Friday, May 27, 2016

The Farm

I was told to bring the brown manila folder with me when I reported to the lobby for my assignment, but first there was morning worship at 6:45 a.m. in the main dining hall.

I stepped out of my door at 5:30 into the dark and onto the wooden steps covered in two inches of fresh, crystalline snow. I had been in the cold and snow before, but this was different. The air was frigid and dry. My eyebrows and eyelashes hardened as I walked the nearly quarter mile along the northern perimeter path around the newly constructed residential buildings.

The new facilities would be reserved mainly for married couples, with the young bachelors aged nineteen and up staying in the older "E-res" and "A-res" buildings. Those with more seniority graduated into the nicer, newer rooms with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes, while the A-res and E-res provided dormitory-style lodgings. I was lucky, being assigned at least temporarily to one of the handful of detached modulars on the edge of the compound, almost exclusively reserved for married couples with more than a decade of seniority. 

My breath wafted up into the crisp morning air. I could hardly believe it, so enthralled was I with finally being at Bethel that I couldn't feel the crunch of the snow beneath my feet. I saw a heavy door that opened into one of the low corridors that connected the buildings together.

All of the newer residential complexes were built with three, triple-story buildings sticking out from a central hub with common areas such as libraries, laundromats, offices, utility rooms, and cargo bays. Each residential complex had a male "home overseer," with his wife more than likely assigned to the housekeeping detail for one of the complexes wings.

The home overseers' job centered around maintaining the impeccably high standards of maintenance and cleaning of the building, assignment of shared duties, outside congregation assignments, carpool group coordination, and monitoring the activities of the residents, particularly any single brothers. The overseers were among the most loyal Bethelites, and had to be elders for at least five to ten years or more, with a spotless background. 

After entering through the door, I walked down the long carpeted hallway, my fingers lightly brushing the wall as I went. My pace quickened as I approached the main dining hall.

Pushing open the double doors, I entered an immense room, filled wall-to-wall with over a hundred large, light-blue Formica tables, each with twelve chairs. The room, although large enough to accommodate several hockey rinks, was warm and inviting. Wood-paneled wainscoting skirted the walls, with white-oak posts and beams holding up the ceiling.

Along the far wall, near the gleaming ten-kettle copper coffee machine, was a sprawling mural in progress, partially concealed by curtains. It was of paradise, full of golden sunrises and green pastures and big-eyed children playing with elephants and tigers, painted by the recently-converted Margaret Keane.

Each post had at least two televisions mounted to it, angled down so that every table in the hall had a clear view. The screens were all in sync, with a black background and a large digital clock face with white digits counting down to when morning worship would begin. 

I poured myself coffee and carried the cup and saucer to my seat, consulting the map provided to me in my packet; a neat diagram with a line drawn directly to a seat which was second from the foot of the table, two rows down from the post closest to the kitchen doors.

Every table was identical, with twelve settings of silverware, plates, and cloth napkins. Each table had a pitcher of ice water in the center with a white cloth wrapped around the handle. I sat down on my cushioned seat.

On the far side of the room, there were fifteen-foot floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the pond, gazebo, and wooden arched bridges that were in the large inner courtyard of the compound. Ice crystals whirled outside in the dim, plum-colored dawn. The cold face of the Shawangunk Ridge was becoming barely visible beyond. 

I closed my eyes and bowed my head. I said my own prayer over an empty plate, clutching the bible I had brought with me to the dining hall. I had nothing but thanks to give. It was my first prayer where I didn't feel the need to ask him for all of this to come true anymore, or to ask him to help me in my struggle, to stay focused, to stay strong, and not let anything get in my way or drag me back into what I tried so hard to escape. 

For four years I worked at my ministry fruitlessly, with what I felt was nothing to show for it. I enjoyed my privileges in the congregation and loved teaching from the podium--never had I felt more alive than in those moments, in fact. But serving in the small rural congregation where I grew up, spending day after day going door to door, eventually knocking on every door in the valley that wasn't listed as a "do-not-call," and even then, calling on those homes once a year to see if they had a change of heart... doing all of this as a sixteen year old boy until I was nineteen, eschewing the more typical activities of a teen, avoiding any friendship that could distract me from my purpose, all of this made my end goal an imperative, a culmination of not just my fight but of my faith, as well. 

