Wednesday, September 26, 2007


From the Archives

(April 2005) Huh. My Dukie friend just e-mailed me to say that an emu is loose in Durham! Several people have apparently spotted it and called the cops, who humorously note that they can't exactly outrun an emu.

What fun!

Meanwhile, here’s a heart-breaking piece I’ve been working on for a couple of months now.

Every June, in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, hollerers gather to share their lexicon of calls. Many bring their calls down from the mountains, where they developed these sounds to convey specific information across great distances concisely. An anticipatory bark might tell a wife that her man is one valley away and heading home; a piercing howl might say he’s broken his leg and needs help right away. I imagine the hollerers’ mournful voices drifting over the mountaintops, coloring the fog as it settles in.

A phalanx of Duke residents and I, wearing scrubs and beepers, wander the alley of vendor tents and crafts displays. The fact that I’m on call and must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice looms large in my mind as I study the nuances of the callers’ sounds and eat my bag of kettle corn.

A cacophony of other sounds competes with the contestants’ calls. The deejay by the kids’ rides plays nursery rhymes. Vendors shout out their wares as we pass them. Car alarms reverberate off the sound equipment as a businessman barks into his cell phone by my ear. The teenager beside him describes her new Guess jeans to some disembodied person on the receiving end of her phone call who has probably never even heard of a hollerin’ contest.

It is difficult to imagine a place devoid of any other means of communication, especially here. Research Triangle Park is headquarters to so many high-tech. communications companies, after all, a virtual Promised Land where cell phones and wi-fi–enabled coffee shops and gas-station fax machines and household T lines deliver and receive information instantly. Despite this ever-present technology, though, I have not mastered how to convey some information across great distances with accuracy.

The emcee insists that hollerin’ is the earliest form of precise communication between human beings, but I know it’s sex. Yeah, I talk a good talk beforehand, but I never really communicate with someone until we make love. My previous communications sound right, but they are guarded, selective, partial, incomplete. I reveal glimpses of myself through a copy of some poem or a humorous story about my workday or my careful, measured replies to personal questions. These words offer insight into who I am, but I dispense them from behind a protective wall that hides my vulnerability. Until I stand naked with someone, until we discover how to speak to each others’ bodies without the need for words, I am incapable of conveying love or deep emotion in unrehearsed syllables.

The first year that you loved me, you studied my hands in public until you knew that I knew you were doing this. Good hands, you called them. Made for fucking. Your friend Deborah inevitably called when we were deciding if we were hungry enough to get out of bed. You laughed when her call came through, said, “that would be Deborah,” told her that yes, as a matter of fact she had done it again and that she was speaking to a well-fucked woman.

We had our own language of calls then, a holy vocabulary between us.

Later, in a restaurant, you studied the thumbs that had been inside you as I remembered moving them toward that specific spot near my tongue that makes you gasp unintelligibly, each of your unarticulated sounds and movements leading up to that moment conveying so much information: where and when and how and how much and with how much intensity—precise instructions that you conveyed without ever speaking a word.

I told you later, over dinner, in whispered words that made you blush from your neck up to your hairline, exactly what I would do with my hands when we returned home and we stared across the table at each other, anticipating the moment when my entire hand would disappear inside you, reducing you to babel. We shared this quiet language of whispers in such public places.

This morning, in the emergency room, a migrant worker howled in misery. Unable to articulate the source of her pain in words that I could understand, she curled into the fetal position instead and howled at me, her dark eyes desperate. ¿Como esta usted? and the few other phrases that I learned in orientation conveyed nothing useful to either of us, so I ordered a battery of tests and sent the nurse for a translator, did what I could to apply deductive reasoning to our babel as I used my hands to search her body for some physical clue that could tell me how to heal.

Bodies convey information even when their owners can’t. They send signals to the lymph nodes that trigger them to swell sufficiently to indicate an infection; cause pupils to dilate enough to indicate a concussion or drug overdose or loss of brain function or any number of other medical conditions; dispense tears to indicate depression in patients who insist that everything is fine, just fine, just couldn’t be any better, doc. Our miraculous, fragile bodies enable us to communicate love through physical expression more profound than any word in our vocabulary, but they keep their own language too.

People who lose loved ones share a unique language too. ICU waiting-room conversations reflect this language in anguished glyphs of hope and denial and sorrow. These glyphs whisper Failure to doctors who lose patients too, but Hope is the primary word of this whispered lexicon—until I deliver the coup de grace that demolishes any possibility of it with as much distance as I can muster: We tried to save your wife, but her heart was damaged. We tried to save your son, but he is gone. Your Daddy is dead. Your grandmother has passed on. I am so very sorry for your loss.

How did the hollerers isolate that specific sound that represents loss, that mournful call that can make a stranger choke up, missing someone? Adrienne Rich knew the sound. There is no other language for it, she assures us—we have to call it grief. In my case, my friends call it bravery, too, tell me what a great job I’m doing holding up, remaining in control.

Poets reminds me that my walls do not protect me, though, that studying your blue eyes failed to provide sufficient insight into your interior world, your dishonesty. My grief moves over me in waves, becomes a mountain that I lug around inside me, that makes me obsess about that phone call I made when you discussed a meal that you had prepared the night before. For yourself, you said, this meal worthy of Gourmet magazine. Your voice said other things, too, though. And later, when I showed up unannounced and you blushed deep red from your neck up past your dimples all the way up to your red, red hair, you reiterated that you were alone, just sitting there alone because you just wanted some silence, even as I noted the two wine glasses on the counter, the dishes stacked in twos on the dining room table, ready to be put away.

I need a new language to hold all this pain, a deep-throated and gutteral holler that can convey this staggering loss.

I am on this earth to learn, after all, to at least attempt to articulate my experiences authentically and in meaningful sentences, to organize these rabbit screams that escape from me sometimes. I want to do something with these I do and forever memories that have ended so abruptly now, translate our ten years of a shared language that remains so acutely on my tongue into meaningful sounds and phrases.

I write words on charts that heal patients’ bodies, speak knowledgably about immune disorders and disease and disease prevention, but know that I have become a child again—someone who requires a cardboard wheel to identify what I am feeling. I study this wheel that is divided neatly into two concise outer sections. Am I happy or am I sad? The answer is obvious. Your body, our language, are divorced from me now. I will not see you grow old or even wrinkle around your deep dimples and what I feel is anguish. I keen in sobs loud enough to announce our broken union to our neighbors, to my patients.

I do not give you to him, but I have let you go—have walked away and know I must keep walking. I do not know this ground and yet I walk it, take these first strange steps toward a new vocabulary—some descriptive holler that can locate the hollow behind my eyes where I always feel you gone—search for a word that can make me me again.

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