Lost and Found

Lost and Found
by Manny Frishberg

Just before the light turned green, you said that it was a lovely night for a ride and leaned your head way back to look at the sky. I revved the engine and let the clutch lever slide out from under my fingertips. The bike jumped and sped into the intersection before I saw the brake lights on the pickup as we skidded into it.

I only remember isolated flashes after that, like so many of your photographs, anchored in memory by a sound or smell. Changing streaks of colored light—red, orange, white, and red again—mixed up with the odor of hot oil on rain-washed pavement; stiff white linen and the taste of oxygen in a plastic mask; florescent lights reflected on stainless steel and the odor of iodine, combined with surging waves of pain.

I awoke in a seductive fog of opiates and gauze bandages, surrounded by dull-green curtains, after what the nurses told me had been two touch-and-go days. A black man wearing scrubs the same color as the curtains came in to change my bed sheets. I asked him where you were, the words like cotton in my mouth. Eventually he noticed I wanted to talk.

“So, you’ve decided to wake up, after all,” he said. “I’m Jamal.” He finished tucking in the bedding and left me without waiting for a response. Then a nurse came in to have a look. She said nothing but started to probe me, shining a penlight in my eyes, prodding my elbows and knees to check my reflexes, taking my temperature, and making notes in my chart before talking.

“Welcome back,” she said with a smile. “We weren’t sure you were going to make it.”

I tried again to ask after you but the sounds dribbled out of my mouth like pudding.

“Don’t try to talk just yet,” she said. “The doctor will be in to see you in a little while. Right now, you need to rest. Do you have any pain?” I shook my head and she wrote in my chart again.

The next few days went by in a haze of pain and morphine-induced sleep. Sometimes I noticed a nurse checking my vitals or changing the bags on the IV pole and I must’ve asked some questions, because when I surfaced into being more or less fully conscious, I knew you were also in the ICU.

I was not in great shape. I had a bandage covering one eye and a cast reaching from my heel to my hip, but at least my hands were free. They wouldn’t let me have anything to drink, but I had a sponge on a stick that I could swab in my mouth to keep it from getting too dry. The doctor said the blood tests showed my kidneys were “pinking up,” and he would consider moving me out of intensive care once they were working again.

The room they put me in had a view of the city that you would pay major dollars for if it were a fashionable condo. An air pump thrummed in a regular rhythm, squeezing my legs to keep the circulation going. Eventually I got one of the nurses to help me into wheelchair to come upstairs to see you.

Nothing prepared me for what I found. Only your head protruded from the bedsheets, along with some wires attached to the monitors. I stared at your face, swollen out of shape, stained yellow and green where the bruises had begun to fade, still beautiful, still alive. Your limbs pressed up against the bedding like a wireframe ghost. Fluid dripped through tubes passing under the covers. A ventilator clicked and hissed monotonously. I sat in the chair for a long time, wondering if you would forgive me, or if I could manage to forgive myself.

Once, your eyes seemed to open for just a moment. Excited, I rang for the nurse.

“We see that a lot,” she said in a professionally neutral tone, “but it’s just random nerves firing. Not something to pin your hopes on.”

“But hope is all I have,” I said. She looked at me as if she were seeing me for the first time. The tightness around her lips softened, almost into a smile.

“There’s always room for hope. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t come to work every night.” She extended her hand. “Sheila,” she said. She held my hand an extra second before letting go.

The next day, your doctor came to my room for the first time.

“Were you close?” Dr. Adamsen asked, just like that, talking about you in the past tense. My blood ran cold. I couldn’t allow for the possibility that you might be gone.

“We’re married.” Word evidently hadn’t reached him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Your wife’s condition hasn’t changed. Her brain is still swollen from the trauma and we’re keeping her under heavy sedation until that resolves.” I could breathe again. “We won’t know how much damage there is until then, but there is every reason to hope. Her other injuries were really quite minor. I’ll try to stop by when I can to keep you appraised.”

Overwhelmed with gratitude, I thanked him for everything.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, “for the way I spoke.” Then he was gone.