Wide-eyed, heart throbbing, I thumbed through my favorite scriptures, indulging myself for a few quiet moments as a few other early risers silently came in and meandered toward the copper coffee machine and went to their respective seats. I wavered in and out of prayer, meditating between the edges of sleep and a growing sense of God's love. But eventually I was brought back into my external space with the arrival of my table mates. I introduced myself and soon was in eager, ebullient conversation with my new brothers and sisters and the bleak anxious thoughts of my recent past faded quickly from my mind. 

The red light was blinking when I got out of the shower. I could tell by the number listed that it was the doctor from Miami leaving his third message. He sounded nice in the earlier ones. I continued brushing my teeth. 

Jesse had invited me to work with him painting condos down in Naples. That day would be over ninety degrees and humid enough to soak our Sherwin-Williams "Paint the World" t-shirts through by nine o'clock in the morning. 

I spent about ten minutes in the port-o-potty bleeding into the gaping plastic hole of shit and piss before I could join him and start rolling the exteriors with a twenty-foot pole. 

He introduced me to the crews we would be working with, consisting of two dozen Russian, Hispanic, and Romanian immigrants, each independent nationality and ethnicity with a team leader who was in charge of his crew only by virtue of speaking marginal English. Because we came alone--and because we were white, most likely--we were treated as our own crew and were ordered by the twenty-five year old superintendent to paint the garages of each condo in the sprawling hallow subdivision. 

Later, we found out that a few of the Russians spoke good English, although for reasons unknown to us they chose not to position themselves for a better job. A friendly man who introduced himself as Alex complained of a wife who kept him up all night begging for sex. He crawled up into an unfinished cupboard and napped for an hour or so as we rolled paint downstairs in the garage. Jesse and I laughed and joked deliriously as our sweat showered the fresh dusty concrete beneath our feet.

That night, Jesse dared me to drink the rest of the vodka in the bottle. I asked him to lock the front door and take my keys. I was excited when even the most energetic vomiting didn't trigger any bleeding. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nothing but the Blood

It resembled thick red yogurt, jiggling under my breath. Bloody tissues surrounded my head on the counter near the sink as I leaned over, exhausted and panting. I had slammed my head several times against the wall, each time waking from a daze after having passing out repeatedly. I had smeared the blood across the mirror and into my hair, either by accident or on purpose, unable to remember which.

I had been speaking to Theresa over the phone hours earlier as I leaned over the sink, the blood still bright, bouncing against the scotch-colored porcelain before it started filling the sink and coagulating into a red whey.

We talked about everything and nothing. Minutes of silence would pass. I would hear her breathing and imagine my head resting against her body.

I clung to her small cheery voice as I felt my own hopelessness and anguish welling up inside me in equal measure to the blood collecting in front of my eyes. I needed her to go on and on as she was prone to do, saying whatever came to mind.

Jason's mother-in-law found out that I had something wrong with my sinuses. She arrived one morning at my doorstep and told me she was taking me to see her ear, nose, and throat doctor.

The doctor was a younger man, and had probably just started his practice. I lay on his reclining chair as he sprayed a steroidal substance into my nostrils. My nasal passages immediately opened up—they had been inflamed and congested for days. He brought out a thin metal rod, a telescope with a camera on the end about nine inches long. He gently eased it all the way back into my head from my right nostril. He didn't see anything. Then he tried my left nostril.

About half way back, near the rear of my nose cartilage area was a mass blocking his way. He said it was probably a polyp and not much to worry about. He thought that the bleeding was due to an overly-sensitive blood vessel on the inside of my nose and that it could be cauterized once he removed the polyp. He was about to grab a small pair of forceps when he decided to get a second opinion. 

He got on the telephone and called what must have been a more experienced specialist. I heard him explain what he saw and mentioned removing the mass. I heard shouting on the other end of the line and the young doctor stiffened. After he hung up, he began filling out CT scan orders, his hands shaking very slightly, and ordering his nurses around, getting me sample pills of various uses and paper printouts of "How to Stop Bleeding." 

