ROUGH CUT 09 MAY 2017
TALES FROM THE AYAHUASCA CRYPT
By David Choi
It was Day 6 at New York Presbyterian in Flushing, Queens. I got to the hospital after what had to be one of the weakest sermons I’ve ever witnessed at a church in Astoria. The young pastor was practically reading off his iPad an essay he wrote about Joshua and Jericho. I tried to telepathically direct him to stop looking down and just connect. Who decided that he was ready to take on 11am service? Am I the only one trying to get cheap theatre thrills from Sunday service? Where’s Eli Sunday when you need him? I came to be moved and uplifted but I was more rapt about what kind of water they were giving out in the pitchers by the coffee. Bottled or tap? If bottled, Dasani? Fiji? Essentia might be good for its alkalinity. You get what you pay for, I guess. Coincidentally, I had no cash on me that day for offering. I should probably stop being such a Sunday service tourist. I’m also over Joshua and Jericho.
I made my escape when it came time for my row to get up for communion.
Room 505 was in the newly built West Wing of the hospital and had the warmth of a synthetic fleece blanket from Target, draped with neutral accents that you’d think Martha Stewart had a hand in curating. I dropped my backpack on the permanently-stained, polyurethane sofa and found its matching chair by the window that looked out to Main Street. The air traffic of planes coming in and out of LaGuardia were visible overhead with some flying so close you’d think you could hit one with your best Agassi serve.
Nurse uniforms were color-coded white and dark blue. Nurses in white checked blood pressure, glucose levels and administered antibiotics through IVs, while the ones in dark blue were responsible for all other aspects of patient comfort. We got a friendly visit from at least one of them every 15 minutes or so. The “compassionate care” initiative was in full effect, a refreshing contrast from the chaos of the ER a few days earlier; the psychotic screams that permeated through the corridors of the ER made the calm here seem banal.
I settled in as best I could into the firm springs of the chair, and got back to reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Eventually, I noticed my dad in my peripheral reaching his arms out to me. I got up from my chair, took his hands and stood over him. His eyes were glazed over, mouth open, tongue fat. If I didn’t know any better I’d say he was “k-ed out”, only I knew there’s no ketamine in this part of the hospital.
“I want to get up,” he mumbled.
When he talks it’s mostly unintelligible, but by now I know what he’s trying to say. He’s terrorized me and my mom with his voice, his tone, his sayings, for as long as I can remember. I know what he’s trying to say even when he doesn’t say it. Even now through his garbled speech, it’s still easy to hear the asshole he always was.
I didn’t help him. The part of me that’s permanently angry at him didn’t want to help him.
“The doctor says you’re not allowed to get up. You can’t walk.”
He had complete muscle waste in his arms and legs with sores and scabs all over his shins and knees presumably from previous attempts at kinetics too advanced for him. This was beyond sarcopenia. According to Dr. Cheng, his heart was pumping at 10% capacity and he couldn’t even roll over to one side fully without assistance.
“Why?” he asked.
I spoke to him like the slow child he had become. “Because you can hurt yourself again. If you fall, it’s going to be a serious situation.”
“Because you’re too weak. You have heart failure.”
“Heart failure? Are you sure? Why?”
Was he confused or was this his inveterate knee-jerk denial? The same denial that kept him from seeing how wrong he was to his family and friends all through the years. The same denial that kept him from ever apologizing for his actions, for all the physical and verbal abuse, for ever thinking that his way was anything less than the right way. His ego was egregious. Mom and I had our very own Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade who came home for Thanksgiving dinner every night.
“Why? You don’t know why you’re heart is failing?” I felt the molten magma bubbling up from my inner mantle. I warned him of this for so many years. “You know why you’re sick? Do you know why your heart is failing? It’s because you didn’t exercise. It’s because you sat around all day reading and you didn’t take care of your body. I told you so many times to exercise more.”
He paused to look up at the ceiling then slowly nodded. Was he nodding because he understood? Was he actually conceding that he was wrong?
“Do you want to live or die?” I blurted.
He looked surprised by my question. “We have to survive, David.”
Clearly, he wasn’t following. I continued steamroll him with admonition. “Do you really want to get better? If you want to get better, you have to want to fight for your life. You have to summon your will to survive. You have to want to move your legs. Can you do that? If not, you’re going to die.”
I knew he couldn’t and I also knew he wouldn’t. It was a devil of a diatribe, I know. But finally, after 38 years, I get to tell him all the things he should be doing, what he was doing wrong with his life. Who’s the big fuckup now, Dad?
