Continuing from earlier efforts, we’re looking at the brighter side of a difficult situation--but yes, there are brighter sides. Brooke achieved several milestones over the past twenty-four hours. For one thing, yesterday afternoon, in his second trach mask trial of the day, he reached a tidal volume of 682 cc.—way, way beyond the 100’s and 200’s he was drawing when he was first here, and even beyond the 300’s and 400’s of recent days. His tidal volumes have normed somewhere between the higher 400’s and 500’s. His 682 seems to have impressed even the most hardboiled of respiratory therapists, especially the ones who once thought he was never going anywhere.
Then today, Brooke spent six and a quarter hours altogether off the vent. The afternoon was a particularly sublime experience. After “releasing impure thoughts from his mind” by meditating on what he calls the “Great Sea of Tranquility,” beneath which the kelp of his earlier imagery waves gently in the currents, with a single fish gliding through it, sometimes he sees the Buddha in his sitting position, floating above the Sea of Tranquility, meditating upon it. This image, when it comes into his consciousness, he says, immediately purges impure thoughts.
Impure thoughts? Anger, resentment, disillusionment. You don’t have to use weird Buddhist language to recognize these things; they’re always around But during this afternoon’s trach mask, Brooke says he could visualize and actually feel his own chest wall moving back and forth, in and out, in and out, in and out, as he inhaled air through his nose and expelled it through his mouth. The visualization helps to concentrate the mind, he says, when it wanders away, as in any form of meditation, in random thoughts about the past or the future. He says he can pull his mind back into the immediate experience of feeling his chest wall move back and forth, and sometimes he can visualize his diaphragm ballooning out and then contracting, over and over again. This afternoon he was on the trach mask for two and a quarter hours—after four this morning—and didn’t want to stop at all. He says this made him think that in some odd way this whole nine months has been leading up to these moments, as day after day, day after day, twice a day on a regular basis, he has tried to push himself to gain strength. The pattern is so predictable: there are periods in which his strength dips, almost inevitably, followed by rest periods in which his mind and body gain strength and then push toward new heights of breathing ability. This is what he asked: How many people have been given this crazy opportunity to recover breathing, over such a long period?
When he is trach-masking, Brooke’s room takes on the air of a monastic cell. He is confined here, in effect, since he still has to be tethered to the warmed and humidified air supply, even if he is breathing this air on his own. He only rarely gets glimpses of the outside world, especially since he has to remain in bed, not in the wheelchair, as the surgical wound from his abscess heals. Not until 8:30 in the morning, when his morning trach mask begins, does the sun even penetrate his room, and it remains at a low, dim angle all day.
Brooke says he always wanted to go on a year-long Buddhist retreat. Now here I am doing it, he says, and somehow my earlier meditative practices are bearing fruit. They were often painful and frustrating, especially during the early parts of a ten-day sit, but they were of tremendous importance to me as well. Of course they were different from my present breathing trials: for one thing, during those ten-day sits I didn’t have Bach cantatas playing in the background, as they are now, or Julian Bream’s guitar—you wouldn’t find these in a Buddhist monastery. But so what; Bach penetrates the mind on a deep level, making profound, almost organic meditation possible. My room feels like a monastic cell—larger, perhaps, and more cluttered, and if my eyes were open I would see boxes and paintings and a looming TV set that is almost never on, but it bears sticky notes with love-hearts and cupid’s-arrows and stars. You wouldn’t find these in a monastic cell either, but in spite of the fact that this same room is open to a regular procession of nurses and aides and respiratory therapists, as well as visitors, it can still feel like a monastic cell when I am in my deepest mode of breathing. I like it. I love it.
All this is to look on the bright side of a difficult experience. (We certainly know there’s a darker side, of course, much darker.) Not always, but sometimes, these breathing exercises give me enormous joy as they are occurring, and I now actually look forward to these sessions, instead of anticipating them with the stark terror they once held. I look forward to them in the same sort of way I looked forward to the last several days of meditation during my Vipassana courses—that meant just sitting, and running the mind up and down the body, feeling the sensations. Here, in my trach-masking, the meditation is partly Zen-like in that it especially focuses on breathing, not just physical sensations. How many breaths of my own can I have taken over the past nine months here at South Davis?—who knows, hundreds of thousands, I suppose--and now, all that breathing, all that anxiety, seems to be passing away as the trach trials become something I actually look forward to, especially when the therapists are empathic and respond to what is going on with enthusiasm, and especially with Peggy in the room, grading her papers and sometimes dozing off in the big green reclining chair that is part of the furniture of this room. You wouldn’t find a chair like that in a monastic cell either, or your wife, but I’m glad they’re here.
What can one say if all this stuff about organic meditation and monastic cells sounds curious, or bizarrely religious, or just weird and strange? That’s fine. Life is sometimes extremely curious, and offers gifts when you least expect them and under circumstances that from the outside would appear desperate and impossible.
There are hundreds of poems and prose works built around the topos of the prison—think of Coleridge’s “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” or Winnicott’s paper on imprisonment. The paradox of the prison is that it can hold the body in confinement—in my case, not just confinement but paralysis—and yet liberate the spirit. My monastic cell—when it’s not serving as a hospital room or a living room for receiving friends and family and guests—is like that kind of prison, confining and yet sometimes strangely liberating when I breathe.