Karma

In 1964, my father went to the World’s Fair in New York. I’m guessing it was one of his last outings as a single man. He was a smoker. He quit many, many years later and is one of the few people I know that has pulled that off. He did it cold turkey and my mother says he did not speak for three days. My father says if he gets diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, he’ll take up smoking again.

While at the World’s Fair, he bought one souvenir: an ashtray.

He eventually married my mother and had children. He put the ashtray away thinking the little kids running around the house would surely break it.

When I was 12 years old, we moved to a better part of town into a bigger house. I didn’t want to move. My sister said she was going to stay in the old house and live in the attic. My parents said that would be okay. So I said I also was going to live in the attic of our old house and they said, “Absolutely not.” That entire summer, I rode my bicycle two hours to our old neighborhood every day.

It started to get strange.

I would just be standing in the street, waiting for the neighbor kids to come out and play. They would all go in for lunch and I would hang out alone again. As it got dark, I would ride my bicycle back to our new neighborhood.

One day my father announced to the family that the children were all old enough now and he was going to put out his ashtray from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The next day, I got up off the couch to go to the kitchen and hit my hip on the table with the ashtray. The ashtray jumped off the table and smashed into several pieces. My father came into the room. I said, “Do you think we can glue it back together?” He said he didn’t think so, picked up the pieces and tossed them in the trash. That was it.

This is going to sound dramatic and I don’t mean it to, but later in life, when I’ve thought about life and death or the couple of times I thought I was really close to the flame, I’ve thought about that ashtray. It’s like some kind of ghost. My father has long since stopped smoking and if I ever said anything about it, he and my mother would both say, “We have too much crap anyway. You’re gonna need a giant dumpster when we die.”

But that ashtray is haunting me. When I’m in surgery in a doctor’s office. When someone crashes their car into mine. And sometimes at night.

Yes, I was just a kid. Yes, my father doesn’t care and yes, it’s just a thing. But today I bought him a replacement ashtray from the 1964 World’s Fair on eBay.

Karmic debt paid.

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Surgery

I laid quietly on my right side, shirtless. My shoulder ached from holding the position so long. There was a blanket over my head. I heard sounds in the numb pressure that rose around me.

My breath was shallow like a man hiding in the dark.

I only saw the blue of a blanket as the man I had hired to do so pushed down on my neck with razor-sharp force. It seemed like a long time under that blanket.

I thought about death and made attempts not to panic. Breathing deep and thinking of Van Gogh flowers and sunshine. My hands were cold and clammy from the injections when I realized I was not afraid of death but terribly afraid to get there.

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I thought again of Van Gogh’s flowers. I thought about his ear as the blade weighed into the numbness of my sedated flesh.

I asked, “How much longer?” as the pain in my right shoulder started to get wild in my mind.

“Only a moment,” he said.

I know the length of a moment. This was the longest one I had ever felt.

They took the sterile blankets off my head and the room was bright. I rolled onto my back and rubbed my face with my hands, loving the freedom of mobility.

“Do you want to see it?” the doctor asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

He held a small jar over my face with a strip of flesh in it, shaking it like a martini. He said, “It was bigger in the affected area before I cut it out. The water has left it now. You know we’re 70% water, don’t you?”

I said, “Same as the earth.”

He paused, still holding the specimen jar in front of my eyes and then said, “I never thought of that.”

I looked one last time at that piece of me that had been removed. It was no longer me. The separation made me uncomfortable. Me, not me. Where does it start and end? I didn’t know. But I felt different, like a man who has experienced something he could not explain.

The body’s ability to eventually heal itself is amazing. Of course, the doctor did a good job, too.

healing

Five months ago, I was bitten/stung by a bug. “A bug, you say? What kind?” you might ask, in a tone that says, “Is it possible to stay away from such a bug?”

I was standing in Griffith Park and a bug flew into my neck and sat trapped between my shirt and my neck. I slapped it. All I can say is it had wings like a moth and it probably only bit me in self defense.

The bug bite hung around for months, waking me every night at 3am to be clawed at. I finally went to see a doctor. As it turned out, the stinger or the biting mechanism had broken off inside of me. My body, in an immune system overreaction, had tried and tried to push it out, to no avail. This caused a larger lump of scar tissue. They told me I would have to have it cut out.

Most people I tell this story to seem most worried that it will happen to them. It was a fluke accident. It won’t happen to you. But as one of my friends said, there could be worse things you need cut out of your body.