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from the August 2014 issue

The White Room

Daylight and color are to be avoided, says Padima. No troubling pictures and patterns, no colorful details that your gaze gravitates toward. The room is to be clear and peaceful, and as bare as possible.

Because once the patient’s senses are numbed by inactivity, the body will gradually calm down. The periods of rest will lengthen on their own, because there is nothing to do. The wild rush of thoughts in the brain will slow down. Everything will become more leisurely: the metabolism, the breathing, the heartbeat. And ultimately the nerves too will tire and stop sending their Morse messages to the pain center hundreds of times a minute.

The pain will not disappear entirely, but will ease. That is what Dr. Padima has promised. The blows of the sledgehammer will turn into a slap, the icy fire will become a mere tingle. There will no longer be red hot four-inch needles boring away behind the eyes, only a thin, cool sewing needle, and you will be able to cope with that. That is something you will manage mentally, without losing your wits.

And once the nerve fibers have calmed down, the muscles too can relax. The cheek muscles will stop clenching, the teeth grinding. The belly will spread gently like dough toward the pelvic bone. The head will sink into the soft pillow.

When conditions are right, healing can commence. That is what Padima has promised. But the promise contains a proviso.  When it comes down to it, patients have to heal themselves. All I can do is provide the recovering patient with the best conditions possible.

The silence of the room was as important as its emptiness. Special nurse Satu K., the doctor’s right-hand woman, watched over the construction work diligently, and made sure that the sound insulation was not skimped on. So the dripping of a tap, or the gurgling of drains was never heard in the room.

For toilet visits, Satu K. has come up with a special solution, with Padima’s blessing: the lavatory bowl is flushed from outside the toilet. When you have done your business and cleansed your hands on soft wipes you have removed almost soundlessly from a packet, all you need do is shut the door and press the button on the doorpost. The toilet will then flush. But only if the door is shut tight.

It has not been possible to eliminate the flushing noise entirely. If you prick up your ears, you will detect a subdued sucking sound from behind the door. It sounds like anxious inhalation.

The sound insulation on the outside door to the vestibule is of recording-studio standards. The layers applied to the walls absorb any extraneous sounds and knocks, creaking and cracking.

By the outside door is a notice board where the rules for visitors to the room are spelled out. They are to remove their shoes and outer garments and wipe their hands in disinfectant. Then they must take a dressing gown from the peg and don white felt slippers. Only then can they open the door to the room and step inside.

The children do not always succeed in belting up their dressing gowns, so that a strip of denim pant leg peeps out from behind the white toweling material. Satu K. then helps them to tighten their belts and straighten the folds. The children steal across the floor, serious and concentrated, careful not to trip over the edges of their dressing gowns.

I long for those moments most of all. Long for and fear, at one and the same time.

I have been in the white room for five months and twenty days now. From the level of the darkness I can guess that it is about five or six in the morning. Five months, twenty days and a few hours. Five or six hours, I cannot be quite sure.

Dr. Padima has told me not to count. In his opinion I should not keep track of things, not even the time.

Allow yourself to let things go. No one else can do that for you. Not until you dare to drown completely will the foothold you are looking for start coming toward you.

I understand what Padima means. I understand the idea of complete rest, as deep as a bog in a nightmare. It really does tempt me. Soft and limitless darkness. And yet I do not dare. I dare not think that terra firma exists.

I have already let go of so much. My home, my family, the whole of everyday life. All that I have been used to monitoring is now out of reach.

I do not know whether the children are eating enough for breakfast, or whether they remember to brush their teeth. I can’t check whether the middle one has his gym bag with him on Wednesdays, or whether the eldest has done his math homework, or at least the ones noted in the blue exercise book.

I cannot feel their brows, see if they are running a temperature. I can’t listen if they are breathing when they sleep.

I cannot draw up menus, shopping lists, lists of e-mails that need to be answered, of friends that should be invited, details that must, just must, be remembered.

I cannot ask my husband whether he has made the travel reservations, canceled the newspapers, nor can I point out that the lightbulbs, the printer ink, the weekdays, have run out.

I cannot ring the assisted living apartment and make sure that dad has got his ergonomic neck pillow, or listen to the morning stock report, delegate, replicate, weigh myself in the morning, check the pedometer tally.

I cannot choose my words, collect my thoughts, interpret the silence.

All I can do is sleep, and wake up, and go to sleep again. Wait for Satu K. to come. Lie in my white bed under the white covers and stare at the ceiling, on which there are no marks, shadows, or blemishes whatsoever to which my mind could attribute a new meaning.

