A Sword In My Side: 3

Everything Unresolved Is Recreated

This concludes a story that begins here.

Come Out Steaming

It’s Christmas Eve, 1995. I’m alone in a rental house on Inverness Ridge, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, where I was born 50 years ago. My wife Joyce and our 11-year-old daughter Lauren have joined my parents, my sibs, and their families for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. It’s part of a long-planned family reunion. I haven’t joined them because outwardly and inwardly I’m unable to do so.

Classic signs of the flu set in this morning: congestion, fever, fatigue. But these are symptomatic of a deeper dislocation. A week and a half ago, on my first 10-day Vipassana course, I was plunged into psychological crisis. Since then I’ve been tumbling through a bewildering array of insights, anxieties, communions, and paranoia. Given the traumatic aftermath of the course, including my dissociated flight to San Francisco, it’s somewhat surprising that I haven’t ended up in a psych ward.

Shortly after I was born in San Francisco in 1945, I started to scream in pain. I did so, intermittently, for the next nine months. As described in Part Two of this story, shortly after my Vipassana course ended, a lightning-like flash of insight showed me that I had re-created my long-buried pain while sitting on a meditation cushion. Once I could feel it, I could begin to heal it.

With this re-creation still surging through me, I have flown back to the city where my episodic agony began; to my parents, Hope and Caleb, who had to endure it — despite being separated by the walls of a prison; and to the ashen landscape of Mount Vision, where I had been conceived.

Joyce and Lauren return from the Christmas Eve festivities to find me sound asleep.

In the morning I awake with a strong dream. Everyone else who’s been staying at the rental house is celebrating the arrival of Christmas with my parents. They’ll eat a big breakfast and then open presents. I lie in bed, struck by a dream not bound by linear time.

Gypsy Magicians
25 December 1995

While walking up a twisty hillside road, I come upon a car stuck in the middle of that road. It’s an old car from the mid-1940s that’s been impaled on something. People are standing around, not knowing what to do. If a tow truck pulls the car away, its engine and transmission would be destroyed. And the roads are too steep and narrow for a crane.

This scene repeats several times. I walk down the same road, come to the same car, see the same people faced with the same dilemma. It’s a film loop that keeps recycling the images.

Finally the scene shifts. When I arrive at the same bend in the road, six or eight Gypsies are gathered around the car. They’re dressed in black and purple with flashy silver buckles and dark hats. All the Gypsies that could be rounded up have been recruited. A few who had been held on vagrancy charges have even been bonded out of jail.

I stop to watch, fascinated. The Gypsies stand around the car, playfully testing how heavy it is. It’s very heavy; not a modern, lightweight vehicle, but one of those older, made-of-real-steel cars. The Gypsies banter back and forth with each other. They’re relaxed, having a good time.

Then, with no verbal cues but perfectly synchronized, they each take hold of the car and lift it off to the side. My stomach lurches at this prodigious feat of strength. There’s no way six or eight people could lift that car. But now I can see that it had been impaled on an old concrete post that’s sticking out of the center of the road.

Then I become aware of an earlier scene of the dream, from just before the film loop began. I’m watching a Gypsy woman get one of the Gypsy men ready to do the impossible. She’s down on her knees. He is too, with his lower legs resting on her thighs so they can look into each other’s eyes. She has pulled her blouse down to expose her breasts, as was the fashion in ancient Egypt — the word gypsy being derived from the word Egypt.

As they gaze at each other, she begins to chant in a wild, exotic tongue. At first I can’t make out what she’s saying. Then I “hear” her words.

“Come out steamin’!” she chants. “Come out steamin’!”

She’s pumping him up, getting him ready to do something impossible.

I wake from the dream with the words “Come out steamin’!” ringing in my ears.

I’m startled by the intensity of the dream, but have no idea what it means. I do know I need a shower; my body is feverish and sweaty. So I slowly get out of bed, walk into the bathroom, and turn the shower on extra hot. Ever since my sit of strong determination on Day 8 at the Vipassana Meditation Center, my body has been running hot and cold. Right now, even though I’m sweating, I crave more heat.

As I get ready for the shower, I wonder what that mid-1940s car had been impaled on. That particular dream image seems significant — I was, after all, born in 1945 — but I can’t decipher it. So I step into the hot shower, never connecting the enveloping steam with the Gypsy woman’s words.

