Saturday, January 29, 2011

Part 39 of "Miracle Boy"

In Sunday's New York Times Book Review, a rant about how there are too many memoirs complains that we as a culture are obsessively over-sharing personal yet uninteresting details.


It may be true, but the reviewer unfairly blames the memoirists themselves. He should blame the publishers.

To me, the more important question is: Why do so many ho-hum memoirs get published when really good, important ones (like mine) go wanting?

And here's a soup├žon more:
When I return to high school, it's late-October. The weather has turned chilly and gray. The kids are already settled into a new routine, but there's little change from last year. It's the same teacher, Ekkehard Piening; the same kids—there is only one class per grade—and, at Steiner, the routine scarcely varies from year to year or, I suspect, generation to generation.

To my surprise, I'm greeted by an abundance of bonhomie. The essay I dictated to Mom about my hospital experience has appeared in the school paper, and my words worked their magic!

I have to wear the upper-body cast, which protrudes from my shirt, but I have no shame about it and the kids are accepting. At recess I have someone tip my wheelchair back against the wall to ease the pressure on my spine—doctor's orders—and even that goes smoothly. Plus my terrific attendant, Kenny, decides to stay on, despite the four-month hiatus. He doesn't stay with me at school but takes me there and back every day and works late when Mom goes out at night. A medical student on leave, he's smart and we talk about everything. He becomes the nice big brother I never had.

I begin to see how important the quality of my attendant is to my very quality of life.

Every second weekend I visit Stamford, where Dad's my attendant. Jeff is growing up, which is fun to see, but I have no friends and nothing to do there and it's boring. My friends have become very important to me.

With each year of high school my roster of friends increases. On warm afternoons and evenings we hang out in Central Park or on the museum steps—either the Metropolitan or the Natural History, depending on which side of the Park we're on. We drink Budweiser and smoke cigarettes, though I don't inhale. Most of the guys smoke pot. It makes me a little nervous when they're pushing my wheelchair over the potholes and bumps, but I never let on.

At school, one of my friends, Nanci, remembers my penchant for cartooning and wants a drawing of a shirtless Robert Plant, based on a magazine picture she cherishes. Flattered, I take special care on the important details, which doesn't go unnoticed. She squeals in delight when I present her with my penciled masterpiece. "Look—he even got the bulge in his jeans!"

Alec, still the big brain, aces his S.A.T. and will probably go to Harvard, like Dad. I don't want to go that route or be like that. I've learned to stop being a dork, trying to impress others with my intellectual chops, which I'm not sure I have anyway. The new Ben goes with the flow, lets the good times roll, and never forgets that misery and suffering are as close as my shadow.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Part 38 of "Miracle Boy"

Not surprisingly, perhaps, but I've learned something new about Facebook.

If you want to increase your list of "friends" geometrically, seek out writers.

Not only will they accept your friending invite; they'll intimidate the heck out of you when you realize they already have thousands and thousands of FB friends!

More to the point, really: now I understand why.

It's this "platform" business.

Sure, writing is a lonely career. That might explain, oh, say, 150 FB friends. But thousands? That's building a constituency!

Now, my sources say this "you need a bigger platform" business is just that. THE business, as in BS. It's become a common excuse.

The truth, I'm told, is that nobody--other than the John Grishams of this world and their ilk--has a platform. At least not in the sense of thousands of readers guaranteed.

What's more, I do have people like you, dear reader. Plus I am part of various associations that boast tens of thousands of members. So my potential market is pretty huge, thank you very much.

More about the woes of getting published next time I write. Meanwhile, another installment, one of the final few…

… Worst, worst of all: how the nurses tease him. Loudly. Every few days. Whenever they discover wet semen on his sheets, his catheter blocked or popped off.

"Heeha!" the loudest one laughs. "What you been doin'?! You gotta cut that out! I ain't cleanin' up this mess no mo'! You a bad boy!"

I vow never again to be jealous of the cool, popular boys at school or resent others' mobility and freedom. I've come to realize that I could have a lot less mobility and freedom than I do. I will remember how lucky I am. I'll put the inimical, tough-guy Ben to rest forever when I return to the land of the living, and always try to appreciate my life just as it is. As long as it's far away from here or any place like it.

