Brooke’s condition has improved enough to be transferred from the MICU to the IMCU, acronyms that label the unit of most intense care and the step-down unit that provides intermediate care. This might seem like progress; but there are still challenges. He was (by his own account) going crazy yesterday, when he was required to have the cuff on his trach fully inflated and so couldn’t talk at all. He was desperate, anguished, fearful, depressed, and I think it’s fair to say existentially frightened, since it felt not only like going backwards from the MICU but robbed him of his greatest asset and strength, the ability to communicate. It was awful to watch, and surely more awful to endure.
But the unit put a solo nurse on with him last night, and then changed his medications and ventilator settings today. He’s been perking up throughout the day, and tonight, just before bedtime, a friend—the assistant for the OSHER class he’s been teaching—is reading aloud to us from Walden, preparing for class next Monday. Brooke looks as if he’s peacefully asleep, but actually just has his eyes closed while he listens, intently. She reads; he corrects her pronunciation. Vitiate, for example, not vittiate. She remarks on how extraordinary it is that he’s paying this close attention when he’s been so sick, but he keeps right on going, letting her read, commenting on the text, demanding keep going. Brooke has all of Walden memorized. (He protests this characterization; he insists, “I just know my way around it.”) They’re reading “The Pond in Winter,” describing Thoreau’s soundings of the pond, and then the section on cutting ice, and Brooke is talking about the ways in which ice was cut from Walden Pond, sometimes as much as a thousand pounds a day, and shipped all over the world including to India, to ports Alexander only knew the names of, but never actually reached.
It turns out Brooke’s got the footnotes of the scholarly edition pretty much memorized too. And, it seems, he’s getting pretty much back to where he was before. The doctor apparently says he can expect to go back to South Davis this Friday or Saturday, to regain enough strength after this pneumonia to come home.
But Brooke is already thinking about how to teach his class there if he can’t do it this week in our living room.
Either way, he says, he hopes the class will come to some consensus about this enigmatic chapter. “The Pond in Winter.” I never promised this class an easy book, he says, It’s what takes us out of our lives of quiet desperation. It’s the real thing. And this accident, it’s what also takes us out of lives of quiet desperation: it’s about suffering and pain opening up friendships. It opens up worlds and worlds, and Walden only complements those worlds it opens up. It’s the perfect book for this situation.
Thoreau says he went to the woods to face life squarely, to live life deliberately. I didn’t do this deliberately, but now that the accident has happened, I’ve wanted to face life squarely too; it’s like a scimitar cutting me in half. And here I am, living, breathing, with my dear dear friends. This is the real thing. This is not a joke. I have to keep reminding myself. There’s nothing to think about, nothing artificial; this is the real thing. You try to extract every morsel of meaning out of life, and if you die tomorrow, you will have extracted as much as you can. I treasure my breath, even if it’s painful; I go on teaching, teaching—no, he corrects himself, I go on learning, learning.