I count sheep, do yoga, and meditate.  I rest my chin on my knees, wrap my arms around my legs, and unwrap them again. I get dressed and undressed, and it is quite unnecessary even to mention what the colors of the soft garments are.

It’s best to walk clockwise, Padima says, and on a good day I do what he asks. I turn my body, lift my legs by turns, with the shadow shifting as it falls behind me.

On a bad day, I am on the floor, crawling on all fours. I bang my knees hard against the floor, but all that rises from the soft carpet is a subdued bumping sound. And although I never dare raise my voice, a shriek is bouncing around in my head, igniting blue flames at my tattered nerve endings. On a bad day, Satu K. comes to visit me, holds my hands, utters Padima’s words of wisdom: Things could be worse. You could be completely paralyzed, could even be dead. Just think—you’re alive, after all!

On a bad day, I do not hear, do not listen. I paw my way deep into the lap of my pain, do not want to emerge. I cling to Padima’s instances of what could go wrong, cling to the end of his last sentence. Just think—you’re alive, after all!

Is this after-all-life life after all? Do you want me to think it through properly?

Then I grow tired of myself and try again. I try to put faith in Padima, believe in what he knows.

That life does intrinsically have value and meaning.

That all you have to do is accept the roads it leads you along. Submit, to an extent, to the way it winds along.

Today, I’m rather better. The thumping has grown duller. The pain at the back of my eyes has become round at the edges.

Beyond the blinds, the darkness is slowly yielding. This is the darkest time of the year.

I wonder if my husband has brought the electric Advent candles down from the attic, has checked their little bulbs. And the gold star for the children’s room. If I opened the blinds, I would see them.

I must be careful about acclimatizing to the outside world, is what Padima says. You must make progress, one step at a time.

I am waiting for Satu K., she can come at any time. If the day is a cloudy one she will open the slats of the blinds for a few minutes. If I can cope, I have a quick look out the window. Usually I can’t. On two occasions I have ventured to go up to the windowpane and have pressed my face against its cool surface.

Fear keeps me in my place. My memory of a few months ago is fresh and alive. I was floundering, prevailing against the direction indicated by Padima. I stumbled out of the room, when the evening had grown quiet and the light outside had subsided.

It is here, right in front of my eyes, like a film turning at the wrong speed. Movements are slow and prolonged. The outside door opens and beyond is the familiar garden, the one I have cleared of snow, weeded, and watered. Here are my flowerbeds, the things I’ve planted, and my gardening tools, just as they were before, yet completely changed. Everything has the wrong color, the wrong smell, is askew, topsy-turvy.

The pain is surging in waves, from beyond the woods, leaps down from the branches of the trees, and dumps me on the stairs. I fill my lungs with muddy water mixed with sand. It is autumn, and everything is over. The stench of decomposition and death is in the air, the old slimy tracks of the snails run across the flagstones of the patio, the birds have pecked to pieces the apples left hanging in the trees.

Summer is past, I have forfeited it, the children’s summer holidays, the sun and joy, and will never get it back.

I am lying on the stairs, burning.

Satu K. rings for an ambulance.

Two weeks later I will be brought back to the white room, and everything will start all over again.

It’s best for us to protect you from yourself, says Padima. He removes the doorknob from the outside door, fixes an alarm button on the wall in the vestibule, puts a telephone next to my bed, behind a white curtain.

Today is visiting day. The children come to visit me every other day, one at a time, half an hour each. Padima has promised that visiting hours can be extended. By at least five minutes, or even ten. Maybe by Christmas. We shall know more once the next set of tests has been completed.

Today was the turn of the eldest. He comes in the afternoon after school, when the light filtering through the curtains is turning blue. He remembers the rules, puts on a dressing gown and felt slippers, talks quietly and carefully.

The younger ones sometimes forget. Their bright voices will then ring in my head for hours on end, even days. Like dentist’s instruments, they scrape at my skull from the inside, forming dissonances, high and low, new ways of causing distress.

Physical pain is not the worst. What hurts me more is the fear that I can see in the children’s eyes. Their silences and good behavior. As if I were a somewhat distant relative that you daren’t really let come any closer. Yes, everything’s fine. Yes, I’m doing OK at school. Yes, Dad’s making pancakes today for dessert.

They are protecting both themselves and me, when it is I that should be protecting them.

I came to the room in May. The outlines of the bright Wednesday are blurred and the colors have become as unnatural as those of landscape paintings from the 1950s.

I remember that the sun was shining and the bird cherry tree putting out blossoms with every last ounce of strength. I remember thinking that the tree was like me: a large part of its blossoms had been shed, and the sweet fragrance had turned into a sickly odor. It made me throw up.

I remember how the sunlight brought a stinging, dense red rash to my cheeks.

