The Blistering Cure
As I pull into the drive, Grandfather is sitting in his wheelchair and Lena is rushing him up the walk, away from my car. They have seen me coming, both Grandfather and Lena, his nurse, but they flee up the walk without so much as a wave of acknowledgment. I watch, certain that he’s lost control of his bowels, that he’s rushing away from me with such frantic determination so as not to embarrass himself. But Lena only wheels him to the porch, then turns him to face me. He sits there in his wheelchair with Lena at his side, like Henry VIII on his throne, awaiting my arrival.
I want to flee, to shift into reverse and vanish, disappear, evaporate back into my own life, into something I can almost understand. I want to be in the O.R. or in the lecture hall with my students, even at home by myself, anywhere else. But I am here in Grandfather’s driveway, watching him through the windshield. He sits upright, rigid, as Lena waves her hand.
I slow the car and roll down the window, feeling light-headed, jet-lagged, as the Tennessee air presses against my skin. I brace myself for this visit, as that man I saw in Beijing last week must have braced himself against the pain of the blistering cure; I close my eyes and wait for the yellow dots to flash across the darkness of my eyelids, hoping to see in them Andromeda or Cassiopeia, any of the constellations Dad and I used to find. It’s like a cloudy night, though, dark and starless. All I can see are shadow images of the Civil War boots.
* * *
The Civil War boots happened the first time I met Grandfather—the first time I remember meeting him—when I was a freshman in high school and he was just returned from years overseas. I’d seen him before that, Mom tells me; when I was twelve he came from Tokyo for my father’s funeral, his son’s funeral, but I don’t remember Grandfather from that time. I remember only the waxy-unreal hands of my father’s body in the coffin. I remember only wanting to wrap myself up with my daddy in that coffin, just he and I and no one else, and close the lid.
The day I first remember meeting Grandfather, Mom and my brothers and I took the train all the way to Washington to see him. He loved history, I knew—my father used to say Grandfather loved history more than he loved his own children—and so as the train rocked me, I read and read and read the history books I had gotten from the library. I read while my brothers played gin rummy, while they ran down the aisle to the cafe car, while they poked and teased at each other, our fellow travelers shooting us cold looks. I read until I found a small nugget of knowledge, a gem to bring to my grandfather, to please him. And then I closed my book and my eyes and I imagined how I would tell him my little story and how pleased and surprised he’d be to learn something so interesting from me. He’d smile the way Dad used to smile when he called me his "brilliant little polestar," and I’d see that same look in his eyes.
I was surprised, when we were ushered into Grandfather’s office, to find nothing of the round face and stout neck and brilliant green eyes that had been my father. Grandfather looked instead like the portrait of him I’d seen at City Hall, a portrait of a great man everyone seemed so proud merely to know. Somehow, I’d never connected the man in the portrait with my grandfather. But there he sat in his office, with that same sweep of silver hair, that same knowing look in the brown eyes, that same tight knot of tie against the protruding Adam’s apple of his thin neck. Only the broad palms and short strong fingers of his hands looked at all like my father’s, and even in them there was some difference. They were not so much my father’s hands as they were the hands of the body in my father’s coffin.
I sat on the couch in Grandfather’s office and I waited as he attended to my older brother Patrick. I sunk a little when he next addressed Michael, who was two years my junior, but I kept a smiling face focused on my Grandfather so he wouldn’t know how I felt. And when he turned to me and asked what I’d been doing, I was ready. I said I’d been reading history, I loved history, which was more or less the truth. "Especially the Civil War," I said.
"The Civil War? And tell me what you know about the Civil War." He smiled.
I smiled back comfortably, confidently, as a girl can when she gets straight A’s, and I presented my nugget to him like a wise man presenting frankincense to God. I told him how the Confederate trains took the dead to their homes, piled one atop the other in cattle cars. I began it as a great tale, the way I imagined he would tell it if he knew. "In some towns," I said, "the dead were so many and the survivors so few that the bodies were dumped from the trains and buried where they fell next to the train tracks—"
"That’s right," he said. He spoke as if I were answering an examination, nodding his silver head. "And what about their feet?" he asked.