I make this vow privately and never tell anyone. But it's dead serious. The most religious experience I think I'll ever have. A promise I make to God. "Let me out of here, and I'll never forget."
On Labor Day weekend, Barbara and Dad visit with their new baby, Jeff. Barbara barbecues a chicken in Happydale's outdoor area. My bed is rolled outside, too. We all try to pretend it's pleasant and normal.
Life, however compromised, settles into a pattern.

Back in New York, the school year is starting without me. One afternoon in early-September, Mom brings a manila envelope stuffed with my classmates' good wishes. I know it was an assignment from Mr. Penis, but I'm moved nevertheless and reread every note. I call it my fan mail, and still have the package today.

In response, lying there like a slab, I ask Mom to take dictation. I want to write a sort of thank-you to my class, or really an explanation of what I've been going through—to head off rumors, excess sympathy and most of all awkward silences upon my return.

I want to submit it to the school newspaper. Still figuring humor is the key to improving my social standing, I gave it the sarcastic title What I Did Over My Summer Vacation, and begin it with, "Have you ever wondered how dirt gets on the ceiling?"—a reference to the boredom of lying supine day after day. I end with, "Try not to be too jealous."

Toward the end of my stay, I gather sufficient courage to ask one of the volunteer teaching aids if she'd like to go to a movie "when I'm back on the outside." She's a pretty, dark-haired high-school girl with a warm smile, and says yeah, sure, but I'm not confident she means it and I wonder how I'd follow through anyway since she lives in Westchester. Still, it's good practice, I figure, since I didn't do so well with my Star Wars date.
(from which has an amazing resemblance to Happydale)
When at last I'm returned to Special Surgery, I'm put in a regular room in pediatrics with one other boy and no individual Trinitron, just one big set for the room. One evening he asks me what it's like to be a teenager. He must be about twelve. I don't know what to answer. Me, a teenager? It's then I realize my lengthy incarceration has made me older in some indefinable way, or at least feel older.

The halo and trach are removed and the cast cut back, though I must continue wearing what's left, which is most of it, for several more months. Still, the end of my hospitalization is near! After four months that were supposed to have been six.

I'm truly lucky.

You see, the odd assortment of suffering I witnessed, especially at Happydale, will leave an indelible mark. I'll never forget Murph, my masturbating Happydale roommate. After sharing a slice of life with kids like that, I cannot be the same again. I know exactly how the other half lives, and it's not good. For those of us with severe disabilities, you can never be too safe, too well protected, because the institutional snuffing out of privacy and dignity can never feel so very far away.

I've lost a lot of weight, too, despite the Doritos—which feels good, since I was fat—and I'm taller than I was, since my back is straighter. I also now sport several long, downy tufts on my chin and will need to shave as soon as I'm released. A new man, within spitting distance of fifteen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Part 37 of "Miracle Boy" and a new start

Here is my next installment. Only a few more left, and then a change of direction.

You see, I think I'm moving into a pre-publication phase. Nothing definite, yet. No contracts signed. But I have an offer.

It's not an ideal offer, however. What stands between it and what I'd like to have is the same old thing--a guaranteed readership. A "platform," in publishing parlance.

Never mind the hundreds who visit here every week. They're not enough. Apparently, I need thousands.

To me, there is something funny about this. The Kardashians or Balloon Boy have a better chance of getting a book published than someone who has slaved for years, polishing prose and even doing the right things to amass an audience. Publishing pieces in major newspapers and magazines. Securing a semi-regular gig on NPR. None of that matters. None of that matters because I'm still an unknown in the book world.

Which inspires a new idea!

In the next few weeks, when I run out of memoir installments, I'm going to begin a new series about the aggravations of trying to get published. I'll post some funny rejection letters, and invite readers to share their horror stories, too.

Think of it as Shit My Publishers Say.

In keeping with the promise of this blog, I will not rant or moan or mutter bitterly. I'm going to try to accentuate the humorous side of this absurd pursuit.

It's absurd because so many of us are drawn to it, and yet--especially these days--it's completely impractical. As someone in the biz recently said to me, NO ONE IS BUYING BOOKS! Everybody talks about how important it is to have a platform, but nobody really does because nobody can guarantee book sales these days!

You think it's hard out there for a pimp? Imagine being a publisher! Or, for that matter, an author.

I hope you'll join in my planned new format, and help me in this experimental strategy. It's a strategy to gain attention and a bigger following, and embarrass the publishing community into letting a few of us slip through its golden gateways.

