The Case of the Coma

by Glenn Leichman

This article appeared in the November 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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Peter has been in a coma for a week and a half. He is in the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital in Los Angeles. He lies there looking like a piece of machinery, tubes and wires running in and out of his body. There is a wire clamped to the tip of his tongue and a tube down his throat. The doctors have tried to disconnect him from the respirator but his body is unwilling to function on its own. My friend Peter is inside of that body somewhere, but I can't find him.

He was helping his friend Bill mend his roof when he slipped and crashed into a guard rail, cracking several ribs and bruising his pancreas and liver. He was taken to the hospital and kept for several days for observation. When it was time to be discharged Bill came to collect him but as Peter stood up his arms suddenly flew into the air, he vomited, and then suffered cardiac arrest. Bill contacted the Drs. right away, but by the time they restored his heart beat he had already lapsed into a coma. When Bill called to tell me it was impossible to believe that this could have happened to Peter.

Peter is a night person , one who never really emerges until after the sun has gone down. I want to believe that he will come back when it gets dark, that he is only asleep inside of that jungle of medical overgrowth. Then when he wakes up he will disappear into one of the books which lie everywhere in his room. Peter is a book lover and his room is knee deep with words. Books of every kind ranging from Wittgenstein to Raymond Chandler. I owe my knowledge of American mystery writers to him and always look forward to meeting his newest discovery, his current favorite.

One year, I think it was 1970, we went to Wales together for winter break. I was living in London at the time and he had come over to visit. He and his girlfriend Jill traveled with me and my friend Catherine down to the Welsh seaside where I had rented a summer cottage for a week. It was very cold in that cottage, so cold that in the morning there was frost on my mustache which had formed as my own breath condensed and then froze. We spent days sitting in front of the coal fire in the cozy living room reading an endless stream of mysteries. I was rereading the complete Sherlock Holmes at the time, while Peter was absorbed in Chandler's The Lady in the Lake. We got into a debate on the strengths and weaknesses of American versus British mystery writers, and Peter went to great lengths to criticize Conan Doyle. It was his opinion that he never gave enough clues so that it impossible for anyone else but Sherlock Holmes to solve the crime. I was well into my rebuttal when there was a knock at the door. We looked at each other in amazement that anyone would be calling in on us. We weren't even sure if we should answer the door. Then like a couple of great detectives we stepped up and opened our door a crack only to find a pair of constables standing there hoping we might invite them in.

I took it upon myself to speak with the gentlemen.

"Good evening officers, can I help you?"

They both appeared extremely uncomfortable and even went so far as to draw tiny arcs on the floor with the tip of their shoes.

"Excuse us sir, we hate you bother you but there has been a burglary in one of the houses in the village. Ours is a small village and we know everyone who lives here. You are the only strangers and so, uh, well, I'm afraid that you are our only suspects."

Peter and I at once began to warm up to the adventure and joined them in trying to deduce who might have done the dastardly deed. We agreed with them that we were in fact the most likely suspects, but in the spirit of the chase wanted to ask them a few questions.

"OK, so let's say that we did commit this crime. Would it seem likely that we would now be sitting here in our cozy living room if we were guilty?"

"Well sir," they replied, "you just might be a couple of cool customers trying to act innocent."

"And how did the burglars break into the house?", we wanted to know.

"They broke in through one of the living room windows."

"Was there any blood at the scene of the crime?", we inquired, playing our part to the hilt.

"Now that you mention it there was," they answered.

"Well then why don't we just roll up our sleeves so that you can check our arms for any signs of cuts." We willingly showed them our forearms as evidence that we were innocent. Following our suggestion, they checked the arms of Jill and Catherine too. They appeared as innocent as we had.

"Would you like to search our cottage to see if any of the stolen goods are in our possession?", we asked helpfully. The constables took us up on our offer and as they searched we accompanied them, making small suggestions all the while.

"Do you know what exactly was stolen? If it was jewelry it could be hidden in the inside of a pillow, or inside of a mattress. Have you checked inside of the toilet bowl?"

We were almost disappointed when they were unable to find a thing, and so we offered them a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread. While they were slurping down their sweetened tea (three lumps, please,) they couldn't help themselves from asking us several more questions in the forlorn hope that we might trip ourselves up by revealing some clue to them. I remember thinking that we were better detectives than they but just the same was saddened when our time was up. For the remainder of our visit we saw these constables many times, and each time they asked us if we were sure that we weren't the guilty party. We were just the only suspects they had and they didn't know where else to turn.

That was long ago now but the memory still seems as sweet as that tea to me. It reminds me of the best of times that Peter and I spent together. I don't want to just have memories of him, but feel helpless to bring him back from his slumber. The doctors don't understand why he went into the coma, and they can't tell yet if his brain damage is permanent. But as each day bleeds into the next, one begins to suspect that Peter's sleep may be too deep for him to ever return.

When does one then begin to mourn for a friend? Should we be in mourning already or do we wait until there is a medical signal that he will never return. My mind tells me it is too early for the grief, but my heart knows better. There is a heaviness in my chest that doesn't want to go away.

There are things that I do not understand in this world, mysteries that I cannot fathom, questions I want answered. I wonder if Sherlock Holmes could unravel this case and imagine enlisting his help. What clues have I missed that he would decide were elementary? He might suggest that I invite Peter to join me in my search. Holmes would want me to ask him what happened at the moment he lost consciousness, and he would want to know what he understands about his present situation. What can he hear and what can he smell? He would want to know what it is like to be buried deep inside of a coma. Above all he would want to know why my friend was robbed of his consciousness? Holmes might suggest that he can hear me wherever he is, and so I sit down and read him this story. I want to believe that he knows that I am here and how much I miss him. I don't know what else I can do.

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