believe I just taxied right off the fucking runway. One moment I’m headed for
the terminal, the next moment we’re off in the grass, my landing gear is mired
in the mud, and the plane is stuck fast. I shake my head. How did that happen?
Did I pass out? Get distracted? Did the steering fail? Fuck! I advance the twin
throttles. Both radial engines spool up with a throaty roar, the airframe
vibrates, but we do not move. I throttle back before I shake the silver beauty
to pieces. Then I advance just the left throttle. The left engine snarls to
life, the plane shakes and groans, but again we do not move. I yank the
throttle back to idle. Shit! I sit for a moment, exhale, collect my thoughts,
then I key the mike and call the tower. Uh,
november triple four six kilo, I, uh, have a little problem here…
filters in the window between the slats of the blinds and across my bed, waking
me. Crap. I need to call the FAA this morning and explain to them how I taxied
off the runway at an unauthorized spot yesterday and got stuck in the mud. Hell
of a way to start the day.
I swing my
feet to the floor and my eyes fall on the glucometer on my nightstand.
I’m not a commercial pilot anymore. It was a dream. Or… or… is the diabetes a
dream? As cobwebs dance across my mind, I try to sort it all out. The gleaming
plane stuck in the mud seems so real. The world of diabetes and illness seems
like a fuzzy, distant dream… and yet… and yet I think what feels real is the dream
and what feels like a dream is real. How can that be?
I rub my
eyes and see my clothes and stethoscope laid out on the Victorian chair in the
corner of the bedroom. Then I remember. I’ve been sick. Very sick. And today I
must go back to work. Not at the airport, but at the clinic. The sliver plane
off the runway in the mud, so real moments ago, fades as the reality of
diabetes and chickenpox crowd in. Silver planes are dreams. Reality is
desperate times and desperate people. Sickness and poverty and fights with
insurance companies. I have been commanded to return to this reality: It is
time. You must return. You must come back to work.
But I do
not want to go back to work. I do not feel fit for duty in mind, body, or spirit.
But the powers that be are insistent, and my boss—the most brilliant clinician
I know—feels that exercising my brain in its old patterns might be just what it
takes to get it to start working again. The neurological equivalent of
jump-starting a car.
I am so unconvinced
that I do not even pack lunch.
Now on the
one hand, I’m not terribly sick anymore. I’m no longer contagious. Most of the
scabs have fallen off. I’m able to stay awake for most of the day. But on the
other hand, I’m not terribly well, either. My mind still does not feel right,
and the pain in my gut remains omnipresent—sometimes worse, sometimes better. I
feel a mere shadow of my former self. Perhaps the shape is the same, but there’s
no contour, no depth. I believe this disease should have killed me but someone
dropped the ball. Probably, just like UPS and FedEx, who can never seem to find
my house, the Grim Reaper got lost en route. Now I’m in limbo like a lost
package that no one knows what to do with. Do we forward this onward or return
it to the sender?
asked to come into the clinic in the middle of the day and to stay only as long
as I feel up to it. I have no patients on the docket. I’m just to catch up on
phone messages, emails, and get familiar with the new version of our electronic
medical record that was installed in my absence. Without my normal mental powers
at my command, I am unable to conjure up an excuse not to comply with the
request. But I dearly wish I could.
high in the sky, I drink a cup of coffee and eat a Kind bar. Then I pack a pipe
with Black Cavendish, put on my grey wool coat, pull my dusty go-bag off its
hook by the door, and step outside.
back into my jeep after more than a month feels surprisingly “right.” Sort of
like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes. Still, on the drive over to
the clinic I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going to my own execution. I
don’t want to be doing this. Along with the nagging pressure/pain in my gut, I now
have butterflies in my stomach. The devil on my shoulder whispers in my ear: Just
drop into the median, do a U-Turn, and turn tail for home. Tell them you tried,
but just couldn’t make it. They’ll never know.
jumper on a ledge, I want to, but for some reason I do not. I forge onward.
