Dead of night. Dead of the week. Dead of November. At 1:15 a.m. I am looking north at the unhurried, shimmering serpent of Highway 163, up from Mission Valley to a borderland of gaudy neon streetlights, fogged and wintery stars.
On the tenth floor of UCSD hospital, imagining that land beyond the night mesas, glazed with the breath of an old man, my own, waiting for me in the landscape of weeks ahead when I will turn 60, past the minefield of carotic stenosis, aortic stenosis, and ischemic cardiomyopathy — antipersonnel mines of Greek and Latin death strewn between the trenches of here and then.
On the mounted television above the next man’s bed, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt play “Because the Night.” They move the morphine along in my veins with chopped rhythms on fretboards but move nothing in that man across from me who has remained motionless and snoring for 11 hours and whose name, at least phonetically, seems to be “Sofa” when nurses try to rouse him. He appears to be my age, a mind of double, only with rimless eyeglasses blind and winking with the reflected light of vital-sign monitors. Possibly the nurses are calling him “Soma.”
Earlier the television had provided more bizarre fare in the form of 1,000 Ways to Die, a dramatization of a young couple, dining out, who are convinced that uncooked snails garnishing their orders are the latest in haute gourmet. Both are infected with the parasite known as Cantonese blood worms and die agonizingly in adjoining hospital beds, but not before descending into a syphilitic insanity. Example: Mr. Wong tells her, “The truth is, I’m gay. The only reason I asked you out in the first place is that you remind me of a 12-year-old boy.” This slays her.
Before I turned on the television, I had attempted to avoid thoughts of my mortality — absurd or otherwise — armed only with a Reader’s Digest dated May of 2008. Turning to “Quotes,” I read Bono’s (of U2), “America is not just a country. It’s an idea,” which gave rise to the thought that that might be on his mantel, next to his Moody Blues Pretention Award or the coveted Redundancy for Dummies ribbon.
In the “Least Likely Source for a Lack of Irony 3” category, one by Jon Stewart is included. “News used to hold itself to a higher plane and slowly it has dissolved into, well, me.” My favorite is from John Updike and can be chewed on for decades: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” Misunderstand that!
That traffic and neon light mottled beyond my window to the north, lonely, unsolved mesas of the mind and the near future contain a looming Thanksgiving weekend not at all far off. Here is the first association with that idea of thanks. It would be the man who recently vacated the bed where Mr. Sofa now reclines — a figure I’ve come to think of as my doppelganger at some level — a man who was remarkably “entitled.” Again, my age, a homeless veteran from Texas named Tex or Dallas or perhaps Austin. Sofa’s predecessor told of what surely had to be a vast sum owed him by Social Security, the County of San Diego, the Veterans Administration, Father Joe’s Village, and UCSD hospital, in particular. “California owes me big time,” he had said. “You too, probably,” he added. “Look into it. Right there, by its lonesome, California’s got the bulk o’ yer benefits. The whole o’ California is like a damned state unta itself.” With one stroke, Tex had joined the ranks with thinkers like John Updike and Bono.
Returning to that nocturnal northern scene outside my hospital-room window, I think of another quote I just read in Reader’s Digest: “Our souls have sight of our immortal sea/ which brought us hither.” (William Wordsworth) This was in an article about Randy Pausch, dying, as of September 2007, of pancreatic cancer. A professor of computer science, Pausch has some ten tumors (or did) and, upon hearing the news, made immediate plans to swim with dolphins. Emphasizing the importance of human in extremis, the professor joked about not bothering with sunscreen during the trip.
Waiting for the punch line to sink in, I caught myself giggling at 1,000 Ways to Die, when the victim of cheap breast implants literally exploded in her airline seat as her flight reached a critical altitude.