Heart of Healer Part 1
Ghosts of Patients Past
By M.J. Politis
On October 30, John Baldino received the Westchester County Doctor of the Year Award, a unanimous decision by fellow physicians, patients and even the nurses. He was cited for his solid service, innovative insights and 110% reliability. On the morning of October 3 l, the Ever-ready Battery of Internal Medicine left only one explanation for his absence from the post he faithfully occupied for twenty-five years—“Gone Fishing”.
Baldino left enough back-up physician numbers and patient notes so that his services would not be missed. But as for his own whereabouts, NO one knew the whys or where’s of “Gone Fishing”. Maybe it was not having taken a real vacation since residency. Maybe it was the book deal he was offered for his memoirs, clearly written, in a secret part of his head. Maybe it had something to do with the visit he took under an assumed name to the specialist across town who found something in that head that might need to be removed, treated or untwisted. The records never showed John having gotten the CAT scan and MRI as ordered, and the psychiatrists never included Alive as an acceptable part of the bell-shaped curve of normality. Or maybe it was just one of those mid-life things.
Rumors flew around the office. The most popular was that “Gone fishing” was John’s version of buying that sports car, growing a grody green goatee, or having that fling with a twenty-two year who would make him feel like a young man for two glorious weeks until she dumped him for another rich old fart or a kid who understood that love and loyalty don’t mix when you’re under thirty. But the “when’s” of the sabbatical from responsibility were delineated. “I have fifteen fish to settle scores with,” John left as a confidential note to Gloria, his devoted secretary. It was for her ears only, which meant that by the fifth day, she would have shared it with her closest five friends. But, to Gloria’s credit, she had five friends who really knew her. No one knew the real John Baldino, including himself. Introductions had to be made, assessments made on the life experiment and decisions implemented as to the next step.
He had always avoided the “places of change”, allowing super spy brother Vincent and his legendary missionary-soldier parents to be overseas in the places in need of food, water or a few weeks away from bombs and bullets. John was the family scholar, cursed and gifted with an IQ that demanded a career in research and a heart that required that he “above all things, do no harm”. It was a boring job, living a comfortable academic medical life in Upscale Westchester Country, but someone had to do it.
Though born a fire sign, living in a land-locked town, John always had an affinity for the ocean. It was the place where solid ground ended and the infinity of space beyond your control began. It was where you could look over the horizon and feel what was beyond it. In Rockaway, you could “see” the other side of the ocean. But way out in Montauk, North and South shore met in a sliver of land that met the sea on Nature’s terms. Bay and ocean were the same here, equally big, and equally eager to give you answers that you needed, even though they might hurt you before they healed you.
Off season house rentals on the Point were always a bargain. After Labor Day, all the tourists were back in Manhattan, even on the weekends. Rates were dirt cheap and shop owrlrr5 customers actually talked to you about people rather than prices. But still, behind their eyes, lingered the thought—“the quiet is peaceful, but what if the tourists don’t come back next season?” It was a fear they kept inside themselves.
Fifth generation-Montaukian Kathy Brennan didn’t know what John was or what he did. All she saw was the American Express Card gold card, a healthy credit limit and the expatriate look in John’s eyes when he brought his bags in from the car.
She noted a computer and reams of paper which would become print or shredded evidence of frustration. “Are you a writer, Mister Baldino?” she inquired with cordiality afforded a first-timer.
“I used to be,” John replied. “When I was a kid, I wrote lots of poetry.”
“This is a great place to be a kid again,” Kathy offered Baldino didn’t look like a boozer, doper or those guys who would kill himself with a revolver. Or if it did, he wouldn’t mess up the rug. “What do you write now?”
“I’ll know that when I’ve written it,” he said.
Behind the smile was the challenge of discovery, not the gloat of arrogance, Kathy noted. Any words written would be well-earned. Mister Baldino carried himself like more than just a “mister”, and the Point was a place where privacy was protected. He was a high paying client who wanted to be left alone and such people were the bread and butter of the “Pointers” who had protected Montauk from being “Hamptonized” for over a hundred years.
With door closed to the world, and window open to the bold Atlantic surf, John set up the computer, poured himself a Light beer and opened up the “notebook”. It had been
twenty vears or more. It smelled like a mummy’s tomb. the blue-cloth binder flicking up musty dust that took at least five minutes to settle. But the words were intact and the print~very, very clear. The first page read “Poems: 1978-1982”. Under it. a penciled inscnption underneath “Don’t dream it, be it.” He remembered the Rocky Horror Picture show that inspired the quote. Maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. But the first poem was about more than a cult flick. It read: It sliced me and I bled. It’s dangerous to bleed. You become septic with hope and despair. So you choose to recede into your white cell. And it gobbles up all the pain.
Most of the time.
The man was completely paralyzed but finely tuned. I walked into his room, kicked the tires, checked under the hood. yep, we keep ’em humming around here. Suddenly, a presence. A sneak attack.
A frightened man appeared in his eyes, screaming to anger, fists pounding, demanding to be released.
Jolted by the sudden personification of this inanimate being. I froze. I was wounded.
