February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Twilight of an astronaut

By |2023-12-13T22:19:36+01:00March 29th, 2023|Other Works, Features Archive|
An astronaut on the moon.
M

­any moons ago I imagined myself an astronaut. I was then in my teens, but my head was in the clouds. The actual Moon, green cheese no longer, was on everyone’s mind. I was in a giant silver space suit. Invulnerable. Nothing outside could touch me. The great helmet protected me. My insides were bullet-proof. I was pristine and shiny. Upward. I would always be headed upward. No one could stop me.

My friend parks her tiny withered Smart car in front of the emergency room entrance, under a sort of pavilion. She comes to my side to let me out, but as I rise the pain hits me.

I collapse.

Seemingly out of nowhere two large men shout, grab me, keep me from the literal fall my Moon self once insisted would never occur, could not occur.

Age. Infirmity. Hello, I say to it. Hello, a crow caws back.

I am situated on a gurney as withered as the car. Its wheels squeak. My pants become caught under a wheel and all is yanked down, the zipper tearing into me.

I scream.

The banality of it all.

Two nurses undo my clothing wreckage and assure me all is well. Look, says one, clearly trying to dissuade my visceral panic, do you see the doctor! Not one but two! Do I see?

My friend shouts, “He’s blind,” but this important statement stalls in the night.

Now in a corridor that looks to me like a barrel full of light and shimmering shapes, I am asked to explain myself, to tell them what hurts. One hands me some papers. Please fill this out, she says.

But I cannot see, I tell her.

What do you mean?

I mean I cannot see. I am blind but for light.

I am the astronaut, I think. I must be. Invincible. And yet I can feel myself begin to cry. Yet another nurse sees this and wraps her arms around me. This is Italy. This is Rome. Nothing can stop the warming seepage of sudden maternal compassion. She helps me fill out the form, listening to my half-sobbed dictation.

Shorn from their routines and suddenly confined, distressed beings drift naturally toward panic and, further still, to spasms of primal madness.

But in the emergency room’s first long hallway it is swiftly determined my case is not urgent.  A catheter is inserted. A woman — no male voices are present — tells me I will be attended to as soon as is possible, then soon, which in the jargon of Rome means before hell freezes over, if not a slightly sooner. Too many times, before my eyes failed and the rest of me began its descent, I visited Rome emergency wings to see friends and got a taste of what is meant be soon, a reassuring word that all over the world is in such situations a synonym for the pliable, a verbal derivative of maybe.

Once my gurney is parked I know I have been left to a Moon of my own, perhaps never to leave it.

An emergency room is, by its nature, an estuary of mainland purgatory in which collective suffering is the natural state of things, an ecology all must at some point recognize. Never can there be pause or relief from this essence for no other reason than the clockwork constancy of human casualties. And in this maze they show off the relentless cycle of hurt and repair. In such a place, all is proudly tethered to what amounts to the industry of illness and wounds, an industry that in many cases does not allow for the immediate circumvention of misery, physical and mental. That, in this place, would be unnatural if not miraculous. Nothing can mitigate the madness within these corridors and room. Nothing. Shorn from their routines and suddenly confined, distressed beings drift naturally toward panic and, further still, to spasms of primal madness. Most of the emergency room patients are shocked to their animal core to find themselves in in a chaotic abyss when their goal was redress or reassurance, and yet they go silent. They say absolutely nothing, as if by minimizing their pain they might void the nightmare into which they have fallen in the name of seeking safe harbor, bewildered that those they love could have somehow ushered them into this alien place bereft — to some it seems by intention — of the (healthy) human known. I belong to this mute category, those lobotomized by the pace of the fray. Others respond very differently, gradually summoning prison inmate fury.

There are, I discover and hear (and am told), hundreds of patients parked like dead tram cars along the corridor. I hear the sick and the wounded chatting on their phones. One patient is telling his mother that he has broken his arm, and since the call is in speaker mode, I head the mother howling in anger. He is a teen who has apparently done just what his parents expressly told him not to. Mamma, he hisses, calm down, calm down, Basta! Enough! Calma!

Another woman is moaning as if reciting a psalm. The moans contain speech, words, that I cannot decipher. She is not Italian.

After ten minutes she begins to scream, a sound that in my sightless state sounds like ululation, as if she’d suddenly divided into ten women all gargling the same pained dirge.

Finally, she breaks into Italian, a single fammi uscire, Let me out of here.

But nothing happens.  I know I will hear the line again.

I spend, I guess, five hours on the same gurney in the same spot in the hall of hell before I am moved, like merchandise, to the next triage-style waystation.

Here I am visited for the first time since I arrived by a testy nurse who shouts, “Who is Vinner?” Winner, I say, like vincitore in Italian. I have summed my astronaut wit and stalwart approach to speak in this light way, hoping for sympathy. I get none and she deserts me.

