Thomas Wictor

Denial isn’t one of my problems

Denial isn’t one of my problems

I hurt my back a few days ago. Actually, I ruined my back in 1992, when I was working as a field representative for a document-retrieval service. More on that later. Though I have more problems than you can imagine, denial isn’t one of them.

That’s an emergency-room wrist band. At 8:00 a.m. I drove myself to the hospital. I can now sit, but I can’t walk, except if I adopt this posture.

But the Planner had mercy on me. There was a parking lot right in front of the door, I was admitted in less than ten minutes, and they let me lie down. Except for having to stand and demonstrate my affliction, I felt no pain during the two-hour visit.

Not counting the steroid injection. That actually hurt more than my back injury. It burned like a syringeful of sulfuric acid. But the nurse warned me.

We had to find out if I had a slipped or deteriorating disc. Those of you without back trouble may not know that a diagnosis of structural damage to the spinal column can be a death sentence. My father never did any physical labor the right way, so when he was about thirty-five, he slipped a disc and was left in chronic pain for the next five decades. Here are the stupid discs.

We’ll skip the descriptions and drawings of all the things that can go wrong with intervertebral discs. They’re really too disgusting to go into.

My father had multiple operations, and for years he had to sleep with weights tied around his ankles and hung by ropes over the door. His health problems made him very bitter. To prove that he didn’t suffer from health problems, he daily smoked five packs of unfiltered cigarettes—that’s 100 of those luscious little tubes—and daily drank up to two quarts of scotch. His diet was nothing but red meat, bacon, salami, cheese, potatoes, white bread, butter, ice cream, cake, and pie.

This was how he lived for fifty years. Right before he died, we discovered that he never stopped drinking, even though he told us that he had. Mom found some wine in the cupboard over the stove, and she marked the level of the contents on the label with a nearly invisible pencil tick.

The amount of wine in the bottle steadily went down. My father took eighteen medications a day, and every single one was nullified by alcohol. Why did he continue drinking?

After being utterly shocked at the way my father went kicking and screaming to his repose, my mother used his nightmarish death as a starting point and improved on it by about 1000 percent. Tim told me to not see her the last two days, because she was howling and struggling, semiconscious, unable to recognize anyone. The stress would’ve made me projectile vomit all over her and Tim. Neither of them needed that.

Dad was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic osteosarcoma (bone cancer) on January 16, 2013, and he died on February 23, 2013. Mom received her diagnosis on the same day; she died October 13, 2013. She didn’t begin her treatment for Stage IV metastatic peritoneal cancer until April. Why?

I ruined my back in 1992 by trying to be a stud. As a field representative for a document-retrieval service, I carried around a portable microfilm machine that weighed 70 pounds (31 kilos). It was in a metal case just like this.

The smart field reps put their machines on wheeled luggage trolleys, but I wanted to imitate my big, strong friend John, so I carried mine by the handle, like a briefcase. One day in a crowded elevator, I leaned sideways to set it down, and my back gave out. It didn’t hurt; it felt like my spine was shoving its way out of me. By the time I went to bed, I was in a little pain, and the next day I was crippled. The only way I could walk was to assume the shape of a swastika and slide forward with the speed of a garden snail.

The photo above shows how my pelvis felt like it was a cabinet drawer about to slide out and land on the floor. It was the most revoltingly awry internal sensation I’ve ever experienced. And the pain! Blunt, steely fingers dissecting me by brute force.

Well, today in the hospital, I had a copy of The Powers of Evil, by Richard Cavendish.

It’s a spectacular scholarly work that covers the history of belief in supernatural evil powers. Despite Cavendish’s obvious disdain for religion, it’s still a great book because it offers insights into human behavior that you won’t find anywhere else. For example, I learned today that the English author and preacher John Bunyan (1628 – 1688) had such terrible nightmares about hell that as a young man he decided that he wanted to be a demon, because he would rather be a torturer instead of one of the tortured.

In my entire life, that viewpoint never once occurred to me, but it answers the last, lingering questions I had about those in my life and those running the world. They feel that they’re damned, so they may as well go whole hog and be a shover-upper of red-hot pokers instead of a receiver thereof.

This was a gigantic epiphany for me. I’ve solved one of my most vexing mysteries.

