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HORSESHOE SOUVENIR

by

Ashok Rajamani



"If I find myself way off into an improbable tale, imagining or telling it, then I can guess something terrible happened to me, and I can't bear to think about it."
Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy

The moment I orgasmed, my brain exploded. It hemorrhaged, burst, tore and bled. It happened at my brother's wedding. Well, a half-hour before, actually.

A true cosmic punchline.

Out of boredom, I had been masturbating in my private hotel room where the marriage was to take place. When I finished the act, the inside of my skull detonated at exactly the same time. Though I initially thought I had reached, amusingly, the most intense orgasm of my life, I soon realized something was totally wrong. My head felt as if it had been lacerated from the inside, which, as I would soon learn, it had. The day was March 17, 2000, and I was twenty-five.

The hemorrhage (almost identical to an aneurysm or stroke) was not caused by the orgasm. Part of me -- the Catholic part (odd, since I am a true-blue Hindu) -- felt it had everything to do with self-sex. No, it had burst because of the sudden, unexpected explosion of an unknown birth defect that had been secretly living in my brain: an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). A tangle of veins and arteries in the brain that a fetus develops in the womb, an AVM is an extremely rare congenital defect. I would soon become a slave to these three letters. After my brain bleed, I was immediately taken to a nearby hospital where I was diagnosed with an AVM hemorrhage. I was then placed there for over three months, suffering near-fatal bouts of meningitis and other brain traumas. The long stay culminated with open brain surgery -- to remove what was left of the AVM and disentangle the delicate blood routes of my brain. But the surgery itself was just one aspect of my trip as I recovered from the murder of my brain -- a surreal journey of terror and fear, of hallucination and revelation.

Though the surgery was successful, its aftermath was far from calm. Two days after my skull was opened, something terrible happened.

"He's fallen! OH my God he's fallen!"

Joanna and Kiyanna, the two nurses paid to take care of me at night, shrieked in unison.

Just 48 hours after massive, intense open brain surgery, I fell. It was around 2 A.M. I was in my private, critical care room.

I didn't know where I was.

All I knew was that I had to take a leak, real bad. I saw the bathroom near the bed and decided to head to the toilet. It wouldn't hurt to just get up to use the bathroom, right? I thought. I saw that there were some tubes in me, but when nature calls, little issues like that hardly mattered.

The next thing I remember was Joanna and Kiyanna staring down at me, my back flat on the cold tiles. They were screaming.

Within my just-opened skull, my mind had thought I was home, safe and sound. In my delirium, I forgot about the three months in the hospital. Though I knew I felt weak, I didn't know why. I did know, however, that the bathroom was my quest: I, Indiana Jones out to reach the elusive toilet. The surgery had given me superhuman strength, and I leapt to my goal. It was just another of many hallucinations. But when I saw the nurses screaming, I knew I had done something wrong. Jumbled next to me were all the steel tubes that were inserted in me. Including my ventriculostomies, plastic tubes drilled into my skull. Used to drain excess fluid -- directly from the brain, they are put in your head through extensive surgeries. The fall had ripped them all out.

It was clear that with my fall, Joanna and Kiyanna had been incompetent.

They should have been watching me. They should have been watching me.

The next 48 hours proved to be the scariest days yet, just as horrifying as the surgery itself.

This was when I knew God had saved me. I should have died once more, but I lived through this, barely. Even though I didn't even get to pee.

I had walked to the bathroom due to my hallucination that I was fine, that I was at home, that I was a superhero. It was a mere example of the multiple hallucinations I experienced while in the hospital.

I died for your sins. I am the body of love. Find salvation through my pain. These words, of course, connect to Christ, but for some reason I yelled them while in the hospital. And I'm not any shade of Christian. But that's what I said as my mind unleashed a torrent of fictions, all of which I believed to be absolutely true. My imaginary beliefs were far from imaginary to me, and I told the nurses and doctors that my illusory trips were, in fact, real. They were so vivid, so real, it was very difficult to accept them to be false.

The Christ hallucination was just one of the many guises I took on as my brain continued to bleed. The surgeons had patiently waited for the AVM bleeding to end -- and a clot to finally emerge -- so they could begin planning for my eventual craniotomy.

