Embracing stillness to find solitude in the mind.

“We’re gonna move now.”

A disembodied voice, loud enough to be heard through earplugs. The table jerks forward, then settles into a smoother glide. I’m lying down supine on a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) examination table. The voice belongs to the radiologist: a young woman whose name I’ve already forgotten, whose face I can’t remember, yet she has become my only connection to the real world where things can and do move. It is imperative to stay perfectly still. The examination requires it. At first three reference scans are taken and then those references, the ones on my body, need to be immobile as further scans are taken to provide more detail. To that end, there are straps holding my feet among various soft cushions. There’s a rather heavy plate on my abdomen, also strapped down, there to help me stay rooted to the table. The plate is resting unevenly and its heft is more pronounced on my left lowermost rib which has become a focal point as my brain continuously checks in on different parts of my body, performing multiple scans of its own. Can’t quite share those scans with anyone. Unless I write about them. Hence, this post. This one that should even count for two: first wrote it in my head last week, during the MRI exam, then rewrote it as this week’s entry.

Stanford Imaging Center has a parking lot across the street.

“We’re gonna move now.”

She says it again, but she doesn’t time it right. Instead of being a warning, her statement is more of an accompaniment to the actual movement. I don’t have time to prepare. Not that it matters. The table moves and I move with it. But not really. I stay as still as I can be.  Now my feet want to flap open so it’s good that she tied them to each other. What contraption did she use? It was too quick; didn’t have time to look, ask questions. My arms scrape against the plastic padding of the walls as the table moves in, then out. All of a sudden I’m thirsty.  When offered a choice of sparkling or still water, my husband likes to joke and ask for dead water. Stillness as equivalent to death: Disengaged, inert, static, inanimate.  Imagine the amount of movement and animation of a garden variety toddler at play and the reluctance to budge of a typical nonagenarian at rest. Isn’t it easy to define even aging in terms of one’s movement quotient? With each passing year we inch away from the exuberance of movement, until we’re completely immobile at the end. In this forced stillness, my brain wants to revert to toddler-hood and trick my body into motion.

“We’re gonna move now.”

Why does she use gonna? And what does she mean by we? Clearly she’s aware that she asked me to stay put. Even insisted on it. So it must be a euphemistic we probably designed to put one at ease with her display of empathy. Trouble is, I’d like to be part of that we now: I’d like to move right about now. As if reading my mind, “You’re doing great,” she says. Another attempt to soothe me. Her demeanor fits in with the interior design aspect of the Imaging Center where there are no pointed corners or sharp edges. In the reception area even the desks are rounded and convey a sense of ease and smoothness. The changing room armchairs are deeply cushioned, as are the chairs. The colors are all neutrals and the hospital gown (put it on so it opens in the back) has the kind of softness that can be attained only after a thousand washes. Maybe it has really been washed a thousand times already.  After all that softness, the sterile environment of the MRI room is a bit of a shock. Before I can dwell on that, though, there’s the nice touch of a heated blanket. And as the heat envelops my toes, the table seems less hard. Almost.

MRI scanner and table.

“We’re gonna move now. This one will take three minutes.

Music wasn’t offered as a distraction, because we’ll need to talk to you. Left with no other external stimuli other than the harsh, repeated hammering noise of the scanner, my brain looks inward for entertainment. Holding on to the pear-shaped, squeezable contraption (use it of you need to tell us something), the index finger of my right hand seeks and finds that of my left hand. That sense of loneliness is thus acknowledged and as a result diminishes somehow.

“We’re gonna move now. This one will take two minutes. Hold still.”

The imaging is accompanied by thumping and humming noises which are loud despite the earplugs I was offered. The hammering sound’s rhythm changes ever so minutely, almost imperceptibly, yet my brain is now so attuned to it that it seems to detect smaller changes than I thought possible. A speeding up of the rhythm signals the end of the current session, promising temporary relief from all the noise. Still can’t move, though.

“We’re gonna move now. This one will take seven minutes.”

Oh, there’s an itch on my face.  It’s on my cheek, close to my nose. No, it’s on my nose. Have to distract myself away from the necessity to scratch it and actively ignore, then forget it. Until it comes back in another spot while the stillness imposes itself and forces me to succumb to it. Yield to its immensity. Yet isn’t this quietude what I seek in order to create? To clear my mind of me and embrace its stillness.  To hear myself think. To allow my consciousness to stream into little rivulets leading here, then there, until the river of a unifying theme is discerned, connections made, and something new is created. Stillness and movement become the theme, they undulate and swell, rushing and whispering in turns until her voice slams me back into my body.

