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Morgan: A Lyric

By
December 4, 2013

The writer reflects on love and disease after losing his partner.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/morgan.jpg
Image from Flickr via Philip Dean

Post-coital, heads on pillows.

Waves breaking into foam.

The ceiling fan’s rhythmic ticking reminds me of the projector in the darkened sixth-grade classroom, the light’s beam throwing “Hemo the Magnificent” on the screen, an animated film of blood’s wonders and the circulatory system.

Student of the body’s late middle age, he notes the hairs inside my ear.

An entry, I think, in an imaginary, unlikely future text: his own aging body.

The huffing rise and fall of the sheet across his chest.

Was there a time before reflection—when humans thought the voices inside their heads were gods?

He probes the neck folds, runs his thumb across a black mole the shape and size of an eraser head. Could this be cancer? he asks.

The sun’s dry mouth against the window glass.

No that then to compare to this now, I think.

Only the residue of the impossible enables us to love over time.

Listen, he says, guiding my head to his chest. Can you hear the crackles?

Like sparks in the imagined dark of his lungs.

What we see in the mind—the mind’s eye—is temporary.

Built one detail at a time (the crackles like sparks, the sparks like stars, the lungs two dark pools), an image quickly fades, unless we summon the details again.

No that then to compare to this now, I think.

We took turns collecting the green and red paper tickets stamped ban bras at the Baja toll booths on the road from Tijuana; bookmarks that would return us, anywhere we might be in our daily reading, to the beach.

*                      *                     *

Morgan sat on the couch, his head and arms thrown back while I knelt between his legs.

It was almost frightening, the pulses rattling his whole body, his groans loud enough I thought the neighbors might hear, when he came.

I stroked myself just twice before shooting all over the floor between his feet.

Later he pretended nothing had happened.

In the hospital file I’m “the older gentleman” and “family friend” who visits daily.

In a tone poised between conviction and a wink, he said, Anyway, blow jobs aren’t really sex.

(They are my kin who know denial begets desire.)

*                      *                     *

Why did you let yourself get caught? St. Francis asked the animal captured in a trap.

For in love, everything is love, a novelist writes—

(saline vials, the red pen we use for crosswords, the beeping vitals meter)

even pain and revulsion

(patients tethered to IV poles smoke in the outdoor area a floor below)

become experience

(Afghan merchants in a documentary we watch keep bacha bazi, dancing boys, for entertainment and sex)

embedded in one’s nature, barely expressible in words.

In the hospital file I’m “the older gentleman” and “family friend” who visits daily.

Five slices of bacon, two muffins, a stack of pancakes, a strawberry fruit smoothie,
a bowl of cereal with milk, three orange juice cartons, banana, and a carafe of coffee:
the text photo he sends, his breakfast order, the morning after a cystic fibrosis doctor tells him he has a 50 percent chance of living five years without a lung transplant.

Why did you let yourself get caught?

As I place his latte on the bedside stand, he runs his hand over my hair: Ah, the landing strip. Always the same.

That’ll cost you, I say, inhaling as I lean to kiss him on the neck.

Gross. You were a dog in another life.

Don’t give notes, Casals says, give the meaning of the notes.

The art of memoir, I think.

The anti of belatedness.

*                      *                     *

Morgan sent me several late-night passionate emails in our first few months.

When I’d allude to one a day or two later, he’d claim it never happened.

Or, I was drunk, it doesn’t count, he’d say.

He’d give that wry smile I found so beguiling.

One night years later in a favorite downtown restaurant, he mentioned a new Hart Crane biography he was reading, how something in it—about Emil Opffer, perhaps?—made him realize I was the love of his life, that no matter what, that wouldn’t change.

(They were not wrong who sensed there might be many Morgans.)

We hadn’t finished our first drink. I filed the remark away, never mentioning it.

*                      *                     *

He wafts a wave of saline mist over my legs from the plastic mouthpiece.

You’re at the beach, he grins.

Certain brain cells in my fusiform gyrus, the ones that prefer the face, light up.

Fragments of a boundless universe.

You mean we’re on our Baja vacation, I reply.

We’ve left the substance for the shadow, as Breton advises.

I get it wrong, and so he reminds me that it’s the light spots on the X-ray that are bad.

Four times a day, a rapid, ear-deadening thock-thock-thock-thock-thock-thock for forty minutes, the room the inside of a drum.

Medieval, he says of the pounding therapy, bring on the leeches.

Eight days in, the IV and nebulizer drugs are swapped for ones that will attack the specific infection in his lungs, now that the sputum cultures are grown.

We know bacteria by what they eat, I read in the New York Times.

Fragments of a boundless universe.

I’d like to order for Morgan Schuldt in 3809, I tell the cafeteria worker on the phone.

What would she like? she asks.

Pupil means “little doll”—from the Romans, who noticed we could see ourselves in each other’s eyes.