For three months I remained there, existing not only in the quiet hospital room, but also in the purely dark world of my mind. Days bled into nights, nights into weeks.

It was a world of mad solitude.

The overall nightmare coincided with a massive messiah complex. Looking -- and experiencing -- the violence done to my body I felt I had no choice but to deify the pain, to make it holy. If it was divine, I thought, then the pain must be virtuous.

My pain was intense. Though I know all the technology saved me in the end, I couldn't help but feel abused. I felt the sharp, intrusive needles stabbing me I felt the metal tubes drilling into my skull I felt the restraints on my hands and arms I felt the injections on my feet to prevent clotting.

One hallucination, in particular, was most vivid. It involved the afterlife. Rather than seeing the proverbial "white light," I entered glorious, deep blue water, and emerged fish-like, making my way through a liquid passage. It seemed, magnificently, to be a cosmic uterus. I was being pushed through a thick wetness to emerge elsewhere, like a new birth. Dying, then, seemed to be as difficult as being born.

The stressful work a newbornendures to leave the womb seemed akin to my struggle as I forced my way though the watery birth canal, to die -- and be "reborn" anew.

But just as I was pushing hardest through the heavy fluid, I was stopped -- my nurse, in the real world, was slapping my face. It seemed my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low; there was fear for my life. I had now awakened from my apparent liquid death. Yet I had experienced a stunning revelation: we return to the fishes we were in our mothers' wombs. And enter another, far more substantive one. Whether this is, indeed, God -- as mother, as woman -- setting us free once more, or where the world beyond was simply a liquid afterlife, I knew that our visions of the Great Beyond - simple constructs like heaven and hell -- meant nothing. There was a goodness, a joy, an exuberance, that lay beyond. But it was neither white nor light. It was dark and blue.

But that wasn't my only spiritual revelation.

Upon being released, I felt air -- for what felt like the first time. Most important, I saw the sun and felt its heat. It was now a symbol of everything that was active and breathing.

It was a feeling I will always remember: the feeling of birth.

Hinduism's oldest scripture, the Vedas, glorifies the Sun as a vital deity named Surya. In fact, the brahmanical rite -- the thread ceremony -- places a holy thread on a young man with a hymn to divine illumination. Part of the ritual is a prayer in which the youth interlocks his hands, placing them directly on his face. And he looks at the sun and prayers. I performed the ritual myself.

Though I did the ceremony, it was difficult for me to believe the importance of it. When I was younger, I often scoffed at the superstitious content of early Hinduism. Like most religions, its early form involved the deification of elements. The sun, the moon, fire, air, water, earth, etc. were all categorized as deities. I thought, how silly and naïve, to worship elements simply because they were just discovered.

But after I had my "Sun Experience" I had, somewhat, the proverbial change of mind.

 

Yes, I understand that the sun has a well-defined composition, but I saw that there was something heavenly about the sun. Perhaps the ancient gurus, with all their silly fears and superstitions, knew something we now, with science and reason, laugh at. But they just might have had a point, however: the elements do possess divinity.

It is sometimes believed that the human body must be cremated for only then can the cranium be destroyed - and the skull alone is the exit through which the soul can escape. If that was the case, then my soul had left during the fateful day of my surgery. On my special "day of the sun," I knew it had returned.

Upon my hospital release, my family and I had to stay for a while in a nearby Washington hotel. While there, my mother told me about something that I just didn't believe and accept and absorb. She told me that while I was hospitalized, my father had broken my apartment's lease and removed every single belonging of mine into cardboard cartons in the garage. Totally shocked, I asked her why he would do this. Simple," she said. "Ashok, he was unsure if you were gonna live."

We went back home to New Jersey, where I discovered that every single belonging of mine had been stuffed in cartons, all scattered throughout the cramped garage. All my memories were now quarantined in cardboard boxes.

The pillaging of my possessions could only mean one obvious thing: my home had been completely removed. My father had terminated my apartment's lease when I was hospitalized, simply getting rid of my residence - which, for most people, is part of their existence itself. My apartment might have been trashy and dirty, but it was mine. My dad could have just locked it up, stopping my bills. It took me a while to forgive him, but eventually I did.

Even worse than the home removal was another, worse shock. The hemorrhage had left me permanently half-blind. Since the AVM burst in my brain's occipital lobe, I had fully lost sight in the left half of my vision, in both eyes.