I got up from the chair a little lightheaded, but I could breathe through my nostrils, which was a relief. I went to the bathroom in the hallway with the nurses following me, asking me if I was alright. I closed the door and leaned over the sink. Two small drops of blood dripped out of my nose onto the white porcelain. I broke out into a cold sweat and tried to brace myself. After months of episodes, seeing pints of my own blood standing in place like Jello and bright red toilet-bowls-full of bloody water and red streaks I was too weak to adequately clean on bathroom floors and mirrors, I knew no higher strength that would get me through what was happening to me but to breathe slowly and deeply, even with tears streaking down my grimaced face. 

I slowed my breathing, allowed myself a moment, and stared into the mirror. 

Whatever was happening to me wasn’t within my control. I was caught up in something. And yet, while knowing this, I wasn’t ready to give up what control I thought I had. For now, I was still in a struggle against those who were trying to rob me of my freedom. Except now it wasn’t just my family, or the Farm overseers, or the congregation elders, but life itself. Some script I wasn't aware of, written down on the other side of the universe, past the asteroid belts and nebulae and dying stars separating the crab-grass districts of Cape Coral from the God I didn't understand. 

He was allowing this to happen, so it must be good. Or was it neutral? It was neutral, yes. But that didn't mean he was indifferent. Because that wouldn't be loving. He was loving. He was love. What was happening to me was insignificant in comparison to everything else going on in the world. What would happen, would happen. 

The nurses and Jason's mother held onto me as I stumbled out to the car, ashen-faced.

A few days later I underwent the two-thousand-dollar CT scan, charged to my one remaining credit card. I learned how the micro-catheter is plugged into the artery in the arm, and then the dye-like fluid courses through the cardiovascular system, spreading a chemical wave of uncomfortable heat through the entire body. 

“It’ll get hot, but don’t worry," the radiologist said. "Just imagine it’s about ninety degrees outside, you’re on the beach, and you see a hot naked woman walk by.” 

He pushed the drug into my artery and walked away. The machine creaked, clattered, and moaned, and then it was over.

The next day I got a call from the ear, nose, and throat specialist that was the voice on the other end of the phone line when I was in the doctor's office. He asked me if I would come to see him, that he had seen the scans. 

I drove across the bridge into Fort Myers. He was one of those doctors with a deep strong voice, a little stern, but with humor in the eyes. He cut right to the chase and told me I had a condition called juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma, a rare tumor that only occurs in males during their years of adolescence. It must have been growing for many years and only now presented itself with the bleeding in addition to the ongoing nasal blockage which I previously thought was due to allergies. We talked about the symptoms I had had growing up, and I told him of my frequent nasal inflammation. He said my more recent nasal obstruction was expected since the tumor had grown to such a size that it was completely filling my left sphenoid and was starting to fill the cavernous sinus area. It was highly aggressive, eating through my nasal septum, feeding off my carotid artery. Common symptoms included intermittent and uncontrollable bleeding, having to breathe through the mouth, loss of scent, dizziness, and of course the anemia that went with any extensive blood loss. I told him how I had just lost my job because of the bleeding, that I didn't know what to do. He talked about the nature of the tumor and how serious it was. 

I listened while gazing out the window at the tall palm trees, bending in the breeze. I absorbed it all with my eyes glazed over, stunned to be hearing all of my symptoms encapsulated and communicated back to me in a neat diagnostic package, devoid of the overtones of desolation that ruled my private life. He raised his eyebrows, made sure I was looking at him, and very deliberately said that this was something that would have to be taken care of. 

There it was again--"taken care of." Something easy and simple... some task or exercise that would go back in time and correct the script that was written for me. I asked what was involved.

The only way to do it, he said, was through surgery, opening up the left side of my face like a door, where the tumor could be resected. It was an intensive process, a serious operation, but he had done it before and had the resources to do it again.  

He asked me if I would be willing to undergo such a surgery, that it was the only solution. I said yes, I guess so, except that as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses I didn’t take blood transfusions. As soon as I mentioned this, he lifted his hands up and said he wasn’t going to touch me if I wasn’t going to accept blood. This kind of surgery would most likely require a transfusion, he said, as his last patient lost several pints. 

