Monday, March 10, 2014

National Parks, and the Hospital

           As mentioned in the previous post, I was in the hospital lately, and feeling—predictably—miserable. This came from physical pain in both my neck and lower back, which at times was strong enough to make me flinch. I couldn’t see well from double vision, so everything in my room was either doubled, or overlapped with another image and formed a new one (I swore there were three containers on a counter across from my bed, until one day I realized—no, there are only two; the one in the middle is an overlap). And I felt the mental/emotional distress of uncertainty—at first the doctors seemed to have only inconclusive ideas on what was bothering me, or they felt they knew what it was but they couldn’t find confirmation for it, which led to test after test, many of these painful.  
           I couldn’t read much or find the right material to read. Watching television was too difficult for my vision, and there too the programming was never right. Conversation seemed always to go back to the serious issue of not knowing what was happening to me, and any humor seemed forced and artificial—and laughing hurt, as well as coughing, blowing my nose, washing myself, and leaning over to put on socks. And talk on “outside the hospital” topics came across as too irrelevant. I mentioned in the previous post that several times I was able to write a little, which made me feel alive again, but, by necessity, these were only small moments of satisfaction, though deeply appreciated.
           So, yes, I was pretty down.
           But along with the writing, something else finally did help me.
           I had several fellow patients in my hospital room, coming and going, with various problems. One patient, who was about to be released the next day after surgery, I got to talking with in the evening, and I found we shared a major interest: we both liked to travel to National Parks. We talked long on possible trips; we both had suggestions for each other; and it was an altogether satisfying discussion for two people in a hospital—optimistic, escapist, and filled with the promise and hope of great places preserved and left available for people to visit and enjoy. What a great hope for two medically-challenged and confined travelers longing to be someplace else.
           He left the next day, with good wishes offered between us, and I had no roommate for a while. Then I awoke in the middle of the next night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Whether this was from pain or worry or a sense of hopelessness, I can’t remember. The bed was infuriatingly uncomfortable. I found sitting in the hardback chair better, though not the ideal position for making myself drowsy enough to get back to bed. Not wanting to read, longing for different books on my iPad, I just sat there, absorbing the strange mood of nights in the hospital: the hallways dark but often full of activity, the nurses coming in at bizarre hours to check vitals, everyone quiet and efficient with only small greetings and few words traded. You feel shut off from the outside world; weather, local temperature, and news mean little to you. It’s like being half-awake, or only partially into a weirdly undefined dream-state.
           But then I remembered that in my Netflix cache I had the Ken Burns’ documentary series on The National Parks.
           Oh, perfect!
           I started watching at about 2 a.m. or so, and I was transfixed.
           Given the rather strained emotional state that lurked inside me during that stay (I really did feel at times my life was threatened), the message of the series nearly choked me up. The National Parks as “America’s Best Idea,” the preservation of grandeur for your children, and then their children, the passing down of majestic experience from generation to generation so it would always be shared, the John Muir quotes that were haunting (“the beauty about us, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal”), and the notion of “restoration” and “rebirth” that went along with visiting a National Park (a notion I very much needed at the moment)—all this was quite moving.
           There in the semi half-light of a hospital room at night, I let the wonderful views of Yosemite and Yellowstone and all the other Parks wash over me (from that small but well-defined screen on my iPad-mini), along with the quotes and comments about people’s responses and experience: “the immensity and the intimacy of time,” “the universe unfolding before us,” “the insignificance of our own lives,” the feeling “this is still the morning of creation,” the personal “repair and reconciliation,” the finding of “an anchor and a beacon,” the feeling of being “born again,” having one’s “memory and emotion attached so securely,” and “a peculiar exalted sensation that seemed to fill [one’s] whole being.”
           Given the overly sensitive, often frightened, and “on the edge” state I had been in for several days, all these ideas resonated in me and reminded me that, yes, there’s something I still can be connected to. I too had memories of visits from the past, of a country-crossing trip with my parents where I planned most of the route because I knew the geology in the Parks, of being awe-struck before the Grand Tetons, of feeling bombed-out by the stark deadly beauty of the Badlands (talk about “alien landscapes”—in National Parks is where that “love” got started), of being mesmerized by the sheer rock grandeur of Zion and Bryce. And then I had been able to share these experiences with others, passing them on, like giving that same trip to my nephew who now is passing it to his next generation.
           I watched for as long as I could before eventually getting tired enough to go back to bed. And I now fell asleep easily because I had become more satisfied, reconciled, anchored, reborn, and in touch with something larger again.
           I slept well that night.
           And then, after the next day of tests, late in the evening, I watched a bit more.
           Thanks, Ken Burns. And thanks to all the people everywhere who established the National Parks. You knew what you were doing. Just knowing those places were out there meant a lot to me in those long, desolate hospital nights.

All quotations were taken from The National Parks, American’s Best Idea: an Illustrated History, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (New York: Knopf, 2011).

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