Interlocking Phrases

As soon as the billowing steam hits me, I’m gifted with another illumination. Just as the earlier, lightning-like flash of insight about my Vipassana course was triggered by seeing a young girl nursing, so does a sudden burst of steam bring instant knowing about what that dream car was impaled on. The realization takes the form of two interlocking phrases: one for me and one for Joyce.

My phrase refers to a dynamic I’ve been impaled on since birth: “I’m number one; my needs come first.” Being a first child, I was literally number one. With a father in prison and a young mother curving her life around a squalling infant, I quickly learned that my needs came first.

As the hot water streams down my back, I see that this primal mindset would later be transposed into other arenas. I would need to be an elder brother; to be strong; to be right; to be wise. I would have to be the projective partner in a relationship, and I would subconsciously choose partners accordingly.

“I’m number one; my needs come first.”

The steam-induced epiphany also shows me a phrase for Joyce: “I live to please; my needs don’t count.” Joyce came into the world dealing with her own set of familial circumstances: an all-knowing older sister, Dana; a charming and sometimes flirtatious mother, Lilly; a brilliant and sometimes violent father, Joe, who had once been diagnosed (rightly or wrongly) as a paranoid schizophrenic.

When Lilly triggered Joe’s physical abuse, Dana sided with her mother, stood up to her father, and paid the price. Joyce, five years younger than Dana, learned that it was better to duck, placate, and please. Pleasing became something close to a survival skill. For Joyce, the choice seemed to be please or perish.

She later discovered that pleasing paid off in her relationships with boyfriends, teachers, and employers. And as a female growing up in a firmly entrenched patriarchal culture, pleasing became a subliminal mantra.

“I live to please; my needs don’t count.”

The hot of the steaming water soaks into my body. I’m surprised that I’ve never seen these templates before. Now they seem obvious. Each was imprinted in early childhood. And they interlock perfectly.

“I’m number one; my needs come first.”
“I live to please; my needs don’t count.”

This hand in glove reciprocity is partly what drew us together and has kept us together. It also surreptitiously precipitates misunderstandings, quarrels, and suffering. The same patterns that are adaptive for little children can be maladaptive for adults.

Just before I step out of the shower, a final realization arrives. These two interlocking phrases are central to my parents’ relationship as well. “I’m number one; my needs come first” seems to fit Caleb. And “I live to please; my needs don’t count” fits Hope. Since they’re well into their 70s by now, their dynamic isn’t very malleable.

Given the strong force of inertial momentum, moreover, Joyce and I may likewise end up in a calcified marital relationship. It’s a sobering perspective. Everything unresolved may be re-created; but how much of what’s re-created can be healed?

Hope’s Letters

My immersion in the epiphanous steam marks a turning point. The flu symptoms back off almost immediately and my mind stabilizes just enough to allow me to join the family gatherings. Hope and Caleb have never seen me like this before and worry about me. They aren’t reassured by my facade of normalcy. If someone asks about my Vipassana course, I offer a story or two and let it go at that. It doesn’t seem like an appropriate time to share the trauma.

Soon my sibs and their families return home. Joyce and I had previously arranged our tickets so that we could visit with my parents after everyone else left. I decide to be more open about what happened at the meditation center. I tell them that an agonizing one-hour sit on Day 8 dislodged a long-buried complex from the first nine months of my life and that I’m still processing that volcanic eruption.

“Of course I don’t have any conscious memories of my infancy,” I say.

“If you want to understand what was going on during those months,” my father says, “look at your mother’s letters.”
“She writes wonderful letters,” I say with a laugh, “but they’re few and far between.”

“No, no,” Caleb says. “When I was in prison, we wrote back and forth constantly. All of Hope’s letters — from the time you were born until I got out on parole — are downstairs in the fireproof safe.”

I go down to the basement and return with a large folder. After glancing at several of the letters, I become intrigued. They’re what historians call primary source material: a direct, firsthand account of the most formative time of my life. But I won’t be able to study them before our return flight to Roanoke tomorrow.

“I know these are precious,” I say to my father. “I’d love to take them to that print shop in Point Reyes Station and copy them. But there won’t be time before we leave for the airport. Can I take them home with me, make a set of copies, and then send them back to you?”

“I don’t know if I can let them out of my sight,” Caleb says. “They’re irreplaceable.”

He’s writing his memoirs and needs the letters. They’re from a critical time of his life, too. Trying to hide my disappointment, I say that I understand.

