Love is Like Plastic

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Matt Geiger

Late last night, ensconced in the synthetic beige sarcophagus of an MRI tube, it occurred to me that love is like plastic. 

They were scanning my brain, looking for a tumor, like some foul X in the neon green sea of a space pirate’s map.  

It had begun on Christmas Eve, when I felt tipsy. Within two days, I was unable to walk without using a cane and the walls of my home for support. The world spun and spun, and it felt like the hand of some invisible god was actively holding me down as I lay in my bed, trying to smother me where I sprawled next to teacups and cracker crumbs that were making a new life for themselves among the sheets. Soon, I could only crawl. 

I lost the hearing in my right ear when I was a teenager, when encephalitis caused my brain to swell, crushing small but vital nerves. Now, that old silence has been joined by a constant, unrelenting screech; an imminent, dastardly howl, emanating from Fenrir, that will haunt me from now until all grows silent, devoured by that selfsame wolf. The sounds of the world around me were drowned out by this other din, and my eyes could no longer focus. Every time I tried to walk, my 240 pounds plummeted, and the floor fell away beneath my feet, then rushed to greet me as if in attack. 

For 10 days, I could do little but lie there. I felt like a character in one of those old Russian novels I like so much. 

When my eyes allowed it, I read. First, “Dr. Zhivago,” in which a woman dying of tuberculosis ruminates on the purpose of life. She says it is to marvel at the world, to call things by their true names, and to have children so that they can carry on this important work when you are no longer able. 

I began reading “Pachinko,” by Min Jin Lee. In it, a young Korean priest, living during the Japanese occupation, spends much of his life ill, struck down by consumption and other ailments. His weakness inures him to death. “[H]is frailty had reinforced the conviction that he must do something of consequence while he had the time.”

I returned to “Blood Meridian,” by Cormac McCarthy, a book which begins with the chilling epitaph, taken from a newspaper: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier showed evidence of having been scalped.” 

In the book, a fat, hairless, violent man, who looks like a seven-foot-tall baby, rides with a band of men who kill and scalp for the bounties those vestiges of life bring. At one point, the judge, as he is called, finds a prehistoric cave filled with art from the time before any semblance of time existed. He examines the drawings, then erases one, scraping it away, obliterating it as all things are eventually obliterated. The judge wields a rifle on which the words Et In Arcadia Ego are written: “Even in Arcadia, I Exist.” Even in paradise, there is evil. Even in life, there is oblivion, which is the ultimate fate of all that has existed, and all that never has or ever will.

So, it wasn’t all bad. 

And I ordered for myself a cane, handmade from an oak tree harvested in the Carpathian Mountains. It is dark and heavy and beautiful. I always wanted one, but until I lost the ability to walk it seemed too much like an affectation. Now, I have a reason. It was like being given a prescription to smoke a Victorian pipe or being told by the dentist that you really need to start wearing a top hat.

Severe hearing loss is strange. I remember hearing Jorge Luis Borges say that going blind was not, as many suspected, a blackening of the world. Instead, he stated, all of creation gradually turned a kind of pale yellow. Likewise, hearing loss is not the loss of sound. Silence, it turns out, would be blissful. Hearing loss, at least in my case, was the usual sounds of the world being muffled and pushed to some distant island, replaced by the constant whinnying of tinnitus. When they first tell you that you have lost your hearing, they give you a pamphlet entitled something like, “Try not to succumb to madness!” People in the modern world are convinced that things are as they perceive them to be. Everyone I know talks about politics and social issues as if they alone wield unique powers of perception that allow them to see and hear the true nature of things. For those of us whose abilities are compromised, or diminished, it is clear that the world and the way we see it are utterly dynamic.

I literally could not walk down the street for nearly two weeks, and there was nothing wrong with my legs. The only problem was in my head, where my brain was unsure of my body’s location. 

Deafness does not make the world vanish. Rather, it pushes it away from you. It separates you from it. You feel a sense that there is a you, and your senses, and in another place exists everything else. It makes reality like a movie being shown on a little screen on a long airplane flight. You know it is real, but it seems infinitely difficult to crack through and become enveloped in the drama unfolding up ahead near the bathrooms, atop the screaming hum of the jet engines, next to the trays of brittle plastic cups and cans of beer, on a small screen.  

My experience of doctors is one of going to a building, telling several people the same story about yourself and your frailties, and each of them quickly departing, leaving behind only the pregnant idea that perhaps the next person to enter will have a cure, a solution, or even just an answer. I always find it so surreal the way you call the office and tell them what is wrong, then you go and sit down and tell someone what is wrong, then a third person comes in and says, “So, what’s wrong?” When they sent me to a specialist this week, they had me take a hearing test prior to the consultation, and I could tell when the doctor entered the room that he was bearing bad news. 

“Matt, I’m sorry, but your hearing in your right ear is terrible,” he said. 

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I lost it 25 years ago.” 

“Oh,” he said, relieved. “Well, it’s still terrible, then.” 

