Monday, May 28, 2007

The General

I am always trying to improve my writing, which is especially tough with my job. Scientific writing is very different from prose. But both demand brevity. John Polich, Jon Wolpaw, Steve Hillyard, and Gerald Edelman number among my scientific writing models. Their writing is tighter than a vulgar metaphor. My natural writing style is closest to John Kennedy Toole, who also looked disturbingly like me. I have recently been trying to learn by reading my old friend Rob Kunkel, the grandmaster of the one paragraph short-short.

This is a short story I wrote about a year ago and posted on the TC Boyle message board. It is almost all true. The switch from third to first person was intentional. I was there, the characters are entirely real and only a few details were changed.

The General suffered a brainstem stroke in summer 2004. The retired fighter pilot went to bed healthy and woke up with complete locked in syndrome – able to see, hear, think, feel, but not speak or move. The rest of his life was spent in a bed equipped with a respirator, TV, and catheter. His wife was always there, leaning forward on a gleaming cheap wood stool, cupping his head in one hand and stroking his handsome grey hair with the other. She greeted visitors with arms like a lying fisherman and a laugh like a brick hearth on Christmas Eve before bounding off to prepare an excess of snacks and pineapple guava juice despite insistent protest. The huge living room had Puerto Rican depictions of the Virgin Mary on every wall, table, and shelf, but the dominant feature was the General. Your first thought on meeting him was to learn how to salute properly. He seemed ready to launch a thousand ships even under white plastic tubing and the sudden realization that his eyes weren’t following you. His wife told stories in English or Spanish about his days in Nam, earning medal after medal before getting shot down and washing onto a tiny island without supplies until rescue three days later. When his oe ordeal was over, he told her that he was born a general, and went on to earn three stars. Everyone followed her lead of talking to him about whatever came to mind, never asking direct questions, hoping the topic was of interest. Finally a team of neuroscientists from Georgia Tech came to try a prototype brain computer interface so he could communicate without movement. After an assiduous hassle so his wife could sign a legal informed consent form for him, they put an electrode cap on his head and recorded EEG while he tried to convey information. No luck. The team kept at it, tinkering and returning, all the while talking to the receptive General about how the human brain works. After 3 months they got it working; he could spell a letter every 2 minutes with brainwaves. They showed his wife how to run the system, prep him for recording, and so on. She somehow hurdled three stairs and grabbed the phone while the team lead droned on at the General – I had been talking about what exactly we were looking for in his brainwaves – and suddenly a phone was shoved at me, an excited daughter in law asking what he would say after 2 years of silence. Hard to tell, I said, one patient first asked about sports, another about her fingernails, a third complained about her shirt. After the call and 38 boa constrictor hugs, my team packed up gear in the living room and I went to say goodbye to the general and check his cap. There on the monitor was his first message, SHUT FUCK UP LEAVE ALONE. And so we did.

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