The opportunity came out of nowhere, slapping me across the face like a bitter southwesterly gale. After being on a waiting list for so long that I had begun to feel forgotten, the letter, the invitation to fly to Auckland to liaise with a specialist team of Doctors and Neurologists, who would then assess my suitability for an experimental neurosurgery, was cause for more than just a little excitement.
It was only around seven years late.
9 December, 2000. This was the date that my life took an unfortunate turn. A car crash, more serious than any regular person would care to imagine, devastated my hitherto prosperous life. As a 17-year-old apprentice diesel mechanic from rural mid-Canterbury, if someone had told me that on that night, I would sustain an injury which would result in a nine day coma, a 14 day stay in I.C.U., then around two months at Burwood Brain Rehabilitation Unit; an approximate total of three months spent in hospital, with the damage to my nervous system being such, that the years to follow would be overshadowed by an increasingly dominant tremor of the limbs and neck, I’m sure I would have responded in something resembling disbelief.
Nevertheless, this is the way that fate tends to manifest its, often unwelcome, presence upon our lives.
So it was set. The Canterbury Health Board had diligently arranged on my behalf, flights, accommodation; along with travel from and to Auckland airport. I was scheduled to fly out of Christchurch on the 20th of May, shortly after midday; so that morning was spent putting together everything that might be needed on the trip. As the return flight was set for the very next day however, and I didn’t feel a change of clothes would be necessary, my luggage amounted to a meagre assortment of bananas, apples and a container of nuts, strewn about in the bottom of a small travel bag. Then slipping into the side pouch the only truly important items, identification and itinerary; I was good to go.
On arrival at Christchurch airport, I went over my – already thoroughly perused – itinerary, reassuring myself for the umpteenth time that once in Auckland, there would be a Shuttle driver standing at baggage claim, holding a board bearing my name, who would then take me to my hotel. Sorted. My anxiety quelled – at least for now – I boarded the plane for my debut domestic flight. Realistically, it was anything but stimulating; in fact the one modicum of joy to be taken from the excursion, were the small television screens above every few rows of seats, which folded down to offer a constant game of Q and A. Landing in Auckland, I felt almost twice as knowledgeable as when I had stepped onto the plane.
Following the signs to the baggage claim was a feat that I scarcely managed to pull off and once there, I scanned the area for my taxi-man. There were people everywhere – except for where there should have been. My man was nowhere. Pulling out my itinerary for the 203rd time that day, I verified that I was in fact in the correct zone and yes, I was exactly on time. So I waited. Ten minutes later deciding that an assertive demeanour was required, I approached a solitary figure who I had already assessed as a quintessential taxi driver – large, suit-wearing, complexion which only comes through years of pack-a-day smoking – and asked this man if he could assist with my quandary. The man immediately stood, only too eager to help, took my itinerary papers from me, quickly scanned them, smiled and in a raspy voice that could not have been more expected, motioned for me to follow him. Out of the airport we strolled, the huge man showing surprising alacrity; onto the footpath, where he pointed at a Shuttle van, assuring me that it would take me where I needed to go.
At this point, it ought to be noted, the entire preconception that I previously held, alluding to Aucklanders being snobby, arrogant, conceited and largely unhelpful people, is currently being blown out of the water.
The Indian Shuttle driver took me expertly through rush hour traffic, managing along the way to hold a perfunctory conversation in broken English, directing my future movements and pointing out major landmarks, until pulling up at Waldorf Apartments, letting me out and wishing me well. At least I think that was what he said.
I entered the building via a concrete staircase – as it seems that in Auckland, most every building starts underground – spoke to the pleasant receptionist, took the lift up to the 14th floor, found my room, inserted the key-card and passed the threshold to my room. After checking out all the rooms, closets and cupboards, although satisfied with my living arrangements, I was somewhat disenchanted about the lack of complimentary food. So casting off my luggage I stepped back out into the corridor and took the lift back down, meeting several ebullient characters along the way. Passing reception I acknowledged the attractive girl at the counter and, in defiance of my mother’s wishes: ‘Don’t get caught on the streets of Auckland after dark’, strolled up the stairs and into a rapidly falling dusk.
First order of business, food. I was ravenous and in search of a Subway. Recalling the Shuttle driver’s flailing arm in response to my question about this, and given there were only two choices anyway, I turned right and began walking. I had left a Canterbury where everything was cold. I had entered an Auckland where everything was uncomfortably warm. My preferred pace – faster than most but slower than some – had to be lowered to avoid the prickles of early perspiration affecting my chest and back. At this point, the thing that I found most noticeable about Auckland, was the people – the people themselves were nothing special, it was the density of their numbers that amazed me.
People on Christchurch streets are sparse even throughout the day; this was an Auckland evening and pedestrians ruled the night.
I wove in and out of the throng, eventually coming to my beloved Subway, just where my Indian friend had promised it would be.
