Fistfuls of Balloons! Eighteen.

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I’m Sorry, I Can’t Hear You, Darleen; There’s a Bug in My Ear.

After two weeks I had to go back down to the hospital for a check-up and to have the shunt taken out of my back. If that sounds like a dreary way to spend the day, you’ve never been housebound—chair-bound, really—for two weeks. I was thrilled to go.

On one level, it was indeed dreary. Being a public facility, the county hospital caters to the poorest of the poor. Some are the lowest level of humanity, the dregs and refuse of any society, the tattooed gang-bangers there to have the natural consequences of a violent lifestyle stitched up. But the others are those poor devils who always sat in the back of the classroom, the ones who will never rise above a subsistence level of existence, or understand why they will never rise, or perhaps even understand that there is another way of living and being to rise to or aspire to.

But just getting out of the house and doing something, anything, was a treat, a sign of progress, and I was looking forward to it. For one thing, I was looking forward to getting the damn shunt out of my back. It had served its purpose, and I was deeply grateful to have had it, but my little goiter of painkiller was empty now and I wanted to be able to take a shower without Darleen having to wrap me up like a piece of leftover cheese.

My bride is a remarkable and admirable lady, but she has certain, ah, shall we say, idiosyncrasies. When it comes to any kind of travel for any kind of distance and for any kind of purpose whatsoever, she reminds me of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s father. Some people might have considered Sir Osbert eccentric himself, but his father, Sir George (whose profession was being Sir George, though he was also described as an accomplished “genealogist and antiquarian”), was one of those Victorian gentlemen who refine and polish their eccentricity, raising the bar of their eccentricity, so to speak, to previously unimaginable levels. Whenever Sir George had to travel anywhere by train, he would insist on arriving at the station many hours in advance, and Sir Osbert devoted several pages of his multi-volume autobiography to descriptions of the entire Sitwell family and their entourage of servants sitting endlessly in uncomfortable, uninspiring, and drafty stations, watching other trains and other people coming and going to their various destinations, while they cooled their heels waiting for trains that weren’t even running yet.

That’s Darleen’s attitude toward travel. And our first visit back to the hospital was, typically, one she planned for like the D-Day invasion, only starting it all on C-Day. We arrived so far ahead of our appointment that the constantly overcrowded waiting rooms hadn’t even yet begun to fill. In fact, there wasn’t even anyone in the little cubicle to sign us in. On the other hand, it was probably a good thing we got there so early, because the clinics were at the opposite end of the hospital from the parking lot, and there were no wheelchairs at the entrance, so it took us hours to walk the long and weary and painful miles to where we were supposed to go. (The next time I went back, I was stunned to see how much the building had shrunk in just two weeks, how miles had been miraculously reduced to mere yards. I have no idea how they did that.)

The doctor removed the shunt, asked me how I feeling, and told me to come back in two more weeks. Just before he walked out, I told him that the impact of being thrown must have somehow affected my inner ear, because I now had a constant sensation of water in the ear, as if I had been swimming. He grabbed an otoscope and looked in my ear.

There are certain things you never want to hear your doctor say. “Oops,” is first and foremost, but it is followed closely by a surprised, “Huh?!” He pulled the otoscope out of my ear and I turned to look at him, but before I could even formulate a question he said, “You have a cockroach in your ear.” That too is something you really don’t ever want to hear your doctor say.

There was one of the fourteen year old medical students with him, and he handed her the otoscope and urged her to take a look. Sure, you bet. Why not? Maybe I could sell tickets to help defray my medical costs. She was even more surprised and more vocal than the doctor. “Wow!”

There was a delay while the medical student was sent off to get a forceps small enough to get down the ear canal, and while we waited the doctor regaled us with stories of other mysterious life forms he had removed from people’s ears, and I contemplated the general weirdness of having a bug in my ear.

As it turned out, the doctor had been fooled by the magnifying properties of his otoscope. It wasn’t, thank God, a cockroach or any other form of insect. It was the seed of an exceptionally nasty weed we have in the American southwest, a barbed grass called foxtail. Foxtail is a bad plant. In the long run, minus a doctor with a small enough forceps, you’d be better off having a cockroach in your ear than a foxtail seed. The end of the foxtail is very sharp and will eventually embed itself in tissue, and the barbs will ensure that it continues to work its way inward, rather like a plant version of a porcupine quill. Many a dog has had to have surgery to remove embedded foxtails. Many a dog has died from careless owners not recognizing the symptoms, or from inhaling a seed. Fortunately, the foxtail had not embedded itself in my ear, but it was an impressive reminder of just how hard I had been slammed into the ground that a seed had been driven all the way down my ear canal.

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