Soundtrack “A Light On A Hill” by Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s.
Photo by Victor Uriz
The drone of the air conditioning system is what keeps me in a state of blah. The drivel coming from the facilitators voice would anger me if I let his words through and into my psyche. Occasionally, his cliche’s would seep in causing me to cringe. “When do you really start living? Yes, when we confront death.” The air conditioning thermostat had clicked off leaving an empty space for his words to slip into my stupefied ears. “Life; you have to want it, more than you fear it.” His voice had the melodic vibe of a preacher with the pensive drawl of a professor. The participants sat stoic as he gestured with his hands and paced back and forth.
The class is an odd mixture of middle aged folks and weathered senior citizens. A third of the individuals are hooked up to oxygen tanks with hoses plugged into their nostrils. There’s the incessant sound of wheezing, hacking and whistling bronchial sighs. The grim reaper is peering through the window blinds. This is the eight week class for those suffering from emphysema, COPD and respiratory related diseases. The topics to be covered included everything from smoking cessation to what the brochure defined as “wellness”. I suppose we are all somewhere on that bell shaped curve between sick and well. This class was skewed to the right side of that curve, we all knew it, and it bonded us. We all knew the score, we had our backs against the wall——mortality is the great equalizer——-living gasp to gasp…….
The class is taught in the basement of the old county hospital. The place reeks of Pinesole, cafeteria food and musty mold. The linage of life traverses within these walls, from pediatrics to geriatric’s, from mothers pushing life out, to the assisted living ward where others were being pulled out. There is a quiet seriousness that permeates the halls, examining rooms and the patients semi-private quarters. Visitors walk softly, talk in hushed voices and all emotion is stifled. I hated the place, as well as my instructor and my fellow classmates. I showed up every Tuesday and Thursday because the program is mandated by my insurance carrier. Without insurance coverage, my inhaler would be three-hundred dollars a month, now that’s enough to take my breath away.
They say that the first thing you forget about someone after they’ve passed away is the sound of their voice. But for me, it’s the life in their eyes. Age, illness and death carry pieces of us away, but the memory of the life in someones eyes is the first thing to flicker and then forever be extinguished. It can’t be captured in a photograph, or seen once the soul has vacated, perhaps this is why morticians close the eyes of those who have departed.
“Inhale slowly as you count to three, and then slowly exhale as you count to three.” There’s the sound of air being forced through a narrowed space, followed by a chorus of wet hacks. “Great job. Please do your reading and vision exercises before our next class. If you are feeling weak or a need to smoke, please call our 24 hour crisis line at “no smoke” 667-6653.”
I knew that the line to scale the staircase out of the basement would be slow, so I hustled to get to the stairs before the O2 tankers or the gaspers attempted their Everest push to the top. The August heat is stifling as I make my way to my car. As I open the car door the stale odor of tobacco fills my nose. The ashtray overflows with old butts, I inhale a deep breath of the hot air with its dank taste of ancient nicotine. I pick up an old butt and suck on the yellowed filter. Everywhere I go I seem to be drawn to old cigarette butts snubbed out on the ground, or stray singles in my junk drawer or in the pockets of my cowboy shirts. At night in my dreams, I smoke.
Buried in our basement we begin to resurrect our stories. Our tales like shadow puppets, a strange amalgamation of surreal dreams and vague snapshots shrouded by time. Confessions can be cathartic, but I trust few with my secrets—-I trust few with anything of mine. Our instructor repeatedly tells us that our blindspots are what keep us from evolving or——-transforming. For me, there is no making peace with myself, self loathing is my only friend.
The chairs are arranged in a circle with the facilitator sitting cross legged, legal pad and pen in his lap. I’ve attended a myriad of support groups, NA, AA, GA, anger management, bipolar, religious groups, pow wow’s, wounded child and such. God, were a sad, shameless bunch of unraveling fucked up losers. We cling to our prescriptions, lucky charms and technological gizmos, but we’re still unsatisfied, unfulfilled, lifeless, loveless, tripping over our own egos; frozen between a fight or flight response to our fears.
“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom…for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.” I wonder if William Blake was an addict. Poe was, and his words ring true in my mind, “I become insane with long intervals of horrible sanity”. All of this thinking is making me crazy. I catch a glimpse of my troubled eyes in my rearview mirror. I drive in a daze, the city is a blur, I’m outside myself. It’s 9:00 am and the day is already to long.
Is this what it feels like to not be alive? Something is missing or broken. But what? I don’t know, but something isn’t right. I spend to much time outside myself, to much time with small talking strangers. I’ve been wasting my days chasing my cravings. I’ve allowed the small things to eluded me. I go to bed wondering about this——and that—- and everything at once.
Life—-It fills me, I fill it, it leaves me, then I’m emptied, in a flash everything connects……What a strange feeling——
Fresh bedsheets, laying next to someone in the stillness of a dark night, cool air being drawn into my lungs, breezes from an open window, scent of pines, hoot owls calling, moon shadows on the wall———-letting everything go——no longer outside myself, no seeking, no finding……..just being, being alive, on this first day of September. I feel summer losing it’s warm grip. Life is suddenly easier in the small things. And it doesn’t even matter if the sun packs up and leaves in search of a better sky.