Time and again I try to get the attention of other nurses who pass by, beseeching them to tell me something, to help me. I am blind. When will a doctor see me?

One such nurse scoffs. “Every centimeter of the ward is taken. Do you understand that, Vinner?”

A great clatter then erupts. Gurneys roll by one after another. Car accident casualties. I am wheeled to a distant corner under what sounds like a cuckoo-clock left over from another era. It is actually the sound of a monitor on someone in a coma. I do not know this until I am told. I suspect it is the middle of the night, 3 a.m., perhaps later. I have been on the dark side of the Moon for at least six hours.

What happens next is almost beyond telling, all the more as perceived by  someone without sight.

A young man begins to moan. It is muffled at first but then grows louder. He says, I am going mad. Help me. I am going mad.

Nothing.

He then raises his voice until his speech turns familiar, “Let me out of this shithole. Now!”

He now curses doctors and nurses, though no doctor is around, and again the tone rises, turning feral.

This goes on for some ten minutes as the man indeed turns into an animal, a zoo animal suddenly aware of its “benign” enslavement.

I hear him as he rises from his cot. He screams. IV drips have been torn out, and a nurse wails at him.

I hear the sound of his punch. He has hit her. All around me patients in many beds are on their phones like reporters covering events at the front. Some are filming the man, which I know because a nurse demands the filming cease.

But the man is now audibly loose in the corridor. Since in this mass of medical humanity there are only women, nurses, and orderlies, and he has already punched one, no one knows how to restrain him.

They cajole him, they reply to his insults with their own. Still he wanders about screaming and demanding his release from the manicomio, the madhouse. I wonder what a self-respecting astronaut would do but become aware yet again that I am no longer a self-respecting astronaut. Blind and in pain, I am reduced to animal status like the man at large. It is a madhouse, and I am helpless within it.

An empty gurney is turned over. Glass is shattered. More screaming. Finally, hospital security arrives but the man apparently is holding a chair or a table, wielding it as a weapon. The city police also arrive.

The standoff, one patient against what I suppose is now a miniature platoon of men, nonetheless drags on for another ten minutes until he is subdued by force — I hear the fierce scuffle.

He now screams, “I will be good now. I will be good now. I will calm myself.”

The police wish to take him away but the ER staff balks. He is injured. He has gone mad from trauma. They negotiate with the police and finally he agrees to sedation.

Why he was not sedated already returns us full-circle to the telling word soon. He was to have been sedated soon, until soon cracked and from the abyss emerged a man in hurt and primal form.

It is dawn before I am seen by the third-shift female doctor who asks me what I was asked at midnight, where it hurts. She pokes and presses my tender abdomen. I yelp like a dig. I am naked from the waist down as she fingers around my penis, pushing aside my bag to push at my bladder, I yelp yet again.

She dictates notes to an assistant with a phone.  There are five medical staff in the room. All are women, laconic and efficient.

The gender would mean nothing at all to me — this is an emergency, after all — if only I weren’t an astronaut in a silver suit headed to the moon and beyond, a destination of invulnerability. The astronaut in me, member of a generation soon to go the way of the dinosaur, is downcast, embarrassed, humiliated.

“Tethered? Maybe. But that’s how it is when you walk in space between planets and galaxies. Tethered, Miss? Yes. But to the mother ship.”

I instinctively try to pull my pants up after the exam but a nurse grabs my arm. To cover myself is pointless, she says. I must remember that I am tethered to a bag.

To which I want to say, but do not, “Tethered? Maybe. But that’s how it is when you walk in space between planets and galaxies. Tethered, Miss? Yes. But to the mother ship. So I can return and we can move on to the next adventure, as we astronauts known no limits…”

I am released at slightly after 5 p.m. the next day, most of which I have spent lying on the gurney. Later, the welts from my belt buckle I feel like deep gashes in my buttocks.

I am told I am “free to go,” which makes me think of the man the night before. A young doctor warns that some of my signs suggest cancer. He smiles, which is to say he speaks cheerfully, and tells me the elderly can’t be too careful. Prudence

He asks me to fill out discharge paperwork. No one has told him I cannot see. That was on his soon list.

He helps me, this young doctor called Salvatore, who speaks to me as if I might be his grandfather. The elderly, he starts again, but I interrupt him. I take his point, I say. I am old and sick. But I have to keep an appointment today.

Not today, he says alarmed, citing my dubious blood work and suspect scan. “Today and tomorrow you must rest, then see your specialist,” he advises me, and at that moment I finally snap.

“Okay, thank you for your concern. My appointment is on Jupiter. And when you reach my age you’ll maybe understand that getting there is half the battle.”

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.