I was lying on a gurney in the emergency room at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. It was just past noon. I was feeling stupid, my appearance made ludicrous and my movement restricted by a hospital gown that covered only the half of me and a gangling variety of apparatuses: oxygen tubing clipped to my nostrils, electrodes connecting me to a droid-like monitor that made an alarming sound whenever it thought one of my functions had strayed out of normal range, a punishing blood pressure cuff that activated itself at regular intervals, a full-body set of electrodes left in place from my EKG (in case the doctor ordered another one) and a needle taped into my arm bonding me to an IV, in case I needed–whatever. I was pretty much confined.
I had already been treated for what I’d come in for, superventricular tachycardia (SVT), a benign rapid heart rate, which in my case very rarely corrects itself and responds best to a quick shot of adenosine, a ferocious drug that can only be administered at the emergency room, probably because it works by stopping your heart and re-starting it.
It’s a dreadful experience. They have to give it intravenously and very quickly and while it’s passing through, your body knows death, violent death. I feel like I’m being smothered by a pillow and thrown out of a twenty story window simultaneously. The SVT was what had brought me to the ER four years ago, when somebody decided I’d had a heart attack, which had initiated the mid-life transformative crisis I am planning to write about in Magnificent Obesity.
Over the past four years I have been a frequent guest at the ER. My visits became so routine that a number of times I found myself telling the staff what to do—which drug to use, how many milligrams worked for me and on one occasion, reminding them that a doctor had to be present while the adenosine was being administered. I have no idea what these good people think of me but they all know me by now and they roll their eyes and give a chuckle whenever they see me coming. I might also say that they never fail to treat me with competence and uncanny gentleness, humor and respect.
So there I was, alone in Room #3, awaiting the results of the blood test that measures potassium and sodium and every other thing and checks for the enzyme that would indicate damage to the heart. Since I knew the drill, I had brought a book to read for the hour or two that I would be left to my own devices. And that was how I happened to be lying in the ER strapped down to a gurney by electrodes, IV and oxygen tubes trying with all my might to read Moby Dick.
I had tried reading Moby Dick twenty years ago and had found it so dense that I stopped at page one. Six months ago I decided to try again. Considering my aspirations, it seemed the least I could do. My senior high school English teacher believed that there were three candidates for the Great American Novel: Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick.
This time around I found myself falling in love, falling in love with a book. The story of the infernal white whale thrilled me. I found its narrator Ishmael to be exuberant, honorable and funny as hell. His account of his first night sharing a bed with Queequeg at the Spouter-Inn (and the morning after) is hilarious. Try it!
I have a tendency, however, to read ten or eleven books at a time, so that occasionally one or two (three or four) will fall behind and after adding them to the “to-do” stack of books beside my bed, it can be six or seven months before I pick them up again. Such was the case with Moby Dick. It had been five months since I’d left off reading it.
And I wasn’t making much progress in the ER that day. I was feeling severely disappointed in myself because I hadn’t had an SVT episode for six months and I’d begun to think I was cured. I was feeling physically uncomfortable because the gown, the gurney, the electrodes and tubings were forcing me into unnatural positions. I was feeling distracted by the restrained bustle of noise beyond the flimsy curtain at my door.
I wasn’t comprehending what I was reading. I had to keep going back to the start of a sentence or paragraph or a whole chapter in an effort to pick up a thread. I realized that I was speed-reading because I had discovered that I wasn’t even halfway through this book and there were nineteen other half-read books stacked up around my bed at home.
I started thinking that Nicholas Carr was right to ask whether Google is making us stupid, whether the Net is altering the way we think by exchanging power browsing for deep reading and literally diminishing our ability to focus and concentrate on “long stretches of prose.”
I was saved from having to fathom Moby Dick (or answering Nicholas Carr’s question) by a visit from my best friend Michele. It seemed a little sad, but maybe the story of the great white whale wasn’t as captivating as I had thought.
After what seemed an unusually long wait, the doctor on duty entered and announced with a dour face that my blood test had been perfectly normal. Except for one thing. Something they hadn’t even been looking for. My blood sugar was 534 and they weren’t going to let me out of there until the issue had been addressed. It would be irresponsible to let me go, he said. They had called my doctor. They had called my diabetes educator. They were discussing a course of action that might include keeping me over night. No way, I replied, no way!