But first, the final few installments of MIRACLE BOY –

It's soon apparent that the staff here is less well trained than the hospital crew I've grown used to; they're rougher, sloppier. My trach is never cleaned. I'm not bathed as thoroughly, if at all. And the place doesn't have wedge pillows (unless, I later learn, you place a special order). Plus it's harder for my parents to visit, being out in the suburbs. Within two days I'm begging for a transfer.

Can't I stay in the city? Or perhaps be cared for at home? Dad calls Dr. Levine. My request is denied. There's no extra room at city hospitals. I need to stay here, to recover slowly and be professionally monitored.


I'll have to make the best of it. Imagine I've been captured by the Gamesters of Triskelion … Oops—I forgot. No Star Trek.

Happydale has a sort of school I'm rolled to every day in my hospital bed, even though it's summer. One thing I like about it is it has an extensive tape library. Through headphones, I listen to articles about politics, science, technology. Soon I have a volunteer—a groovy dude dressed in denim, with big dark glasses and a shaggy haircut, who smells of cigarettes, which is a scent I like, and calls me "buddy"—to read to me from The Pickwick Papers, my assigned summer reading (it's not in the audio library).

When Mom visits, she brings food—kosher London broil and baked chicken, personal favorites, which aren't on the establishment's menu. I keep a stash of Doritos by my bedside, which, believe it or not, is marked kosher. I need someone to feed me, since I'm lying down. I learn it's easier to swallow when rolled on one side.

I have to be rolled like a log, because the metal halo is now attached to a plaster cast that covers my torso and part of one leg. The leg pins have been removed, but my neck and, to a degree, hips are immobilized.

Because of being so stationary, I take physical therapy three times a week. Which reminds me of the pointless exercises of my early childhood, except this time I'm at an age to enjoy the attentions of my therapist, a really attractive brunette. As she flexes my knees and elbows, and orders me to work my fingers by buttoning and unbuttoning a raggedy old shirt, I only grumble slightly and, I hope, with the utmost charm.

The solitary television set in my room, mounted high, is on pretty much all the time. It's the summer of the Son of Sam killer. Elvis Presley dies. A new actress will replace Farrah on Charlie's Angels, and I enjoy reading in People magazine about her measurements (Cheryl Ladd's bust is even bigger than Farrah's!). But the weight of all this, the impact, is the dour realization that the world outside these institutional walls goes on.

One of my cellmates, er, roommates, with whom I have a begrudging affinity because he likes the Beatles and covets my tape collection, wonders aloud about the meaning of Elvis' demise. "Does it mean Elton John is now the king of pop? They always called him the prince, so—"

Try as I might, I can't block out all of it. One sound in particular will haunt me for years to come. It involves poor Murph, another of my roommates, a young man who is rumored to have lived at Happydale most of his seventeen years! It's said he could go home but his family doesn't want him … it's said they visit only on Christmas, Easter and maybe his birthday. I don't know if any of this is true, but he never leaves his bed for a wheelchair (then again, neither do I), and his infrequent speech is hopelessly garbled, probably from cerebral palsy or a brain injury. You don't need to understand his words to hear the urgency, anger, frustration, sorrow.

Yet worst of all is how the nurses tease him . . .

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Part 36 of "Miracle Boy"

Welcome, new readers!  (You know who you are).

Anybody else in the disability community irritated by those anti-smoking commercials that feature gasping, wheezing, dried-out old folks as examples of what smoking can do to you--a fate worse than death?

I know they're for a good cause and all, so I hesitate to object. But to me the frightful images are offensive!

I mean, some of us look like that without having ever smoked … right?  Well, without inhaling, anyway. *Wink*

Maybe not me personally, but you get the idea.

At any rate, that's the germ of a new idea for an NPR commentary. We'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, here's more of MIRACLE BOY.

That's okay. I'm comfortable.

After a week I'm still on an I.V., though. And a large, noisy ventilator, which I hadn't noticed before. Tubes everywhere.

God knows what all!

Machines beeping and buzzing … It's amazing I can sleep at all, and on my back yet! They're not all my machines, I gradually perceive. Some belong to my neighbors in the I.C.U. We don't interact. Maybe the families do, but not me. Mom and Dad might say a word to my roommates' visitors, but I pretend I'm in my own world.

One night the lights go off and on again. Nurses are suddenly swarming all around me. The head nurse is called in, though she's supposed to be off-duty. It's a blackout, they say. Indeed, the nursing staff is jabbering about it. I vaguely remember the blackout of '65. I was not yet three. It seemed Dad would never come home from the office. But he did and all was well.