“Inhale deeply. Now hold your breath. I’ll tell you when to stop.”

While growing up there were three (medical) things I dreaded most: having a ruptured disc, passing a kidney stone and swollen feet. In that order. Those are the three issues I’ve had to face myself. In that order.

“You can exhale now. Relax and we’ll do it again.”

As a child, I remember how some people were said “to have a disc.” As if we don’t all have them. Guess the ruptured part wasn’t mentioned or maybe it was taken for granted. “Having a disc” was a visible effect, making people walk in a weird way, upper torso bent forward at an exaggerated, unnatural angle. Somehow it seemed to be much more than regular back pain. My father had lower back pain (probably caused by an undiagnosed ruptured disc). In 1975, when we escaped the beginning outbursts of the Lebanese Civil War in Beirut by going to my great aunts’ house in Anjar, I remember him sleeping on a makeshift bed, with a mattress placed high up on the table.  On the dining table. The one on which we would all have breakfast come morning. The one at which my three great aunts would end any and every meal by imploring the Lord to make similar food available to the have-nots.  When I too had a ruptured disc, the options offered were surgery – with a 50% chance of success – or serious exercise to fortify my abdominal muscles. Having chosen the latter, I like to say that Pilates saved my back.

“Inhale deeply. Hold your breath again. You’ve been holding it for 30 seconds, now try to do it for 45 seconds.”

Then there are kidney stones the production of which runs on both sides of my family. On one side, there are the ones my father had to deal with. And on the other, my maternal grandfather who was told to drink copious amounts of fluids. He loved watermelons as naturally sweetened sources of water. When I was eight years old and we were visiting my grandparents in Armenia, I vividly remember eating one slice too many and peeing in bed one summer night, with the “processed” watermelon juice forming a minor river from the bedroom all the way to the kitchen… Or maybe that’s the myth the story grew into, the “river” growing wider and longer with each retelling.  Having produced my own kidney stones, I’ve sublimated liquid ingestion by making lemonade – sans sugar – or drinking cups and cups of tea; specially when surrounded by weather that evokes England at its glum rainiest.

“Good job. You’re doing great. You’re gonna move now.”

Aha! She fumbled! I’ve been waiting for this admission that we’re not in this together. That she’s free to move as she pleases. While. I. Stay. Still. Still. Which is little bother, really, so the swelling of my left foot can have a chance of being diagnosed. Granted, the swelling isn’t gigantic. It’s not like I have Elephantiasis. And it’s only one foot. Although one swollen foot is worse than both. Just think of shoes and you’ll readily empathize with me. That foot is very familiar with the scanner’s torus, having been already scanned twice by MRI: first the ankle, then as the swelling moved downward, the toes. After the skeletal and muscular systems yielded no answers, the joints too were examined to no avail. Two ultrasounds and a standing ultrasound later, it’s still the circulatory (and by extension the elusive lymphatic) system that’s being probed. Scheduling this MRI scan was no easy feat either, given that I’m temporarily in SoCal, while the Imaging Center is in NorCal. Last week was a natural fit, however, as I had flown North for various other reasons as well.

“You’re gonna move now. This one will take nine minutes.”

This is the longest yet. All I can hope for is that we’re closer to the end of the ninety minute duration she told me about. Can’t even try and go to sleep. Trouble is my brain doesn’t want to absent itself from what it considers to be a stressful state. Aren’t thoughts like these creating more stress? OK, actively focus on something else. Wasn’t it strange to find out that the Imaging Center is housed in the same building where my sister once worked? The company was called Internet Travel Network then. How ironic it is to have this MRI stillness experience in a place where former employees helped customers travel while they themselves sat still in offices. Even my tired brain perceives of this analogy as lame and non-compelling. The expectation of hearing her voice becomes acute. Are we almost done? I mean, am I almost done?

“You’re gonna move now. This one will take two minutes.”

Note: My blog has moved too. You probably noticed. Hadn’t realized how apt its title choice was. But if moving is tantamount to vitality, then a moving blog is alive in more ways than one. More about the reasons and the moving process (with oh so many choices) later.

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