The Never-Ending Swim
The very first thing I noticed when I got home was how cold I was. An overwhelming numbness had shielded me from any sense of tremendous injury, dysfunction, or pain, but that wore away in stages over a few days. The cold was oppressive and unrelenting and saw me shivering while huddled under my blankets. I spent most of my time unconscious and couldn’t stay conscious longer than three hours – I had to make sure that when I passed out, I was on a different side of my body to prevent worse injuries. The only relief was a hot shower which would quickly turn my skin to damaged mush. A hot water bottle became my only friend until it burned my leg when I passed out touching it.
At some point in the day, I had a longer period of unconsciousness. It would be a little too generous to describe this as sleep. For days I had been indescribably exhausted, but each time I woke I felt somehow even more deeply exhausted. It took tremendous focus to get my just my arm in motion, even with an urgent need to empty my bladder. I grabbed a fistful of my hair to pull myself out of bed to stumble clumsily to the bathroom. When I turned on the light, I noticed for the first time the numerous dark purple bruises that had popped up all over my body. I struggled to stand still as I relieved myself and right as I finished I started to notice the pain radiating from my chest to my limbs – a chronic pain that would just become a fact of life as the days would drag along.
I hurt, I froze, and I gasped from exhaustion. I’d pass out trying to go to the bathroom. I’d pass out trying to get back to my bed. I forced myself to get up and walk around the house. Days became weeks when I woke in the dead of night and shivered in pain, dragged myself along the floor to the bathroom, pulled myself into the shower and relieved myself on the floor, unable to pick myself up or do much of anything other than pass out. While I lay in the shower unconscious I started bleeding through my nose and mouth and awoke during the day covered in a mess of my own bodily fluids as I choked up clots and fresh blood.
When the nurse was giving me my discharge instructions I asked about what I should do if I had any symptoms or issues. She shook her head and told me to just come back to the hospital if anything arose that I had any concerns about at all. She reminded me the reason I was being discharged is that it was technically more dangerous for me to be in the ICU than it would be for me at home due to the nature of hospital care: the inability of the hospital to allow me to sleep undisturbed, the potential for medical mistakes, potential exposure to infectious diseases and antibiotic resistant infections. Then she told me that if I had new or worsening symptoms if I felt it was worthwhile I should just come back.
Dizzy and barely conscious, I considered calling for an ambulance to take me back to the hospital. But I was awake. I reached for the shower knob and turned on the shower, feeling next to nothing when the cold water in the standpipe first hit the crust of the mess that covered me. Eventually, the shower warmed up and feeling came back to the parts of my skin that weren’t pressed against the cold and hard tiles of the shower stall for half the night. My poorly formed thoughts strayed to the woman I loved for the past three years. I admit to having reached out to my ex when I was in the hospital – I asked her to come see me. She said that she would. And then she didn’t show up.
I had broken up with her several months before and she had moved out. A month ago, I learned that she was now dating an old friend of mine that I had introduced to her as my brother. I was a little taken aback when she told me that she wasn’t going to come see me because he asked her not to. Truth be told, I didn’t give it much thought as I was not capable of giving anything much thought. But lying in my shower, waiting for the warm water to restore some sensation to my extremities, I thought about her and what happened to us quite a lot, relatively speaking. Between the way things had shaken out at the job I had worked for seven years, ending a month and a half before, and the way my ex refused to even come and see me as I lay dying – I added a new emotion to the short stack of emotions I had to process. I felt discarded. I felt abandoned.
In the late 1950’s researcher Curt Richter subjected lab rats to being dropped into a column of water. He noticed that some of the rats would quickly become overwhelmed and drown much faster than average and interpreted this as parasympathetic collapse, caused by a psychological state of hopelessness. Specifically, an overstimulation of the vagus nerve which regulates heartbeat. The reason for this interpretation is when Richter repeated the experiment by first exposing the rats for a short time to get them used to the idea, they would all then survive much closer to the average amount of time when being left in the columns for the full experiment.
The Only Shelter
I knew that I had to do something because every emotion I had on my emotional stack was a bad one. The old proverb “misery loves company” came immediately to mind because I was absolutely miserable. I eventually found the strength to get up and finish cleaning myself off and I knew what I had to do. I decided to go and avail myself of the company of society’s other miserable cast-offs. I took myself to my local animal shelter and I was going to take one of those sad, ugly dogs that nobody wants for a walk.
