- Electric Imaginings
It was another cold night in November. The starless sky cloaked the grey city like an iron lung. But that’s just my mind in poetic overdrive. I hadn’t wanted to go downtown but nobody in their right mind cancels.
“These are the earbuds; it’s loud inside—you know the drill by now.”
Yes I did. Perhaps a little too well.
Though it’s not like a rest in the MRI machine was a common occurrence. An MRI appointment in Canada was like reaching the semi-finals for the Canucks. It doesn’t happen often and when you get there, you’re too grateful to care what else is ahead.
Inside the sarcophagus, I close my eyes and think of pineapples. Of the cutting of skin, the thickness of it, the bright yellow gift inside, the delicious tartness, every brown eye staring forth, of which I dig out one by one. In here, you get a fair bit of time for day dreaming. As the MRI gives its sonorous thumping, I move on to peeling an orange with the nail of my right thumb, any slow unravelling of fruit that keeps me preoccupied. When my mind tires of fruit, I think of beached whales. Perhaps it’s the magnetic field, but keeping sacred to any train of thought is near impossible. I have often meditated to keep from feeling claustrophobic, my go-to place being by a large body of water or swimming through it.
More prone to imagining fruit and wide-open seas during these medical visits, the machine’s continual thumping no longer grips me.
Neither are the continual pin pricks of blood test needles.
It’s been 9 years now. It would be an exaggeration to say I am immune to being poked and misdirected.
What began in 2007 as an odd feeling in my left arm has extended into a rabbit hole of pain and numbness. Sent to a neurologist who used a little machine to send tiny shocks to gauge the reaction of the extensive neural system, I assumed there would be answers. As the results were inconclusive, nothing else was recommended except for a daily dose of Lyrica. A year later, my left leg became numb, another round of inconclusive neurological tests. There was suspicion of Multiple Sclerosis, but to my relief, a brain scan did not detect any myelin sheath issues. The diagnosis after another MRI: a herniated disc and sciatica. The suggestion: double the Lyrica dosage.
- I am a river of gated waters
The sciatic nerve runs proudly like the River Ganges from the pelvic mountains to the delta of our feet. While a herniated disc can impinge and squeeze a sciatic nerve causing debilitating pain, any pressure on a large body of water could divert or stop the flow. A river fights by leaking elsewhere, a nerve screams with hurt. The chemistry of pain in itself is interesting, and I’ve begun to investigate it the way I devoured quantum physics when I first dated a physicist.
In an injured area, neurons pass an electrical current towards the spinal cord. A current carries a signal that triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters into the gap between one neuron and the another. The neurotransmitters collect in the next neuron’s receptors, which prompts pores to open in the cell’s membrane, kind of like a key opening up a gate. When a charged particle enters these open pores, a new electrical current is created, carrying the signal farther along the nervous system and on and on it goes. These signals collect in the spinal cord and eventually make their way to the brain’s thalamus, and then the cerebral cortex, where signals are decoded.
The problem with continual injury or in my case when a herniated disc keeps annoying a nerve, the damage sensors in that area become hypersensitive and there is “hyperalgesia,” which is supposedly meant to encourage the body to take care of a tender area. According to neuroscientists like Dr. Yves De Koninck at Canada’s Université Laval, it is possible that triggered neurons produce too many receptors, which receive too many neurotransmitter molecules, and which results in more electrical signals shooting up to the brain. This translates into severe or constant pain.
After a bike ride, I’ve often had pain severe enough to have me cancel a family dinner the following night. Many cancellations and failed physiotherapy sessions create a psyche akin to that of a captive animal circling its cage aimlessly in despair.
- Mammalian Blues
Having studied psychology, I am a big sceptic of anthropomorphising animal behavior though I admit I find myself unconsciously connecting the unseen dots. Most mammals are cognizant of their own needs and pains. But to ruminate about the consequence of self-harm would require self-awareness.
This is where I think beached whales are similar.
Commonly mentioned theories for their behaviour include the disorientating boom of a ship’s sonar equipment, strong winds that drive ocean food to shore, or perhaps the prevention of pod contagion. I imagine how the last click of their conversation went, “We are tired. Let us rest awhile. Away from the maddening crowd.”
When Morgan the Orca beached herself on the dry aquarium floor and when the captive Japanese whale, Nami, died by eating stones, it was posited that such self-harm was a mix of confusion, physical stress and a desire to end one’s misery. Whales with their large brains are not immune to pain. If a diver suffers the bends from coming up too quickly, gas bubbles can result in the bloodstream which can wedge in blood capillaries or critical organs, a condition that is painful and sometimes deadly. When 14 beaked whales were found ashore on a Canary Island beach, scientists performed an autopsy. It was discovered that the whales had tissue damage normally associated with the bends, ie. pockets of gas in vital organs. Perhaps what is more surprising is that the brain of a killer, sperm and humpback whale have spindle neurons, cells that cradle the capacity to feel loss, love, compassion and sadness. This is not a bad thing unless you are captured by another creature with the same set of neurons ie. homo erectus.
Having my daily dosage of Ibuprofen and Gabapentin has taken the edge of my own daily physical stress. Being surrounded by teenagers can be a beautiful thing, it can also be a sap-sucking soul-depleting experience depending on the human components of the class. One day of peaceful dissemination of knowledge can sometimes be followed by another day of curbing the feisty and almost rude expression of youthful machismo. When my physical discomfort grew despite the pain meds, I began to accept fewer classes and instead slowly moulded a life as a teen mentor, editor and rather new life coach.