For a moment, we switched roles. Powerless. Angry, frustrated and guilty. I ran away. It’s dangerous to bleed.
John re-understood the meaning from this 25 year old case. But the story had to be told as it happened, from the view of the person who opened his life up to it all–God damn and bless him. From his pen and the painful memories would come the real story, straight from the source-point patient’s mouth. John spoke in poems, but his patients spoke in stories, and it was time that those stories, entrusted to him for all these years, were written down.
My name is John A.K.A. Smith. Middle initials handed down to me by daddy and granddad not the most famous, but certainly the most successful two-bit outlaws and bootleggers in Northwest Arkansas. No one forgot me when I was the best bowler in Arkadelphia, bringin’ our team to a solid second place in every competition we entered–state wide. But they seem to have forgotten me in this place that’s supposed to be about making people feel better, or at least TRYIN to keep them alive. Why are all them white coated four-eyed bookworms ignorin’ me?
I can still think with my head, laugh with my belly and itch with evervthin’ else. God, it itches. Mlaybe my body will hurt a little more today, and someone will notice. I can’t move my hands or feet, and accordin’to the mirror in front of me, even my eyes. But 1 still itch. No one asks me if I hurt or itch.
These are medical experts here, best in the country, so Old Doc Henry, told me when he got me inta this place. Suppose no medical expert asks if a livin’ corpse hurts, itches, or feels.
They talk about my case. “Central Pontine Myelosis” they call it. “Loss of motor function of voluntary muscles, retention of all sensory sensations”; 1 read on the chart once, when they were dumb enough to stick it in my face. Near as 1 understand it, I got too much salt, ammonia or some other kind of toxic shit crushin’ the bottom of my brain box. They got a Latin or Greek name for the place in my brain that don’t work no more, the part that makes me kick when I’ve been hit, stand when I been knocked down, and reach out when I been touched. Old Doc Henry always said that listenin’ and feelin’ was an art, so I must be a hell of an artist. I listen to and feel everythin’ now.
I can feel the touch of the nurse with the D cup breasts cleanin’ me up. And the coldness on her own empty life as she looks at me, Patient Smith-Central Pontine Myelosis. Wonder if she knows how dead she is inside. Wonder if she cares.
I remember feelin’ the hands of my wife, kids and descressionary womanfriend when they, came and said goodbye to me, not knowing how alive 1 was inside this body. That was a long time ago, or maybe it wasn’t. Time feels so long here, and everything lasts an eternity.
Like now, I feel the intern poking me, looking for reflexes with his hammer, shoving needles inta me like they don’t hurt. “Don’t prod me like I’m a Missouri mule or a defective piece of beef hangin’ on the slaughterhouse hook. I’m a man, human, and alive as you are. Only problem–1’m locked in!!! ” I feel like tellin him that, but this one won’t listen neither. Gotta be SOMEONE who I’m stickin around here fer. Someone to pass whatever torch 1 still got inside me to.
I hear the only cure for this is on the other side of the grave, when, and if..But ifI can make just one doctor find the part of him that’s human, the part of him that’s ME. Maybe THIS next one has an open heart and a thinkin brain. Maybe this smelly kid who don’t fit his lab coat or student ID tag will hear me. “John Baldino” it says on his name card from Bronx Community College. Maybe he works for the Mob in New Jersey and he can bribe the Pope inta ending this disease, or ‘life’ I’m livin, once and fer all. No one else will, and he looks like he don’t fit in here. Makes two of us. But no matter how hard 1 scream, he’s gotta listen. His ears don’t look that big, all that hair coverin’them as he does the once-over with his tired eyes that—
I think he saw somethin. Maybe he DOES see a life behind the lump of flesh. He’s lookin at me, and not listenin’ ta them. “Yeah, kid I’m talkin’to you, “I scream with whatever part of my bruin can still talk. “Ya wanna know a secret? is wanna get yer soul set on fire? Ya wanna just let me think that I’m not totally alone, just fer a day, a minute, a second or two?”
Hey’—this WAP Hippie wannabe doc DOES see me. He’s tryin’ to talk with me, in the language of Silence. Maybe 1 should help him out by initiatin’ the conversation. “Hey, how ya doin? My name’s John, same as yers.”
I think he heard that. He’s squintin his eyes. Wood’s burnin behind them beady-brown eyes, which are gettin bigger. “Hey, 1 ain’t a ghost, or maybe 1 am. But I’m more alive than any of them assholes and morons who you have to call doctor, professor or when ya screw up, ‘Sir’.”
He’s backin off. He wants to warm himself by the fire, but not become it. Bein, Alive is hard enough on ME, wonder what it will be like on HIM. What will it be like fer this young buck to feel so much, then be let go into a world where he can do so little? Maybe 1 should go back into my cave so–
Hey, he’s coming out into the Light, asking me the Question. He’s crossed that line, and 1 can’t let him go back to what he used to be. “What do you want to give to me? “the Hippie WAP-doc is askin. I smile with MY eyes, looking into his soul. “Life!” I scream out with joy, and sorrow. “Life. Yours to feel, and preserve.”
