Shock and Awe

I have been sick with a respiratory virus for the last week or so, and as a result, I had to postpone a trip to San Francisco. Lying in bed with a headache, as well, has given me pause to recall other times when illness coincided with, or impeded, travel. The time I have chosen to write about yields two subjects for blog posts. This is the first.

I flew to Sweden in the spring of 1972 to do research for my dissertation on the American and Swedish women’s movement’s uses of literature by and about women. I took many solo trips to Sweden before and after that, always hoping that my chronic liver disease wouldn’t suddenly upend my plans or even put my life at risk. One evening I was interviewing the author Gun-Britt Sundström at her Stockholm apartment when the familiar dizziness and pressing abdominal pain began diverting my attention. I finally had to tell her what was going on, and she kindly called a taxi and directed it to the nearest hospital, St. Eriks Sjukhus.

I arrived during obekväm arbetstid (uncomfortable–or inconvenient–worktime) so no doctor was currently staffing the ER. After a painful, anxious wait in near isolation, I was finally admitted to a ward overseen by two doctors, whom the nurses referred to as den mörke (the dark one) and den ljuse (the blond). The dark one was simply a white guy with brunette hair. I had been asked by people whom I had arranged by phone to meet whether I was ljus or mörk, and I had found the question puzzling. I hedged my answer with mitt emellan (in between). Now I figured I was dark by Swedish measures. I learned lots of new vocabulary in the hospital. The technical, Latinate “nasal-gastric suction” becomes, in Swedish, the plain, unvarnished magsugare (stomach sucker).

The most compelling lesson I learned was not linguistic, however. When I began feeling better and was allowed out of bed, I would toddle down to the patients’ lounge to watch TV. One evening I arrived just in time for the news. Another woman was already seated on the couch, so I sat in a chair. We did not speak. Our silence and mutual disregard were not unusual in Sweden, but polite. We sat there together through extensive footage from the Vietnam War. Grenades exploded. Soldiers in jungle camouflage ran for cover. Helicopters settled down and loaded bloody bodies. We said not a word. Swedish TV showed far more graphic images than were permitted on the American networks, but I had gotten used to them. The other woman and I sat passively and took it in, as calmly as if we were each watching the daily news at home.

Then, a breaking news item caused us both to gasp. Someone had stolen into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and taken a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The woman and I exchanged looks of horror:  Indeed, nothing was sacred, not if an immortal work of art could be so recklessly damaged.

All that night in my hospital bed I wondered how we had come to such a pass. How could we watch the news from Vietnam evening after evening and not gasp at each assault on a human body. Why was a 19-year-old American boy or a Vietnam villager of any age of less value to us than a nearly 500-year-old work of art? The Pietà is sublimely beautiful, beyond belief. But each of those wounded bodies was more deeply loved, by someone, somewhere waiting anxiously for news.

With time, expertise, and cautious restoration, the Pietà‘s wounds were healed. My niece, a psychiatrist at a Veteran’s Administration hospital and clinic, is still tending to the damage left from the Vietnam War and those since, which no longer play out on TV.

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