A botanist could better explain the heliotrope: its inflorescence, the stalk of clustered blue and purple flowers, its physiology, and the manner and method of its daily turning to follow the sun across the sky in a sympathetic arc. A linguist could trace the name to Greek’s helios (sun) and trepein (to turn), and to its cousin the Middle English turnsole. Any gardener will have discovered early enough the relations of light and shadow, of facing and facing away, in every plant’s life. Regarding likeness, a historian of philosophy would consult the later Greek dialectics of love: each planted terrestrial entity corresponding to its celestial deity, guided by an angel back to the source, in prayer as return.
The Prayer of the Heliotrope by Proclus the Neoplatonist states it this way: “Each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praise of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs, a spiritual or rational or physical or sensuous praise; for the heliotrope moves to the extent that it is free to move, and in its rotation, if we could hear the sound of the air buffeted by its movement, we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of the plant to sing.”
Precisely three-quarters into the twentieth century, the young man at the center of this narrative found himself at dawn lying helpless and weak in the Flint, Michigan, hospital where, fifteen years earlier, he had been born. Maybe this episode gave him the appetite for endless striving toward scholarship, always out of reach, patchwork thinking gathered from trespass into expert terrain. All things proceed out of phase, except in those moments of rare alignment.
Twenty years later his niece will be born, and his brother will celebrate by planting oak and spruce seedlings around the perimeter and corners of his property. With a gardener’s sentiment the proud father will imagine his daughter and his trees growing in parallel, she learning from walking among them each year. He will realize his miscalculation when she leaves for college, and he stands alone in the not yet tall trees of his not yet forest grove. That lesson on no second chances lies in the future on the hospital morning, when the younger brother received a sudden span of empty time and ruminated on the unlikeliness of his survival, of his finding himself again in this particular hospital, in this particular city. The family had fled Flint’s impending decline at the first opportunity. How did it happen that he returned there in this desolate condition?
A chemist could explain carbon monoxide’s threat. In a week’s time, once school had resumed after the epic ice storm, and all, including him, safely returned to class, his chemistry teacher would in fact see a teachable moment in his near-death experience and take the opportunity to diagram the procedures on the blackboard. A carbon atom bonded to a single oxygen atom (carbon monoxide) will pull a second oxygen atom from wherever it can in order to stabilize into carbon dioxide. Inhale carbon monoxide, and those molecules drain oxygen from your bloodstream. The process deprives oxygen from your brain, making you confused, disoriented, and craving sleep, as well as from your other internal organs, which will make you weak and nauseous. Each carbon dioxide exhalation brings death incrementally closer.
Warming temperatures melted ice and basements flooded. His father had borrowed a generator and left it running downstairs overnight to pump out the water. Its exhaust fumes filled the living room above, where they all slept around the fireplace, he and his brother on mattresses on the floor, trying to keep warm because downed power lines blacked out the electricity for the week. In the night the dog, a savior, whined a loud sickening moan never heard before. The engineer father realized his nearly fatal error as he struggled to rise from the fold-out sofa bed. After some yelling and stumbling around the room, knocking into furniture and wrestling with the usually simple task of opening a door, the family had found themselves outside kneeling in the snow gasping. The breathing did not get easier. The distraught parents piled themselves, two sons, and the dog into the car and somehow the father managed the thirty-five-minute drive to the mother’s house “up in Flint,” which still had electricity. The young man had remained doubled over through this journey. Once at grandmother’s house they all managed to try to sleep, but soon his mother woke to the sound of her own traumatized cry, and the young man began vomiting. They all went to the hospital where a doctor determined the young man had breathed in more of the noxious gas than the other family members. Who knows why? They would keep him through the night, which by now had nearly given way to morning. He began receiving oxygen, and his parents felt comfortable leaving him there for a few hours while they all went back to grandmother’s house to try again to get some sleep.
The light increasing—the sun must be rising. It reveals the window as frosted over. Wood muntined, with four small panes, it resembles a house window more than a hospital window. What is it doing in this hall where he lies on a stretcher outside the full-to-capacity ward? He thinks this unfolding in time of the window growing lighter is beautiful, is beauty itself. Yet no one notices. Who can afford the patience? The doctors circulate on appointed rounds, stopping only for the sick and wounded. Is attention to something like this window the work of artists? He does not know the answer to that yet, but he thinks that only artists and sick people stop, out of inclination or necessity, to study beauty that takes so long. The hospital staff has materialized this moment for him, all its factors of time, place, and breath. Maybe keeping him alive was their responsibility, and now that he has received that dispensation, his responsibility in turn is to notice the window. To any passerby it would be too ordinary to attract attention, but to anyone lying below it for this hour, the beauty reveals itself in its own time. He breathes cool air into his nostrils through the moist tube clipped to his septum. He feels the leaden weight in his abdomen diffuse microscopically with each breath, and he connects that diminishing discomfort with the clear blue oxygen. Or is that his imagination at work? Is there a connection to be made between the way his breathing causes a shift in his organs and his sense of the window’s brightening as beautiful? No, the window is not beautiful only because he did not die last night. The window would appear beautiful to anyone, of that he is convinced. He can also, with a slight head turn, see a clock on the wall. He has watched the minute hand sweep from 7:15 around to 7:45. He knows that he will sleep soon, but first he can roughly triangulate the date from that combined information of clock and window and sunrise, or could anyway, if he did not know it already as the morning of March 6, 1975, in the hospital where, fifteen years ago, he was born, and where he is born again now, if being born means waking after not succumbing in sleep to death. Calming down he thinks he will remember this, and he will. In forty years he will recall this moment, and distinguish as Proclus did, between two kinds of souls in each entity; one inseparable from the body, that dwells in it and dies with it, the other independent of the body and free to fly from it. He might think then that the sympathetic light from the humble, out-of-place window did the work of reweaving his two souls, calling one back and reviving the other, restoring a braid of vapor. But all of that is in the future, and now he remembers that he noticed the window when they first parked him against this wall. It was darker than the wall around it then, and he did not attend to it until the glow began to rise in its bottom left corner. It’s not true, what people say, that beauty steals away, runs quickly and we chase after it. We are the quick ones. Beauty, a constant, waits. Some will risk slowing down to apprehend it in its pace, to breathe and from a body not saturated with words, in a whispering world, recognize it like a beacon rarely received. In this hall, as nurse and doctor pass by on quiet feet, he inclines his mind toward the window grown luminous, just before daylight overtakes it completely, and that seamless inclination belongs to him alone.
Matthew Goulish is writer, dramaturge, and sometime performer for Every house has a door, a performance group he founded with Lin Hixson in Chicago in 2008. His books include 39 Microlectures, The Brightest Thing in the World, and Work from Memory, a collaboration with poet Dan Beachy-Quick. He teaches writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.