Nevertheless, 2001 was superb after my hospitalization -- I laughed, I sang, I even cried official tears of joy. Free again, I began enjoying life in bright new ways.

I even started exercising, using a treadmill while listening to -- and singing to -- ridiculously inspirational anthems. Desiree's "life" was one such song. "Life, oh Life, Oh life…do do do doo," so the song went.

Indeed, 2001 was a year of gratitude.

But after my hemorrhage I had discovered a vital truth, at least in my life: nothing is shocking; everything is shocking.

Thus, I couldn't have really been shocked by what happened in 2002 -- but I absolutely was.

Blizzard-like conditions enveloped Manhattan on January 19, 2002. At eleven that night, I was walking with a friend, Lennon, to a late dinner. I started to feel ominously ill. I repeatedly ordered my friend to hail a taxi, sensing that I needed to go home as quickly as possible.

One hour later I awoke in a hospital bed in Beth Israel's Emergency Room. I looked up to find Lennon and a doctor, who jolted me with grave news:

I had suffered a massive seizure, and not just any kind, but the great-grand daddy of them all: the tonic-clonic, commonly referred to as the Grand Mal.

Luckily, after a few tests, I was told I had no new brain damage. And so, having already informed the doctors, Lennon now revealed the night's happenings to my family and me, as I had very little recollection.

According to him, as he and I neared the restaurant, I looked extremely ill. Lennon witnessed my body suddenly clenching up. Then my hands and feet curved, becoming severely hardened, like claws. At this time, my entire body began dropping to the ground. Lennon immediately held my head as it was aiming for the hard, frozen concrete. Using both hands -- and all of his strength -- he grabbed my entire body and held it off the ground, clutching me like a mother to a baby. He could not do anything but hold on tightly to my jerking, thrashing body. Since it was impossible for him to move, he could not reach his cell phone to call 911.

Like a miracle, a young woman was passing by the street corner -- just at that moment -- and she immediately called for an ambulance. She was more than a good Samaritan; she was an angel.

By this point, I had become gruesomely stiff, hardened and immobile -- a fossilized skeleton for the world to see. Another angel then appeared; this time it was a man already anchored on a nearby, icy sidewalk. He was, sadly, homeless and apparently drug-ravaged. He compassionately placed newspaper sheets for Lennon to put me on.

As I lay on my bed of ink, the ambulance finally arrived.

And that brought us to the present situation.

After Lennon's testimony, I was mortified by the doctor's next statement. He said I now had a full-blown seizure disorder, induced by the scar from brain injury. I was released in shock -- once again from a hospital.

And so, ultimately, I now have to accept the monumental changes that have happened to me. Aside from predictable personality shifts, the explosion of my brain has, in the end, left me epileptic and bilaterally blind for the rest of my life.

Yet in addition to these upsetting consequences, the brain surgery gave me something permanently visible to all around me. Since much of my cranium had been opened, it now had to be put back, bolted with titanium screws. This resulted in a life-long scar.

A scar shaped like a horseshoe. And like the hooves of many horses, my skull was now altered for life, modified by metal.

But the difference remains. Instead of running through a race track or a farmer's road, the horse I have become has fought to move past death's ocean -- through a liquid afterlife -- swimming, pushing, forging ahead, and ultimately surviving.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashok Rajamani, 30, is a member of the New York Writers Coalition and Kappa Tau Alpha, the National Honor Society of Journalism and Mass Communication.

He is a Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude graduate of New York University, where he received his degree in journalism and philosophy. He has also pursued graduate school for advanced cultural studies at Columbia University. Born in America's armpit, New Jersey, and raised in America's beer gut, Illinois, Mr. Rajamani has lived in New York City since 1992.

At age 25, Mr. Rajamani suffered a massive brain hemorrhage due to a rare birth defect. He survived but was left epileptic and bi-laterally blind. Previous to the hemorrhage, Mr. Rajamani worked in public relations in New York City, for global entertainment, media, technology and corporate clients. He is an artist as well, whose work has been submitted to, among other institutions, Exit Art, a leading New York City gallery.

Mr. Rajamani represents the face of new, cutting-edge Indian American writers. He is working on his first book.




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