Through my window, the sun flashed through the scaffolding of the giant dockside cranes and cast the shipping containers in amber light. A few pigeons always visited the window ledge before dusk settled. I had come to look forward to that time of day, but this time I barely noticed its passing. When I asked the nurse for a wheelchair to go up to see you, she brought a pair of crutches.

I got accustomed to talking to you every day. They all told me that you couldn’t hear me, but that hardly seemed to matter. I was keeping a connection open, one I could not imagine doing without. I nearly panicked when Dr. Vries mentioned discharging me. The hospital’s routines and your presence a few floors away had become the guidelines of my life. How could I face going home without you?

But the house held so much of you. Your socks lay scattered around the floor, as if you would be walking in the front door at any moment. Going into your studio or the darkroom was out of the question—I could just hear you chastising me for messing with your pictures—but routine eventually reclaimed the rest of the place, a little at a time.

Elliot gave me my ride home from the hospital, so I couldn’t hide when he came by to see if I could start taking some shifts at the theater. There was no avoiding it. Except for getting up and down the stairs to the projection booth, the job really wasn’t too demanding, and he’d been so decent about everything that I could hardly refuse.

Mornings I stayed with you until I had to leave for work. The nurses and aides were always friendly, but as the weeks wore on, they subtly changed. They stopped offering encouraging comments and seemed to avoid talking at all within earshot whenever possible, waiting for me to give up hope. So I wasn’t really surprised when, despite the lack of any obvious changes, Sheila said Dr. Adamsen needed to talk to me.

There was none of the uncertainty from our earlier conversations, only a distant clinical tone.

“I’m so sorry,” Dr Adamsen said. His words shocked me like a hot wire. “We did all we could, but the damage to her brain was just too great. We can keep her body intact for a time, mechanically, but she’s gone.”

You’re never prepared for a moment like that, no matter how much you might anticipate it. He stood there for a minute, but I couldn’t look at him. The doctor said there was someone else who needed to talk with me. He motioned to a woman wearing a suit and holding a clipboard to come in, then he left.

“There’s nothing more we can do for your wife, but there is something she can do for others,” the woman said after introducing herself. “I know this is a terrible time to ask this of you, but there is such a desperate need for organ donations.”

It struck me that she had made this identical speech a hundred times. Still, I wanted to believe she meant the words just the same. I knew what you’d have wanted.

“No hurry. Take as much time as you need to say goodbye,” she said after I’d signed the forms. I gathered up my things to leave as soon as she was gone. All I wanted was to get away. Nobody at the nurses’ station looked at me and I didn’t stop to say anything.

I carried on the pretense of living, but I entombed myself with memories of you. Some nights, Elliot came up and sat with me while the movies were running, but I had nothing to say to the living. Still, I appreciated the gesture. Somehow the call telling me that your heart had stopped kept not coming. By then, I had stopped spending all my free time at your bedside.

Gradually, I erased most of you from the house—not intentionally, but through the regular routines of tidying up and doing the laundry. I managed to put away your clothes and the magazines you left open and half-read in the bathroom. Your spaces were the exception. One day, I finally decided to clean out your studio.

A pile of unanswered letters took up one corner of your desk. I sorted them into the bills that still had to be paid, work correspondence, and personal letters from old friends and unknown admirers that you always felt compelled to answer. A spiral notebook held a half-finished response, waiting for you to breeze in and take it up where you’d left off. I considered finishing it for you and started to read what you had written, but I had to stop halfway through the second paragraph. It had been so long since I heard your voice, even in my imagination.

The bulletin board above your desk confronted me next, covered with what most would see as a haphazard array of your photographs. I couldn’t always see the connections myself, but I had seen the way you struggled with the composition, arranging the prints just so, taking down the board to reassemble them when you added a new image or retired a familiar one.

In the bottom left corner, there was an old black-and-white print of a small boy feeding ducks in Laurelhurst Park, taken before we had even met. You had focused not on his face but the pudgy hand tossing out bread, which streaked across the frame from the end of his fingers. Expanding ripples held down the center of the frame. Next to it came another from the same roll: the boy’s father, frozen in that moment, poised to jump and rescue his son if he should slip, yet standing out of the way, a small smile of contentment barely showing in the profile.