I felt a corkscrew wrenching through my bowels. Where was my pity for this man whose life was now relegated to bed of weewee pads? I was so ashamed. Ashamed for not being able to feel anything but anger towards him for making me so cold–because I’m so not like this in the real world! I remember defending myself every time we started on a heated contest over dinner that would usually end in one of us slamming, pushing, or nearly flipping the table. That the only person I spoke to with such animosity and hostility was him. Without fail, he always brought out the worst in me. His voice was like a thorn nestled deep within my amygdala piercing my psyche every time he so much said my name. Even now, when he’s at his weakest, my instinct is to assume the fighting position when he calls out for me. My heart will cry to caught-on-camera candids of tortured animals on Youtube but to him I can be such a cold and bitter gaesekki (son-of-a-bitch in Korean), as he likened me to on more than several occasions growing up.
I got up and tried to walk it off around the West Wing. I was an abomination of everything I stood for. Now I really knew what it meant when I told people about my sick dad and they’d say, “I’m so sorry, it must be so hard.” Because before this whole experience of being with him in the hospital, I was my regular lax self, taking everything in stride, bobbing and weaving through life. When I first heard that he was sick a few weeks earlier, sure, I felt a tinge of sadness. But it didn’t make me want to stop living my life. I had things to do, a beautiful girlfriend to love, and not to mention it was the final weekend of A Winter’s Tale and I had to concentrate on not mucking up my lines like I did on opening night (boy, was that a disaster).
When I returned to the room, he looked to me with his sorry look and reached out to me again. I took his hands and this time, I helped him sit up. But I wasn’t going to let him stand up. He’d surely fall and end up in ICU. Not on my watch. I pulled up a chair and sat guard next to him ready to thwart any attempt at getting up. After about 10 uneventful minutes of sitting together on the side of the hospital bed it dawned on me that I should probably get a picture to remember this time in our lives. I got my Galaxy S7 from across the room and snapped the only photo that I ever took of him, ever (I honestly cannot recall taking a picture of him, especially one of just him, willingly or not). As I was checking the photo, Nurse Loi, in her dark blue scrubs, walked in and saw me sitting on the couch looking at my phone and Dad on the edge of his bed, feet dangling off the ground.
She threw her hands to her hips and with her chin down she glared up at us like Momma just walked in on her two kids playing in the kitchen with broken eggs on the floor. “Papa, what you doin? You think you’re goin to get up and walk around today?” she said to him in her thick Jamaican accent. “And what you doin over there just playing with your phone and not tryin to help him?” she scolded me in a no-dessert-for-you tone.
I wanted to defend myself, to tell her that I was sitting next to him the whole time before she came in, that I really was making sure that he wasn’t going to fall, that it’s not what it looks like. But that wasn’t the truth, now was it. The truth was that I was morally sucking and I needed someone to witness it. I sorely needed help finding humility again and boy was I about to get it.
“All he wants is to get up and feel like he can do something. Just think about how he feels laying in bed all day while everyone comes and goes. How he was always able to walk and now he can’t. Where is your compassion for your father?”
“The doctor told me not to let him get up,” I muttered.
“You goin to do everything the doctor tell you to do? You know how busy everyone is around here? They just tell you these things for their own safety, you know. The same thing’s goin to happen to you. You know about karma? What go around come around. I see it every day. Young people just like you stuck in hospital beds not able to walk around. And they don’t have any family to come around and take care of them. You’re lucky you have family. You’re his son, you should want to help him.”
“I always wanted to help him but he never wanted my help.” That wasn’t completely true. At some point I gave up trying to give him health advice and would have rather had him suffer the consequences of his own actions. “He did this to himself, you know. I told him for so many years that he shouldn’t sit so much, eat so much meat. And he was addicted to something, who knows what, he hid it so well. Point is, he never conditioned his heart and this is what he gets for it.”
“It doesn’t matter what he did before. This is how he is now and you have to show him grace. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:36.” Here we go with the bible.
“Merciful? You have no idea what he’s put us through. Grace was never a part of his vocabulary.”
“Yes, but you’re alive today because of him you’re probably a better person because of him.”
“I’m a better person today because he showed me all the things I shouldn’t do,” I seethed.
She turned to him and lowered the guards from the right side of the hospital bed. “Come on papa, grab my shoulders. You are going to stand today.” He slung his limp arms around Nurse Loi and hugging chest to chest, she lifted him off the bed and onto his feet. His legs were slack and impuissant, but getting off the hospital bed really did affect him because he let out a drawn out, “Wow.” Was that really all he wanted was for me to lift him off the bed and put him in an assisted vertical position? I felt like such an asshole. I wanted to cry.
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1st Peter 4:8,” she said to the corner across the room where the wall met the ceiling as she held him up. “See? That’s all he wanted. He’s like a baby right now and you have to treat him like one. He has to learn how to walk again. Today he stands up and sits down. Tomorrow he gets up on his own. Soon he will take his first steps again.”
