Inside Eichenberger's brain | OPINION: Peter Eichenberger | Indy Week
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A near-fatal bicycle accident puts our writer in touch with the cosmos and all humanity.

Inside Eichenberger's brain 

Over the decades, the reality director in my head had chosen to represent humanity with this scene of a leviathan steel ocean liner, ablaze with lights, belching thick columns of black smoke and plunging through a rough, dark sea toward maritime catastrophe. I had written myself out, standing a quarter mile a-port, safe and alone in a sturdy, well-built lapstrake lifeboat rigged with lugsail and oiled canvas storm cover.

(Read Eichenberger's account of the aftermath of the accident.)

When I was wheeled out of the worst part of my recent crisis, the fog dissipating, clearing, my beloved dory had been spun and crushed in the monster's prop wash and lost forever. Somehow I was on the promenade deck, holding a stem of Claret surrounded by people. The ring of women's voices and clink of glassware, the brass band playing "Waltzing Mathilda."

There are about 10 cassettes of narrative that were thrown in the fire. Intra-hematomas—bleeding of the brain—tend to render periods of time inaccessible. The only thing I do remember is it was a late night and I was astride my theatrically ancient British Rudge-Whitworth three-speed bicycle, wobbling around a beer somewhere. Just another night, this one terminated by a clavicle snapping, skull-cracking oops-uh-daisy that relegated a crucial interval of my life to the dark sea of amnesia. These accounts are from interviews.

I lay on Bickett Boulevard in a dark puddle, blood and life itself leaking out of my punkin'. Everyone who saw me has told me they saw a dying guy. The only thing that got me to my feet was a close special incident patrol, RPD, responding to neighbors. I had to be gulled to the blinking orange lights of Raleigh EMS. Arrayed around me wrapped up in the Rudge were an unlit cigarette and an unopened, dented can of stout.

I was transported to the Wake Med Neurological Intensive Care Unit, experiencing a dangerous and potentially fatal rise in intra-cranial pressure. I was thrashing (better, I hear, than limp). An emergency trauma surgery team headed by Drs. Timothy Garner (neurosurgery) and Ndidi Azikiwi (surgery/trauma) peeled back some scalp and sawed a disc out of my skull. I was trepanned—the millennia-old practice of drilling into the skull for medical and spiritual reasons. The tool has evolved from the sharpened flint of Neolithic times to the hand-cranked Scoville trephines (a sort of hole saw on a T-handle) around the time of the Civil War. Today, they use essentially a pneumatic tool with a special bit. The team cut the breach, stemmed the bleeding, replaced the disc of skull and sewed the skin back. Over the next 36 or so hours, my historic unease about institutions and history of evading similar plights was obviated by sturdy straps and heavy sedatives restraining the thrashing. I know what handcuffs feel like and I didn't appreciate the restraints one damned bit. I was in a repair depot with no option except adapt to this new condition.

"Just gimme a gol-dang knife so I can cut myself free," I hissed to a covey of friends. The plan was to, once free, hurl a heavy steel chair through the window and flee to the woods. Then someone showed me a mirror. Gawd. The thing looked like a rotten melon, a mass of wounds and bruises with this stupid Jim Carrey hairdo from surgery and eyes like plums, bloodshot and riven through with veins.

Then I knew I had really screwed myself up. My old 1,000cc Moto Guzzi? Shoot, I used to think it was kinda funny when I dropped that monster. It's this obsolete 52-year-old three-speed that's rendered me vulnerable as a robin's egg, unable to stand, walk or even piss. Fun, fun, fun.

* * *

"Jesus Christ, Eichenberger, what in the world have you done to yourself this time?" This one took the Purple Prize ribbon. The answer to how was in a dark, lost region. I'd trashed my oft-battered container, which had faithfully borne me through decades of stalwart service like some old Dodge pickup truck you've now wrapped around a pine tree or mired up to the axles in a mud hole.

Survivor mode kicked in. I required external help. For now, the rulebook needed to be amended. I was going to have trouble surviving by myself. Cooperation was not a luxury—my very physical existence depended on some sort of pilot establishing a temporary heading and speed until I got to the place where the animal would carry me through this rough, unmapped land where I had awakened.

I dispatched a Swedish diplomatic corps into my brain to force myself into a cooperative pact with the other human monkeys. While the team negotiated, I massaged my brainpan. There's this horseshoe-shaped suture, strange bumps and staples. I'd either been trepanated (skepdic.com/trepanation.html) or I'd been attacked by some bitchy Shetland pony. I just didn't know.

I felt as though I'd gone joy-riding in a 55-gallon industrial paint-shaker—climbed in, set the timer for 15 minutes and pushed start. My shoulder was broken, my head was dented and it looked like Wassily Kandinsky was the brains behind the bruises. Deep muscle trauma made even the most casual movement painful beyond description. I quite simply could do nothing except lie, drugged, in this electric bed with lots of buttons.

One night, drugged and half-mad, I blundered into man's dual nature, when my mind (driving my voice) apologized to my body.

"Man," my mind said, "I am really, really sorry. I never meant to hurt you like this. You always been good to me."

"Forget it," my body said, "remember that thing you used to say, there is no dishonor in dying in the pursuit of fun?"

"Now wait a minute. You know I gave all that up, what was it, five years ago? You know the changes I been through."

My body chuckled. "Yeah, I'm looking. Dude, it ain't my first ride at the rodeo. I'll be fine. You know, just be easy on me for a while." Body lay for a while, then added, "I know we're sort of in lock-down, but you reckon you might be able to maybe get some ice cream here? I really could use the calories."