Articulation, a theorist writes, allows a slight gap between the feeling and the self, and that gap permits the freedom of both.

The cups used to pound his chest, sides and back, are plastic oxygen masks, designed to clamp over an accident victim’s nose and mouth.

When I die, he begins . . . a favorite opening to argument—

Don’t be so sure you’ll be first, I nearly shout, every time.

Pupil means “little doll”—from the Romans, who noticed we could see ourselves in each other’s eyes.

*                      *                     *

Do I write about the smell?

The first weeks during the final five-month hospitalization: an odor rising from his body.

I’d catch a strong dose when I pounded his upper chest, standing off to one side, leaning across his torso, as he sat cross-legged at the head of the bed. At other pounding angles I might forget, only to get caught short by a sudden drift.

Not meat rot. Too sweet. But piercing, wrong. And new: a warning? Never this during
the hundreds of days, the thousands of hours we’d spent in hospital rooms the previous eight years; intimate hours, physically close; hours of affection, fear, dark talk, and always, regardless of his condition, teasing and flirtation; but never this smell. Now I clenched my gut not to gasp. I metered my breathing, concentrated to keep my expression from changing while completing the pounding.

Do you smell that? he asked, embarrassed. We were taking a short break between five-minute sets. A little, I said, leaning slightly to kiss his brow.

*                      *                     *

a big rock to the neck / snapped the tendons strung to his skull’s base. /

My breathable hourglass, he said, as he slipped the 02 tank into his daypack.

Fuck this fuck that, the pop of gunfire, thud of fists: A lullaby, he said of The Sopranos, streaming on his MacBook so he could nap.

At twenty-five, older than he thought he’d ever be: a surprise party, thrown by his girlfriend.

right between the eyes. / The sharp stone crushed both brows, the skull caved in /

The night he told me he loved me, I told him dead was what I often wanted to be.

Anger, he said, had motivated him his entire life.

I’ve never been the hero, I said. I don’t want to be the hero. I’m the hero’s sidekick.

*                      *                     *

Morgan pulled to the curb beside a vacant lot two blocks from my house.

We’re not there yet, I said.

I figured he was too drunk to know he’d stopped on the wrong street.

He smiled, not looking at me as he slid his jeans to his knees and lay back.

I loved those moments, though he’d say something dismissive if I tried to initiate sex at unexpected times.

I was always ready.

Even in hospital, whether reading silently, working on poems or crosswords together, watching films, performing the pounding therapy, my hands would wander.

Just being there with him I sensed an erotic charge in the atmosphere.

You’re impossible, he’d say, not angry, but not amused.

It was like I was addicted.

It must make him feel good to know he’s desirable, even in hospital, I told myself.

(They were not wrong who assumed our love involved a trade of need for need.)

*                      *                     *

The four chairs in the cramped room were taken by Morgan, the transplant surgeon, his assistant, and Barbara, Morgan’s mother, who had flown in from New Jersey. I perched on a high stool next to the examination bed.

I don’t remember how the surgeon opened the conversation, just the utter calm of his tone and cadence. I tried to take notes. I thought most of what was said we’d already discussed with transplant team members during Morgan’s winter hospitalization.

When we’d run out of questions, his assistant handed Morgan the consent forms he needed to sign for surgery. Morgan pushed them back. I’m not ready, he said.

The assistant did her best to muffle her surprise. Of course, the surgeon said, just call us when you’ve made a decision, and left the room. Morgan moved toward Barbara, his face breaking, as I stepped into the hall, saying I’d pick them up at the hospital curb.

I felt trapped in two dimensions, like a man climbing stairs made of paint.

We talked a number of times about his decision over the next several weeks, though we both knew he had no real choice. I repeated what so many had observed: given the rigor and discipline of his therapy, given his unusual muscular strength and the excellent condition of his heart, of all his organs other than the lungs, there could be no more ideal candidate for transplant. He simply needed time to contend with the fear, and to accept the enormity of the challenges—and risks—he faced.

We didn’t speak of the appointment with the surgeon until Morgan phoned the transplant coordinator at the start of summer to be listed. He texted me to meet him at Time Market minutes after he made that call.

I brought iced lattes, our usual, to the high metal table as Morgan swatted at flies on the plate glass window looking onto University Ave. Now that he could be summoned for transplant at any time, he wanted to hear my impressions of the meeting with the surgeon. I told him I experienced the light—bleached flat neon, no windows in the room—as if we were at Wal-Mart: everything made ugly by stark light, a clumsy line drawing on too-white paper. I said I remembered looking at him, to see what he might be feeling. But I could detect nothing in his features. He looked as expressionless, as bleached of emotion and blank, as the walls. Then I repeated the surgeon’s answer to my first question: 86 percent of double-lung transplant patients are alive after a year; 60 percent after three. Every lung transplant patient in the last year, he concluded, has walked out of this hospital.