I sat there, not knowing what to say. It was an impasse; him wanting to see if I was serious about not accepting someone else's blood into my body, me not seeing anything else as an option. Our knees nearly touched as he stared at me over his long nose. My eyes wavered from his and stared outside at the palm trees. 

Finally, he nodded his head and asked me if I still wanted his help although he wouldn’t be the one to operate on me. I said yes, and he immediately got on the phone to call a doctor at the University of Miami who he said was the second-most renowned head and neck surgeon in Florida. The first, he said, who practiced in Ft. Lauderdale, was on vacation. He wrote down some numbers on a pad and handed them to me after setting me up with an appointment to see the other specialist. I thanked him and left.

~

The cherry tree was young and not too strong, even for a seven-year-old. It bent a little as I climbed up to a crook in its arms, barely concealed by its sparse shroud of leaves. I looked out into the pasture. Heidi's hooves were covered with mud as she nibbled on the grass that grew at the base of the well house. Joel and Jessica were somewhere inside the trailer. Mom wasn't home yet. 

I pulled the miner's lettuce out of my pocket and chewed slowly. I then yanked on the rope that I had tied to my ankle, pulling up the stereo tied to the other end. 

My favorite cassette tape was already in, an audio recording of "My Book of Bible Stories," narrated by a Governing Body member. I didn't have the book with me to follow along with, but I knew the pictures well enough and thought of them as I listened.

"Isn't this a good-looking little boy? His name is Samuel. And the man with his hand on Samuel’s head is Israel’s high priest Eli. That is Samuel’s father Elkanah and his mother Hannah who are bringing Samuel to Eli.

Samuel is only about four or five years old. But he will live here at Jehovah’s tabernacle with Eli and the other priests. Why would Elkanah and Hannah give someone so young as Samuel to serve Jehovah at the tabernacle? Let’s see.

It was just a few years before this that Hannah was very sad. The reason is that she could not have a baby, and she wanted one very, very much. So one day when Hannah was visiting Jehovah’s tabernacle, she prayed: ‘O Jehovah, do not forget me! If you give me a son, I promise that I will give him to you so he can serve you all his life.’

Jehovah answered Hannah’s prayer, and months later she gave birth to Samuel. Hannah loved her little boy, and she began teaching him about Jehovah when he was still very little. She told her husband: ‘As soon as Samuel is old enough so he does not need to be nursed anymore, I will take him to the tabernacle to serve Jehovah there.’"


My kitten Mikey clawed at the tree trunk below. As the cassette tape played, I noticed my mother's car coming down East Side Road, then turning onto the dirt road that led to our trailer up the hill. She arrived in front of the house and got out of the car. I stayed as silent as I could, holding down the plastic silver pause button on the stereo. She walked across the driveway and went up the steps into the trailer, sliding the glass door closed. 

Mikey rubbed his back against the tree and meowed. A hawk screeched in the distance.

~

After I left the doctor's office, I drove back across the bridge to Cape Coral and stopped at Safeway. I had just charged over two thousand dollars to my credit card, and I didn't see much difference in now buying a pack of Murphy's stout and a couple of deli sandwiches. Jesse greeted me as I walked in the door and we ate and drank as we played games on our computers. Jesse said Theresa called while I was out. I smiled, warm inside from knowing she was waiting for me.

I didn't know what she and I meant, and I was losing the desire to know. I didn't have any means to weigh the value of our intimacy. She had rejected a more formal relationship with me when I was in Richmond and yet we still talked every day, carrying on as before.

She knew I bled, knew more than anyone else. But I still never told her that I often bled while we talked. I couldn't tell her that it calmed me and helped me to not choke and gag on the threads of blood that formed along the sides of my throat. I had to keep something for myself, at least, and the details of the bleeding, the close-up images and character of the stuff I tried to keep solely in my own world. It was almost unreal, as long as her little voice carried on.

About half way through my sandwich, I felt something.

I quickly drank the rest of my beer, grabbed the phone, went into my bedroom, and closed the door.