When I walked through the shelter’s front door, things were alarmingly quiet. Someone eventually found me as I was walking back into the dog kennels. A young volunteer called out to me as put my hand on the door that led to the rows of cages where the dogs were sheltered.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid we don’t have any dogs left for adoption this weekend.”
This was years before the pandemic. A little bubble of frustration welled up in my thoughts but quickly popped. It figured. This was just my luck over the past few weeks and I wasn’t really surprised that my luck had not changed.
“Well, I’m here. Is there a mop? I can clean up some of the kennels.”
I opened the door and walked back into the kennels. The lights were out and the air was unusually still in a shelter that I had become used to seeing full of dogs in a flurry of activity and barking. So much the barking. The volunteer seemed quite excited to have managed to clear down the shelter for once, although she seemed disappointed for my sake as she left in search of a mop. Looking in the kennels as I walked down the row, I remember seeing a half chewed dog bed upturned in the corner of one kennel and a single rope toy laying still in the hall. I felt a pang of guilt for being frustrated about all of the dogs having been adopted out. It should have been a relief to know that they had all gone off to homes, when so many dogs would have never known the privilege of a family before they were put to sleep.
The volunteer returned just as I turned the corner to see the very last kennel in the back. There was something shaped like a dog lying completely still on the bare concrete, back facing the kennel door, nose facing the darkest corner of the shelter. She was breathing slowly and didn’t react in the slightest as I came up to her kennel door. She didn’t even look up. There was no little name tag on her cage door, no Sharpie-drawn hearts and dog bones, no clipboard to announce the details of her care plan. I gripped one of the bars on her cage to steady myself and I looked at the volunteer. After finding my eyes, the volunteer looked in the kennel and I saw her heart sink. She turned and ran out of the kennel area, leaving me with the abandoned dog.
“What’s your name?” I asked the dog. She said nothing in reply and lay still. I stood there with her in silence.
The volunteer returned and told me that the dog had just been returned to the shelter by the family that had previously adopted her. Curious about why the volunteer had looked so devastated, I asked what would happen to the dog now that she had been returned. She replied that it was not the first time the dog had been returned by an adopting family. I was genuinely curious. This dog was a pretty good looking dog, medium sized, and certainly wouldn’t have any trouble getting interested adopters. This shelter was also usually pretty good about matching up dogs with families.
“So will she be back up for adoption soon?”
The volunteer’s hesitation prompted me to ask a lot more questions. She went to get the shelter manager when I started asking some of the harder questions. He revealed a lot more about the dog’s history and difficulties as I asked more about the abandoned dog – her name, given by a previous rescue was Marcie.
Marcie was not going to be made available for adoption. She had significant scarring on her neck and body and was found in the Shenandoah valley by a rescue group, observed alone in the wild for months before she was tricked into the van with food in the middle of winter. She had been adopted out and returned a few times and was taken in by the current shelter and adopted out three more times, only to be returned by each adopting family. She had a chronic cough that still hadn’t gotten better. At this point, the shelter manager said, it was unfortunate, but continuing to treat her cough wasn’t financially viable and it wouldn’t make sense for the shelter to try to adopt her out again.
We both knew what this meant for Marcie. She had been cast off too many times. Too sick to go on, the walls of her cell would be the only shelter she would ever know. I asked to take her out in the yard for a walk. The shelter manager cautioned me that I had to be on guard with my behavior as she might react poorly to fear. As she was the only dog in the facility, I opened her cage door, but Marcie did not stir. She didn’t move at all until I put my hand on her shoulder, to which she looked only briefly in my eyes before she stood and walked past all of the empty cages and stood before the door that led to the yard.
It was a cold autumn day and steam streamed past her nostrils as she stepped out into the yard. Marcie brushed past me going straight to the far corner, glaring hard and offering nothing more than a dry, rattling cough to an uncaring world. She showed no interest in me. There was no spark, no magic between us, no love at first sight. Not every dog can be saved. Not every dog wants your help. After a while, she returned and stood by the door leading back into the shelter. When I opened the door for her again, she brushed past me and returned to her cage.
I told the shelter manager to send Marcie to the vet. “I’ll pay.”