“Do you know how old he is? He’s 75 years old with heart failure. He’s not going to get up and walk around again because he doesn’t have the will to get better. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Revelations 3:19.” Two can play the bible game.
Nurse Loi set Dad gently back down in the lying position and the look on his face was pure bliss. It was the first time I saw Dad smile in years. The shame I felt was now teetering on nauseating guilt. The kind I felt for 18 years after Suzy died for not being a better brother.
“How do you know that he won’t get up and walk out of the hospital today? God works in miracles.”
“Yes, he does,” I shot back at her. “I believe that 1000% percent. But the chances of him getting up and walking out of this hospital on his own today are less than 0.0001%. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying that it’s not going to happen.”
“But what if he did? What would you think? What would you say?”
“‘Oh my God?’” Was there a right way to answer a question like that? “I mean, I dunno. I, I would be shocked.”
“And that’s why I love God because he works in that 0.0001%.”
I was reminded of the Bill Hicks bit on Christians and dinosaur fossils, “‘Christian: God put dinosaur fossils here to test our faith!’ … Bill: I think God put you here to test my faith, dude.” So now I’m guessing the Lord sent Nurse Loi to me not just to teach me grace and humility, but also to practice my pitch on the gut microbiome. I tried to sell her the most compelling scientific explanation for God and the mysteries of the universe that she ever heard.
“You know who God really is? God is Earth. God’s the superorganism, the sum total of all bacteria and microorganisms previously unseen and unknown that communicate and interact with each other through vibrating energies, quorum sensing and quantum coherence, that give our planet and all of us life. And the ‘Holy Spirit’? Well, that’s our gut microbiome that we inherit from our parents and environment, the superorganism that lives inside of all of us that dictate our emotions, thoughts, behavior, digests our food, protects us from all disease and gives us health. They determine our destiny whether it’s salvation or hell on earth. Our human bodies, just like all living creatures on this planet, are just vessels for our bacteria. Everything has everything to do with our gut bacteria and if you want God to work in your favor, you really ought to do any and all things humanly possible to optimize your gut microbial composition.”
Nurse Loi listened intently and while she might not have completely bought my theory outright, she seemed to enjoy listening to my impassioned rant.
“You love your science, don’t you.”
“I’m still trying to figure out how Jesus plays into all of this. Allegorically. Besides, my dad’s an atheist. He used to yell at me for even believing there was a God. For a while I wanted to believe just to spite him.” At that point, Dad must’ve been on some wild DMT trip because the odd look of shock and bewilderment on his face reflected a far gone departure from conscious cognizance. “This is hell for him right here, the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, because his gut bacteria are are losing their ability to protect him. The only thing that can help him now is a fecal matter transplant.”
She seemed to buy it, or at least not to be disgusted by the thought of putting someone else’s poo up your butthole, which is usually the case when I tell someone about it for the first time. I went on to describe the gradual reduction of gut microfloral diversity that comes with age which leaves the host organism—in this case, my dad—with a more fragile microbial ecosystem leading to intestinal hyperpermeability. In other words, an imbalance of gut microbes, or dysbiosis, can lead to a weakening of the normally tight junctions of the gut mucosal lining which keeps the bad stuff from seeping through into the rest of your body, causing inflammation (chronic inflammation being the cause of many metabolic disorders). “A fecal transplant can restore diversity in his gut and prop up his immune system. And maybe that will give him enough time and energy to start walking again. The problem is, unless it’s specifically for C Diff, they won’t perform it in the US because there’s no money to be made from it.”
“You’re right about that. They’re only going to what makes them money. It’s all a big business. And what you do anyway?”
“I’m an actor and a producer.’
“I think you missed your calling.”
“Well, I’m also a student. I’m taking a course on the gut microbiome from the University of Boulder Colorado and the reason why I’m acting is so I can eventually tell this story.”
A bed alarm went off a few rooms down the hall and the nurse’s call screen on the wall lit up. Another patient trying to get up off the hospital bed.
“Sorry, I got to check on this.”
Loi checked the screen to see what room the alert was coming from and rushed out the room. Dad looked at me with a bewildered look.
“Bacteria?” he mumbled.
“Yes, God is our gut bacteria and you spent years disrespecting God. And now you should pray for Him to help you.”
His eyelids drooped and his head sunk to the side as he drifted out again. Moments later, he’s back and he gazes up at the ceiling. Maybe he’s praying. Maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to believe in something bigger than himself.
“You learned so much from me.”
Nope. His self-centeredness was astonishing. The urge to blurt out the truth was almost irrepressible. To tell him, yeah, I learned to not be like you.
Another bed alarm and I see Nurse Loi in the hall rush past the room.
“You’re right. Thank you,” I replied. “I love you.”
His eyes drifted back off towards the ceiling and I wondered if he heard the last part. It’s okay, I thought. At least I said it.