I leaf through a magazine as I wait for the nurse to come and escort our group back to the room where visiting hours occur. The magazines here probably haven’t been replaced since the building first went up back in the 00’s and is printed on actual paper stock. It should have been interesting merely as a curiosity, but it’s hard for anything to hold much interest in the minutes leading up to visiting hours. I only hold it as a signal to those around me that I’m in no mood to talk.
It’s a small bunch of us today. It’s always a small group except around holidays. Newbies and stubborn hangers-on visit every time. Everyone else only shows up for holidays, looking both paler and more rested than regulars.
“How’s Luke doing?” a woman I’ve seen before asks a face new to me but familiar to her.
“He’s still out past Neptune, but they say he seems happier. This new rigging might just be the way to go.”
My acquaintance nods at her. Every new attempt just might be the one that works. We all of us cling tightly to that.
Rigging is a mix of cybergenic adaptive equipment, therapy, and medication. A good rig allows a space case to interact with the people on Earth who care about them even as their mind expands across the cosmos. A good rig allows a sort of reconciliation for a patient who is split between the eternal expanse of time and space, and the pinprick of existence (bills, stomach flu, politics and all) that is what everyone else thinks of as real life. A good rig is like winning the lottery.
Nobody knows they’re a spaceman until the day they leave Earth. Though afterwards we think, “He used to watch the stars a lot, that must have been a clue.” Or, “Her uncle flew off all the time. We just called him eccentric back then, up until the accident anyway.” It’s like that. Everything is normal, right up until it isn’t and by then you’re left behind.
When Extraplanetary Voyage Syndrome (spaceman syndrome or space madness to those of us too crass or too familiar with the thing to invest in extra syllables) first emerged it was greeted with excitement by the masses. If only we can control it, the scientists exalted, we can learn all there is to know about the cosmos! If only we can bottle it, the corporations schemed, we can have the most profitable intoxicant on the market!
But despite enthusiastic research from all sides, it is a thing that resists control.
The nurse arrives. The staff here are underpaid, underappreciated, too few, and exhausted. Much like us guests, staff that can’t cut it soon move on leaving the long term, hard as nails crew who have seen it all. You stay on their good side if you know what’s best. And you know, they do know what’s best because the ones that stick around do it because they care. Today’s nurse is Jerry. He’s little and quiet but carries himself with assurance. Sometimes a patient who is having a bad day will try to take a swing at Jerry, I was once told, but they never try a second time because he is the Bruce Lee of nursing; able to put a patient into an inescapable yet somehow, according to this same informant (who asked Jerry to demonstrate on her), amazingly comfortable hold. Usually, though, patients are too high or too low to mess with the nurses.
In the multipurpose room I settle into a chair and wait. Visiting is technically an hour, but the herding in of visitors, followed by the herding in of patients shaves a good ten minutes off each end. My husband meanders in with the rest of the patients.
Neil sees me today and smiles. Some days he doesn’t, see me I mean, though then of course he doesn’t smile either. When a spaceman has been affected as long as Neil has, days where he’s aware of us here on Earth are few, and not always good. I could use a good day. I stand up and give him a hug and a kiss. Against all odds the feel of his body against mine is still familiar and natural after years of all but absolute separation.
We chat. Small talk is best for good days. The dogs: doing well. The neighbors: good people yet somehow more annoying than they’ve any natural right to be. Sometimes I store things up for weeks to say when I know he might really hear it. I always run out of things before the visit ends. It’s not that I don’t have a full life. I do. Dancers of my expertise and flexibility are usually female, that puts me in high demand for coveted roles all over the world. Somehow none of this survives the shift in perspective, though.
I run out. We hold hands and I caress the hair above his temple. It’s starting to go grey. It would look quite dignified if he cared to shower or comb it.
As I wind down Neil tells me about nebulas. Really he tells me about the chemical composition of the few bits of matter hustling along the cosmic rays. Ok, really he starts to tell me, then says, “You’re too little to understand, I’m sorry I brought it up.”
He’s actually out there, part of all of it. When it started we just thought he had hit a good run, seeing the big picture, really rising above the rank and file. But he kept rising. And his mind grew grander and higher than anything I can understand and I suppose I can understand the contempt he feels so often. Before we even knew what could be done his mind was far away from me. That I wanted love, wanted my partner in life? I’m not sure he understands. He sees fantastic things, light years away, even as his physical form exists in what is basically a specialized and glorified emergency room.
As they call the end of visiting time, Neil cups his hands together tightly. When he releases them a sparkling stone rests in his palm. They can do this, sometimes, make things out of star stuff. He hands it to me and meanders out, back to his room. I press the stone to my lips while it is still warm. After all this time I know better than to emotionalize gestures like this. He does it without thinking. I emotionalize anyway.
Exiting the center, I blink in the sun and adjust to the heat and humidity that the AC inside keeps at bay. Across the lot, Susan and Jack are assisting their son into a new, specially modified van. We’ve all been surreptitiously, jealously, watching their family come back to each other. Sometimes people relapse, but I have a feeling I won’t be seeing them anymore.
Later that day I flip through paperwork. At the end of each day there is always something to look over regarding Neil’s care. Things like the comm rig that allows his mind to more accurately speak through his body, or like bills. Most of it is routine.
Today there are only two things of note. One is a form filled out as part of his therapy. The question is: What do you want to work on today? His answer: To leave the bitch and the rest of this shitty world behind. The rest of the page is increasingly illegible profanity. The other noteworthy document is an appraisal of the stone he conjured for me. It’s a diamond. A
I go to bed.
Just a reminder that sometimes a story about a cigar is just a story about a cigar. This IS based strongly in personal experience working at a group home and as Sean’s supporter but it also has elements drawn from people I’ve just talked with and (obviously) a strong dash of very loose metaphor. I’m trusting you not to try to guess what is drawn from where.
Sorry there was only one picture this week. My hands and life just weren’t cooperating. But I think it’s a good one so I hope you do, too.
Quantum longe majus est?