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This piece is long but it’s great writing because except for a few minor adaptations it’s the writing of surgeon and author, Richard Selzer, and not mine. He not only writes interesting material, he writes very well, he has a great style and profound insight. What follows shortly is in his little book Rituals of Surgery.
Moses in Exodus 3 discovered the glory of God in a desert bush. [Click here.] It was just an ordinary bush, nothing special, one of a million. The day before God chose to make his glory seen in a special way no one would have given the bush a second glance—it was that ordinary. If the next day the bush had bragged that it was special—that it must be special because God had chosen to make himself known in it—the other bushes could have argued in an opposite direction. They could have said God wanted to make his glory known in the weakest, most common bush in the wilderness.
In any case, in “just another” bush God appeared and showed his glory and his concern for his human family. I’ve seen that down the years—so have you! It was only years later that I realized that when I was looking at my mother I should have taken off my shoes—the ground where I was standing was holy. There’s something like that in Harold’s story. The love of beauty, the poignancy of lovely dreams, the defiance of harsh reality— there’s gallantry and glory hidden everywhere; in the most astonishing places and in people you’d never expect such qualities to be in.
And there God shows himself!
Selzer tells us that Dr. Allain gunned his car up the winding road toward the Fairview Convalescent Hospital. He hadn’t visited this one before, but knew well enough what to expect. They were of two types—one, darkly old; the other geometrically “decorated” in plastic and aluminium upon which no self-respecting germ would light. In general, he disliked less the old converted houses with signs that said IN GOD WE TRUST or JESUS LOVES YOU. Allain knew he had reached the site when he began to see patients here and there on the lawn, propped into deck chairs or standing immobile over canes like withered cornstalks. There they would wait, peering through their cataracts until attendants came, white and grim, to coax them back inside.
He pulled into the parking lot and consulted the list of patients to be seen. Alvin Richardson was the first name: ulcer of foot.
“Where can I find Mr. Richardson?” he asked the nurse at the desk.
“Room 15, doctor.”
He passed open doors through which could be seen the still mounds of the bedridden. In the bed in No. 15 Alvin Richardson lay on his back staring at the tangle of his feet that hung suspended above his head like antlers. One foot was covered by a bandage moist with drainage from a concealed wound.
“Mr. Richardson?” No response. He unwrapped the soggy gauze. The odour of rot was strong. A creeping ulcer curved along the entire side of the foot and across the sole. He donned rubber gloves and bent over the dead foot, directly beyond which he could see the man's face. The eyes roved in their fissures, briefly reconnoitring the operation above. Then, preoccupied with a fog of their own, they moved on.
He didn’t hear the first pop, nor the second or third. It was only later that he realized them back from below the threshold of hearing. At the fourth or fifth pop, he began to wonder idly what the sounds were. They were spaced irregularly, two or three minutes apart, and were not all of the same intensity. At the sixth pop he turned and with a jolt saw that there was another person in the room.
“I beg your pardon. I didn't see you. You startled me.”
The man, sitting in a low wheelchair with his back to Allain, didn’t answer.
“I mean, have you been here all the time?”
In front of the wheelchair was an ancient typewriter, and as Allain watched, an arm flung itself from the man's body, bending and winding as though it had more joints than it should. Then the other arm appeared, flying up to meet its fellow, steering by the same incomprehensible stars. As they struggled in the air, the huge head tipped forward on his neck and turned to face the right hand, squinting to get it in his sights. With a sudden violent jerk the hand was brought down on the typewriter and, pop, the index finder struck a key.
Allan caught his breath. The man was typing! His feet, encased in heavy black shoes, hung freely. The shoes were far from new, but strikingly unscuffed. Worn by no walker, they were either weights or ornaments. The voluminous trousers were black and suspended from the shoulders. He wore a grey undershirt from which emerged two arms and a neck of whiteness so stark as to deny the presence of blood coursing beneath the surface. The great head rose to eye the page in the typewriter and saw the doctor. The surprisingly red lips were pulled into a grimace that might have been a smile.
“Hello.” The doctor cleared his throat.
“Aow.” The voice had the same lack of control as the arms. It gave the distinct impression that unless great care was taken, it would shoot off into outer reaches of sound that would terrify both listener and speaker.
“You're typing,” he said blankly aware at once of his awkwardness. “I’m Dr. Allain, I’ve come to treat your roommate’s bad leg. What’s your name?”
Allain wished ardently that he hadn’t started the conversation. The man seemed to be expecting more. So he was without embarrassment. It was Allain who was ill at ease.
Pardon me for intruding, he wanted to begin, I couldn’t help but be impressed by your ability to type. But something like intelligence sparkled from the man’s eyes, and he couldn’t say it. He searched for other words.
“Have you been here long?”
Harold did not shift his gaze but continued to watch him, holding him.
“What are you writing?”
“How long does it take you to type a letter?”
He could see that the page in the typewriter was three-quarters covered with type. He had moved to within a few feet of the man, and darted a glance at the page.
“My dearest Vera,” he read.
My dearest Vera! God in Heaven! He’s writing a woman, calling her “my” and “dearest”! Allain’s hands shook with a fine tremor. He inched closer, knowing that he would read the letter, knowing too, that he would be seen; caring, but feeling a compulsion to do it. Within reading distance, he quickly scanned the page. It was almost illegible, surrealistic. There were many letters crossed out with x's (costly). Words ran together unspaced, and whole lines slanted wildly. Here’s what it said:
My dearest Vera,
There is such a bustle and stir at the hotel. It is as though we will be visited today by an important personage. A queen or an archangel or, wild wild hope, by you, my darling. Nothing else would explain the “high” one senses here today. A dozen times I have turned from my book to peer expectantly down the road. Even the lilies at the gate are bobbing and ducking to get a better view....
Well, we shall try to keep from going mad with anticipation. Perhaps a walk will help. My neighbour here, old Richardson, is an indefatigable walker. Not heath or steppe, not veldt or mesa is safe from his clodhoppers. I myself am an ambler, a meanderer. I don't like to butt into Nature's business. She knew what she was about, arranging her grass and her sand that way. It doesn't need my boot to sock it askew. No, ma’am, I slither through the blades like a green snake, leaving it all arranged just as Nature put it.
Oh, Vera, hurry back to me. Man cannot live forever by whimsy and caprice. And I must get back to the serious work of my life—you, my magnum opus, my unicorn. Your last letter should have been written in light on hummingbirds’ wings. It is love perfused with air. To be loved by you is all in all...”
When Allain finished, he looked down to see Harold grinning up at him. There was no accusation in that grin, no resentment. Only, again, an ambiguity. Allain stood silently, no longer embarrassed. It was as though the letter had stripped the experience of pretence and formality. The two men seemed to have discovered each other.
Allain looked at the night table near Harold’s bed. It was wasteland—tissues, postcards, loose crackers, a carafe of water. In the centre stood the framed photograph of a woman, glossy, dark. She was gazing coolly over the shoulder of the viewer with a trace of a smile on her perfect features. In the corner was written with a flourish: “To Harold with love,” and under that (the name of the famous actress): “Joan Crawford.”
Allain nodded slightly toward the photograph.
“Vera?” he asked quietly.
“Ayss.” Harold grinned.
Sometimes I’m so ashamed of myself.
Sometimes I’m so proud of the human family!