EP&M Online Webmaster Page for October, 2006

A Change in Time

essay by

Arthur Mortensen

Time is more than relative.  As the philosopher/physicist J.T.Fraser has described time, it is a layer of umwelts, from the timeless existence of a photon to the uncertain time and direction of quantum events to the blindly forward time of simple animals to the complicated, variable time of human beings, or noos-temporarility as he puts it.  The more complicated the umwelt, the broader the sense of present becomes.  For human beings, the present can be decades.   But, for all of our relative (and mortal) omniscience in time, there can be sudden changes, when time is no longer compressed, but where a year can stretch for what seems like a decade, and an hour can last a day.   Such has been so for the Webmaster and his spouse in 2006. 

We had had warnings in late 2005 and began to pay attention by planning for what we'd known as likely for eleven years, but which, thankfully, had not happened, that my spouse's MS would begin to steal more than her ability to walk any distance, but would begin to affect her ability to do basic transfers, as from bed to a standing position, or from a scooter to a chair.  It started in earnest in February with a call to 911 for assistance in helping Liz get off the floor.  Two days later, she was stuck in her scooter.  EMS came  this time, two strong firemen, one a very convincing young man said solemnly "she can't stay here like this."   A lengthy hospitalization followed.  Time began to change.

The present closed its gates from the decades of our marriage to the weeks of her hospitalization.   Visiting someone dear in the hospital, despite one's best intentions and feelings, can become drudgery.  Her slow progress in physical therapy made this worse.  What had been a struggle weeks before had become almost impossible, as if her body had turned into molten lead instead of an intricate dynamic of muscle and bone.   The concentration she required to walk five or ten steps was what  either of  us might have applied to a work of art, her to a painting, me to a poem.  Time became  impossibly busy,  a net of barely connected threads, some involving frantic efforts to make our home friendlier to someone in her condition (we had done some in the previous decade), others involving visits, work, sudden flurries of filling in friends and relatives on her condition, letters, e-mails, the endless trips to and from the hospitals.  Then, just five days before spring 2006, she was released and, despite quaverings and waverings, began to live as she had before, enjoying social life here, work there, and even doing some drawing.    Time simplified in some ways.  It also expanded, the present opening out into months, then years, the previous fall and summer, with their trips and visits and work, drawing back into view.

This writer was able to keep working in several capacities, for pay at the same college where my spouse works at a very demanding job (she looks after several hundred students who have a variety of disabilities, from learning problems to physical handicaps, all daunting and all needing her responsible care).  For pleasure I worked as poetry editor for the Web site for the Newington Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, putting out monthly issues.  I began to write poetry again and became a serious student of Lewis MacNeice, who may, after all the debate, be for me a more rewarding poet than his contemporary W.H. Auden.  As anyone who writes knows, especially those who work in story,  the present can become enormous when working on a novel, a long poem, or even something shorter.  We refer deeper and deeper back and often, for those who explore science fiction, further and further forward.  It's good that we can do this because time seems to accelerate as we age; the combination of the slowed, expansive time of storytelling and the rapid time we experience past 40 and 50, is exhilarating, as if one is living more than one life.  Then, ten weeks after her release from the hospital, my spouse had a serious relapse at the end of Memorial Day weekend.  It wasn't subtle.  Her right leg stopped responding to commands, then her left.

Paralyzed from the waist down for the second time, and despite the best efforts of friends, some helpful police, and her husband, EMS had to be called again.  Within very long hours she was re-admitted for more extravagant treatment of her illness, and in another hospital, not within walking distance, but a half hour commute from work, and an hour from home in Brooklyn.   Time changed upon the arrival of the stretcher.   Each incident, the EMS crew's difficulties in getting my wife onto the stretcher, the difficult maneuver down a badly designed hallway in our apartment, the ride the wrong way on one-way 9th Street with the siren, not behind but from the vehicle we rode in, the left turn onto Smith, the ride through the tunnel into Manhattan, and an endless, too fast, rocking ride up a road I at first mistook for West Street until it occurred to me that the river was on the wrong side, all while holding Liz's hand and talking to her and answering questions from one of the EMS guys, and signing forms, and hanging on around bends and quick stops, cursing traffic until we arrived at an MS clinic affiliated with Mt. Sinai where my wife would be evaluated for admission.  Time's present became a gateway barely minutes wide, from the arrival to the examination by several doctors and nurses to the admission announcement.  Both of us were relieved by the latter, which may seem odd, but without an admission we would have been faced with returning home without Liz being able to get out of a chair or out of bed.  The treatments, steroid injections currently the only symptomatic relief for MS, meant a week of relative predictability in a comfortable room.   Time opened a bit.  I ran into a classmate I hadn't seen in fifteen years, time for he and his wife to have a son eight years old and a daughter fourteen.  He was visiting a cousin with MS who had briefly been my wife's roommate.  The requirement for more changes at home gave me goals of a longer-term than the work day before the hospital visit.  Physical therapy started thereafter and, slowly, progressed to where my wife's physical abilities were about what they had been during the early spring.  We were pleased; we could see the horizon of the present opening again, a return to a more normal day, hers with her students, at home and at her easel, mine to more ordinary habits, including cooking for two instead of just myself.  On the 27th of June, she was released and we rode home to Brooklyn, a leisurely trip by ambulette.  She struggled coming into the apartment while I tried not to think of how her walking had noticeably deteriorated the day before her release, but we settled in and had a nice dinner together at home. 

