Half-Life (Excerpt)

Twenty-two years ago, Joshua Prager returned from Israel, where he had almost lost his life in a bus crash, to New York, where he began the long journey to being able to walk once again. In this excerpt, he attempts the first step.

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  1. I am sitting with a doctor in a small and cluttered office three flights above the Jerusalem ICU, where I lay those many years before. Her shelves are crammed with pastel cardboard basins filled with papers about the medicinal uses of plants. I read a few of their labels: Mental Plants, Radio-Protection Plants, Methuselah.

    I have come to learn more of the last, and the doctor explains. A few years ago, she germinated the seed of a Judean date palm, rousing what had slept for two thousand years.

    A photo of young Methuselah sits on a shelf—six small fronds growing from a clay pot—and I remember the leaves of an avocado pit growing tall on my sill in a New York hospital.

    I had been silent for seventeen days when Mary plugged the hole in my neck and told me to speak. What to say?

    I could have thanked her for safeguarding me with the other nurses from the pneumonias and sores that ate away at the necrotic bodies in the ICU, including mine. I could have thanked her for reading aloud my letters till I knew them by heart and holding the phone to my ear and scratching my body when all of it itched. I could have thanked her for comforting me when I glanced my appalling reflection or for being truthful when I asked what would be. I could have thanked her for consoling me when my favorite doctor, a gentle surgeon who spoke to me of Cape Cod, fell into a coma, or for shooing from my room the obese blond shrew who, under the guise of examination, woke me in the middle of the night and twisted my leg till it hurt and pricked at my skin with a needle like a trident. I could have thanked her for always smiling, for being the kindest nurse there was.

    But the air tickled my throat and I coughed and said hello.

    Wrote Billy Collins:

    She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead, and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim, and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

    No matter. Mary told me that my voice was substantial, and I loved her for that. Then I left her in the ICU and cried.

    I was lying in the gym at Mount Sinai, on a dark green rectangle of foam and vinyl, when Katie knelt beside me and said hello.

    She was a physical therapist, a tomboy from the Bronx, twenty-five and fit. She wore light brown bangs, sneakers, pants, a shirt, a Medal of the Immaculate Conception. She began to move my limbs.

    And then I was in bed at Mount Sinai and it was Beth ranging me. I was her very first patient; she had gotten her degree in occupational therapy the day my neck broke. She was twenty-six and tall and ponytailed and full-bodied, the youngest of five sisters from a hilly lane in a Pennsylvania suburb. I knew this: OT would help me to dress and feed myself, PT to sit, stand, and walk. And so, the whole of me was invested with Katie. But when Beth smiled, I was awash in incentive.

    Back on the mat, Katie said we would roll left. It seemed an impossibility. I was earthbound, a fixed mass. But Katie demonstrated what to do, and I flexed my right hamstring, slid my right heel back, pushed my right foot down, reached my right arm left. Then Katie put her hands on me and I rolled.

    I was exhausted but happy and, soon after, back beside Beth. My elbow in the bend of hers, she raised our arms until tightness and pain in my shoulder stopped them. We proceeded from shoulder to elbow to wrist to fingers, from gross to lateral to palmar grasps—billions of years of evolution fucked in an instant—Beth mapping my arm as a cartographer would a sea. But there was promise in each coordinate, too, hope that a few more degrees this way or that would enable me to brush my teeth, comb my hair, raise an arm to a shirtsleeve. And then we cut open an avocado and I put toothpicks in its pit and set it in water.

    And so my time passed with Beth and Katie, with ergometers and pulleys and weights. I progressed. I could groom my face and teeth and hair, and roll side to side with aplomb. And then I could button and zipper and get food in my mouth, and prop my torso up on my elbow and then my hand, and sit erect with balance and strength and not be dizzy. And then I could get clothes on, save socks and a left shoe, and wash all my body, save my right arm and back, and wheel myself, which I then did in late July, to the opening between parallel bars at the near end of the gym. I was ready to stand.

    My left leg was unbent, cinched to a metal brace that rose from beneath my foot to my thigh. The right bent normally at the knee. Katie stood between the bars before me, Beth to the side. An aide named Angel lifted me. And as I rose, unfolding to my full height, feeling my forgotten weight settle upon feet far below, I looked down at Katie looking up at me and at Beth beholding me and remembered the splendor of uprightness.

    Oh to stand!—“that physical and moral posture which means standing up, standing up for oneself, walking, and walking away,” wrote Oliver Sacks after hurting his leg and not standing for eighteen days, “walking away from one’s physicians and parents, walking away from those upon whom one depended, walking freely, and boldly, and adventurously, wherever one wishes.”

    Upright, I wished to walk too, ready at age nineteen for a second first step. Right leg first, Katie said. I stepped forward, and she put her hands on my left thigh and I hiked my hip and we swung the leg forward in an outward semicircle. And then, tall and free, I knew that I would step outside these metal bars and shed many devices and walk down the hall and walk up stairs and walk outside and walk on sidewalk and walk on grass and walk away.

    Time passed and my avocado grew roots and a shoot and leaves, and I did walk. I walked into a grocery store with Beth and put on her sweatshirt. I walked onto an escalator with Katie and pushed her in my chair. And then I walked away from them and cut off a plastic bracelet and cried.

    The doctor tells me that just last month, she planted Methuselah on a kibbutz in southern Israel. She hopes to use its pollen to fertilize a female palm.

    I think of the burdens of history and of incalculable care. I wish to tell this small tree that our mandate is simply to live (and maybe bear a date, too).


    Preview more of Joshua Prager’s Half-Life.

Originally published in Byliner, February 2013