Thursday, October 30, 2008

“For death begins with life's first breath And life begins at touch of death”

While vacationing in Washington D.C., my family discovered I had asthma. I was four.

Memories of that trip are among the first that could be combined into a narrative and attached to a particular time and place. Before then, I was merely a toddler scavenging old Cheerios off the floor and breaking heirlooms left on bottom shelves. No delineations, no passage of time. Just one protracted day of discovery, experimentation, and occasional retribution.

I realize that, coming from a near infant's perspective, some of my recollections are unreliable. The many mixed images I see bear a striking resemblance to photos of the trip. The day we visited the Washington Monument, for instance, is in third person, like the snapshot of my Mom, my Sister and I, huddled together in front of the yellow cement wall. It was cold, and blustery, the wind spanked my cheeks. I cried out, yelling that the gale was going to blow me away. Mom laughed, I think. I believed it would and, though I had no way to articulate this at the time, thought her a fool for not taking better precautions.

The family went to see the Ralph Bakshi "Lord of the Rings" at the Smithsonian Institute (I have no idea if the movie was actually AT the Smithsonian, but the photographs on exhibit bleed into the film). This was back in the days when "if it was animated, it was for children". If you have seen the Ralph Bakshi "Lord of the Rings" then you know they employed rotoscoping animation, in which color and exaggeration are layered over live action footage. Everything on the screen looks so real - a glance of the eyes, a gesture - but the mind knows it's not and is trapped in an awkward mix of revulsion and thrall. This was made all the worse by my four-year-old brain - just inches away from dreamtime anyway - trying to make sense of the violence in front of it.

The opening is strange and gruesome. And, lucky us, we watched it twice...having missed the first couple of seconds at the first go round. The murder of Schmeagle's brother won't ever leave me, even now 30 years later, I can see his shadow transform in to Gollum.

In the hotel, we first noticed something was wrong.

Carpet: grey green.
Cough.
Sniff.
Inhale.
Exhale.
Red coat on the chair.
Old cigarette smell.
Not hungry.
Lie down.
Inhale.
Exhale.
Cough.
Cough.
Inhale.
Exhale.
Cough.
Inha-
Exha-
In-
Ex-
In-
Ex-
In-Ex-
Juice?
In-
Ex-
Purple cow sippy cup to my mouth.
Warm liquid.
Soup.
Fuck you that's soup not juice.
In-Ex
In-
Ex-
TV.
TV.
In-
Ex-
In-
Ex-
I-
E-
Sleep.
Gollum.
Sleep.
Tiger.
Cough.
Cough.
Cough.
Cough.
Cough.
In-
Ex-
In-
Ex-
Inh-
Exh
Inha-
Exhale.
Inhale.
Exhale.



Past that night in the hotel room, I don't remember. We came home. I went to a doctor. He sent us to a specialist. It turned out, it wasn't just a cold, I had asthma.

I don't talk much about being an asthmatic to nearly anyone. I grew to resent it (and illness) as I grew up and have no interest in anyone feeling careful around me. Lots of people have it, but mine was particularly severe, sending me to the hospital over and over- until I left for college, when I was twelve one of my lungs to nearly collapsed. At one point I was my doctor's most medicated patient. We tried every experimental drug out there.

Lucky for me, when I came to Chicago, it faded and, after time, almost vanished. I quit taking my drugs and took up smoking - I think in part to rebel against my own body. SEE? I'll show you. I can smoke and screw my OWN self up. I'll show YOU I'm no panty waist.

All this of course, would backfire when I would get a cold or take ill. My lungs would close up, and remind me of those days when every breath was tenuous.



My mother has a penchant for the dramatic. In her recollection of that first night, I almost died. I wonder how much of that is true and how much is the construct of a helpless mother, unable to help her baby and not understanding what was wrong.

I have memories prior to this, I know: Mrs. W at my preschool fussing at me, the nursery attendant in church, the smell of my Granparent's bathroom. But the night in Washington carries real potency. The colors are sharp, the sensations still tickle. This may or may not be because it was my introduction to the notion of my own mortality - I doubt many four-year-olds can even comprehend such a thing.

But nothing molds a memory into a building block of personality than Death hovering in the doorway.

He waves at you.

He says, "Hey there. I think you and I should be friends."

2 comments:

pregenius said...

2009 Skald story, check!

Roto Artist said...

I didn't see Ralph Bakshi's version of LOTR. I wouldn't have liked it if I watched when I was a kid myself since, as you said, it was too darn close to being real then I might find it as a scary and ugly cartoon. I discovered that I have the asthma when I was 16. I thought I only had the flu but I was having trouble breathing so my dad took me to see the doctor and we were surprised to know that I have asthma and it was near pneumonia.

 
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