Back up to my room, I stepped out onto the balcony, breathing the fumigated Auckland air and feeling that shiver that runs from one’s rectum all the way up to their nape. I was high. Glancing around I saw massive edifices, all equal in stature to my own; but it was looking down, that was the killer. I was so high my eyes were unable to focus even on the pavement below. In a moment of insanity I visualized what it might be like to vault the safety rail and hurl myself the 30 odd metres to the ground. I wondered what it would be like; how it might feel to land, back first, on the roof of that green car down there. That shiver came over me again only this time, it was accompanied by a strong hit of vertigo. I gulped, returned to my room and devoured my foot-long, roast beef Sub.
Similar to the ambient Auckland climate, inside my room was warm. Uncomfortably so. So taking off my coat, my third departure in as many hours was on the cards. In the spirit of adventure, this time I wandered left. With no idea of where I was going but with all night to get there, I began inadvertently trailing a group of pretty Asian girls. They soon dispersed; I continued walking. I was experiencing a chronic case of the dry horrors, so stopped at a 24hour Superette for a bottle of water. Most of the people I encountered, I observed, were youthful. Many, who I encountered, were not only youthful but also female. A high percentage of those people, who were female, were in fact, attractive girls. That being so, and me feeling as though I was in a different time zone, I showed no inhibitions when it came to striking up conversation with the aforementioned. Oddly, the majority of these caught-off-guard pedestrians, were indeed, responsive. I couldn’t believe it. This was supposed to be Auckland: region of the condemned; home of the malcontent. My misconception was well on the way to being inverted. This was brilliant. I didn’t want or expect anything from these girls, I was just having a great time chatting with pretty young women from a different place, and with an undoubtedly dissimilar outlook on life to the one’s with whom I’m accustomed to speaking.
At that point I was about done. I was hungry, my feet were sore, and people were now mistaking me for a drunk. I had decided to head back to my room and thought, that when it comes time to recount this tale, I had best have some specifics to add, lest my story should come off generic and uninspired (or possibly fabricated). I glanced up and down the street in search of a road sign; alas, there were none to be seen. A strolled a little farther and looked again; nothing. Then I saw a pretty girl walking my way – it didn’t matter how gently I endeavoured to stop people, they always looked startled. This case was no different. Putting on my best (fatigued) voice, I asked: “Pardon me Miss, my name’s Tim and I’ve just flown in from mid-Canterbury this evening for an appointment with the brain doctors at the hospital tomorrow and this being my first time in Auckland I don’t really know… anything, about where I am…”
The cute brunette looked at me, her initial look of terror having given way to a broad smile: “Oh-h. Why are you going to the brain doctors’? Is your brain sick?”
I stifled a smirk, compelled to fire back, ‘Very’, but restrained the impulse. Instead, I replied: “Yeah, it ah, has, issues… What I was wondering though, I can’t see any road signs, could you please tell me the name of the road we’re on..?”
Her face changed again to one of disbelief as she said in a loud voice: “Are you serious? Buddy, you’re talkin’ to some random stranger on Auckland’s K Road!”
I’m dumbfounded: “Seriously? K Road? This is the infamous K-fuckin’-Road?”
Giggling like a schoolgirl: “Yeah buddy, this is K fuckin’ Road alright!”
Concluding that the innocuous vibe I was taking from NZ’s most notorious street must have been on account of it being a Monday, I thanked the girl and made my way back to Waldorf Apartments.
Symonds Street was in sight and I breathed relief that I could finally cease the madness, when from my left peripheral, I spotted a young Maori boy keeping precise step with me, while spitting every five-or-so steps. Thinking this peculiar, as I have an unusually large stride and at the time, I believed I was covering ground quickly (also nobody needs to spit that frequently), I slowed and took a long slurp from my water bottle. The boy overtook me and also slowed. I halted and took an even larger sip from my bottle. The Maori boy walked around me and stepped forward, blocking my path. He fired off a garbled line of speech. At the time I recall thinking of my mother’s words, but thinking additionally, ‘Why the hell would this boy be picking on me? I’m almost a foot higher than he and I can’t imagine those puny fists could do much damage, so even if he does have a knife – which he probable does – I’m hardly perturbed…’
Then I caught the last few syllables in his string of rapid-fire: “…real dry eh, can I’ve some water bro?”
So the kid’s thirsty, that’s all. My heart rate decreased by half.
“Yeah just hang on bud,” I replied, taking on more pull on the bottle before offering it to him, “it’s yours.”
“Oh, cheers bro…”
I didn’t stick around to hear the remainder of his ingratiation.
Twenty minutes after that, I was asleep.
The next morning I was up early. I choked down a few bananas, showered, dressed, put everything in order, went over the day’s plans in my head one final time, grabbed my bag with all its contents replaced, took the lift down to the basement to indulge in a complimentary, continental breakfast, then left Waldorf Apartment Hotel. A brisk walk out to Symonds Street then down to and over the bridge – crossing a river with name unknown – and arriving at Auckland City hospital. Hordes of commuters surrounded and bustled with me for the duration of the walk, impressing me for the reason that if this were Christchurch; despite the shortness of distance, the apathetic southern souls would likely fire up their automobiles to avoid embarking upon even the slightest stint of exercise.