The doctor I saw the week before had shrugged and said my symptoms might get better, or they might not, which is a pretty safe bet whether or not you have a medical degree. 

But when I told the specialist my symptoms, he looked genuinely startled. He looked like he was worried I was going to expire in his office. 

“Matt, this could be a tumor,” he said. “You need an MRI. Like, now.”

The following night, I walked through the corridors of what seemed like a post-apocalyptic hospital. It was dark outside, and everything inside the sprawling set of buildings was closed or barricaded off. It was just me, the custodians, and the sporadic doctors, nurses and patients who were clearly all living out their own nocturnal dramas. Devoid of people, the building seemed cavernous, like a vestige of a different time. As I walked toward the cancer and radiology ward, a man, perhaps a custodian, perhaps a nurse, perhaps a patient, sat down at a baby grand piano and began playing a beautiful song in a minor key. 

Along the walls, the hospital had placed countless pieces of beautiful art. There were paintings and photographs and sculptures. I was struck, as I always am, by how counterintuitive this is. As we walk through those corridors, contemplating our own demise, trying to come to terms with the fact that we all must leave this world, reminders of the beauty that will slip away from us make the pain all the more acute. If I built a hospital, I would cover the walls with images of riots, property tax bills, high school bullies and the posters for disappointing movie prequels. “Ehh, this isn’t such a bad place to leave,” my dying patients would think. 

Instead, the University Hospital has opted to show its patients much of the beauty that might soon be ripped away from them, and which will eventually be torn from every single person in the world. I stumbled up to the MRI waiting room, with a sigh, and realized that there were no people to check me in. Instead, I was prompted by a sign to disinfect my hands, then use a self-service kiosk like the ones they have at some grocery stores. You know the kind I’m talking about, right? The ones that don’t work. The ones that require a nearby human to constantly fix them. 

Before they shove you into an MRI tube, they stick a needle in your arm, so they can pump some kind of dye through your body. They also ask if you are claustrophobic. My answer, as always, was that I have a not unreasonable fear of being trapped in a tight space, buried alive, or crushed to death, but I don’t consider any of these concerns to be “phobias,” which is a suffix that tends to hint at a certain irrational hysteria. Luckily, my fear of brain tumors outweighs my fear of small, tight spaces, so I was able to keep it together. 

Trapped in the machine for an hour, listening to the roaring, clacking and knocking of my temporary tomb, I decided it would be a good time to revisit the topic of death. The perfect time, really. I thought about how people come and go. I thought about how Chekhov’s final words were, “I am dying! I haven’t had champagne in a long time,” because doctors used to give patients champagne when there was no more they could do. I thought about Goethe’s alleged final words, “More light!” I thought about a good friend who died just a few days earlier, and how puzzled I was that I would not see her again. I also thought of a woman, a stranger who sent me a nice note saying she liked my newspaper writing just a few months ago, who reappeared in my inbox a month or two later, in the form of an obituary. “She liked me,” I thought sadly. “And now she’s dead.” My enemies hardly ever shot up in the obits. 

I thought of how big and vacant and spooky the building had been, with all the people gone. And I thought of how we people come and go, but the world remains. I thought of this big building, and the ones connected to it, and how it would probably stand for hundreds of years even if we all vanished from the Earth. I thought of all the plastic, so easily manufactured, surrounding us and making our day-to-day lives a little easier and safer, and how, once it is made, it takes forever to go away. I thought of all the lectures I got in middle school about the plastic problem, and how we will eventually be buried in it, because once it exists, it exists for so much longer than we do. 

Which is why plastic is like love. Because when we are forced to leave, it will remain long after we decay. 

While I waited for the results of the scan, I promised myself that I would never again care about petty concerns. That, if given a chance to live a little longer, I would never take it for granted. 

“It’s clear,” said the doctor when he called about the images of my brain. “It’s totally fine.” 

They still have no idea what is wrong with me, but I can walk again now. The ringing in my ear is here to stay.

I was overjoyed, like Scrooge on Christmas morning. I wanted to throw open the window and ask some random kid to go buy a turkey. 

Within 20 minutes, the banalities of life had returned. I opened my work email and was promptly admonished by someone who said she was “disgusted” by the newspaper because she didn’t like a photo we ran. I received a series of complaints and grievances, some about things that are under my control, many about mental rashes caused simply by the rough fabric of reality.

But I’m lucky. Because one week ago, I could not walk. Two weeks ago, I could not even see. So today, every step is a gift, every sight majestic, every sound, well, the sounds still explode like broken glass in my bad ear... 

But still, I am up and about, no longer a character in a Russian novel. Or at least, a character who has a few more chapters to go, and a cane. And I am ready, once again, to marvel at the world, to call things by their true names, and to rest assured that when I am no longer able to do so, someone will carry on with this work. And she will not be empty handed, either. Because we have a very short time here, but we are a species capable of making things that last for ages and eons. We are capable of making things that remain, long after we depart.

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