Right after I had my epiphany, the resident physician ordered X-rays of my spine. I wasn’t afraid at all. Not even nervous. You know why? The X-ray attendant, an older man who I’ll call “Alberto.” He had a heavy Mexican accent, a gray mustache, and cornflower-blue eyes that were spotlights of an almost military compassion. No smarminess whatsoever.

“Would you mind telling me about your book?” he asked as he prepared me for my X-rays. “Why are you reading about evil?”

So I explained that my parents died in terror, and I’ve spent the past two years studying the mindsets of people like that so that I can understand.

“Both my parents were devout Catholics,” I said. “They went to mass all their lives. But they never really believed what their religion taught them.”

“They misunderstood,” Alberto said. “I find that very sad. It’s as raw for you today as it was two years ago. I can see that in your face as you talk about it. Thank you for telling me. I’ll pray for your parents and for you.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Alberto wheeled me back to my bed in the Primary Care Treatment Room. As an X-ray technician, he wasn’t supposed to do that. The procedure is for the X-ray Department to call an attendant from the Emergency Department to come get me. That way a paper trail is kept down to the second. Lawsuits are among Americans’ favorite pastimes.

But I’ll tell you what: If I call the X-ray Department at my hospital and ask to speak to the technician named Alberto, I’ll bet you any amount of money that they’ll say that no such person works there. I’ve met Alberto before. People get freaked the hell out when I write things like that, but too bad. You can’t see what I can. It’s as simple as that. The act of learning changes the physical structure of your brain. There’s an old saying that if you practice anything for 10,000 hours, you’ll become an expert at it.

Thirteen and a half months. That’s what 10,000 hours is.

I’ve been studying religion, death, and the afterlife for more than forty years. For me, all of 2013 was a special-forces training exercise in religion, death, and the afterlife. Very few people have my experience when it comes to these fields. I’ve been changed. My perceptions are heightened.

The X-rays showed no damage to my vertebrae or intervertebral discs. I was given prescriptions for painkillers and anti-inflammatories, and then I drove myself home. At noon, I went over to Tim’s house to tell him the diagnosis and ask him to take me to the drugstore. Before we went, I asked him to get something from our father’s workshop that we bought for our mother but which she refused to use.

When we went to the drugstore, the pharmacists were all shocked, so I told them how I’d fallen out of my chair.

“Thirty years ago I would’ve fallen out of my chair, gotten up, and gone to the kitchen to make a sandwich,” I said. “Now I fall out of a chair and end up on a walker!

And we all roared with laughter.

Both my parents were bitter and angry at their fate. You know who else is really, really bitter? The author Stephen King. He’s one of a handful of billionaire writers, but all he does is complain and express murderous hatred of those who disagree with him. His work is rotten with fear of death. Like my father, he smoked heavily; he also drank twenty-four tall-boy cans of beer every day and did cocaine for decades. His family intervened when he began leaving bloody tissue paper all over the floors and developed an inability to sleep if there was unconsumed liquor in the mansion. He has no memory of writing the novel Cujo.

King wrote in Christine that all parents hate their children, because reproducing is indisputable proof that you’re going to die. Well, King’s writing does indeed display remarkable hostility toward children. A passage from the novel It describes the rape of a child in ice-cold, clinical detail, with no empathy whatsoever. My impression is that the scene is meant as an attack on those of us who actually care about children. The entire novel Pet Sematary was written for the same reason.

The face of a man terrified of death.

In his rage that he has to die, he’s accelerated the process. Alcohol and drug abuse cause latent damage that doesn’t show up for years. Long after you’re clean and sober, you still keep eroding.

My brother Tim is suffering another one-in-a-billion eye problem, a disaster for an artist and photographer. Now his vitreous humor is detaching. Nothing can be done to stop it. His vision is bisected by what looks like a gray waterspout. It may go away, or it may not.

We laugh and laugh about our physical maladies. They’re too ridiculous to take seriously.

“Where’s the humor in your eye?” I asked.

“Out on the front porch! HAW!”

Since 2013 Tim and I have met many calming, strange, benign…people who exhibited the businesslike compassion of Alfredo. These are entities on a mission. They don’t waste their time on game players and narcissists.

If you stop thinking only of yourself, your sight will clear, and you’ll see the world the way Tim and I do. It has nothing to do with us; it’s a natural law, like gravity.

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