"Their feet?" I repeated, unbalanced by the interruption and not understanding at all.
He winked at my mother, satisfied.
"Yes," he said. "What was remarkable about their feet?"
I felt a flush run over me, the embarrassment of not knowing. I tried to smile, but my lips were as immovable as those dead soldiers’ remarkable feet. I could not meet his challenging eyes but would not look away, so I fixed on the straight, tight knot of his tie.
"No boots," Grandfather said.
I looked at Grandfather’s feet, at the shiny black polish of his wingtips.
"No boots?" I repeated.
"Boots were in such short supply that they were the first thing to be taken, even before a soldier was dead." Grandfather stood, began pacing across the office in what I would come to call his lecture mode. "A soldier would take even his best friend’s boots, knowing his friend would have done the same. A brother would take the boots off his own dying brother’s swollen feet." Grandfather nodded and my mother joined him in his nodding. I nodded along with them, though I didn’t know why.
"Imagine that," Grandfather said, pausing for emphasis. "Knowing that you’re dying by the fact that your brother is taking your boots off your feet."
I could not imagine it, though.
"Speaking of boots," Grandfather said, and he picked up the phone and dialed a number and began talking, asking whether the shoes he’d ordered were in, and I sat there in his office, beside my mother, trying to understand.
For weeks afterwards I searched for that story, for some indication of brothers stealing brothers’ boots, as if a textbook explanation might help me understand how someone could do that, take the boots off his own brother and wear them as he marched on, leaving his brother to die alone.
* * *
I have that same sense now, as I pull my car to a stop in Grandfather’s driveway, that sense that Grandfather and even Lena know something I can’t grasp. There must be some logical reason they have wheeled away from me only to turn and face me from the higher ground of the porch. But what? I climb the steps cautiously, still feeling a little off-balance, and I lean forward to receive the press of Grandfather’s cheek against mine. A patch of missed whiskers scrapes my skin. I pull back and my hands move by instinct after all these years to straighten his tie. They freeze at the sight of the white hair of his chest where his pajama collar is open, then fumble over the lapel of his robe.
Grandfather’s hands rummage under his lap blanket, pull out a cordless telephone which he rests in his lap. I want to ask him to put it away, put it away for just a few minutes. I have just been to China, his favorite country. I have fascinating, truly fascinating things to tell him. Stories like the stories with which Dad, and later he, used to enchant me. But I say nothing about the telephone, I only look around the porch, pull a bare wrought-iron chair closer to the metal wheels of Grandfather’s chair. I resolve to be my most interesting self, to keep him amused for twenty minutes, or even just fifteen, and then to leave. He won’t even notice the brevity of my visit. I was spending less and less time with him even before I left for China, and in the few minutes I was there, his interest seemed more and more directed to what Lena was or wasn’t doing—watering the flowers or feeding the cat—his voice more and more relieved when the ringing of the telephone cut through our conversation like a lightening bolt.
Just fifteen minutes. Surely I can succeed in that.
I move right to my China trip. I want to tell Grandfather how well the operations we did there went, how the parents brought us their deformed children their babies, and we took those babies and opened up their distorted little heads and sculpted them new ones, new foreheads they could grow into, new foreheads to replace the misshapen ones with which they were born. I want to tell him how I improved John’s reconstruction procedure, how in the middle of our second operation I had an idea how to better shape the plastic for the forehead and, though John was dubious, we tried it and it worked. But I don’t want to start with that. I don’t want Grandfather to think that I am bragging, that I am overly impressed with myself. So instead, I think of what I learned from the Chinese doctors, from their ancient medical ways. Grandfather will know about acupuncture, so I concentrate on moxibustion, a treatment used in China for over four thousand years.
I explain to Grandfather how it’s done, how the moxa is formed into little mounds on the patient’s skin. I describe the shape of the mounds with my hands as I speak. "They set those piles aflame," I say, "one after another all over the back of this elderly man. They left them there until I was sure I could smell the skin burning—smell it burning!—and by the time the moxa had turned to ashes, the blistering—"
"Yes," Grandfather says, and he winks at Lena with one rheumy brown eye. "Moxa is made from the powdered leaves of the Artemisia plant. The practice is based on the fundamental principle of Chinese medicine, expressed in the Huang-ti Nei-Ching, of equilibrium and dynamic balance between opposing forces."
