Preview: Life Raft

An inauthentic work has no unconscious. Nicolas Abraham (1962)

Within reach of Bed S at Waters Memorial Hospital is a heavy-cloth brown bag from a beloved port of call. Marked New York City STRAND 8 Miles of Books, it contains S’s “desert island” reads. The Strand stash is consulted as needed. She also has a panoramic view of a sea of green, a golf course, where among its eighteen waving flags MDs of every specialty (a medical conference is in town) go about their business of recreational rounds and side bets. S’s IV drip, which she calls her hour glass, has a tendency to run dry, causing the attending MD’s surrogate, a plastic cabinet of vital signs affixed to her blood stream and a metal pole, to emit SOS signals and distress the patient, reawakened to consciousness of pain. Tears roll after an RN announces that the dosage of opioids has been reduced. Chair G asks about future pain management.

We don’t use painkillers to treat motility disorders.

The hour glass is refilled. G’s request for the titles of S’s books to be entered in her chart is met with incredulity.

Framed photo on S’s nightstand: a swim with Mom.

Day One
On the nightstand are Alice in Wonderland and The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with homemade bookmarks inserted at The Queen’s Croquet Ground and The Premature Burial.

Bed S: Hold my hand and say something—anything.

Chair G: I see a flamingo urging you to use your attending physician as a club to strike white balls toward a rabbit hole. The balls, upon closer inspection, are crumpled drug prescriptions. A queen of hearts, made furious by the MD’s reluctance to accept the treatment prescribed for him, screams for her troops.

Bed S: “Off with his head!”

Chair G: The executioner performs the grim but necessary surgery, a white rabbit takes practice swings with the late white coat’s clubs, gardeners turn green patches of grass into brown patches of grass and the queen’s husband plays bridge with a Cheshire cat. Before you can gather up the prescriptions, the flamingo prods and vocalizes you away, the wind scatters the prescriptions, the queen’s troops dig a grave and the executioner lowers the excised head into the earth.

As soon as S is dozing contentedly, or with what seems contentment, G examines her chart, which naturally is linked to the Waters Memorial billing department.

Day Two
On the nightstand is Madness in Drama (ed. James Redmond), with a homemade bookmark inserted at Representing mad contradictoriness in Dr. Charcot’s Hysteria Shows by Dianne Hunter.

During the golden hours when suffering has been stanched, S goes walkabout with her IV and cabinet. A scarf, beret or other personal article of clothing distracts from the pale-blue standard-issue gown. Today she detours into forbidden territory, the operating theater. Her reflections on/in its steely surfaces usher in another disturbing cast of characters.

Day Three
Bed S closes In Search of Lost Time after a new neighbor arrives, Bed AL.

An instant chemistry bonds her with Aunt Léonie, who extends an invitation to her “drawing room” (AL’s characterization of her bedside), where S’s social standing is measured by her wordplay. She and Madame’s nephew, Marcel, a salon fixture, have a thing or two to say about childhood, where they spend hours and on good days are like giddy picnickers. They tease G about his new affectations (their term): a lab coat, stethoscope and French accent.

Bed S: Buzz for glasses of spring water, there’s a good boy.

Chair G: Oui.

Água de Beber (1963), Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes
Am I the Same Girl? (1968), Barbara Acklin
Come Undone (1993), Duran Duran

Nicolas Abraham, Rhythms: On the Work, Translation, and Psychoanalysis (1988, trans. 1995)
Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea (1988, trans. 1994)
Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa (1819)
Brian Goldstone, The Pain Refugees, Harper’s, April 2018
Ariel Levy, World Without Pain, The New Yorker, Jan 13, 2020
The Polyphony (
Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak, Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen (2001)
David Foster Wallace, The Soul is Not a Smithy (2004)
Allen S. Weiss, Algebra is Drunkenness: Melvin Way’s poetics of the ad infinitum, Cabinet, Fall 2002

shoutouts to past beacons in the night
Gary de la Peña, MD †
Elisabeth R. Evans, NP
William J. Sandborn, MD