Last night we saw The Felice Brothers at ABC in Glasgow. It was stunning. I read Simone – the former drummer and one of the brothers is playing the Electric Circus on 11 April so checked out his website. Found this piece he did for the Guardian. Sometimes things just get you right in the soul. So beautifully written.
I would not be just a nuffin’,
My head all full of stuffin’,
My heart all full of pain.
I would dance and be merry,
Life would be a ding-a-derry,
If I only had a brain… (Lyric by E.Y Harburg)
When snow lay heavy on the land, and our January winds sang in the trees and beat at the plastic we’d hung in the cold door to keep the oil bill down, when Christmas trees lose their meaning and shed their needles until their needles lie in quiet circles on the floor like wreaths in shadow: That’s when I died.
Stuck with other needles. Morphine and glucose. Twelve years old in a white room. Shapes and movement, the sound of machines, the colored lights. Kingston, New York. 1989.
Apparently when you die they call for a priest. And priests come quick. My mother Patti wouldn’t let him in, kept him at the door with a look, a red palm held out, a string of words: ‘You can’t have him.’
He listened. The beat of his black sneakers fading forever down the hall. No last rites that winter day, no good book. Just a cold line on the computer screen by the bed, flat and then back alive, God’s own crude Atari game.
Chance? Fate? Medical science? Chaos? Love? I pick the last. Call me a romantic. A dreamer. Diluted. Trite. I’ve been called worse. It was love that kept me here. Surely it must have been. And stubbornness, to be fair. My family. My Pop and Nan, sister Clare, brother Ian, and many others. Patti most of all. They wouldn’t let me leave. Love. That’s what’s saved me, time and again.
Much later, after I’d learned what had happened, I found myself piecing the story together in my mind’s eye like some vague jigsaw I lost in a flood, trying to make it fit. Even now, twenty years gone, when I go to call that time back to mind, the scenes balk and struggle to the surface like things nearly drowned, until they line up and do their best to play out in sequence, a haze of smudged pictures conjured through cracked memory and hearsay: I’d gone to school, collapsed in the hallway, been wheeled off to the Nurse’s Office, where she took my temperature, found it high, and called my mom to come fetch me.
Once home they drew a cool bath and put me in, hoping to cut the fever. I’m told it was there the hallucinations began. I thought my stepdad were trying to drown me. I beat the water. I flailed my arms and screamed.
Frightened now, Patti got in the car and sped the half hour down the mountain to the closest medical center, Benedictine Hospital. With a squeal of brakes, she pulled up in front of the Emergency Room doors, dumped the shifter in park, left the engine running and ‘Ran in carrying you in my arms like you were on fire.’
Inside they told her it might be spinal meningitis, a swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. All the signs were there: crippling pain, fever, hallucination. They called for a spinal tap, but the room where they did the procedure was in use. The neurologist on the scene, Dr. Frontera, bless him, wouldn’t wait for the room to be free. He wanted a closer look at the brain. So he had them wheel my gurney to another floor and send me through the bright sci-fi tunnel of the then newly developed C.A.T scan (high technology for the late 80s) to find that the early diagnosis of spinal meningitis was off the mark. I had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage.
They called it an cerebral aneurism, a weakness in a blood vessel that had ruptured, bled out and filled the space between my skull and brain with fluid and blood. The pressure was causing the brain to swell and the swelling was killing me.
It was in a new room on a new floor in a different wing where I suffered the seizure. They had begun to prep me for emergency brain surgery when it happened. The smell of laundered sheets and sterilization. The omnipotent hum of base technologies.
This is the first time I’ve ever written any of this down. Yesterday I sat with my mom, August sunlight in through the screened-door to fall on her kitchen table, our hands, my notebook, and asked her to tell what she remembers. Here was the part of the story we never talked about. The missing piece. And here I was now on my witch hunt. And of course the witch I sought was me, hidden roots and bloodletting, a chance for healing, and chance for real tears, mine and Patti’s mingled on the tablecloth like watercolors for the child she’d clung to.
My mother tells it like this: The seizure made you arch your spine. You bit your tongue. Your eyes rolled back in your head.
When the seizure was over I held your hand and you looked at me and said: Mom I’m gonna die. I told you: No you’re not going to die. But then you did. Just like that. You knew. Somehow you knew.
The screen flatlined and all the bells started ringing. When the doctors came running I thought they were going to ask me out of the room but instead they told me to climb up on your bed and talk to you, tell you you can’t die. They shocked your chest. They shot you full of adrenaline. And I held your face and told you you couldn’t die.
There was an ice storm that night. The worst in a century. The roads were closed, so they had to send a State Police 4-by-4 to gather the neurosurgeon and nurses and bring them all to Benedictine.
The surgery lasted hours. Afterward, the doctors came and said you were alive. But not to get our hopes too high. If you survived the first 24 hours you’d have a 50/50 chance of living. If you lived you would likely have some degree of brain damage. If you lived there was a good chance you’d be blind.