I listen politely, trying to tamp down the red-hotness of the flush of my face as he tells me what I’d planned to tell him.
"Illness is seen by the Chinese as a violation of the Tao which results in an imbalance," he explains.
An imbalance between yang and yin, I think to myself. Through blistering they seek to drain out the excess yin or yang and thereby restore the balance of the patient. But I say nothing. I do not interrupt.
"The Chinese think they can remedy this imbalance through blistering," Grandfather continues. "They use detailed moxibustion charts to identify where the blistering is to take place for the desired effect. Much like their acupuncture charts.
"When Grandma and I were in China . . ."
I nod as if I am interested, but I have heard this story before, about how, when they were in Shanghai during the Nixon administration, Grandma experienced heart palpitations and so an ambulance was called. The "ambulance" was—this was once my favorite of my Grandfather’s punch lines—an ox-drawn cart. The unlikelihood of the story strikes me, for Shanghai is the most modern city in China, and they were visiting dignitaries. Grandfather sounds so certain of himself, though, so amused by his words.
As Grandfather holds forth, I realize that somehow the subject has shifted. Now Grandfather is saying that Baxter Paine was rushed to the hospital again last week in an ambulance. Mr. Paine and Grandfather have been friends since they traveled to China together. "He doesn’t seem to understand," Grandfather is saying, "that he has no choice but to try this new experimental drug. I told him so just the day before he went back in." Though Grandfather is twenty years older than Baxter Paine, he speaks of the man as if only Mr. Paine is to be pitied for the slim hopes for his future, as if Grandfather himself, at ninety-six, still has years and years of full life ahead.
His hand clutches the telephone. His finger jabs at the numbers.
"I should call Libba," he says. "Find out how Baxter is doing, see what I can do to help." The receiver is pressed to his ear, and I can hear the ringing at the other end.
I want to scream at him to stop, to listen to me for once, to hear what I have to say. It has been only nine minutes since I arrived.
I want to ask him if it was true about the boots, did they really steal the boots off the swollen feet of their own dying brothers, or was it all just an exaggeration, an idea to amuse yourself when I could not amuse you enough?
Instead, I watch him. I watch the great man from the portrait, his spotted skeleton hands wrapped tightly around the telephone as if holding on for life. I look at my own hands, then. I look at my hands and I can see them moving competently, carefully through John’s procedure—through John’s and my procedure. And in my hands, I can see the way my patients will smile in the mirror as they grow up, a year from now, two years form now, when they go off to kindergarten, first grade. I think of the way they will smile at themselves in the mirror, finding asymmetry only in the teeth they are missing, the way they comb their hair over their perfect scars. I think of what I can do—what I do with my hands, by myself—and a coolness comes over me despite the heavy heat of the air.
I look down to the footrests of the wheelchair, then, where the polished black shoes should be. All I see are two old, old feet—older, it seems to me, than the ancient medical procedures I have studied in China. One is sheathed in a white support stocking, hidden from sight. The other foot is there, though, bare in the morning sunshine, purple as my Grandfather’s bruised hands but also swollen and shiny, like it has been bound in shrink wrap and is trying to burst out. It is as I have always imagined those dead Civil War soldiers' feet to have been, before their bodies were dumped from the trains and buried beside the tracks of their home towns.
I close my eyes to the bloated skin, the yellow crusty nails, and in the starlit darkness I wonder how long the shiny black wingtips have been gone, and who took them off.
"I’ll call Libba," Grandfather repeats as if he hasn’t already done so, as if he’s not holding the receiver, waiting for someone to answer.
"Yes, you should call Libba," I say. And when I open my eyes, an old man sits in the wheelchair beside me, an old man who is my grandfather, my father’s father but not mine. "Do go ahead and call," I say. And as I rise to leave, I am surprised to find that in those nine minutes my jet lag has dissipated. I feel perfectly steady, my equilibrium no longer disturbed.