The Nothing Time: Writing and Reading Through Injury

November 28, 2017 | 8 books mentioned 8 min read

Along the way, as I was helicoptered off Algonquin Mountain, wheeled into the Lake Placid ER, then driven by ambulance to Saranac Lake ER and wheeled into midnight surgery, the forest rangers, the nurses, the EMTs and doctors would ask what I did for a living. When I explained I was a writer, the response was often how at least I’ll be able to write about all this when it’s over. I certainly played the part of WRITER, reminding my husband again and again, when I was sprawled out on the trail and waiting to be rescued, to make sure my little green notebook and my pen went with me when I was helicoptered out. I kept this notebook beside me at all times, except for the surgery that would insert a metal rod and screws into my leg and ankle. I planned on recording my observations, the odd angles and discolorations of my leg, the various textures of pain, the bright personalities of the nurses, the sounds from the other hospital rooms, the kindnesses.

But here’s a confession: I barely used that notebook. I have three measly pages to cover my first week of injury. My writer self, a previously eager observer of my life’s lows, appeared to be asleep or absent, cowering off in some corner of my mind. I’m still trying to understand why.

Despite my lackluster notetaking, I can remember certain moments if I try. My nails digging into my husband’s arm and leaving marks. A stranger covering me with his rain jacket. How I couldn’t stop shaking. The helicopter circling over us, needing to burn off fuel, while the trees around us trembled and blew as if in a storm. I remember asking my husband to shoot me. I remember rising above the trees while strapped into a harness, and suddenly there was so much light from the setting sun. I intended to wave goodbye to my children but I was spinning the wrong way.

But there are other moments that I can’t access. In particular, the time between when I was walking down a trail beside some rocks, not even a steep part, and I noticed a man to my lower left, and I was thinking, I do not feel like saying hello to this man, as I was tired of greeting people—then, somehow, I was on my back, and this kind man, the one I didn’t want to greet, was crouched next to me, explaining I’ve been hurt. That I was really hurt. I glanced at my leg, bent in angles that should have been impossible. Then I closed my eyes.

Between those two moments, there is nothing.

I want to know what my body was doing during that nothing time. More accurately, I want to be able to describe what my body was doing and what I was thinking and feeling. I wish someone was taking a video so I could see myself fall. It’s strange, as a writer, disorienting, to have moments, no matter how brief, unavailable to me. Did I slip? Stumble? Push myself off the rocks? Twist? Flail? Leap? Scream? Cry out? (Apparently the brain stops recording memories during traumatic events, focusing its resources instead on survival, due to increased adrenaline and noradrenaline production, says Scientific American.)

I’m glad, of course, my brain stayed focused and I survived. But I still wish my writing self could have been an observer, just as I wish that same self could have been more present during the times of intense pain. When, for instance, the forest ranger was preparing to splint my leg without pain meds while my tibia was almost pushing through my skin. I needed to be splinted before I could be lifted up to the helicopter. “Ready?” the ranger asked. A quiet voice in my head was telling me to pay careful attention, but the voice was so muted, and then I began screaming, as the pain went beyond what was bearable. I went elsewhere, to a place I may never be able to describe, and there is some disappointment about visiting a place, however bleak, where there aren’t words.

I am trying to write about my experience three months after the accident. One problem I keep encountering is the fact this was an accident, an awful twist of fate. I write awful but another problem is it wasn’t that bad, not when put into the context of greater suffering in the world. Yes, I felt intense pain while waiting for the helicopter. Yes, the waiting felt infinite but actually it was 2 hours. Yes, the splinting was intolerable, but that lasted no more than a minute. After that, I was rescued, saved, medicated, taken care of. My hospital room had a lakeside view with a loon! I know people have felt much worse, and been more frightened, for much longer. I know some people are never rescued.

How can one’s pain be made more interesting? More complex? More relevant? Must pain be complex or interesting or relevant to warrant writing about? How does one write about a violence that has no perpetrator, no blame? Were I assaulted on the mountaintop, had someone thrown me down those rocks, there would be a villain, and presumably a motive, and therefore there would have been a clearer story to tell. But what happened was the trail was slippery, and I slipped. I can’t even blame my boots. I checked them later on. The treads were fine. Everybody was falling that day, my husband has reminded me. He fell moments before I did. A woman fell moments before him, slicing open her arm. At times, it seems I could sum up my accident in a sentence or two. Yet I can’t shake this need to continue writing about it.

The accident happened at the start of an annual family vacation. I was in no shape to drive home, so my initial two weeks of recovery were spent in the Adirondacks, on various beds and scenic benches. I expected I would get much reading and writing done. A mini-writing retreat, I thought! How nice. I made my husband download the stories I was working on to a laptop using the hospital Wi-Fi. I stocked my Kindle with non-fiction I had meant to read months ago. I had my pile of articles about global warming, police surveillance, that sort of thing. But even with time stretching in the way it does in hospitals—eternity was available, nothing was expected of me—any writerly impulse quickly evaporated. Reading non-fiction put me to sleep. Not a deep sleep, but a sleep lasting for only a few minutes. I’d wake up and doggedly read a few more paragraphs before nodding off. My folder of articles lay untouched on my bed. My notebook lay beside me. The laptop remained unopened. I stared at the wall more than I thought possible, the pain meds keeping boredom away. When a volunteer wheeled in what she called her “comfort cart,” I eagerly grabbed for the easy escape of People magazine.