The day is
sunny and bright. Normally the kind of day that’s full of promise. The hour’s
commute seems to take forever, but in a good way. After all, I’m in no hurry to
get where I’m going.
been one month to the day since I last worked. Most of the four weeks off is a
fog of sweat-drenched nights, nightmares, ER visits, fear, fatigue, and
I park at
the edge of the main parking lot instead of “up back” where employees are
supposed to park. I can barely walk and I want to conserve my energy for the
day. As I make my way stiffly down the hall to my office, my brain seems mired
in molasses. Everything is familiar and yet nothing looks quite right.
door is closed tight. I usually leave it open. In my imagination, I briefly
envision yellow-and-black crime scene tape sealing it off. I shake off the
image and push the door open. The energy-saving motion detector wakes up and
turns on the lights for me. I drop my go-bag and car keys on my desk, and as I
turn to close the door, I see it.
new is waiting for me.
My wall is
no longer a sterile blank canvas. It is graced with a painting and a note from
my beloved. At some point while I was away, my wife snuck in and hung a
painting on the wall. It’s a big painting of a small airplane being engulfed by
a fearsome cloud—a wicked swirling blue-grey vortex.
oddly sinister painting. But I love it at once.
the plane is in the sky—where planes belong. It’s not broken down, out of fuel,
grounded by fog, or stuck in the mud like the planes that have haunted my
chickenpox nightmares for weeks on end. Clearly, this little plane is about to
encounter an epic challenge, but it’s flying boldly forward.
at once that this plane and I have a lot in common. Like it, a storm surrounds
me and I must fly through it or I must crash in the attempt. I’m not ready for
the challenges ahead, but I mentally advance the throttle, bank towards the
storm, and fly in.
hour is spent getting (slightly painful) welcome-back hugs from my various colleagues.
hour is spent trying to get my fucking computer working. We have three
different passwords between turning on the stupid laptop and reaching the damn electronic
medical record. Each password has to be at least 12 characters in length. Each password
has to have at least one capital letter, at least one lower case letter, at
least one number, and at least one special character. The same password cannot
be used twice, each password expires every three months, and cannot be reused.
remember any of them.
I sit in
front of the blank computer screen and tell myself that even without encephalitis,
even without sleep deprivation, even without the wicked cognitive side effects
of powerful antivirals, I likely had problems logging in every day.
myself that, but I am not convinced.
hour is spent trying to figure out how to do the most basic of operations on
the new medical record software that looks nothing like the old. Or maybe it
does look like the old and I just don’t remember. Again I find the dream world
and the real world converging on me and I’m not sure what is changed versus
what I’ve lost. I glance outside my office door, but there’s no sign of Bill
in my gut gets worse. A giant knot. I don’t know if it’s the chickenpox damage,
the swollen lymph nodes, or just garden-variety fear and stress. Maybe all of
the above, but I find myself doubled over at my desk, unable to sit up
One of my
nurses pokes her head in the door, “You don’t look so great, you doing OK?”
I’ll live, I reassure her. In fact, at that moment,
I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
hour is spent weeding through month-old voice mails and hoping that most of the
people who left me messages have since contacted someone else at the clinic.
Three weeks ago, for instance, there was a message from one of my patients:
“Please call me right away, I only have one day of insulin left!”
I have 193
emails. Fuck that. Enough is enough. I’m going home.
exhausted. Everything today was a struggle. Even the littlest things took the
longest time to accomplish, and still didn’t feel right. It felt more like the
first day on the job, not the 2,500th that it really was.
But I made
it through the day.
down the computer and looked up at my new painting of the little plane approaching
the big vortex. I don’t know if my mind will ever work right again—but somehow this
plane flying into the storm gives me hope. It will be a long road, no—a long
flight—to recovery. But at least today I’m off the ground.
that I’m back “in the sky” again, I wonder if the dreams of broken-down,
stranded, and grounded planes will fly away.
my dreams will take wing.