So I'm not worried now. But my nurses are. Very. They pump a sort of football-shaped manual respirator into my trach. They check my pulse repeatedly. They check blood gases, which involves a painful needle into the muscles of my groin. They're relieved to discover my oxygen level is fine. The hospital has its own power generator, and soon my respirator is on again. It breathes for me and I become lazy. But I insist I'm fine. I'm not lightheaded. I'm not short of breath. At least I think I'm insisting. Mostly I'm smiling.

Soon the ventilator is removed completely, and I breathe on my own. I'm fine. Yes, fine. Always fine.

At times I'm even allowed to roll onto my belly, propped on a special wedge-shaped pillow. As long as my spine is kept in alignment, it's okay. With the pillow wedge, I can place my notebook down on the mattress and do a little writing.

One of my biggest concerns remains: Can I still touch my dick now that my back's straightened? (With my hand, that is—"reach myself," as Dad might put it.)

Eureka! I can! I can!

When the nurses remove the surgical catheter and wrap a soft, loose cloth diaper around my crotch, it enhances the experience!

After two months at Special Surgery, I'm transferred to a convalescent facility in Westchester County. I've been so cloistered, the glimpses of New York in August passing through the ambulance windows blow my mind. The city looks beautiful … absolutely mesmerizing and inspiring. I feel like a tourist in my own town!

A tourist who's strapped to a gurney, that is.

Sadly, the euphoria is temporary. Soon we're in the suburbs. By and by we arrive at Happydale, the institution I'll call home for the next three months. The very name conjures a shadow-gray sanitarium from an old horror movie.

I'm rolled inside and eventually parked in a large room with pale-blue walls and seven other kids. It's a downgrade from the I.C.U. Only one TV, for starters.

One of my new roommates, a young Black boy in pressed blue jeans and a tucked-in button shirt with yellow stripes, greets Dad, who is accompanying me on the trip, with a stagy formal bow. "Hello, my good man!" the boy says.

This kid is so animated and not post-op-like and, well, on his feet … the nettling question for me is, why am I in the same place he is?

In time, I learn the bitter truth. But for now, something else seems evident:

I am in the nuthouse!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Part 35 of "Miracle Boy"

Thanks to all of you who responded to my request last week for examples of offensive, exploitative docudrama-slash-Reality TV portrayals of people with disabilities.

Here's the short list of what I've come up with:

1) "The Eight Limbed Boy," "Manar's Story: Born with Two Heads," and something called "My Shocking Story" that featured conjoined twins called "human spiders." (I kid you not!) All on FitTV.

2) "Born Without A Face: Five Years Later," about a child with a rare condition that causes bones not to develop. On FitTV.

3) "Mystery Diagnosis" has reappeared, from the late Discovery Health, on the new Oprah Winfrey Network. ... Recent episodes featured "the toddler that stopped walking," "the girl with no bowel," "the boy who only hopped," and "the toddler that went through puberty," to name a few.

4) FitTV also has several series about psychological disabilities ("Addicted to Food" & "Help! I'm A Hoarder)" and unusual pregnancies, which wouldn't be so bad except that "I'm Pregnant And…" frequently completes the sentence with "bipolar" or "may be having a dwarf" and similar disability-related terms.

5) The Learning Channel, another Discovery property, features "The Little Couple," which follows a couple of newlyweds for no obvious reason except they happen to be People of Short Stature a.k.a. Little People!

6) The problem is not unique to cable. A recent installment of ABC's 20/20 highlighted an amputee weightlifter … simply as an example of someone who defied expectations, I guess … which is another flavor of freak-show.

I welcome your reactions. For my take on these and other examples, you'll have to wait for my NPR commentary. No idea when that will be, though. My editor is working on getting clips from these programs to illustrate my points.

Meanwhile, here's the next installment of MIRACLE BOY

The Recovery Room.

A tube is inserted in my nose. Maybe it's been there all day but I'm just now feeling it. It makes it hard to swallow my own saliva.

The room is dark and crowded. Lots of people on lots of beds, countless machines beeping and humming.

No TVs.

I float in and out of sleep. Well, of consciousness. I'm not permitted to see my parents until morning. I'm not sure I'll make it till morning.