Before we leave, there’s one final task to attend to. Lauren’s pet rat Taz died yesterday. We all knew her death was drawing near, but it was sad to lose her. Especially for Lauren. Taz was her first pet and this was her first encounter with death.

Taz died surrounded by those who loved her. That’s why we had smuggled her onto the airplane. But we’re not going to bury her far from home. So we wrap a lovely piece of cloth around her like a shroud and ease her into a Ziploc bag. This goes into a small cardboard box and then into my mom’s freezer until tomorrow.

On the morning of our departure, Caleb says, “I woke up thinking about it some more. You can borrow the letters. Take good care of them. Make copies when you get home and send the originals back to me FedEx Overnight.”

“Thank you!”

I tuck the folder into my suitcase, hoping to read the letters as soon as we get home, while they’re still fresh. But there’s always a lot to do after a long trip. It may be a while before I can study them.

A Blizzard’s Gift

We fly out of San Francisco and arrive in Charlotte, North Carolina. When we present our tickets for the connecting flight to Roanoke, the agent at the departure gate just laughs.

“Find a motel,” he says. “You’re not going anywhere for a few days. A major blizzard is blanketing the East Coast. We’re not flying to Roanoke. You better get a motel room.”

I shake my head at this latest synchronicity. Two weeks ago I drove through a blizzard to get home from a Vipassana course. Now another blizzard is stranding us in Charlotte. So we check into a nearby motel.

Taking care of first things first, I bring Taz — concealed in her cardboard casket — to the manager of the restaurant that’s attached to the motel.

“We’re stuck here because of the snow,” I say, “and we have to keep this package frozen until we get home. Can we leave it in your freezer while we’re at the motel?”

“I don’t know if it will be safe,” he says with a smile. “Is it edible?”

“It’ll be safe. No one will eat it.”

He stashes Taz in the freezer and I return to our motel room. Joyce and Lauren are cuddled up on the bed, watching a movie on TV. We don’t have TV at Light Morning, so this is a treat for Lauren. I retrieve Hope’s letters from my suitcase and place them on the small desk in our room. Thanks to an unexpected blizzard, I will be able to give my full attention to the first nine months of my life.

Caleb (2nd from left) and Hope (2nd from right)
in California in the early 1940s.

The letters are in chronological order. They begin in 1943, when my father starts serving a one-year sentence in the San Francisco county jail for being a conscientious objector. After the year is over, he’s released. Then, right after I’m born in May of 1945, Caleb is re-arrested for the same offense. Following a second trial and conviction, he’s sentenced to two years at McNeil Island federal penitentiary near Seattle.

Hope will move to Seattle, too. But first she takes me across the country by train to introduce me to my grandparents in Delaware and Massachusetts. The war in the Pacific has just ended. Dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has forced Japan to surrender. The train is full of soldiers returning home. I sometimes keep them awake with my inexplicable screaming.

Both sets of grandparents are delighted to meet me. They also want Hope to take me to their family physicians. One doctor believes my intestinal distress is caused by gas pains and puts me on a special diet. Another prescribes a sedative to help me sleep.

My mother writes constant letters to her husband to keep him posted about how his son is doing.

Most of the letters are hand-written; some are typed. The prison imposes a two-page limit on letters and each one has to be read by a censor before it’s delivered to the prisoner. Hope numbers each letter so Caleb will know if one doesn’t get through.

The censor’s stamp of approval

On our way from Boston to Seattle, we get off the train in Saint Paul to visit Caleb’s brother Arthur and his family. Once or twice a day I go from playing contentedly to screaming in pain for no apparent reason.

“My God,” Arthur says, “have you taken that boy to see a doctor?”

“I’ve taken him to lots of doctors,” my exasperated mother replies.

“Take him to see our pediatrician,” Arthur insists.

Hope wearily agrees.

The pediatrician finds something the other physicians had missed: a small hard mass in my lower left abdomen. “There’s something wrong here,” he tells my frightened mother. “I won’t tell you what I think it is. I’m not sure what it is. But as soon as you get to Seattle, find the best pediatric surgeon in the area and set up an appointment.”

Here in our Charlotte motel room, I pause to watch Lauren enjoying movies and going for walks in the snow with Joyce. What if it had been our baby who needed to see a pediatric surgeon immediately? My heart floods with empathy for my mother.