At midnight of the same day, she had a recurrence so serious it required EMS to rescue her from the bathroom.  We called various night services for doctors,  in a panicky rage that this had happened, and by the middle of the next day the ambulance for Mt. Sinai was here, and its crew loading my wife for her third hospitalization.  The route, at least, was familiar, though the rocking music from the front of the ambulance was new and refreshing.  It was June 28th, the day after liberation turning into the day of re-admission.  Despite the change, time stayed open, the present extending to the previous two visits, and to years of reading about MS, consultatioins with doctors; that present was filled with anger.   She hadn't responded normally to treatment.  She hadn't responded the way all MS patients respond to that treatment where the good effects of steroids last six months to two years.  But the head of the MS clinic didn't seem very surprised and prescribed phosphoresis, an old standard in MS where plasma is replaced in the patient's blood, all of it by an enormous machine that is a laboratory unto itself, with half a dozen centrifuges, great hanging bags, and a highly trained technical nurse.  Steroids would follow if they seemed necessary.   Five days  later, and several scares with the plasma replacement, when Liz's blood pressure went very low, the steroids were started, but both of us persisted, certain that the doctors were missing something else wrong, something that the head of the MS clinic was not quite willing to admit.  Finally, after both our insistence, he brought in neurosurgeons to look again at my wife's spine.  Now almost three weeks into my wife's third hospitalization, her weakness becoming more and more pronounced as muscles began to atrophy, the new crew found a major surprise. Heavy calcification had caused compression of the spinal cord in the place where the MS group had looked for lesions from my wife's long-time disease.  The symptoms of such a compression are identical to those from MS lesions in the same spot.  Surgery was debated for some time, until Liz and I decided we should try;  the calcification from degenerative arthritis could only get worse.  I arrived at 6:45AM to wish her well and we had a surprise.  A colleague of many years standing was in the next room, being prepped for brain surgery.  After an endless escort of two nurses and my wife to a surgery that looked like a set in Babylon V,  it was suggested that I might go to the cafeteria for that breakfast I had skipped.  I ate slowly and barely twenty minutes had passed since I'd ordered a generally forbidden waffle to go with eggs and bacon.  The syrup was still fresh on my tongue when I raced to the second floor surgical waiting area, announced myself, and tried to fill the time by reading newspapers.  I found the text and pictures alien, as irritating as strobe lights on the front of a hardware store.  I walked about; I ventured into a chapel, paced across the bright, high, glass-enclosed atrium, then went back to the waiting room and managed to read a magazine I rarely choose to look at.  As so much of the press today, its concerns were wrapped up in what stories it could sell to readers who were constituents of the politics of hysteria.  While the copy wasn't much of a challenge, it struck me impossible that only thirty minutes had passed as I read it.  I began to make journal entries.  Time changed.  Divorced from the moment to reflect on not only our hours, days and weeks past, but on what was going on in the world, the next two and a half hours were gone in swift order until, enroute to the bathroom, I was flagged down by a greenclad surgeon who reported, smilingly, that things had been more complicated than they had expected, but that he was confident in good results.  I asked if I could see her and he said she was in recovery.

The surgical tower for Mt. Sinai, for a detached tower is where those science fiction sets are placed, has several recovery areas.  I found them all, after going through strange rooms filled with glittering equipment, cannisters of oxygen, lines of gurneys, anxiously moving, serious people with masks flapping beneath their hooded heads, their shoes covered with fabric to seal sources of potential infection.  Liz was in none of them.  I looked for less than ten minutes in all likelihood.  By the time I ran into the anesthesiologist, who told me that she was already on her way to her room, it felt as though half the afternoon was over, but it was barely noon.  I arrived in the room to find another surprise, my sister-in-law and her marvelous daughter, fresh from a visit to a doll store in Manhatan after driving in from Harrisburg.  In minutes Liz was rolled, recognizing me, but groggy as one would expect, not so groggy, though, that she didn't beam with delight to see her young niece and her sister.   In a few more minutes, she looked down and said "look."  She could wiggle her toes and move her feet which she hadn't been able to do in a very long time, years in fact.  The doctor had been right. A week later, having been helped to a standing position only once in the previous three and a half weeks, she went to physical therapy, this time for over a month.

To help restore some sense of normalcy, Liz and I agreed that I should come to the rehab clinic only every other day.  The following month for me was a busy one; and she was able to do some paperwork messengered up, assisting her students from her hospital bed.  She even drew a little.  Time's present grew. 

I wrote a couple of poems.  But the time between December 2005 and August 2006 still felt like half a lifetime, an endless series of events, twists and turns, discoveries, false and real hopes,  illuminations of character, surprises from friends, and a startling lack of interest from our parish and from neighbors.  A trip to visit my father in August of 2005 might have been from another era.  This new time changed again when, August 23, Liz was released and came home, where she has been ever since, progressing steadily. It has been in fits and starts, however.  A few weeks ago, she collided with a health care assistant in a local park and overturned her electric scooter,  injuring her shoulder.    Lacking the use of one arm while her shoulder healed, she required assistance for virtually every activity\, another breach in time when nights seemed like weeks.  Because she has been home, for me there has been an odd combination of normal time, when I'm at work, or reading, or writing, and this new twist in time, of  minute by minute struggles.  But she's healing, and the present is widening, however imperceptively, and we hope for the best.

During all of this, it kept occuring to me that I was a little overdue on EP&M Online.  From time to time I would take stock of what the next issue would be.  But, by the time I decided to resume publication in mid-September, I realized, with a start, that it had been 10 months since the last issue was written.   Time and its changes will do that.   The umwelts of human time are many.  Some days the morning of the present day seems to have been in June of 1968 and on others it seems to have been impossibly long moments ago at a quarter till noon.  We hope that time will collaborate us again in presenting EP&M Online as we had for the previous nine years.  

                                                                                                                                        Arthur Mortensen

"The future is not far behind."

Webmaster on his exotic word processor

The author, hard at work on EP&M Online's advanced Control Data Corporation word processor