Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In the Dark of Play

When I was I was child, the summers were hot and the basement was cool.

Somedays the mercury would rise to 115 degrees. I would look into our backyard and across the alley. Above the black asphalt parking lot behind our house the air would ripple like smears of grease on a television screen.

Inside it was sweltering and fans whirled in some vague attempt at cooling the seven rooms of our house. There was one window unit air conditioner fighting a losing battle in the dining room. The unit rattled and you could keep cool if you stood right in front of it. I often thought the air conditioner was most appreciated by the patch of green moss that lived outside. The moss was fed by the continual drip of water droplets from the condenser coil.

But there was a cool basement below us. Perhaps I should call it a cellar rather than a basement. Some our friends had inside basements with upright entrance doors. Those doors led to descending staircases well lit with electric light. Such basements were often the playroom or family room and were carpeted even if they occasionally smelled of damp.

Our basement had a slopping cellar door and looked like a storm cellar. At the age of eight, I could barely open the heavy door if I strained with all my might. When opened, strands of spider's web would waft in the breeze as a rush of cool musty air arose from the open door. Each step down was made upon chipping concrete surrounded by cellar walls consisting of a mismatch of sandstone and brick. At the base of the stairs the light from the sun above lit a five foot radius.

I would descend into darkness and even at my child's short height, I would need to duck beneath the trailing spider webs. Then eyes blinded by the bright outside sun, I would shuffle barefoot across the dark expanse toward the dangling incandescent light.

I would wave my had in front me and would feel the metal ball chain, and gratefully pull it. Snap. The light came on and a dull amber glow filled the dark dank space. The basement was bi-level. Within our rectangular basement an L shaped area was somewhat finished with concrete floor and a sump pump drain. The sump pump hummed within its inky darkness and the floor around it was sloping and wet. The area of the basement that was not part of the L was a raised earthen embankment two and half feet above the floor.

The walls of the embankment were concrete and were edged with supporting pillars for the house above. These pillars were made of Oklahoma sandstone, old bricks from the brick plant and steel pipes. I would heft myself upon the raised embankment and crawl between the pillars to a little play kitchen I had created along the back wall. Here was a small basement window, but I pretended it was kitchen window. The window let a little stream of light into the space. I had taken a few pieces of old of rusted iron parts and had fashioned a few "burners" on my sandstone stove. There I would "cook" with my toy dishes and picnic with my dolls in a room that smelled of the grave.

Have you ever crawled in the cool dirt of an unfinished basement? There is an musty earthiness, a quiet stillness. Every once in awhile a ray of light from the small window would alight upon a rock and I would see the mineral sparkle of the stone.

I would see the sparkle in the darkness.

There were spiders down there in the basement. Hundreds of brown recluse spiders surrounded me while I played. There was mold and damp and darkness, yet I will never forget the sparkles of the stones in a shaft of light or the wonder of play. You can make something out of darkness.

You can let the space you are in define you or you can make it a better place.

Not long ago someone posted a comment on the facebook page of a patient community I belong to. He said the documentary "Chasing Zero" (a joint production between TMIT and the Discovery Channel) "exudes syrupy hope confidence of people who are trying to help improve the medical system." He added it would make some patient activists sick to watch.

In a few short days the second documentary in that series will premiere in DC. I am one of the patient advocates featured in "Surfing the Healthcare Tsunami." I would not say we are are syrupy. We have gone beyond anger, but refuse acceptance of the status quo. We truly believe by working together, patients working with providers, we will create system change.

No, I am not a syrupy, but I do see sparkles in darkness.


  1. Your description of our basement almost made me feel as if I were standng in it again. Your ability to vividly and accurately desribe places or things never ceases to amaze me. I have a few fond memories of play time in that place as well as some not so fond memories. I appreciate how you find good in every situation you have encountered. Keep onward, sister. Es

  2. Despite the darkness and shadows, in and around those brown recluse spiders, you're right, Regina. Many of us are hopeful. If we didn't believe those sparkles in the darkness could, in fact, eventually light the way, we would never have chosen the healthcare basement as our platform.

    (A brilliant piece, this. Your artistic talent shines through paintbrushes and keyboards, too! We're blessed to have you holding the flashlight, my friend.)

    Trisha Torrey
    Every Patient's Advocates

  3. You are an amazing writer, Regina. As I read this, I think of our cold, dark basement as a child where we seldom wandered and yet you found a sparkle where there was dampness and darkness. If we don't find the hope in this work we will crumble...and our time spent advocating for change and a call to action would be in vain. What didn't kill us made us stronger...not syrupy or soft or puritan like. We emerged from the darkness wrapped in the warmth and light of the human spirit knowing what was right and wrong. We see clearer now and the light of hope leads us.