I kept my eyes shut. I did not need to open them to see that the world had changed. Joy had turned to fear, beauty to distress, happy prospects to the panic of fear.

Between my eyelids I could see the green of the garden, the burgeoning buds and the frail seedlings that were seeking their way upward from the fertile soil of the flower beds. I felt expectation, expectations from others and the urge to succeed, but was yearning for nothing else but pitch darkness.

When the door to the white room opened and shut, I prayed for black clouds to cover the sun.

Too much stress leads to a short circuit, said Padima and stroked my cheek, putting questions to me I was unable to answer.

Headaches? Yes, for a long time already, a number of years probably. First in the mornings, then in the afternoons, and always in the evening before going to bed.

Breathing difficulties, stiff neck, dizzy spells, fatigue and trembling?

I answered in the affirmative to all of these, but no one managed to answer my own questions.

How can you distinguish such symptoms from ordinary life? Where does the border between what is normal and what is abnormal run? How many times a week can you feel dead-tired, numb and dumb, before you classify it as an illness?

I retain thin wisps of memories from the first few weeks. Padima by my bed measuring my blood pressure, giving me various injections in my arm. Satu K. as a shadow by the wall, carrying IV bags, catheters, clean sheets.

Sometimes I could make out the odd sentence from what Padima was saying. Don’t have unreasonable expectations. . . the damage is permanent. It’s permanent.

I had been told before that I would never fully recover. That the thumping, the eternal rhythmical banging in my head, was the beating of my own heart.

There had been a short circuit, a false alarm, an electrical disturbance. Permanent brain damage. Because the auditory center of the brain was receiving the same message constantly, thousands of millions of times a minute: listen to the pulse of the cerebral vein. Listen to it. And keep it at top volume.

Today the thumping is more muffled.

It will soon be Christmas.

The Advent candelabra are in a silver-colored box in the attic, behind the dolls’ prams and the ice hockey board game, immediately to the right as you enter. In the same crate are to be found the stand for the Christmas tree and the straw goats, the big, small and medium ones. The rear leg of the middle one is held together with masking tape.

I have a shooting pain, just behind my eyes. A sharp silvery light is flashing behind my eyelids, but I don’t see it, ignore it, don’t count how long it lasts.

I fetch the armchair from the doorway. It is for visitors. The feet of the armchair trace a narrow wake through the white carpet.

My feet don’t leave any traces. The bed still has a depression where I have been lying, there is a stray hair or two on my pillow.

According to Padima, I have made progress. I walk more and I sleep less. My mood no longer crashes after a visit from the children. Nevertheless, the journey is a long one, endless maybe. You were saved at the very last minute.

The last morning I made breakfast wearing earmuffs, but they didn’t help much. Shrill noises sent a series of electric shocks through my whole body. When the children laughed, I doubled over in pain.

The eldest scolded the younger ones, squeezed their throats and pulled their hair, shut up, it’ll hurt Mom. The youngest one clung to me and clutched at me with her hooked fingers. Every clasp pressed the shoulder strap of my nightdress deeper into my skin. Through the epidermis, dermis, fatty tissue, the black nylon ribbon down ever deeper into the labyrinth of nerves and beyond.

I removed the small hands by force, pushed them away, further, scolding and banging, went to the couch next to the purring fridge. Breadcrumbs like ants crawled all over me, prickling and burning, building their hill in my dirty hair. If the children were crying, I was no longer hearing them.

I hadn’t the strength to walk the couple of hundred meters unaided. Padima carried me past the new bower, past the children’s bicycles, the swallows whizzing through the air, past everything green, blue, bright, and alive, crossed the threshold, and lay me down on the white bed. Since then five months and twenty days have passed.

Can’t see Satu K. She usually comes earlier. I have tried to gauge the likelihood of her arrival and always fail. It is impossible to anticipate the exact time she will arrive. This is all part of the recovery strategy. It’s better for you not to wait. It’s better for you to take things as they come.

I focus my attention, shut my eyes, listen to the stream of breathing into the room. The shooting pains have grown stronger, are boring into my bones, but I am alive after all; that is worth it; that is important.

It is evening and no one has come. The thumping is too near now. The room is disappearing into a bright light. The floor of the vestibule cools my bare feet and there is a draft coming from near the hinges as I reach for the doorpost.

I press the alarm button. Next to the bed, behind the white curtain, the phone rings.

© Tiina Laitila Kälvemark and WSOY. “Valkoinen huone,” from Kadonnut ranta (Helsinki: Werner Söderström Corporation, 2012). Published by arrangement with Werner Söderström Ltd. (WSOY). Translation ©2014 by Eric Dickens. All rights reserved.

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