I’ll probably go to hell fer overloadin’ this kid’s soul-tank with an octane that’ll bust his engine. But it’s a better place than where 1 am now. And hard as his life’s gonna be, he’ll be spared the kind of dying’ that’s already, killed most of the world already. The opposite of good ain’t evil, it’s lifelessness. And at least I stole one more convert from the Devil—God help me.
Three beers and five gallons of sweat had been spent on this first “fish”. Who knew how much time was left now? John’s head started to hurt again. It was an “amygdaloid” headache, or was it hippocampal? Manipulation of the acupuncture first aid points relieved the throbbing but not the pain. Something happened. A presence seemed to come into the room, an uninvited friend. Friends were better than enemies, but uninvited was all John needed now.
“I’m going outside now!” he announced to the fresh air now stagnant with memories. He grabbed his fishing pole and walked out to the beach. A small jetty of rocks lead to a lookout hermitage point. From it, maybe he could catch a bass for supper. Or maybe it would be the fish catching the man this time. Only he, God and Kurt Vonigat (as her remembered the spelling would know for sure.
The incoming surf on the Beach void of human footprints reminded John of songs from Better times. Rod in reed, he surrendered himself to the rhythm of the waves under his feet. He hated “My Girl” But the music was so catching, its beat carrying the first and second heart sound with a silent third beat that was always there but under the range of hearing with the stethoscope. “Bom, bom, bom, Bom…. I got sunshine … On a cloudy day. And when it’s cold outside, I got the month of.—”
“–May I?” a voice kindly interrupted. The authentic fisherman in JC Penny discount polyester had the face of a seasoned a master. He was as authentic as you’d get at the Point, squid-smelling overalls, barnacle-scraped Boots and a smile that said “hello” in the warmest of tones. “You gotta have the right kind of lure and bait to catch fish out here. Try some of mine. And the bass here prefer to be sung out of the water with Beethoven or Blues. With all your years of schooling, I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Doctor Baldino.” “What else do I know, John A.K.A. Smith?” John asked the visitor. “You were diagnosed with Central Pontine Myelosis—in 1978. That’s untreatable.”
“Except by angelic intervention,” the fisherman related with a smile. “My name really WAS Smith. But my first name was Harry. My friend’s call me Bud.”
“You can’t be…” John moved his hand over to the fisherman. His tack was real, but he wasn’t.
“I’m alive in spirit, Doctor Baldino. My body died after the accidental morphine dose.”
“Not By my hand!”
“The nurses you talked to were moved By your—transformation. One of them, you know…
“Who was she, Bud?”
“Patient-executioner’s confidentiality, John. After all these years of schooling, you should know that.
A multitude of emotions stirred up in John, all of them clamoring for control of his shaking body. But before any could take charge—the pain in the head, from the temporal lobe this time.
“You should get that looked after, John.”
“It’s a headache. Migraines.”
“Doctor’s make the worst patients, John.”
“And are YOU my doctor?”
“One of them.”
“It’s nothing organic!” John insisted. “And it’s inoperable, according to the books.”
“If you say so, Doctor.” Smith cast out again. A school of bass moved into the mini-cove around the rocks. “You wrote the books. Now it’s time to concentrate on your fishing.”
The school of bass moved in, one of the fish edging closer to John’s hook, nudging it with its snout, nibbling away at the lose pieces of bait floating away from it when “Hey I got him,” Baldino screamed with exhilaration. “I never caught a fish before.”
“Always a first time! Reel him in easy, John. Slow and steady!”
“I got him! He’s mine!” Baldino gripped his rod, the battle between helplessness and hope in his clenched fist. “I got him!!!”
“Easy does it, Doc. Bring him in steady and slow.”
John pulled hard, firm and with the enthusiasm of a young buck on his first bronc.
“Ride’em, cowboy!” Smith exclaimed. “Pull him in! You got him. You got him.”
The catch was a thirty pounder at least. Baldino felt like the kid who he remember he was just before he decided to become a doctor. Dirty, smelly, non-sterile and irresponsible as any crab in the ocean.
“Hey, Bud! You know how to cook these? I have beer in the fridge and there’s a game on tonight. It IS Monday, right?”
“If you want it to be,” Smith offered. “What do you mean? Am I.dead, too?” Smith offered his hand to John–an appendage that was seen but could not be felt. “What the…?”
“Relax, Doc. You are still alive.” “The headaches…?”
“The HOW of being alive is easy. The WHY is the most important part. You have another fourteen fish to catch. This one, you throw back.”
John tossed the fish back into the sea. It swam away, unfettered by the catch, the wounds on its mouth mystically restored.
“What now, Bud?”
“You write about me, you and what we’ve learned from each other. In a language that people who don’t live on the Point can understand. I can put it more ethnic fer ya, but fer now, clear is better than colorful.”
Bud smiled, adopted the Arkansas drawl of his previous earth-bound life, and walked off the jetty, “The Sun will come out …Tomorrow…Wipe away the heartaches and the sorrows..”
Never did Annie-gone-Country sound more off key, and on target.