
It was a Thursday when the call came. Arthur was in the shop replacing a carburetor on a lawn mower when the phone rang. He briefly wiped his hands on an oily rag, succeeding in smearing the grease in a more even fashion. But, it didn’t matter; the phone was black with grease anyway. “Arthur!” his wife exclaimed as he picked up. He immediately noted the tremored fear in her voice. “Arthur, Randy’s in the hospital, they tell me he is really sick, it seems he fell in a river, I don’t know, it’s… can you come home?”
Her voice was frantic; she couldn’t seem to get the words out. “I’ll be right there, honey, just hold on.” Arthur thought as he drove home, Randy is 25, it had been seven years, is this it? Is it fixed in time, is there no leeway? His mind raced for an answer, a solution, he was good at fixing things, could he fix this?
They were on the next flight to Seattle and soon at the bedside of their ailing son. He lay there unconscious, unaware, on a ventilator, helpless.
Randy and a friend had been fly fishing in Montana. It was their second day out and the fish were biting better than the day before. Randy had caught two bass, his friend one. He loved the outdoors and spent what time he could in the wilderness. This was his second year making the trek to Montana and he hoped to make it an annual tradition. His friend suggested they move upstream where he spotted a small eddy. As they moved upstream, Randy lost his footing on a mossy submerged rock and fell backward. He hit his head and felt this immediate burning on his scalp. Disoriented he tumbled over in the stream, but his foot got caught between some rocks and, as he struggled to free himself, he found he couldn’t roll upright to breathe. He arched his head sideways as best he could to gasp for a breath but only found water there with a strong iron taste. What seemed like an eternity was only about ninety seconds. All at once, he was lifted out of the water by his friend. Coughing and spitting out river water, he could finally breathe. He put his hand on the back of his head and it returned covered in blood.
First aid was a clump of gauze pushed onto his scalp laceration that they had found in an old first aid kit that was in the truck. It only took five stitches at a nearby 24 hour medical clinic to control the bleeding. That night Randy and his friend joked about the whole ordeal, but they both knew it was time to head home and they cut their trip short and started the drive back to Washington. It was a twelve hour drive.
About two hours outside of Seattle Randy vomited. His friend asked if they should find a nearby hospital, but Randy said he was OK and they pushed on. By the time he arrived home he was weak and had a fever. His wife took one look at him and said that she was taking him directly to the hospital. Randy had called ahead and told her about the entire experience. He had assured her that he was fine and not to worry. But a wife knows, and she had been worried for the last ten hours. Her worry now turned to panic.
By the time they got to the emergency room, Randy’s breathing was labored and his pale face was covered with a mask of sweat. An hour later he was in the ICU on a ventilator. In those few seconds in the stream, he had aspirated water into his lungs and now had developed pneumonia.
Arthur and his wife sat there quietly as the only sounds in the room were the mechanical bellows of the ventilator keeping their son alive. Arthur imagined the sound as if it were coming from a giant grandfather clock, each tick, each breath, bringing him closer to the hour; but which hour? Was this the final hour? But time could not hear his silent pleas. Time is harsh, it is relentless. Arthur knew Randy would not recover. He thought about those seven years that he had lost and Randy had gained. But had he really lost them?
Randy’s condition worsened. His pneumonia was complicated by meningitis. A week later he died.
As Arthur related his story, I became aware of something I had never noticed before in any other person that I had spoken, or rather, listened to. It almost seemed as if he considered each word carefully before he uttered it. Each word was weighed for its value before insertion into the flowing stream of vocalization. The word alone then had to be placed in the right syntax with attention to vocal pitch, cadence, non-verbal/facial support and moments of silence. However, Arthur did this with such alacrity, that there appeared no awkward interruption or halted nature to his speech. It almost felt like a song.
Upon noticing this natural yet superlative form of speaking, my mind wandered to how different the use of words was in my daily life. Words were everywhere, but most of them useless. In my office, people are constantly talking, yet say very little. They complain, opinionate, gossip and judge. At my desk, I am inundated with email, few of which are actually written specifically to me. I am listed, copied, forwarded, replied and marketed. To open the internet is to dive into billions of words where the veracity of any given string of word combinations is difficult to ascertain. World events are reported instantaneously around the globe and the human animal, not yet evolved to process so much information so quickly, instinctively falls back into reaction mode. People don’t process anymore, they react. This is dangerous, for decisions made in this environment rarely look at the long term consequences. This is fueled by the voracious appetite of the media to fill its vacuum of airtime with content. Any content will do. Truth and facts are only tangentially required and usually biased or out of context. Spice it with emotion or fear, and you have a show. Thus perpetuating ever more words, reactions, words that fill every aspect of our conscious existence. We can hardly remember silence, or don’t know what to do with it when it suddenly arrives. I felt myself thrown into this sea of words, adrift with no direction, as a whirlpool formed beneath me sucking me down, when it became suddenly silent.
...to be continued