That’s me in the hospital bed, with no one but myself to blame as I hover nearby, incapable of action or intention, the friend who never abandons, myself whose every hope and wish depends on this lone, this single physical, human life. We grew up together, until at the age of thirteen we became separated through an accident that changed our life.
I don’t wish to linger on the ‘accident’, if such it can be called: a steep hill, enough snow for an unexpected day off from school, a blazing fire atop the hill, the colorful scarves and caps and mittens of delighted children… Much of what we call fate depends upon circumstance and coincidence. That particular year, town fathers, and mothers, I suppose, in their infinite wisdom, built an impromptu oasis of warmth halfway down the hill as well, so the younger children could be caught by adult watchers without risking the intense speed and cold of the full descent.
Older children, like me, backed away from the summit, ran full tilt, and flung themselves onto their Flexible Flyers to increase the speed of descent. But one-third of the way down on my, let’s say, fifty-sixth run, my dear friend Jeffrey, coming up the hill, abandoned his sled with the sudden joyful idea of leaping on my back to steal a ride down with me. My sled changed course, like a pool ball whacked on one edge, and slammed into the oasis I have mentioned.
In retrospect, it does not seem a good idea at all to have constructed a semi-circular wall of concrete block in the middle of a sledding hill, but the fathers and mothers believed in doing something well if at all. Jeffrey, for his part, had rolled off, having driven me into the concrete wall at dizzying speed. So forceful was the blow I felt in my teeth, neck, shoulders, down to my ankles, that my body flipped in the air, spun over the wall, directly onto the blazing log fire that essentially exploded upon impact.
Just before impact I saw what would inevitably occur within a mere fraction of a second and separation occurred. Myself—what we might call consciousness, escaped whatever violence would occur to the hapless body I had been calling me for thirteen years. I existed as observer of the body I had called my own. As the condition of ‘unconsciousness’ continued for several days, I had time to ask myself questions about this separated existence: body there, in the hospital bed, consciousness here, somewhere in the air above, to the right relative to the body’s perspective, if it had one at the time—the very position in which I find myself once more.
I watched parents, doctors, nurses, friends come and go, leaving flowers, prodding and testing, adjusting tubes leading in and out of me, myself remaining patient, thoughtful, and pain-free. That’s when I came to think of this separated consciousness as ‘myself’, the body on the bed as ‘me’, thus constructing a make-shift psychology to satisfy immediate needs.
Waking to the physical wounds my body suffered, I nevertheless retained a modicum of separated identity, sparing me the full weight of this pain. When my body received medication to sleep, I disengaged to the extent that once home I continued to experience separation, to a greater and lesser extent, in a fevered state in which both existences ran parallel to each other.
Myself felt years older than me, a distinction persisting until the physical age of twenty-one, at which time myself felt twice the age and maturity of me. Serious problems ensued: my teachers reprimanded me for daydreaming, even accused me of cheating; who could explain that these ‘studies’ did not really require full attention for success.
More disturbing yet, me took liberties, broke windows, stole any desired object, and took advantage of innocence in selected girls who might have reached young adulthood intact without interference. Thus scolded, me ignored and stewed in fury. The disparity continued through high school. Me, a merciless football hero, was celebrated by classmates and reviled by opponents for unrestrained cruelty. I entered college conflicted with the imminently successful me in a way that kept myself in unrelenting shame and anger. Hatred for me grew in myself, and vice-versa, both increasingly intolerant. I was fractured, fragmented, known to one group of friends as a physical hero, to another as a brooding intellectual possessed of mysterious forebodings, an organism at war with itself.
Over the years of trial and error, myself never gained control over me but could, working subtly, suggest ideas me took as original, convincing me of personal enjoyment of long, isolated hikes in the mountains, along rivers and streams, which myself enjoyed immensely, and during which time me got in no trouble. On one such lonely mountain sojourn it occurred to myself that it might be possible to distract me sufficiently to cause some slippage during daring leaps from one rock to the next, climbing the sheer face of another.
Thus adept at distraction, arguing with me concerning the very nature of reality, myself caused me to fall into a crevice, groaning for days before passing into what doctors call a coma. Myself, exultant in newfound freedom, developed a growing awareness that the weakening pulse of me might pose a threat to myself, that physical death of me might bring myself to the portal of infinity, dreaded as the nothingness we fear, still hoping it might not be so.
At last, explorers discovered me in the crevice and a helicopter arrived, and since that time me remains in a blessed condition of unconsciousness, myself in this paradoxical freedom. And here, at last, I have come to understand that me has been beloved all these long years, and that no one myself loves more than me.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts, with Another Chicago Press. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Two Thirds North.