eon lights, white-ceiling tiles, a small air vent to the right. You lie on an immobilization board on a hospital bed and wait. Pain devours your spine, radiates out. You cannot move.
Curtains — some yellow, some blue — hang lazily around your area. A machine beeps from a bed nearby. Short beeps at regular intervals and periodically a longer, single, beep at a lower register.
Talking. So much chatter. Nurses, doctors, auxiliaries, volunteers. They call out to each other, jokes interspersed with medical comments.
“E’ proprio drammatico oggi.”
“Ma chi ha spostato il monitor?”
“Scusi, ma lei qui non puo’ entrare.”
You wonder how long you’ll have to wait until you’re seen. You’ve been in other hospitals before. Waiting is nothing new, it happens in New York City just as it does here, in a small town in Tuscany. It’s part of being ill. An optimist would say it’s also part of healing. Waiting can bring its own rewards. You have time to think. But right now, after a horseback riding accident, you feel alone, cold, and in pain.
Your thoughts turn to your mother, who died of pneumonia in a Rome hospital in the late 1970s. Though you have much of her writing, you know few specifics. You think about her often; your life has been marked by her absence. This situation revives thoughts of her suffering, her loneliness, her determination, which have now become your own.
You wonder how long she was hospitalized. Where? Who took care of her? Was her Italian sufficient to understand what doctors said to her? Did they call her la straniera as they now call you? Did her long hair spread out messily over the pillow as yours does now? Did anyone come visit as she lay dying?
You know she left New Jersey around 1974 after the divorce. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and refused medication. She moved to Rome to be closer to her children, who followed their father to the Middle East, and to get farther away from her parents and brothers. She wrote and painted. She kept journals — endless notes on what she saw, ate, drank, felt, read. And sketchbooks. “Motor paintings of movement,” she called them, “prepared in the blankness of living. Color selections by choice, accident, almost by an appetite of finding the corresponding mark to answer the problems of spatial existence, existence in time-point.”
You now hold her writings and drawings. You have become the custodian of her life, her memory, her art. But what will you do with all this material? How to make sense of it? An exhibit? Essays? A novel? Now, with your injury, her pain has also become yours. Passed down, from mother to daughter.
Again and again you stop to ponder. You find it darkly ironic that the pain of a vertebral compression fracture in your back reminds you of labor pains. You’ve had two natural childbirths. Both brought great suffering — and joy. This agony is a counterpoint to those moments, a reminder that your daughters are now adults. You are on your own. It is up to you to push life forward.
But how, you think, will you manage it, now that you have almost lost it, now that you have consumed half of it? Will you hide away, indulging your need for solitude, or work to relay its complexity and value?
The orthopedic surgeon finally makes his rounds and gives you a detailed reading of your x-rays. He issues prescriptions, advice, and warnings. The pain bleeds through your fingertips as you sign your discharge papers, eager to leave.
Soon you will be accompanied home where you will spend three weeks on your back. Recovery will be distressingly slow and replete with doubt and frustration. Writing is no different. It, too, is a process made of small, arduous steps taken in darkness and illuminated only by the dull glow of time, commitment and possibility.
Follow those dim lights, your mother’s voice says. Listen to me, heal yourself and live.