Every movement became the bailiwick of others. The new day was heralded at 4 a.m. by a nice person who, after some preparation, would slip a 1/16-inch diameter catheter into the end of my penis and slide it in until it hit bottom. Urine would be massaged out into a bag. A bath consisted of my battered, naked container being scrubbed by a succession of kind staff, usually Destiny.

The visits, calls, but especially the mail rekindled some hazy visions.

"Jesus loves you and so do I, God Bless You—a republican reader from Wake County" wrote.

"We pray for you in the house of Allah. We need you. Get better," another card said.

Old friends and total strangers wanted to hear my voice, establish I was actually alive and assist my recovery. A beautiful Italian cast silver Virgin Mary pendant arrived. Then I saw again what I'd seen from the darkened house on the edge: wormlike jets of pure gold powder and powdered tourmaline arcing across the sky toward me, presumably from other people. Some sling-shotted around the planet and out into the cosmos. The first time one came rocketing toward me, I estimated acceleration and mass. Wherever the thing hit, it was going to have the power of an artillery shell. Just before it struck, it disintegrated into a cone-shaped explosion of prismatic refracted light amid a snap of high-tension static.

I understood that these never before observed (by me) phenomena were jets of transphysical unalloyed human connection—OK, love, whatever. I understood what I was seeing, but the origin point was ubiquitously universal. That was the part that honestly spooked me.

My normal tendencies of rage and recrimination were being blunted by a sense that had been lost to me after childhood (trepanning enthusiasts claim that one) and rekindled in the last five years, heightened and enhanced by the missions to the Gulf Coast. It was like there was a team of miniature, invisible Swedish technicians in my head with soldering irons repairing and modifying parts and booting new software.

I tried to make sense of it: OK, dude, lussee, you dump an obsolete 53-year-old British bicycle and on the flip side the universe splits wide open. I wish I could say I am making this all up. It would be much more simple, but it was and it is. I feel like I am surveying the Wyoming territories from the back of a pretty good quarter horse. What I really need is a lensatic compass and a good set of field glasses.

Rehabilitative therapy began. As much as I, in the past, had recoiled from institutional anything, here were these Crissies, Christies, Karens, Stephanies, Ethyls, Andreas, Destinys, Teeanas, Joans, Jeffreys and Eddies (and ones whose names have escaped) working to make me well. They would come to me to make me get up and walk. Sometimes just for walkin', sometimes to move me to places where I would be placed on bicycle training devices or play simple games. They worked my damaged container like a plow mule to get it back to where it needed to be.

Wake Med literally saved my live and put me back together.

I hope none of y'all ever finds yourselves in a serious medical situation, but if you do, without fear or nervousness, go to Wake Med—wonderful, ordinary people, some who have to drive 40 minutes to spend their days helping some truly messed up humans with a genuinely caring attitude that I have rarely encountered. Wake Med gets the Eichenberger five-star, two-thumbs-up rating, with neither qualification nor reservation.

Friday, Feb. 17—kind of a miracle I am told. I am chawmpin' at the bit to get started on the second part of my life, which started on an operating table and I almost had to die to discover. It is all different now, and I want as many of y'all as I can get to come along on this new adventure, one so beautiful and pure that the words I have written seem like a cheap, wind-up toy.

To sum things up. I have learned some profound lessons while away:

* We are connected to the world and scores of people via transphysical connections. These lines of flux, jets of the purest energy, run between those you have touched and who touch you, and are sacred in nature.

* No one exists as a single entity divorced from others, no matter how much they believe it.

* Human relationships are more valuable than all the gold ever dug out of the ground.

* Life is a succession of movie-like seconds—and so much more. There are spheres of relationships and energy that tie us to one another across geographical, religious and political barriers, joined by that curious ladder-configured DNA molecule. We are all riding the ocean liner.

* Love each other and this beleaguered planet with all your heart and soul. They are all we have. I thought I knew what that meant, but it took life and death to put a spotlight on what I had taken for granted.

* You have become the most precious gifts, and I want to breathe in your ears, tell you how important you have become.

* A beautiful promise of a glistening shiny world is ours. As I learned in New Orleans, we are going to have to heal this raped planet by ourselves. The basics come first: Everybody needs a roof, a belly full of soup, a pad to sleep on and someone to give them a hug every now and then. What is so complicated about that? That was one of the lessons of the flying tourmaline tubes that asked many more questions than they answered. It is too big and all-encompassing to understand right away. Any ideas out there?

* We should consider these basics and get started now with ourselves and those we love, forging and strengthening this gorgeous, intangible realm. Let's just cut out the middleman. There are more of us than there are the negative puppet masters. The sooner we begin, the further ahead we are.

* Believe in yourselves and what we have to do. The future is here and it is so shiny and beautiful, you just have to believe and awaken to the inevitability of it all.

* Wear a friggin' helmet. People have all sorts of reasons not to, but if you ride one of those clean, quiet marvels, poised to disrupt the hegemony of the filthy, deadly automobile, give yourself, those that love you, and the machine—the bicycle—the respect they are due. Your brain possesses over 100 million switches and circuits. Protect that most tender and valuable part of your body, as heartbreakingly vulnerable to inertia and impact as a lump of Jell-O. I didn't and have become a sort of poster child as to why you should. I really scared a lot of people who love me more than I ever dreamed, basically over some misplaced sense of aesthetics. No pretty little excuses will mean a thing when you wake up with staples in your head wondering who you are and why you can't pee.

* Pay it forward. Think hard and find someone who is mad at you or vice versa (with a special emphasis on family), seek them out and insist they listen to you. Truly forgive and make up with them. Go hug someone and tell them how much they mean to you. Tomorrow may be a little too late.

  • A near-fatal bicycle accident puts our writer in touch with the cosmos and all humanity.

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