As a mentor, it would be detrimental to admit I have thought of the “s” word. Yet for me, the moral weighing of taking one’s own life does not rest on any traditional religious dogma or the respectful scientific findings about the animal kingdom. I view the ethics a little differently. I don’t simply think that if mammals have reverted to self-destruction to end dire suffering than why not humans? Actually, I don’t think anyone should be pushed to wait for extreme suffering for legal sanction.
If necessary, I would tell them the story of Lila.
Lila, my former best friend, was a beautiful Dutch Chinese who used to model before becoming a jewelry designer in Singapore. Being 17 years older, Lila was more like a big sister than a friend. We had met through a mutual acquaintance and hit it off based on the wayward penchant for psycho-analysing everyone else around us.
It was through our friendship that I’d learned how to savour good food, a walk bare feet in the sand and to love people including oddly as it may sound, loving myself, foibles and all. Lila was a woman of external consequence. She dressed in colourful clothes, wore chunky necklaces and bracelets that jangled like wind mobiles. In hindsight, our intimate development was likely based on her attitude to life. I’d always known Lila to be dramatic not only with men but with life in general. She made delicious foods, laughed the loudest and complimented others the way an epicurean would compliment a good lobster bisque. When my mother opened the door to our house to let Lila in for the first time, she was greeted with the exclamation, “Oh God, what beauty!” I am sure she would have had my mother under the covers given the right time and circumstance.
In her mid-forties, Lila was diagnosed with diabetes and kidney disorder. I had already been living in Canada for some time and on each visit home I began noticing changes. Lila’s silhouette went from rubenesque to hourglass to anorexic. She often joked about how she loved the effortless weight loss. But it was her friends who’d told me how many times she’d been in hospital, and once ended in a coma. The numerous jaunts to Bali to work with her favourite silversmiths were whittled to zero. So were her plans to work with children in poverty. Then she began speaking about not wanting to stick around much longer. Initially, this was difficult for me to understand. This was a role model who’d always pushed me to do my best no matter how rocky the road ahead was, her style of encouragement–a mix of chiding and humor.
One time when I had lost all focus on work and life in general, she’d continually exclaim, “Michele has left the building! Call her back, call her back right now!”
That was my gutsy best friend. Who enjoyed the sensuality of skin and a good fish head curry. Whose flamboyance was joie de vivre personified.
And then one day, she beached herself.
She closed the door to her apartment, ignored all phone calls and stopped eating. When I heard the news of her death from a mutual friend of ours, my fists clenched but I didn’t cry. It had only been a few months before when I’d called her. She told me she was not in a good place. I asked if I could bring her food or do anything else. Her reply to me and all others, “I don’t want you to see me like this.”
- She laughed in her usual devilish manner
For months, I couldn’t understand why I felt so ambivalent. For a long time after that, I felt indignant. I had seen the final I.V. drips in hospice of a handful of friends and relatives since age16. I have touched aging palms and breathed in the last small breaths of the soon to be gone, and yet I had not been allowed to breathe in hers? And then months later, when another friend spoke about how Lila was unrecognizable when found, I was dumbfounded by his sensibility. In fact, I stopped him before he got more graphic. Why would anyone want to imagine anything but a countenance imbued with life?
The human kidneys, five-inch long bean-shaped organs, are the body’s filtration system, most of which occurs in the nephron, which is essentially comprised of a glomerulus, a cup-like Bowman’s capsule, and various tubules comprised of blood capillaries. It may be surprising to know that not only do these components change blood into urine, they also help in the activation of Vitamin D. In Lila’s case, kidney failure didn’t just bring on weakness from loss of muscle mass but she also suffered a hip fracture from osteoporosis.
Aging is an unwelcome messenger. Its language speaks too clearly about nerves and capillaries, about the touch and go of pain and organ malfunction. For me, I chose physiotherapy, medicine and meditation. For my friend, who had tried all three, she chose beaching, a true rage against the dying of the light. Perhaps I beat myself up because I should have sensed something. One year before her death, when I had mentioned a possible trip together when I next returned, she had said in despair, “Look at me Michele.” The lilt in her voice was an almost crumpled yelding. As I look back, I realize it wasn’t just the depth of the pain but also the endless width of it.
Maybe it’s okay to connect the dots and to figure out what is sacred and can’t be fully understood. If whales breach in the air because they have the capacity for joy, then was it that impossible that they beached for the lack of it? I think it is often an ill person who has had such a big appetite for life that would be driven to such a deed. Lila’s act was not a result of small thinking.
Yearning for something in my last visit to Singapore, I made it a point to visit the East Coast neighbourhood where she grew up in. With the monsoon winds and young Malay teens lying on the mats in the semi-dark, I remembered the night many moons ago when I crossed the threshold of friendship and told Lila, “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you.”
And she laughed in her usual devilish manner and replied, “Perhaps you are the one who should be afraid.”
She had been particularly joyous all day and had invited me to stay at her seaside apartment. All along, we had been each other’s confidant, and I had been privy to the news about all the men she’d been dating. But that night was different. It may have been the wine or the fact that we hardly saw each other, and when we did, there never seemed enough time to hear the unraveling of each other’s lives. And so we embraced each other, whispered our fears and unreachable dreams. But I was aware even then, readying myself for a cue, a sign leading back to the homeostasis of friendship. I cared enough or perhaps too much, to lose it all from one evening of Beaujolais.
On this island, the humidity is a vampire. It sucks the life out of you, most indiscreetly. As my feet grazed the wet sand, I waded in slowly, dipping in waist deep, the cool watery flutes sending reverberations down my skin. Stubbornly, I stood hard against the growing waves. I stood and felt the sharp embrace of wind, as cutting as Lila’s laughter, uncompromising and perversely dramatic.