Ancient Mariner

Standing about Saul Soderberg’s bed this early in the morning could only be pensive doctors or nurses on a mission.  He refused at first to open his eyes.  From the medical gibberish, a dizzying onslaught, especially that early in the day, the sacramental palaver could only be coming from someone with a medical degree.  With his eyes still closed he tried to remember exactly where he was, and to what end.  He opened his left eye to find the doctors, all in lab coats as white and unblemished as an orchid, listing over the left side of his bed.  One introduced himself as Feldman, an attending physician in the neurological department of Beth Israel Hospital.  Both eyes opened.  He pulled his bed sheet to his chin.  “Do you know why you’re here?”  The rest of the doctors stood about the circumference of his bed looking a generation younger than Feldman.  Looking at him as though he was an inchoate being, they said nothing, merely observing.

Pulling up the sheet higher, like he was about to get a shave at a barber shop, he opened his mouth, but nothing came out, except for a drop of saliva.

“You had a bad fall last night.  The ambulance brought you here.  Seems you’ve been having a number of bad falls lately,”

“H-h-have I?” he said, his speech garbled.  He searched their eyes for an answer, but there was none.

“Do you have a headache?” inquired Feldman.  “You slipped at home and your head hit the metal post of the bed.”

“S-s-so?”  The words he emitted seemed to come from someone else, someone who had sampled too many wineries in the Napa Valley.

“Do you remember falling Professor Soderberg?”

Soderberg just shook his head.  As the covey of Feldman’s flock fixated on him as if he was an oddity, they snapped to attention when Feldman continued to press him with his probing questions, that graciously mapped his cognition of his situation, such as what day it was and how long he had been sick with his ‘condition.’  Feldman, puffing himself up trying to be on old terms with the professor as a neighbor next door, inquired lastly, “And who’s the president?”

“S-s-some p-p-prick!” Soderberg retorted, evoking sympathetic smiles and one or two chuckles from the group.  With that, they passed pontifically out of the room following Feldman.

Waiting judiciously for them, was his nurse, about to come in.  “Ah, professor, I see your neurological team has woken you up.  Just in time.  The breakfast cart is down the hallway.  Do you need to use the facilities before it arrives.  Maybe you’d like to wash your face with a wet washcloth to wake up a little?”  A stout, middle-aged matron in white, this new nurse – who called herself Dorothy Emery – reminded him of Sister Mary Ellis, his sixth grade teacher at Saint Augustine Elementary School in Brooklyn.  He was the only Jew in his class at the parochial institution.  “A little food in your gizzard and you’ll be back to your old self.”

But that dug at the heart of the matter.  He remembered he was Professor Saul Soderberg, former chairman of the Classical English Literature Department of the hallowed Ivy League university, now Emeritus.  From there he stumbled, scarcely remembering his age, which was sixty-eight.  Hardly recalling the name of his wife or his children, his own flesh and blood, he grew agitated as if the walls of the hospital room were closing in on him.  Sweat broke out on his brow and barren skull, and his eyes raced wildly across the room searching wildly for something he could recognize.

“Now, now, Professor Soderberg, you’re going home today.  After breakfast, we’ll get you all tidied up, and you’ll forget that you were ever in the hospital overnight.”  She helped swing his legs over the edge of the bed, at the same time supporting his left shoulder as he sat up in one awkward motion.  “Okay, we need to stand you up and walk you to the bathroom.”

Protesting, he found his words to Nurse Emery, garbled, glued to the gums of his mouth as he tried to speak.  It had been that way for months, his speech robbed from a man whose life work was the scholarship of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and the oevre of Samuel Coleridge.

With his left arm draped over the nurse, she half-pulled and half-pushed him past the bathroom door.  Inside the bathroom, with Emery propping him up, he emptied his bladder into a blue urinal.  She duck-walked him back to his bed, putting the head of the bed up and moving the hospital tray strategically over his lap so that he could eat his breakfast fare.  But that was the wrong way to put it, for each time his arms moved his right hand towards his mouth, it would slide away like sparrows sailing, leaving bits and pieces of scrambled egg in his five day stubble.  Finally, the nurse gave up and started feeding him herself.  With breakfast out of the way, an orderly assisted Emery in washing his body like some Aztec sacrifice.

When and where it had all begun, he couldn’t recall.  Had it been one or two years ago.  He vaguely remembered having trouble with recent recall.  He was living in the moss-covered walls of the house he had lived in since he assumed the Chairmanship of the department.  He’d get up from his recliner to fetch something in the kitchen; but once in the kitchen, he would not be able to recall the purpose of his short journey.  As this happened more frequently, his speech also became slurred, and his gait deteriorated to a stagger.   Colleagues wondered if in retirement Professor Emeritus Saul Soderberg relinquished his spare time to a bottle.  Over a series of months, his legs would suddenly give way, but he refused to see a neurologist until he wet the bed one night, something he had last done long before he entered the halls of Saint Augustine for first grade.

All the first neurologist would say after examining him and gazing at the gruel of his brain in slices of an MRI, was that he thought he had a neurodegenerative disease.  Boxer, the neurologist, continued examining him once every two months – these visits in his memory no more than subatomic particles in an ice chamber experiment in high school – until he verified that it was what he had originally thought: the professor had progressive supranuclear palsy.  It was a winter afternoon when Boxer assured him of his original diagnoisis.  Calling it PSP, only the professor’s wife and family recalled what it stood for, or what it was.  But that was a year or two ago, to his best recollection, before the fall that landed him in the hospital, for he had been in the home for almost a year.

Though in new casual clothes, the fall knocked the dementia to a new niche.  Later, just before lunch, when Rachel, his wife, accompanied him back to Bethel House, the nursing facility for the demented, on the verdant skirts of the city, he now longer recognized her.  Accompanying him back to his room in the old institution, she helped dress him in fresh pajamas she had bought the day before.  Like Nurse Emery, she had to help him sequester the stew from the bowl to his lips.  When they finished his lunch, she and the nurse’s aide steered him into the black recliner next to window, where the gray overcast of March, did allow some illumination.  Pulling out a family photo album, Rachel slowly viewed the pictures within, hoping he’d surprisingly recognize someone.  But most of the time, his gaze roamed the room.  More than any other of her frequent visits with the albums, he identified no one.  After countless, frustrating minutes, she took the album from him and tucked them on the desk next to his bed, where they’d be there for some miraculous reason he wanted to search out old friends and family.  Back in his bed, she kissed him on the forehead and left, leaving him in the hollow cove of his cogency.

The following morning, after waking, he sat up in bed.  Inquiring if he wanted a couple of scrambled eggs for breakfast, his wife then kissed him on the brow.  “I-i-it is an ancient M-m-mariner…”  Having recited the first stanza of the poem, he slouched back onto his pillows, never to respond.


By Joseph Dylan


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