Still Life with PTSD and Geese

by | Apr 7, 2020 | CNF, Issue Fourteen

A nurse shoves some papers onto my lap.

“These give your permission —”

The gurney is surrounded by doctors and nurses wearing pale blue scrubs and masks. I try to sit up.

“If…cancer…lymph nodes…permission to remove…”

The words brand my brain.

The first time I panicked, I was a teenager swimming under a raft in a lake. I surfaced too soon and hit my head on one of the floating barrels. For a moment, I thought I would never find my way back to air.

This time, the second time, I look around wildly.

“You need to sign—“

No, no, no.

The surgeon’s voice: “Nurse! She just turned 30. She’s never been married. Give her —“

I fight.


I must have slid backwards. The last thing I see is a bright, burning light.

Four years later, I am walking around Rockland Lake with my karate instructor. A three-mile asphalt path circles the lake. After the surgeries, I told myself I would run around this lake by the fourth of July. I did it in June.

This didn’t convince me.

Today, I am walking. My karate instructor is muscular, five years my junior. He shaves his head and wears a long, dark beard in the style of Chinese Kung Fu masters. We have been dating, sort of, since my brief marriage broke up. He told me once that if we were on the Titanic, he’d make sure I got on one of the lifeboats. Still, he keeps our relationship secret and doesn’t want a commitment.

He’s my kind of hero, the kind who won’t really save me.

They say I’m past the worst of it. The nightmares have largely stopped, but I still shiver in the doctor’s office. I still close my eyes when I go to the dentist, because when the chair reclines I am afraid to see the light.

I started taking karate because I wanted to feel strong again, not just in my body, but in my soul. The first time my instructor saw me throw punches, he felt confused. I looked like an athlete, he said, but I had no strength.

It’s a day. Maybe sunny, I don’t know. They are all just days when your life is standing still.

My instructor-sort-of-boyfriend is attempting to discuss something philosophical. I am only half listening. At the dojo, our training is infused with philosophies. We get lessons on when to fight and when not to fight. We are told to develop an “indomitable spirit,” yet also to follow instructions. I haven’t learned yet that one doesn’t cancel out the other.

The sun warms my skin. I think about the fact that my instructor says he would save me from drowning in arctic waters, but he won’t spend Thanksgiving with my family.

I accept this. I accept everything now, because when I tried to fight back, I lost.

Then I see them.

A flock of white geese are gathered near the edge of the lake. A young boy runs at them, throwing rocks. The geese flap their wings and fill the air with nasal honks. One or two of the birds take flight. Nearby, the boy’s father watches and does nothing.

Rage erupts from a place inside me I thought had died.

My instructor, sensing trouble, places a hand on my arm. I shake it off and run straight toward the geese and the boy.

“STOP THAT!” I shout.

The boy stops what he is doing and turns toward me, startled. Then he looks at his father. His father glances at me, and then at my instructor. He decides not to argue. He motions for the boy to follow him, and they turn and walk away without a word.

The geese’s honks soften into a calmer cacophony. They settle their wings back into their sides, and start pulling at the grass with their beaks.

I turn and walk back to my instructor.

“Jesus,” he says.

“I couldn’t do nothing,” I say.

“If that kid’s father had given you a hard time, I might have had to beat him up,” he replies.

He turns and continues down the path, and I catch up and continue walking. I look at him sideways, seeing him for the first time and myself for the first time in years.

The path lies ahead. I look up at the sky and see the light.

Read more CNF | Issue Fourteen

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