That was the major area of favour that I took from Auckland: they are a fit city. I’ve visited Dunedin and they are but far the fittest, with most every resident being either an avid walker of runner, but Auckland, you come in second. Christchurch, you lazy, insipid, lethargic pieces of lard, lift your game.
At the hospital, I was amused to see that, after travelling up one escalator to reach the reception, I was now on level five. Querying this ostensible misnomer with the delightful lady, she remarked with a grin, “Well technically Sir, we are the fifth floor.”
My confounded gaze must have betrayed my thoughts because she continued with that endearing grin.
“You see Sir, this is level five; the level where you came in, the ground level, well that’s level four … then there are three levels underground!”
Auckland hospital is massive. It is bigger, more vast than one person can easily fathom.
I was directed by the nice receptionist down a corridor, up a lift then along another hallway, to the Neurology Day Stay. Disorientation notwithstanding, I made it on my very first attempt. Checking in at the front desk there, I found myself in brief conversation with a middle-aged woman who had apparently undergone a Temporal Lobectomy in an attempt to free her from the rigours of epilepsy. Surgeons had removed a large portion of this cheery woman’s brain because seemingly, that particular part was giving her seizures. I couldn’t quite believe it. I found myself thinking of the end of movie ‘Hannibal’, and the guy (Ray Liotta) who had been the unwilling recipient of open brain surgery, and how that had affected him – but this lady appeared fine. It certainly had not affected her sense of spirit, anyway.
Some time later I was called by a Dr McAuley. As I followed him through the door, I was powerless to avert my gaze from the supposed stroke victim, sitting there with a distorted facial expression and with mouth hanging wide open, reciprocating my stare as I passed. Dr McAuley took me through to his office, where the observation really began. He asked me many questions regarding my earlier life; he asked me the specifics of my injury, the effect that it takes on my current ability to face life.
All of my responses could be summarized in just a few words: challenging; difficult; soul destroying
He took me through a variety of physical tasks and actions in an effort to gain understanding of what kind of movements aggravate, and what actions exacerbate the tremor most severely. After a few hours of this I was mentally and physically exhausted, and with that, comes the tremor at its worst. At about the two hour mark, Dr McAuley left and came back another two other smartly dressed men: Dr Snow and Dr Simpson. Both specialists gave me a cursory inspection, then with fleeting regard requested that I demonstrate the nature of my affliction.
So it began again.
I didn’t have the heart or enthusiasm to put much effort into anything that I was doing and thought that on account of that, I was going to be told that my situation didn’t warrant a $100 000 plus, surgery. When the so-called demonstration was over, I looked at Dr Simpson. He glanced at me, then quickly away. A few more seconds of silence passed. I was famished and bereft of vigour. Finally, the good doctor stepped up.
“Well that’s the worst case of rubral tremor I’ve seen,” he said equably.
I was silent for a few seconds, before inquiring: “Excuse me?” I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, “What do you mean, worst?”
“I haven’t seen tremor of such a violent, uncontrollable nature in anyone.”
“I understand that,” I said quizzically, “but mine is largely an intention based tremor; surely, Dr Simpson, you would consider those people with resting tremor are worse off than me..?”
“Perhaps, yes, people with Parkinson’s have resting tremor, but it’s nowhere near as violent as yours.”
“Fair enough,” I said, for some reason feeling almost indignant, as though I needed to stand up for the tremor (as if it’s ever done me any favours), “but the fact that I effectively have a reprieve from the tremor when I sit down, I mean, when I’m completely comfortable and at rest, the fact that I can still relax in my conservatory, being relatively still and with the sun on my face, in my mind, makes it … less bad.” (I cursed myself later for that lapse: ‘makes it … less bad?’ What the hell was that? I’m an intelligent man. It doesn’t ‘make it less bad’, it ‘mitigates the severity’.)
Then aside from Dr McAuley’s slow and terribly thorough reiteration of the facts, risks and dangers of the potentially impending surgery, the reason that I had come to Auckland was over. Still with time to kill until my scheduled pick-up, I ambled aimlessly through the hospital’s dining and waiting area, bought and devoured another foot-long morsel from Subway, sat outside in the drop-off area, talked to a lovely British girl with a recurring bladder infection; then finally, boarded the Shuttle and headed back to Auckland airport.
Aboard the plane I collapsed into my seat, such was the drain of the day. I peered out the window to see the airport runway on a grey day, but vision was distorted thanks to a big greasy mark, left presumably, but someone’s big greasy head. Taking out my handkerchief and busying myself with the task of wiping it clean, I shifted my focus from the inside glass, to the outside. During the time that it had taken me in the role of window cleaner, the weather had changed from dry and balmy, to decidedly wet. Rain fell in torrents. Claps of thunder could be heard. Flashes of lightning could be seen illuminating the plane cabin.
One and a half hours after our scheduled landing time, the plane from Auckland arrived in Christchurch. One and a half hours after the plane landed, after grabbing another foot-long for tea, I made it home.
Story by Mit Reklaw.
Photography by Holden McGroyn
Edited by Ivonna Tinkle