Once upon a time, I had a literature professor who said there are only a couple of stories people tell. Writers just move around the characters, locations and events.
"The quest" is well known as a storyline of search and change or redemption via a physical or mental passage of some kind. The other dominant plot line usually involves a human-to-human struggle or a personal internal tangle like those Shakespeare excelled in telling. Often our searches, our tragedies and our absurd human comedies are layered together as we seek resolutions.
Frank Head's book, "The Possibility of All Things," stretches readers smoothly across a coming-of-age quest, parental estrangement, loss and recovery, adventure travelogues, history cycles, language lessons, medical mysteries, unwavering friendships, the kindness of strangers, the loyalty of animals and the poetic map that music charts for us through life.
The first chapter of this true story began "February 20, 2011, Coma Day 1, " at their Fayetteville home near Wilson Park. Frank's wife, Phyllis, had complained for a week of nagging stomach pain, and he'd left work early to take her to a doctor's appointment. Instead, he found her in bed unconscious.
Unlike interactions inside a two-person story, Frank has the solo voice, but Phyllis has the lead role. His juxtaposed characters, one comatose and the other trying to find how to awaken her, are explained by the journey they had set out on decades before.
In 1972, while he sat innocently on a bench on the Santa Fe Plaza, up came a woman to tell Frank to pay better attention to his dog. He invited her to sit down and the rest, as they say, is history.
His book begins by answering readers' first question. Yes, she survived. But how? The "how" is the story. But first someone, anyone, had to find the "why?" In Phyllis' case, it took a village.
She'd had a shunt put in her brain eight months earlier to treat hydrocephalus, a buildup of too much cerebrospinal fluid that can put pressure on the brain. Phyllis' suspected infection was treated, but she wouldn't wake up. No one could figure out why.
On Coma Day 26, Frank wrote of a deepening fear: " Her vital signs are steady but she is acutely ill, unconscious with an uncertain prognosis. She has six different specialists, each with their own guess as to her options for survival, much less her chance of improvement. ... Every day you lie prone in bed, unable to consciously move any part of your body, becomes a golden opportunity for vital organs to deteriorate, muscle tissue to atrophy, blood veins to clot, nerve patterns to be disturbed, germs to prosper and inertia to overcome vitality."
On that day, when his hope was slipping, he needed a sign. "She looked at me. I know she's in there." And he adds, "I do know something no one else does; when we met thirty-nine years ago, I found someone with an inner strength that would not quit."
The village took over so Frank could tend to medical decisions, get the doctors all on the same page and go back to his job. Two close friends organized over 50 others for two-hour shifts covering 14 hours daily, 5 days a week for however long it would take. Time was spent talking, reading, massaging, moving, singing and simply being there to urge Phyllis into consciousness. Her husband was certain she could hear them. Little could anyone have imagined she would spend 227 days in five different hospitals before these two lovers would go home together.
Frank's writing, which reads like a suspense novel, is astonishing. He wove Phyllis' coma days like stepping stone transitions into his overall telling of their parallel story. The childhood trips his family took south of the border, his split from his father's expectations, the Vietnam war, and the discovery of another freedom-seeking spirit are just a few of the complexities in this tale.
The quest Frank and Phyllis traveled to get their lives back twisted them through the maze that is the human brain, much like the maze of the Mexican jungle where they tested each other before deciding to spend their lives together. They only survived both because, relentlessly, he never gave up, and she never gave up.
As a disheveled panhandler-prophet had sung to them when they were sitting on that bench in Santa Fe, "Only believe. Only believe. All things are possible, only believe."