A series of color prints of snow angels taken at dusk, the bent yellows and oranges of the setting sun clashing with the indigo indentations. One big print dominated the center of the board while a half-dozen smaller prints vied for attention around the edges. In the upper right corner, you’d pinned a snapshot of yourself that I took on our first weekend together. In it, you stood as a slightly blurry patch of primary colors atop a woodpile, triumphantly posing with a splitting maul in one hand and a wedge of firewood in the other. This was before you let me see any of your pictures, before I even knew you were a photographer.

I remembered how you had teased me so mercilessly for pulling out my Instamatic. You explained that the type of camera, even the recorded image, were secondary to you—only the moment when the shutter clicked mattered. You saw the world as a series of moments plucked from the procession of time and captured in the film emulsion, a reminder of what had been and could never be again.

I stood there for I don’t know how long, staring into your face, indistinct and half as big as a dime, yet I knew every freckle and laugh line perfectly. For the first time in weeks, I spoke your name out loud, and I knew in my heart that you would not be there to answer me, not ever again. It seems I had been waiting for that to really cry.

The sobbing shook my shoulders but the sound hardly came back to me. I was afraid my tears would ruin your prints, so I closed the portfolio and went back out to where your spirit had already been exorcized.

Afterward, I felt drained and hollow, but more ready to look beyond those rooms than I had been since the accident. There was only me there, and you’d have been so impatient with my stubborn reluctance to live.

All around me, the world was abuzz with medical miracles. Magazine covers and newspaper headlines trumpeted the latest in designer medicines, nerve grafts, and even brain-tissue transplants. Without knowing precisely when my interest in the world had awakened again, I felt consoled by the notion that you would in some way help contribute to it. But I had never heard of Caroline Beckman before Elliott showed up at the door waving the morning paper.

The youngest daughter of an old Rhode Island investment banking family, she raced small planes in Powder Puff Derbies, which was where she was headed when her wing clipped a high voltage line somewhere west of here.

“Her copilot died in the crash,” Elliott said, “and she had burns over 80% of her body. Her chances were never very good.” I nodded blankly, not at all sure why he thought this was worth an early morning visit, but Elliott seemed excited, so I just waited for him to go on. “It says she’s a good candidate for a brain transplant—the first one they’ve ever tried.” When he said she was in the burn unit at your hospital, I finally understood.

I had to follow the events in the media like everybody else. There was a spate of news stories right at the beginning, talking about the breakthroughs that had been made in neural tissue regeneration and the remarkable progress they were making, even enabling some quadriplegics to move their hands and feet. What they had planned for you was a logical, if radical, extension of that work.

I began scouring the Internet for every available scrap of information I could find, about anything even remotely related to nerve growth and regeneration. For the first time, I had something animating my life, connecting me to the world again.

The doctors held a news conference the day after the surgery, shown live on the 24-hour news networks. Dr. Adamsen sat silently at the table while the neurosurgeon who led the team announced the first successful transplant of an intact brain into a donor body. She said the patient was being kept in an induced coma to allow the connections to heal, but that the operation had gone well and the electroencephalogram results were “within expected parameters.”

There were a few follow-ups in the next weeks, but with little new to report, interest faded, especially after Turkey’s invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Even I had gotten on with my life, going out occasionally and beginning to spend more time with friends. Susan and Paul’s little girl had been born while I was out of it—you remember how excited she was when the pregnancy test stick turned blue. I started babysitting Stephanie on my nights off so they could have a little time for themselves. They became almost a second family. Being around a new life and so much happiness actually rubbed off on me.

I started paying attention to the movies, too. When Elliott decided to run a Chaplin retrospective, I helped him screen them and pick out four or five to put on the schedule. When we watched Modern Times, he said it surprised him to hear me laugh. It was always one of your favorites, I told him, and amazingly, I didn’t break down. Spring was turning into summer by then, but I had no desire to get on a bike again.

“It’s like being thrown from a horse,” Paul told me one day. “You just have to swallow your fear and get back on.”

“It’s not that I’m afraid,” I said. “It doesn’t matter that the cops and the insurance company say it was the pickup’s fault. It’s just that I’m still here and she isn’t. It wouldn’t be fun, that’s all.”

