This should hurt. That was the first thought I had when I woke up. Somehow, even then, at the first dawning of my new existence, I knew that the absence of pain was not a good thing.
The sky above was filled with fluffy white clouds, but the clouds were not moving. Neither were the birds silhouetted against the unnaturally blue sky. Something else amiss here. Where am I? A surge of panic started in my belly and worked its way up toward my lungs. It stuck in my throat when I tried to scream. I closed my eyes and a chaotic montage of memories flashed through my consciousness. Robbie standing at the front door waving goodbye. That sudden blinding light. Trying to put my hands in front of my face, yet instinctively knowing it would be too late. Flashing red lights. Shouting voices. Screaming sirens. The broken lady and the wingless angels. Then, nothing.
I think a long time must have passed before I opened my eyes again. The clouds had not moved, and the birds were still frozen in place. The room gradually came into focus. My first realization was that the clouds and the birds weren’t moving because they were painted on the ceiling. Off to my right side, I heard the soft beeping of some sort of machine. Where am I?
I tried to turn my head toward the noise and discovered that I could still feel pain. It felt like someone had run a hot iron from my neck down to my waist. My throat finally released its death grip on my vocal chords and something came out, but it hardly sounded human. More like the croak of a starving raven. I tried to sit up, but was rewarded only by a spastic flailing of one arm in front of my face.
To my left, I heard a loud crash. Without thinking, I twisted my head in that direction and suffered another jolt of searing pain. I closed my eyes and croaked again, the noise rubbing against the sandpaper dryness of my throat. I squinted my eyes open. Someone was standing there. One of the angels without wings. Her hand was over her mouth, her eyes wide.
Another wingless angel hurried into the room. She looked down at the spilled tray on the floor, then at the one with her hand over her mouth, then over at me. Now the second angel covered her mouth. “Oh my God. She’s awake.” I closed my eyes and drifted back into the velvet darkness.
When I woke up again, I was surrounded by wingless angels. They were all busy, fussing over me. The broken lady. Oh No!
“Mark?” I couldn’t make his name come out past the sandpaper in my throat. I tried again. “Mark?” Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at the tall man in the long white lab coat standing next to my shoulder.
The tall man pinched his chin with this thumb and forefinger and stared at me for a very long minute. Then he looked at the others and said, “give us a few minutes here.” Everyone else filed quietly out of the room and I sensed the door whispering shut behind them.
The man in the long white coat turned off the beeping of the machine, then sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on my forearm. He looked vaguely familiar. “Mrs. Murphy?” I blinked, and that seemed to be sufficient acknowledgment for him to proceed. “I’m Dr. Paulson, the chief trauma surgeon here at Memorial Hospital.” Now I remembered where I’d seen him before. We’re losing her! I closed my eyes, wishing that I’d stayed up in that corner and allowed the wingless angels to lose the broken lady. “Mark?” I mouthed his name again.
Dr. Paulson didn’t answer at once. He looked out the window, then back at me. His hand was still on my forearm. “When people ask what keeps me in medicine, with all the long hours and hard work,” he finally said, “I say that I get strength from my patients, from people who bear the unbearable and still go on. People who make the choice to go on, when it would be easy for them to quit. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve already made that choice once.”
Closing my eyes again, my thoughts drifted back to that moment when I first looked down upon the broken lady. Yes, I knew even then – the pain was going to be unbearable. And still, I had made the choice to go back.
“You know that you’re in the hospital?” I nodded – very slightly, for fear of bringing back that awful pain. Dr. Paulson looked at me like he was trying to see what was on the inside of my skin. “You’ve been here for almost five weeks.” He let that sink in, and I knew that worse was still to come. He shifted his weight on the bed, picked up my hand and held it in both of his, gently rubbing my palm with his thumbs. How do they teach this in medical school? Breaking the News 101.
“You were in an accident... Both your legs were severely fractured.” His eyes never left mine. “Your back was also broken. When you’ve regained your strength, the orthopedic docs will have to do more surgery, put in some pins and rods.” A picture of the broken lady came back to me, and in the image I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. She had a big foam collar around her neck, and was strapped onto a long wooden board. Dr. Paulson nodded, as if to say, Yes, Carrie Anne, you are the broken lady, and I’m afraid that you’re broken beyond repair. Then he simply said, “it will be a while before we can know for certain, but I’m afraid that right now it looks like you might not walk again.” We-we-we (bop!) loo-loo-loo (Oh No!).
“Mark?” I again mouthed my husband’s name. I already knew the answer. And I knew that Dr. Paulson had been wrong about me. I would not have the strength to bear this pain.
“It was a head-on collision. It probably happened so fast that Mark never even saw the other car coming. I’m sorry.” At that moment I needed to be hugged more than I needed my next breath of air, but Dr. Paulson couldn’t have made it past all the tubes and wires even if he’d tried. He set down my hand, stood up from the bed, and used a washcloth on my cheeks. “You need to cry, Carrie Anne, but I need to keep your stitches dry,” he said with a gentle smile. It was only later that I learned my nose had been broken and my facial lacerations had required more than 100 stitches, something he had considered hardly worth mentioning after all I’d just learned.
“Robbie?” Once more, no sound came out, but thankfully Dr. Paulson was adept at lip-reading. “He’s been here every day. He’s at school right now. Maggie will pick him up and bring him by this afternoon. Robbie is quite a young man, very mature for a 14-year-old. Told me he’s thinking about medical school. I hope you don’t mind, but I encouraged him. He’d make a fine doctor.”
Dr. Paulson looked at the clock on the wall, then back at me. “It’s not quite noon, and Maggie will be bringing Robbie in at about four, so why don’t you close your eyes for a while. We’re pumping some high-powered painkillers into you, and you’ve had a pretty rough morning.”
I wanted desperately to lose myself behind a veil of sleep, but even more desperately wanted for it to already be afternoon so I could see my son, who evidently had made a new friend. “Maggie?”
Dr. Paulson smiled almost all the way into a laugh. “Maggie is the hospital’s poetry therapist. She’s sort of taken Robbie under her wing, appointed herself his official chauffer. You’ll meet her before long. If you’re a patient at Memorial Hospital, you can’t escape meeting Maggie.”
I closed my eyes and drifted back into the void, into a dream I was to have many times in the months to come. I was back up in my corner, looking down on all the wingless angels as they scurried around the broken lady. The room grew suddenly very quiet, and Mark walked in. Everyone stepped aside to clear a path for him. He walked over to the broken lady, leaned over and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her up from the gurney. And just like that, the foam collar fell from her neck, and all the tubes and wires dropped onto the floor. No longer broken, she got up and walked out of the room, hand-in-hand with Mark.
The wingless angels were astonished. All the broken lady had really needed was a hug.