I hear someone in another bed—an old woman, it sounds like—discussing the difference between "mottled" and "modeled." She's trying to explain a mark or a feeling on her skin and the nurse isn't getting it. I want to help. I'm good at explaining. Mom always says words are my strongest tool, and I have learned time and again it is so.

Respect for the word ...

But I can't help this poor woman across the Recovery Room. I can't get up and I can't speak. This must be what it feels like to be buried alive, I think.

I try to memorize everything that's going on around me, so I can put it in words later, in my notebook, but without my glasses I can't see and without my brain fully switched on I have a hard time stringing together pairs of sentences in my head. Forget paragraphs. Later, I think. I will write all this later.

But first I have to stop feeling like I've been run over by a Mack truck. Whatever a Mack truck is exactly ...

Big Mac.  Mack the Knife. Maybe that's better. Stabbed by Mack the Knife.

When morning comes, I'm thrilled to see light. Whether it's the fluorescent bulbs outside the Recovery Room or the summer sun shining through the windows, I can't be certain. Either way it's bright and new and I'm rolled out of the recovery room and I'm okay. Mom and Dad are there—here, coming up to my rolling bed. I'm transferred to another bed, one in the I.C.U., which is a big room with five or six patients near the nurse's station. Each bed has its own little Sony Trinitron color TV. Feels almost like being home again.

Dr. Levine visits. He says he was able to do the two parts of the spinal fusion at once, in that one surgery. We're ahead of schedule. "But your bones are like eggshells," he cautions. "You need more milk.  More calcium."

Later I'm given a small plastic plug to close off the trach so I can talk. It doesn't come to me right away, and I struggle and gasp until at last I can speak in small increments.

Whenever I feel pain, which isn't often, I'm given a dose of Demerol in my I.V. It's the most wonderful sensation I've ever experienced—a luscious, tingly warmth that spreads within until I fall blissfully asleep. Soon I have to cut back on the doses; requests for more receive a "can you wait a bit longer?" or outright denial.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Part 34 of "Miracle Boy"

Happy New Year! Crushing deadlines safely behind me, I'm ready to re-begin.

But first…

I'm looking for suggestions. Been working on a new piece for NPR about media images of disability--specifically, the way certain soft-news and reality TV programs portray people with disabilities as scientific oddities or "amazing but true" objects of medical curiosity--and I could really use your help.

You see, the examples I originally came up with were all from the Discovery Health channel, which ceased broadcasting at the end of the year. So I need new examples.

If you encounter any, please e-mail me pronto. The best way to reach me is at

One more thought: Is it just me, or has the time finally come to call the year "twenty-" etc. instead of "two-thousand-" etc.? That is, can we call the new year "twenty-eleven," not "two-thousand-eleven"?

It's a lot simpler, at least to my ear.

Actually, this has been a pet peeve of mine for some time now. I've been waiting for the right moment to happen. I've wondered, when would the changeover occur?

At last, a possible answer: Now!

Why now? Let's face it, "eleven" is just too long a word. It has three syllables!. So altogether, "two-thousand-eleven" is six syllables. "Twenty-eleven," on the other hand, has only five. See? Simpler.

One thing, at least, is clear: I've been on vacation too long.


In the months that follow, I feel I'm making a little history myself—or at least approaching a Big Event. The hospital days in April were just preliminary. The Big Event is this summer's surgery.

No one has ever spent a summer in a hospital like I'm going to spend the summer in the hospital. There will be a series of operations culminating in a spinal fusion—which will attach pieces of metal called Harrington Rods to my pretzel-like spine. The rods won't make me completely straight but significantly straighter, which is the best we can hope for. I'll be in the hospital for three or four months, with a two-month interval at a rehabilitation facility. In all, six months under institutional medical care. Summer and fall. Or so goes the plan.

It's enough to make an ordinary teenager crumble, perhaps, but not me. This is my big battle, the travail I must endure to achieve stature, literally. I'm Ben-Hur facing the Roman galley ship. If he can row for three years, I can lie in an institutional bed for six months. In characteristic fashion, macho fantasies come to my rescue.

At Mom's urging, I start scribbling my fears and expectations in a notebook. I will keep a journal before, during and after. At the very least it gives me something to do with my pent-up energies, at once a focus and a distraction.

I began wondering what I might actually lose from gaining a straighter back, and experiment in the bathtub with auto-fellatio.


A dirty little secret of the extremely scoliotic! Yet I come away without a clear understanding of what all the fuss is about blow jobs.