As I finish reading each letter, I set it aside. Hope is giving me a guided tour of the first nine months of my life. It’s also a golden anniversary tour. As I keep reading, I notice a strange correlation between 1945 and 1995.

In 1945, Hope and I have arrived in Seattle. The pediatric surgeon my mother has found, Dr. Coe, wants to run diagnostic tests on my abdomen. On December 10th, I’m admitted to the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital for at least a week.

In 1995, I’m at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts. On December 10th, the sits of strong determination begin. One of them will re-create the agony in my abdomen. It will feel like a sword in my side.

On December 17th, 1995, I drive home from the course through a blizzard, in serious psychological distress. I hate the meditation center; I hate Vipassana; and I call Goenka a “fat S.O.B. from India.” On December 17th, 1945, Dr. Coe diagnoses the cause of the recurring pain in my abdomen.

Children’s Orthopedic Hospital circa 1945

Hope shares the news with Caleb in her 53rd letter.

“The final report on Robert is that he has what Dr. Coe said was very rare and something he had never heard of in a baby as young; namely, a wandering spleen. This is far better than had there been something wrong with the kidneys, which they found to be perfectly in order.

“But the stem, which attaches the spleen to the rest of the body and is usually about 1 1/2″ long, in Robert’s case is nearly 5” long. Therefore, he feels that it would be wise to remove it entirely. After such an operation, the other organs quite easily take over the function of the spleen and there is not danger involved for R; just work for Dr. Coe and approximately a 10-day stay in the hospital for Robert.

“The reason Dr. Coe feels we oughtn’t to wait is because with as much play as there is in the stem, there is a danger of it looping back over itself and cutting off its circulation, which would cause the end to decay and peritonitis would follow. However, he wants to study the case further and doesn’t feel that in any event he would operate before March.

“Robert [having been in the hospital for a week] didn’t know me from Adam when I went to get him. Quite a blow to one’s ego, I can tell you. He kept looking at me all the way home, as if to say, ‘Who are you, and where are you taking me?’ And I must confess that when I first saw him, I saw him as I might see someone else’s baby — quite objectively and as though I had never seen him before. I can assure you, it was a very strange experience. By the time I’d had him home for a while, everything was all right again.”

A Postcard From The Twilight Zone

Sitting at the desk of our Charlotte motel room, I add my mother’s poignant letter to the large stack of those already read. As I continue reading, the two intertwining strands of destiny that created this treasure trove of correspondence are about to merge; and bring her letters to an end. I will soon be re-admitted to the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital for a splenectomy; and my father is about to be paroled out of McNeil Island Penitentiary. The only question is, which will come first.

Near the bottom of the folder of letters are a dozen or postcards. Hope used them when she didn’t have time to write a full letter. All except one are plain penny postcards. The exception is dated April 11, 1946. “Darling,” it says, “I have just phoned the Warden’s office and obtained permission to see you this coming Monday. This is still dependent on R’s condition, so if I don’t appear you’ll know why.”

This postcard, unlike the rest, has a printed inscription above Hope’s note. “Sandstone head of a Bodhisattva. Height 12 1/2″. Cambodian. 9th to 12th Century. Seattle Art Museum.” Curious, I turn the card over. What I see is so bizarre that I suddenly no longer know whether I’m in the waking world, the world of dreams, or somewhere else entirely.

It sends me back to 8th grade, intently watching a strange, black-and-white TV series called The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling introduces each episode: “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”

This anomalous postcard has propelled me into the twilight zone. On its other side is a photograph showing the mounted statue of a man’s head. The man’s eyes are gently closed. A serene half-smile plays across his face. He’s deeply introverted. On top of his stylized headdress is the figure of a man seated in a cross-legged posture, meditating.

The connection between a hospital in Seattle and a meditation hall in Massachusetts becomes so tight that I can barely breathe. Why did my mother choose to buy this particular picture postcard, when all the rest she had were plain? An ancient Theravadan Buddhist tradition inspired a Cambodian artist, a thousand years ago, to sculpt the face of a Bodhisattva. That same tradition led a long lineage of monks in Burma to preserve Vipassana meditation. Then, fifty years after Hope bought this postcard in the Seattle Art Museum, Vipassana was passed on to me.