‘Does he play the piano?’ someone asked.
‘The area of his brain that’s been affected, some of which we’ve removed, is the area associated with music, art, creativity. If he played piano before he may not play again.’
After I made it past the initial 24 hour period, touch and go, the neurosurgeon, Doctor Gabriel Aguilar, bless his soul, told my mother that the physical pain I’d been though was a close second to what it might feel like to burn alive.
The nurses in the ICU took to calling me ‘The Miracle Boy,’ and did not hide the nickname from Patti. I don’t think I had any clue what the word miracle really meant until I watched my own daughter come into the world.
But Pearl was still a universe away. That summer after they brought me back from the dead I got my first guitar. A cheap affair, hardly ever in tune, same as the years that followed. But I spent them nonetheless, all twenty odd, in wholesale pursuit of the great rock & roll delusion.
And still climbing its greasy ladder.
Did Lazarus have a green room? Was there Scotch on his rider? Did The Times review him favorably? Did he sell out the 100 Club? Was he met with fevered applause when he rose for his greatest show?
Or was there stillness on the land? Broad copper-tone hills rolling out as far as the eye could scan, clouds like torn linen the shape of dream-horses in a dying sky, mild bird on the olive branch. Peace on earth. If only for a moment. Only a heartbeat.
When I was a kid I swore I’d be a Marine like my Pop. Rattle-snake dreams. Black sands of Iwo Jima. The Frozen Chosin. The Perfume River. M-16. Get to the chopper! Medic. Medic!!
That’s when Patti took me aside and told me: ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’
Maybe so. But can the blog diffuse the homemade nail-bomb? Can a song bring down a drone? This is the new world. Less brave than we might’ve dreamed. I was in Italy. Last show of a month’s tour. Creepy hotel. Broken elevator. I climbed seven flights of stairs to my room, lost my breath, went pale and collapsed on the floor in the hall.
When I came to I touched the key-card to the door, went to the bedside and called Patti. Thirty-three years old.
‘Hi Honey? Are you okay?’
‘Mom, there’s something wrong with my heart.’
I did the gig that night and flew home the next morning. My dear wife Jessie, eight months pregnant with our child, drove me up to a cardiologist in Albany. I have no health insurance but my cousin Kelly is a nurse up there and pulled in a favor for Patti. They looked at my heart on a big screen and told us that I had developed aortic stenosis, a calcification of the main artery, an anomaly brought on by some childhood trauma, and that there was no medical explanation why I was still alive. I might’ve died on the plane. Might’ve died on stage.
So there I was back in the white room. They prepped me for anesthesia. I kissed Jessie’s belly. They wheeled me away and ran a tube down my throat. Emergency open-heart surgery. Aortic valve replacement.
When I woke in the recovery room I could hear the faint, steady tick, tick of the mechanical valve they sewed inside me. Then I heard the glad, hushed whispers my family in the hallway, just outside the door. I was drugged and thirsty. I asked the nurse for a drink of water and to please tell everybody they could come in from the hall.
‘It’s three in the morning. There’s nobody here.’
Tick. Tick. Tick.
A month later our daughter was born at home in a summer thunderstorm. Pearl Simone. A wild-eyed treasure from a better world. Her father has an eight inch scar on the backside of his skull that runs from the crown of his head down to behind his left ear. If my hair is shorn close you can see it a block away. You might even think me a soldier. Made it home by the skin of his teeth. Luck of the Irish.
And if you see me on a summer’s day, down by the river’s edge, no big plans, no shirt, you’ll see the long pink seam that runs down the length of my chest like an angry zipper. Put your ear there and you’ll hear me tick out the time.
I am the tin woodsman, hunting a heart. I’m the scarecrow, please deliver my brain. I’m the crocodile who swallowed the pocket-watch. The bound witch in the hickory flames. The far-too serious kid who’s still trying to keep the oil bill down, a freak thunderstorm threatening always behind my sea-blue eyes, strange and electric, losing hold sometimes, gathering courage again, there, just a little ways up the channel.
I haven’t learned as much as I imagined I would by now. But I do believe we pass in and out of this world like a song on the wind. And that most of what we see and do in this life is grossly out of tune, behind or ahead of the beat to varied degrees.
But there are moments. You’ve known them. A kiss in a parked car. A melody in the dark. A meeting of eyes. A beating of wings. A babe come in a thunderstorm.
She’s got her father’s swagger. And her mother’s goodness. And Patti’s strength of spirit.
Go on, boy, write her a song. Read a story by lamplight. Sleep near and greet the pale sun together. Dance with her in the wet grass, round and round.
When she’s old enough to understand, tell her how her Grammy loved you back to life in the long ago.
Love her like it’s your last morning on earth.
Love her more than yourself.
Love her more than yourself.