When school's out, in early-June, I have a couple of weeks free and arrange to see Star Wars with a girl from school, my first half-assed attempt at a date. We get our signals crossed, however, and I become impatient waiting for her to call back. I end up seeing it alone and don't enjoy it. My pre-hospital time feels too precious to waste on waiting around for the phone to ring. Sorry, babe.

Finally, I am again admitted to a private room in pediatrics. For the first few days, more tedious tests—X-rays, blood panels, whatever. Every time I pee it's measured, and when I don't a nurse asks me if I want to. They expect you to piss every hour! Then I get a preview of my coming traction, so to speak—a system to stretch my spine mechanically over the course of a week before the rods are actually inserted. It sounds laughably primitive, but Dr. Levine insists it's necessary and he's done it hundreds of times. Or I should say, he's done it to hundreds of other patients. He even produces a past patient as a sort of reference, I suppose, and to cheer me up and reassure me that this is not the end of the world. Thanks, Doc.

I'm awake when Levine drills holes into my skull—the first step of traction. I've been injected with a local anesthetic, and I feel nothing. Then a heavy metal ring is installed on my head—actually screwed into my cranium. They call it a halo. But aren't halos supposed to be light as air, luminous and ethereal? This is about as light as an iron.

A matching set of metal pins is installed near my knees. Again, "pins" is a misnomer. Pins are small and narrow. These are not. These hurt like hell. They are metal dowels that, like the halo, go through the bone; they stick out on either side. I complain for days about my right knee in particular. It throbs so much Dr. Levine decides to redo that portion. He moves the pin a centimeter or two. It's still sensitive to the touch but less painful most of the time.

Cords are tied onto the halo and leg pins, attached to pulleys with a weight at the other end. Yes, I'm being drawn and quartered! I'm lying on my back all the time now. My upper body may be elevated slightly, but the idea is to keep my spine straight. This goes on for about ten days, during which it's impossible to keep my journal. I'm again glad for the Sony Trinitron. I think I learn every episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show by heart.

I try dictating to a small tape recorder, but it's not the same. I listen to music cassettes through an earphone, mostly Beatles. Which is not in keeping with the zeitgiest, of course, but since I was too young to fully appreciate the Beatles in their time it's not exactly nostalgia either. Besides, sometimes the coolest thing to do is not follow what everybody else is doing. I'm beginning to learn that.

In any case, no one from school will know.

When Mom and Dad visit—usually on alternate days—they bring me more Beatles cassettes and other music I request, such as Aerosmith, which I'm just starting to get into. Alec is in England and France with a high-school tour group. He promises to bring back British versions of Beatles LPs.

The day of the big surgery, Mom and Dad appear together very early in the morning, for pre-op. I'm sedated. It doesn't make me sleepy. It makes me giddy. As I'm being rolled off toward the operating room, I tell my parents, "I have one question. Before he cuts me open, I need to know if he's a kosher butcher!"

They find this hysterically funny. Dad laughs like a seal. He pats my foot, which is under several layers of sheets. He's always patting me. Mom shakes her head and says how very funny I am. Grace under pressure, she says. Not really. It's more a burnished reflex. Make light of a difficult situation. Find the humorous side of it. Put people at ease.

The lights in the O.R. are very bright. I want sunglasses. Instead, I meet the anesthesiologist. A face behind a surgical mask. He asks me to count backward from one-hundred. I get to ninety-six.

When I wake up, I'm being lifted by a gang of a half-dozen or more in surgical outfits. Lifted from one bed to another. There's a pain in my lower back, near my waist. I try to say "My waist! My waist!" but no words come out. I have a tracheostomy. Dr. Levine had explained this. I was likely to come out of surgery with a buildup of fluids in my lungs, and since I'm unable to cough, a tracheostomy will allow the doctors to suction out the gunk from my lungs. So for now I cannot speak.

Dr. Levine sees that I'm trying to talk. He tells the others to stop. He leans over me, and I can make out his rosy-cheeked face, his red curly hair, his clownish bow tie. I don't have my glasses on, but these things are unmistakable. "What is it? What're you trying to say?"

I like Dr. Levine for trying to understand. Yet I'm too dazed to think up an alternate explanation, a suitable vocabulary. I keep mouthing My waist, my waist. Finally he gets it. He feels under me, around my waist, but finds nothing wrong. "See if it gets better. It should go away." (It does, but I don't notice when.)

The next twelve hours are the most horrifying.