Perhaps it’s silly, after an injury, to become frustrated with one’s self for a lack of artistic interest in one’s situation. Perhaps the situation was simply not that interesting. Perhaps it’s okay I found more engagement with the amount of calories a celebrity consumes in a day. But I think there was something more going on, a collection of evidence, or a sinking feeling.

coverThe first book I was able to latch onto in the hospital was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a novel I come back to every year or two. I read it before I had my first child and thought, well this is rather showy and dramatic, isn’t it. After the birth of my first child, I read it again and wept. I don’t cry anymore at the ending, but I do find solace in its portrayal of an effective parental love and a useful suffering. The dad does manage to save his child in the end, after all. In the hospital setting, I found this novel’s bleakness to be reassuring, its descriptions of the decimated, impersonal, and brutal wilderness to be more accurate than the romantic description of trees I’ve encountered elsewhere. I would read the book, fall asleep several pages in, then wake and read more, and fall asleep, and cry because my leg hurt so much, take the pain meds, and read more. Read in this fragmented way, certain scenes stretched on practically forever. I think the father swimming out to the ship went on for most of one night. I must have reread certain parts, and I was reading so slowly. But I feel like this particular reading of the book was my truest reading, the most accurate. Perhaps suffering, no matter how pointless such suffering is, is the best state of mind when reading a book about suffering. I found solace in the idea that suffering can have a purpose, a goal. Even my suffering, I wondered? A purpose larger than the personal, I wondered?

I carried my notebook with me everywhere while I used crutches. I carried it to a second visit to the Saranac Lake ER because my leg had turned a deep rich blue and swelled to an obscene size. “I’m turning into a blueberry. Like Violet Beauregarde!” I told my daughter, who patted me with alarm. I rarely wrote in the notebook. I just carried it, occasionally jotting down commandments from my doctors. Elevate. Ice. Rest. I took the notebook to the final appointment with my surgeon, whom I had fallen in love with. I say this in the most sincere, non-creepy way possible: here was a man who had put my leg back together. A man who had smiled at me with such kindness before the surgery, when I was very frightened, and afterwards, who moved my bandaged leg with great pride. It was like we had created something together. “Look at that!” he said with a little awe, moving my leg up and down. I don’t know how people cannot fall in love with their surgeons. I suppose there is a story waiting somewhere in that proclamation.

My writer self eventually did wake up. Proudly, now, it waves around its updated list of things it can write about more accurately and personally: a mountain injury! A helicopter rescue! An ambulance ride! Being wheeled into a frigid operating room and hearing Pink Floyd! Going under for surgery! Metal implants in one’s leg! Becoming hysterical from pain while one’s children watched. The queasy loneliness of a hospital room at night.

I could turn it all into a story, adding some kind of tension, or forcing something more to happen. Give the injured wife and her husband a history, perhaps a violent history. Or maybe the child could be the one injured, and the mother would have to watch her child in pain rather than watching her own pain. But part of me has become bored with reshaping the details of my life into a narrative with an exciting enough plot that also satisfies a need for completion and revelation by the story’s end. Part of me wants this experience to be enough as it was.

covercovercoverI will get back almost everything that I lost. I’ll be able to walk without a limp. At some point, I should be able to run. My family will go back to the mountains and have a proper vacation. And there have been little gifts along the way. Reading returned to me in a fury once I went off opioids at the end of week two. When was the last time I had so much space to read since I was a child? The Executioner’s Song, Borne, Fever Dream, The Book of Joan, Lincoln in the Bardo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Against Depression. I had love affairs with each of these books. I read gratefully, whole-heartedly, without distraction, as I had nothing else I could do. I read through my insomnia, and I read while my leg was elevated and iced, and I read while doing my physical therapy exercises every three hours, and I read to my children while I rested, and I listened to the books as I hobbled around the block.

What I won’t get back are those moments I can’t remember, the falling, the pain. Those are the parts, if I do tell this story someday in its completion, I will have to make up.

Here are some of the ways my accident changed me. I will hike less joyfully next summer. I will hesitate on rocky trails. I will bring an emergency beacon and consider trip insurance with helicopter evacuation coverage. I may stop below the ridges of mountains rather than climb. I have lost my certainty that hiking up mountains has a point. What is the point? Gazing at them from a distance might be enough. I hope environmental descriptions in my writing will gain some kind of brutality, that I will say no to romanticism when it suggests itself, especially when the sun is setting on a scene. Because the mountain stood there while I screamed. Of course it did. And then my family, my husband and children, had to climb down it in the dark. Did I ever think nature had a heart? Yes, I suppose I did. Maybe this is the real loss or revelation. We talk so much about trying to save the natural world as if it is a living breathing person. It’s not. It’s still worth saving, but not because of its kindness.

Photo courtesy of the author.

’s fiction has been published in the Kenyon Review, the New England Review, Nature: The International Weekly Journal of Science, the Southern Review, The Sun, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Terraform (via Motherboard/Vice.com), the Alaska Quarterly Review, Interfictions, Lightspeed, and Epoch. Her stories have also been selected for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and were named notable stories of the year for The Best American Mysteries and The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies. More at debbieurbanski.com and on Twitter at @debbieurbanski.

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