As I sounded in sentences the few details I remembered, so useless were words and grammar to the irreality of that conversation that I felt trapped in two dimensions, like a man climbing stairs made of paint.

Morgan looked down at his fingers outspread on the table’s surface. I watched the surgeon’s hands, he said.

*                      *                     *

and flipped him down face-first, / dead as he fell, his life breath blown away. /

I’ll be a comic, I’ll model, I’ll act, he said, half-serious.

Dying was a kind of solution.

I’m a lung-er, he’d say. Like the doc in Deadwood.

gaffed him off his car, / his mouth gaping round the glittering point /

Anger, he said, had motivated him his entire life.

What do I do now?, he asked at thirty.

It wasn’t his body saying, Get out of here! It was the new lungs saying, Where are we?

ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard / he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail, /

*                      *                     *

Something’s broken in that dude, he says, his first words in minutes.

Staring out the coffee shop window at the homeless derelict who hops in circles, his matted hair flying.

You don’t realize how much nothing is until you have nothing, says a woman in Oklahoma whose house burned down.

The tense spaces—these silences—I visualize: a current of dull light along a wire between us.

The struggle of a shadow with a wall.

Or am I alone in this?

Every separation is a link, writes Simone Weil.

You don’t realize how much nothing is until you have nothing, says a woman in Oklahoma whose house burned down.

Up to what degree of distortion does an individual remain himself?

At his feet beneath the stool, a loop of the cannula pokes out the daypack’s open zipper, the small oxygen tank, a conserver, buried within.

Papery leaves of a banana plant—the basho—easily torn by wind: a metaphor for the sensitive poet, I read.

The slow descent of iced coffee, measured in sips.

The tiny lozenges of ice at the bottom of the cups, an hour after we meet, signal when he’ll return to his apartment for the day’s third therapy.

We decide to text instead of speak.

So that the shadow might become a figure.

Is it the formal constraints—the tiny screens and keyboards—that take us nowhere?

In one graceful motion, as he walks out the swinging market door, he slips the cannula under his nose and loops the tiny tubing over his ears.

Closure, a critic writes, creates in the reader the expectation of nothing.

*                      *                     *

Some mornings it was just the three of us: Morgan in a deep, nearly paralyzing sedation; the ICU nurse, in almost constant motion, enclosed in profound concentration, attending the countless IV lines and dispensing machines (their warning bells and buzzes), the flash of graphs and numbers on monitors, the recording of data on computer screens and in a paper log; and me, wrapped in a complex synthesis of emotions, as if love, fear, hope, determination, desire, had been atomized into a single gas, which was the air I breathed. I thought of us as a triptych by Francis Bacon, each figure within sight of the other, but alone, without privacy, framed in isolation, distorted not physically by the artist’s vision, but by our separate states of extremity.

At these times I needed to touch him, to break through the plane of his isolation and mine. And so I’d perform the day’s first exercises. I called it taking him to the gym. I’d begin the part-by-part movement of his joints, each finger, the wrist and elbow, the shoulder, gently rotating, extending as far as the IV lines and equipment attached to his neck, arms, and legs would permit. Always glancing at the monitor to make sure the oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and heart rate didn’t move in the wrong directions. This was how I could tell him in a physical way that I loved him. (In our years together my touching often tested his patience.) First the left hand and arm, then the right, followed by the legs—toes, ankles, knees, and hip joints. Rotating, extending. Exercises the nurse said would make an enormous difference in his mobility once he was off the ventilator and ready to stand and walk again.

G

Boyer Rickel’s publications include two books of poetry, remanence (Parlor, 2008) and arreboles (Wesleyan, 1991), a memoir-in-essays, Taboo (Wisconsin, 1999), and a poetry chapbook, reliquary (Seven Kitchens, 2009). A recipient of poetry fellowships from the NEA and the Arizona Commission on the Arts, he taught for twenty years at the University of Arizona creative writing program.

Editor’s notes:

* Poet Morgan Lucas Schuldt died of complications from cystic fibrosis on January 30, 2012, twelve days before his thirty-fourth birthday. Two years earlier, during a near-fatal medical crisis, he asked Boyer to begin writing about their life together.

* This piece is composed of excerpts taken in fragments and parts from a longer work.

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2 comments for Morgan: A Lyric

  1. Comment by Grant on December 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I lost my partner, it’ll be six years in February, and have wished all along, since the diagnosis, to write about her, really me, a guy in mourning, and so I thank you for this from you while still raw, thinking too it would be good to write, hear about, need and desire after the rock tore us all up and we found ourselves breathing all that air again anyway.

  2. Comment by Ron Mohring on December 6, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Oh, Boyer. This is beautifully wrought, devastatingly sad, and utterly necessary. Thank you, thank you.

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