Sally Rae and I own a great little eatery in a backwater called Heartbreak, Texas, located about 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s depraved sushi bars. At our place, The Waterin’ Hole Café, we serve honest chicken-fried steak, not some uncooked fish! Our mashed potatoes aren’t bad, either, but personally, I prefer the fries.
About two months ago I had my big wreck. I was driving distracted, worried about all the wrong things, and “BANG!” I woke up in traction, tubes and deep doodoo.
For weeks I learned the new definitions of life. Drug abuse was when the nurse was 15 minutes late with my painkiller. Daylight was the flickering fluorescent; I complained, and the nurse turned it off. Light denied.
I never felt more helpless, more useless, and human nature being what it is, I became quarrelsome and petty. I tried NOT to think about what this discomfort was costing me and my family.
One way or another, we all get moved out of a hospital. I was supposed to feel grateful that I didn’t get a “midnight delivery” to a local mortuary, but I was honestly unsure how good this might be as Sally Rae drove me home. It was a long drive, about 30 miles, and I swear, Sally Rae didn’t miss a single bump the whole way. Part of that had to do with my missing my morning medication.
I regretted a lot of things. One of those regrets was how self-righteously I had judged those weak-souled characters who got strung out on opioids. I had made two new best friends in the hospital; hydrocodone and oxytocin. Good old oxy stayed behind in the hospital and hydro was due to desert me in a week or so.
For the first time, I considered a clandestine trip to Quick Fix where such commodities were reputed to be readily available. Another, much smaller part of me knew that this was a dark fantasy, but rationality was as rare in my soul at that point as good character in Congress.
When we finally (finally!) got home Sally Rae pulled around to the backyard. She had that smiling sort of “I’ve got a secret” air that meant I was soon to be impressed by something, but I had made up my mind to be a hard sell. Joy in other people mostly meant they lacked empathy for my sad state. I moldered like month-old bread, sitting on a back shelf, growing a green beard of rot.
Her surprise was, actually, pretty good.
“Look what all our neighbors built you, Dave!”
Our second-story bedroom backed up to a balcony, one of our few home amenities. It took me a few moments to figure out what all those cables and harnesses were, but then it came to me.
My neighbors had built a long ramp with a cable going to the bottom. Sally Rae helped me get into my wheelchair and she rolled me to the platform on the bottom.
“Is it safe?” I asked, despising the quavering weakness I could hear in my own voice.
“Sure is! I’ve let Li’l’ Billy run up and down it for three days. Even he hasn’t been able to hurt himself, so I guess it’ll carry you just fine.”
Well, it did work. It hauled me up, one painful jerk at a time, until I was on the platform.
Sally Rae asked, “Well, what do you think?”
“I think you better get me into the bathroom, and quick, or I’ll christen this contraption with something besides champagne!” I replied. I’ve heard that suffering and pain can make a saint. By now, I knew the real truth of the matter. I had to be a saint to begin with for pain to improve me, and I was no saint.
After the bathroom, I collapsed in bed and quietly cried myself to sleep.
Hours turned to days, flowed into weeks. I caught up on my reading, something I didn’t think possible. Should you ever be in my condition, here’s an important hint: don’t take a morphine pill and then read yourself to sleep with a Stephen King novel. The resulting dreams are, well, horrifying.
Old Doc Bailey paid me a visit. I found this ominous; such favors were usually reserved for the terminally ill.
“Dave, I’ve been the doctor here for over 50 years …” he started.
I rudely interrupted, “Come to bleed me, have you?”
“… and I’ve seen a lot of broken people. Some of ’em worse than you. I could sugar-coat it, but you’ve got to quit feeling sorry for yourself. It’s unbecoming, and you’re a better man than this.”
I was storing up a load of my best venom when he interrupted my thoughts.
“Now, have a little of this. It’s as addictive as the opioids, but you need a change of pace.” Old Doc Bailey poured two fingers of Jack Daniels Black into a bedside glass and handed it to me.
“Now, you’re thinking of some real salty retort right now, something about how my mother never married my father, or that she died of distemper, something like that, but just listen a minute. What you have is situational depression. It usually happens with a body insult this severe.
“On a scale of one to ten, you have about a three. Can it get worse? Why sure it can. Keep on loving it, nursing it, and you might even be able to grow it into chronic depression. Work it hard enough, you might even be able to lay here and be miserable for the rest of your life.”
“Or you can finish that Jack and go take a bath. You’re getting a little ripe. A shave wouldn’t hurt any, either.”
I considered what he had to say for a longish moment.
“Any more of that Jack?” I asked.
“Just one more finger. I can’t have you falling in the bathroom and suing me for malpractice.”
“What about antidepressants?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve got some, but I don’t trust them. Half the time they don’t work. When they do work, it can take weeks. Once in a blue moon they can have the opposite effect, or worse. Stick to Jack, but don’t trust him too much, either.”
“One last thing,” Doc said, opening one of my books, “reread Mr. Milton, Sonnet 19.”
“Well, how much do I owe you for this visit?” I asked.
“This one’s on the house,” he answered.
“Can I at least pay you for your whiskey?
“Nope. After all, it’s your bottle. I picked it up from under the stairway on the way up.”
“How’d you know it was there?” I asked. “That’s my own private stash; not even Sally Rae knows it’s there.”
“Sure she does. She’s the one who told me where to find it.”
With that, the small-town Heartbreak doctor that I had never taken seriously stood up and walked out of my room.
I laid there a while longer, considering all that he had said. I chided myself on underestimating him. Also, I felt bad about how ungracious I had been, for weeks, to Sally Rae, Li’l’ Billy, my neighbors. I almost worked myself up into a real bawl, but then I caught myself. No, guilt and blame were two sides of the same coin and I had spent too much time that way already.
Instead, I walked into my bathroom and took a long, hot bath.
Later that evening I got my crutches and carefully hobbled down the stairs, into the main dining room at The Waterin’ Hole.
After some exertion, I managed to balance on a stool near the entrance, in a near standing position. Then I waited.
“Welcome, neighbor. Come on in. Sally Rae will be out in just a minute. Iced tea? Sweet or unsweet? Go on in and sit anywhere. Glad to have you this evening.”
I was still pretending, but I could see truth just down the way waiting at the corner.