A Cambodian Bodhisattva

* * *

The father, mother, and child reunion gets closer. Hopeful rumors about Caleb’s pending parole fly from coast to coast. I also manage to give my mother a bad scare. Another penny postcard tells how she had to call Dr. Coe at 3:40 AM one night. I was in severe pain and running a high fever. She was terrified that my spleen had curled back on itself and I was about to die of peritonitis. He told her to take me to the E.R. immediately. My symptoms later abated.

Children’s Orthopedic Hospital is a teaching hospital. The removal of an infant’s spleen is so unusual that many doctors in the area want to observe it from the gallery of the hospital’s operating theater. So Dr. Coe schedules the surgery for a time when as many doctors as possible can be there: Easter Sunday morning.

On April 21st, Hope sends Caleb another postcard. “Happy Easter, my darling! This will come as a great surprise to you, but I couldn’t let you know he was to be operated on this morning until yesterday afternoon. Anyhow, the spleen is now out and Dr. Coe is very pleased with his condition… Worlds of love my wonderful hubby. I miss you terribly.”

Robert and Caleb
Post-surgery, post-parole

Less than a week later, on April 27th, 1946, she mails her last letter to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. It’s letter #94. “My darling, I have good reason to believe that this will be the last letter I will have to send you at this address. In fact, even this one may reach the Island only to find you gone.”

Caleb is released from prison on parole. The ferocious pain caused by my wandering spleen is miraculously gone. Now my parents can get to know each other again. They have been apart for nearly a year, under two dramatically different circumstances that were equally challenging. Now I can finally start to figure out what a father is.

* * *

In Charlotte, it’s the second afternoon of our blizzard-enforced layover. The airport says we may be able to fly to Roanoke tomorrow. I carefully replace Hope’s letters in their folder. Then I take them to a print shop near the motel and make copies of the several hundred pages. Down the block happens to be a FedEx store, so I ship the originals back to my father by Overnight Delivery.

The next morning we’re circling the Roanoke airport. The terrain below us is white with snow and ours is the first plane cleared to land after the blizzard. The pilot sets the aircraft down on the recently plowed but still snow-packed runway. Most of the passengers hold their breath. The wheels skid and the plane swerves back and forth on the runway. At last it straightens out and slows down. Everyone gives the pilot a round of applause.

Once we’re back at Light Morning, I shovel a path down to our cabin through 18″ of snow. The cabin’s an icebox. We get a fire going in the small wood-burning stove and huddle around it. After we’ve warmed up enough, we go outside again, clear away the snow beneath a nearby maple tree, and give Taz a proper burial.

I put my copies of Hope’s letters in a large 3-ring binder. Then I find a frame for the postcard of the Cambodian Bodhisattva. Twenty-five years later, while re-immersing myself in her letters in order to write this story, the postcard still evokes a sense of wonder that borders on disbelief.

Epilogue

Joyce and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary on December 17th, 2020. Due to the coronavirus, it was just the two of us. Part One of this story was also about to be posted to Light Morning’s website. On December 17th, 1945, a pediatric surgeon in Seattle diagnosed the cause of my abdominal agony. Fifty years later, the same pain was re-created in the same quadrant of my abdomen during a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. I returned home from that course late at night on our anniversary, December 17th, telling Joyce that I hated Vipassana and would have nothing more to do with it.

Despite this passionate denunciation, I’ve gone back to the Vipassana Meditation Center many times to sit and serve courses. I’ve also maintained a strong daily practice. Neither could have happened without the catharsis that came upon me during the two to three weeks covered by this story.

Framed postcard and letters

* * *

Three brief notes before closing. First, after many conversations with fellow Vipassana students and assistant teachers, I’m convinced that the high level of trauma I experienced on my first course is quite unusual. Most students find the ten days to be challenging, but they don’t leave the center with a severe case of decompression sickness.

Second, Vipassana meditation differs from the western psycho-therapeutic model, in that it doesn’t aim to uncover and mitigate psychological complexes by talking about them. Instead, it’s an experiential method that focuses on respiration, sensations, and the practical implications of impermanence. Following my first ten-day course, I had no idea what was happening to me. It was all I could do to keep my head above water. The spontaneous insights I received — like the dreams and synchronicities that accompanied them — were both unlooked-for and unexpected.

Finally, for those who might be drawn to learn more about Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka, the home page for this tradition is here; the Wikipedia page for Goenka is here, and Goenka’s N.Y. Times obituary is here.

2 thoughts on “A Sword In My Side: 3”

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