“Survivor’s guilt,” he said. I just glared at him. Susan plopped Stephanie in my lap and I let it go at that.

One sunny Monday morning, Sheila called me. I was surprised to hear from one of the ICU nurses after all this time. She said that there was something she thought I should know, and she had become convinced the doctors weren’t going to tell me. The way she said it made my blood turn to ice.

“You know, your wife was the donor body,” she said. I had suspected so, but it’s not the kind of information they normally release. “Well, she hasn’t regained consciousness yet, but something’s strange, nonetheless.”

I started to say I didn’t see what this had to do with me but she cut me off short.

“Brain tracings are a lot like fingerprints,” Sheila explained. “We’ve been monitoring her EEGs, and there are some anomalies in Caroline Beckman’s test results. I went back in the charts to take a look. These aren’t Ms. Beckman’s tracing; I think they look more like your wife’s.”

I felt as if I’d been smacked in the face with a brick. I don’t remember if I even said anything to her before I hung up.

I began haunting the ICU again, waiting for you to wake up. They didn’t want to let me in at first, but when I started threatening to go to the media with my story, they relented and let me talk with Dr. Adamsen again. He was noncommittal but did admit that there were some unusual patterns in the EEGs. He promised to keep me informed and to talk with the Beckman family about letting me see you once you regained consciousness.

The next nine days were the longest in my life. I thought seeing you when we were both in the hospital had been hard on me, but this turned out to be a million times worse. The day they called, I was pulling a double shift, running both the matinee and the evening show, so I didn’t get the message until almost midnight. The docs were long gone, but luckily Sheila was on duty when I got there.

“She was awake when I came on shift,” the nurse said. “She’s still very weak and she’s been sleeping off and on, but she’s been crying, too, and asking about you.” Later, I wondered why I didn’t ask for more information, but right then, nothing else mattered.

You appeared to be sleeping when I went in. I just stood there by the side of the bed, staring. There were IVs hanging from a steel pole and a monitor reading out your blood oxygen level. They had a tube wrapped around your ears and under your nose, but other than that, you looked almost normal. Your hair had been growing back since the operation; it stood up like a military haircut. Your body, what I could see of it, was more emaciated than I even remembered, though the bruising was gone, and the skin stretched across your face, tight against the bones. I almost jumped out of my skin when you opened your eyes.

“Hi,” you said in a hoarse whisper, as if seeing me there was the most natural thing in the world. I stood there stupidly for a minute, trying not to cry. Then you smiled. I managed to say your name and you smiled again. I cried without trying any more to stop. You kept smiling at me but there was something disturbing about your expression, like you were seeing something past me, something sad and beautiful that was invisible to me.

“Are you alright?” It sounded stupid as soon as I heard myself asking it, but I really didn’t know what else to say.

“I had to see you one more time,” you said. You were looking straight at me, but that sad, distant look was still in your eyes. “I tried so hard to wake up, but I couldn’t. I was afraid you would hold yourself to blame, and I wanted to let you know that everything really was alright. All I really remember was that it hurt so much, but I couldn’t bear to let go. Then finally I did, and it didn’t hurt anymore.

“I could see myself lying in the bed, this poor emaciated fragile bag of skin. The doctors were there, trying to revive me and I wanted to tell them to stop, that I was finally ready to go, but I knew I was beyond that and they couldn’t hear me.

“Then I felt something pulling on me and there was only light—a light so bright and clear that it hurt, but it didn’t somehow, because there was no pain, no fear, just a serene sense of peace that overwhelmed everything else. And I wasn’t thinking anymore, just floating as I was drawn into the light. That doesn’t explain it, exactly, but I’ve been lying here thinking about what to say and that’s the best I can do. It’s like the stories you read of near-death experiences. They’re real, but they don’t ever get it right, either. I don’t think the words exist to do it justice.”

Your eyes were tearing up as you spoke. I reached for a tissue to dry them but you waved me off. I was crying, too, though I can’t say why, even now. I was so glad to have you back, but it was already clear that you didn’t feel the same. There were so many things I had wanted to say to you, so many times I had rehearsed them in my mind when I was waiting for you to regain consciousness and repeated to the silence in the middle of the night when I knew you wouldn’t wake up. Yet here you were and I just sat there, dumb and uncertain if I should reach out to you or not.