I knew I was going to need time to take in the news, that there would be layers of denial to sort and sift through. I had been outwitting my diabetes for ten years. I had kept it in check with diet and exercise and I’d been doing it so well that I wasn’t even required to test my blood sugar on a daily or regular basis. For ten years I had told myself, I don’t really have diabetes. When people asked, I would say, I sort of have diabetes, yeah, well, maybe just a little.
My diabetes coach finally showed up at the ER with a taut, grim face and said—guess what, my dear, you’re going on drugs—today. The nurse is coming in to give you insulin to bring your blood sugar down before we decide whether we’re going to let you out of here and we’re calling in a prescription to your pharmacy for metformin. So guess what, my dear, you don’t have a choice.
He was being grim and strict with me because I have a tendency to scream bloody murder whenever he mentions medication, a subject that had been coming up more and more often lately as we watched my A1c creep upwards over the past year and a half. I was being grim and strict right back at him because I knew it was going to take a lot of time and intestinal fortitude for me to digest the fact that I really truly had this disease.
They released me at four o’clock, I picked up the metformin and dutifully took one that evening with dinner. I was dutiful, but horrified. I have a phobia when it comes to prescription drugs. Even herbs give me pause. When I was convinced that I wasn’t going to react badly to the metformin by dropping dead on the spot, I called my mother, told her about my day, got the sympathy I was looking for, hung up and went immediately back into rapid heart rate.
I couldn’t believe it. Twice in one day. Although a rapid heartbeat can be intensely uncomfortable and anxiety producing, I waited two and a half hours to see if my nightly dose of beta blocker and a Xanax could bring it down. I waited until I couldn’t stand it anymore, picked up my purse and Moby Dick and drove myself back to the ER.
Rolling their eyes and trying not to chuckle, they took me right in and gave me another shot of adenosine.
So there I was again, hooked up every which way, back to normal heart rate, trying to read Moby Dick while awaiting the results of another blood test. It was just past midnight.
Or, as Ishmael would have said, “It was now hard upon twelve o’clock.”
It was a challenge shutting out the noises outside my door, the hushed, controlled exchanges between doctors and staff, the occasional burst of laughter, the sweep and scuff of soft-soled shoes on linoleum, the steady, dead-of-night hum in the air and the odd thrill of knowing that at any moment the quiet could be shattered by something ghastly, gory or sad.
And there I was again, speed reading, skimming over the text and not comprehending, unable to focus, becoming more frustrated by the moment.
And then it struck me. This was not fast food. This was not fast reading. This was rich and generous prose, an epic and complex tale that had survived the test of time. It wasn’t built to be skimmed. It’s not a blog or set of cheery comments on Facebook. You don’t read it like an online magazine with capsule summaries and hyperlinks ad infinitum. It’s not the kind of contemporary fiction that allows you to skip whole paragraphs without losing the general idea because its story has been reduced to mere information.
I went back to the beginning of the chapter I had been trying to break into and read more slowly. Even then, my eyes kept jumping ahead of my brain. So then I thought: not only should these words be read slowly, they ought to be read out loud.
And that is what I did. Right there in the emergency room. I read softly so no one could hear me, but I read distinctly and with dignity, like a congenial host on Masterpiece Theater.
“It’s a white whale, I say,” resumed Ahab, as he threw down the top-maul; “a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.”
Suddenly, not only was I comprehending Melville’s dense prose, I was also experiencing a bizarre kind of ecstasy. By reading out loud I was reading slowly enough to absorb the prose, experience the poetry and fully inhabit the story. The language was alive. The character of the open sea and the ship that sailed it in search of the ramming whale, the rollicking table manners of the harpooners, the bravado of the sailors held hostage by Ahab’s hate were gorgeously alive. I was alive. The pages practically breathed inside my hands as I became utterly lost in the present moment by transporting to another time and place.
I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been wedded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.
I got home at 2:30 in the morning, feeling drained by the rigor and stress of the day, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to manage a chronic disease and feeling completely alone in life. But I had also found joy. I had fallen head over heels into a book. I had traveled to the aching heart of a shipload of doomed souls and one survivor on the strength of words and words alone.
When you have the time, go some place where you won’t be disturbed (or overheard) and read the following passage out loud.
It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.
Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.
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