A Zone of Zen-like Calm

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Some situations in life have the capacity to make us anxious; others, while appearing to threaten our plans and equanimity, usher us instead into a zone of zen-like calm. Sitting in an airport waiting room and watching the connection time for your next flight dwindle while your plane, for obscure reasons, is going nowhere, can inspire the production of stomach acids and drive other thoughts from your mind. But the same circumstance, minus the necessity of the connection, can transform you instantly into a philosopher. It does help if the embattled airline agent at the gate can tell you why. In this case, we were going nowhere because the plane lacked a first officer, and the airline was busily looking for one (who arrived at length to great applause). Our destination was the final one for everybody waiting, so a sort of cheerful sense of frustration settled over the waiting crowd. We were all, figuratively speaking, in the same boat.

Just a few hours later I was in a boat all by myself. My fishing buddy and I were assigned to the last cabin available at a busy outfitter in Wolf Creek, Montana; and as we walked in, I found out why it was the last. For reasons obscure to us, the carpenter who installed the floor of the cabin had managed to leave it at four different levels. My first intimation of this phenomenon was just inside the entrance, where a square of vinyl tile gave way to a carpeted floor. The carpeted floor, however, was about six inches below the tiled, and I hit it like a ton of bricks, on my left shoulder.

The pain was briefly a ten on the usual pain scale. My watch piped up, “Are you all right? Do you need help?” Trying hard not to scramble the answer, I declined help for the moment. I was pretty sure the shoulder was broken; but my buddy was there, and I didn’t want an ambulance just then.

A few minutes later, when the stars had subsided, I heard myself rehearsing the most common last words of elderly Vermonters: “Let’s give it till morning and see how it is then.” I took an extra dose of acetaminophen. We drove a few hundred yards to the Lazy I Beerworks (formerly Shotgun Annie’s) and enjoyed as much as possible some tacos, seared chicken salad, and a beer. Then back to the cabin – we’d both had long days – where I’d left my duffel bag on the edge of the platform to prevent a repetition of my earlier performance, and off into a tortured sleep punctuated by fearful shufflings to the bathroom, three inches up.

As you age, other people – kids, employers, life insurance agents – begin to worry about you, and in some cases even worry for you. I knew that first thing in the morning, if I hadn’t yet expired, my buddy would insist on a run to the nearest emergency room, 35 miles away in Helena. I reluctantly acceded. It was mostly by interstate, speed limit 80.

I have never elsewhere been welcomed with such solicitude as I was at St. Peter’s Health. Cody (I didn’t get his last name), the nurse, got me settled in a curtained room and took my vital signs. Then a cheerful young doctor, Andy Coil, asked a few questions, palpated around the worst of the pain, and ordered X-rays, which now can be done by a mobile machine right where you lie. The pictures went to a radiologist, and the doc came back in with the result.

For the first time I realized the other most important function of the emergency room: It doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s wrong; it tells you what’s not wrong. And what was not wrong was a fracture. “You’re old,” Doctor Coil told me, still cheerfully, “and you’re loaded with arthritis. You’ve managed to tear some of that calcification loose, and it’s going to hurt for a while. But don’t rest that joint; keep it moving even if it hurts, stay with the Tylenol, and ice it now and then.”

What a relief! It still hurt like hell – a week later, in fact, it still does now and then – but I was free to do what we were there for in the first place: attempt to entice the beleaguered, threatened, and sophisticated trout of the Missouri River to favor us with their attention. Which they did, if begrudgingly – my buddy called the fishing “hard” – and our guides were polite about my disability. The doctor asked me two questions as we left his bailiwick: “If I were going to buy one of your books, which one would you recommend?” and “Who’s watching Kiki while you’re away?” That rascal was reading more than X-rays while I lay thinking I was done for in his emergency room.