I stared into the florescent light over your bed until my eyes ached, trying to imagine the brilliance you were describing, knowing there was nothing that could make me understand.

An aide came in to check your vitals without speaking a word. I scooted my chair back to give her room and she looked at me as if she wanted to ask what I was doing there, but all she did was record the numbers in your chart and move on.

When we were alone again, I pulled my chair back up to your bed and took your hand. You gave it a squeeze, and I remember being surprised at how strong you were, despite how withered your body seemed to be.

The skin on your hand seemed paper thin. Staring at it, I imagined that I could see the blood coursing through your fingers as you continued talking.

“I had no sense of time passing anymore, like I could stay where I was forever. Then I was being pulled away, dragged against my will. Once, when I was a little girl, we went to the beach. I went to play in the breakers at the edge of the shore. A wave came rushing in past me, and as it ran back out, it pulled my feet out from under me and dragged me toward the water.

“That’s how this felt, only I wasn’t afraid. I wanted more than anything to hold on and remain there in the light. For a time, I floated in a dark, quiet space, then I was here again in this hospital room. I was glad because I knew I would be able to see you again, after all. But at the same time, it just felt wrong, knowing this was not where I belonged anymore. It’s not where I belong.”

I must have looked very confused—you always said you could read my thoughts on my face. I started to talk to fill the empty silence in the room.

“You were dead,” I said without even thinking about how you might respond. “Brain dead, at least. I had already signed the consent forms for your parts to be used for transplants and they decided to use your body for an experimental procedure.” I started to tell you about Caroline Beckman but you waved me on.

“She died,” you said, “a little after I did.”

A chill raced up my spine and I nodded, stupidly.

“What did they do?” you asked. Your face and voice sent another shock up my spine.

I explained as best I could about the brain transplant and the strange EEG readings. As I talked, your eyes got wider, the whites showing all around and you shook your head, first just a little, then more and more forcefully, silently mouthing the word, “No.”

I finally stopped talking and just held on to your hand. I felt like I was being torn in two. You were impossibly, implausibly here with me again, the answer to a prayer I had lacked the courage to pray, and you were horrified, telling me it shouldn’t be.

It was almost four in the morning. The sky outside your window was beginning to gray in anticipation of the coming light. I kept muttering that it was late and you should rest, that everything would be better in the morning. Eventually, I fell asleep in the chair beside your bed, still clinging to your hand.

I awoke an hour or so before dawn. The sky was shining brightly through the window. In the stillness, I could see you silhouetted against the bleak morning sky. You appeared even more fragile there than you had lying in the bed; your arms and legs were stick-thin and the gown hung limp around your shoulders. I could see the outline of your hip bone and the vertebrae sticking out in the slit down the back. You were tugging at the window sash and I could see your body shuddering from the effort. Then it came to me what you were trying to do.

If I’d been thinking, I’d have rung for the nurse or yelled for help, but I didn’t think. I bolted from the chair, running to catch you before you fell. I tried to lead you back to the bed, but you pulled away from me and turned back and began pounding your fists on the window. Your eyes were full of anguish and determination. I felt like I had been punched in the chest, and my breath felt squeezed into my throat.

“Help,” you said in that high, sad, terrible tone, and my tears blurred the scene. I hit the window with my shoulder and the rush of air struck me as glass fell against the concrete sill. I turned away, too afraid to see.

Sheila appeared in the doorway, alerted by the noise, and raced past me, screaming. Then everything became quiet again. She used the phone by your bed to call security, and they waited there with me in the nurses’ station until the police came. I kept thinking somebody should pack up your things. When they let me use the phone, I called Elliott to tell him I wouldn’t be coming in to work and asked him to take care of your negatives.

Even my lawyer thinks I threw you out the window. They say you were just too frail to get out of bed on your own. He says we should plead insanity. Maybe I’ll let him. None of it matters anymore.

I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again, but I’m not afraid. I know I will be in the clear, white, beautiful light.

Copyright © 2015 Manny Frishberg