To Hell and Back

On April 20, 1998, Jan Reid was shot in the abdomen during a robbery in Mexico City. Doctors told him he might not walk again, but after three years he's regained much of the physical and psychological ground he had lost.
Photograph by Kenny Braun

There’s a line from an old Rolling Stones song: “Please, sister morphine, turn my nightmare into dreams.” In the first of my dreams at Houston’s Hermann Hospital, I was riding in a truck driven by an Asian woman. It was early in the morning, the sun just up. I wanted to trust this woman, but she ignored me. On a country road she stopped at a store with grimy windows and a dusty soda pop machine on the porch. After a moment she came back out, started the truck, and we drove off. Still she said nothing; she had an air of making her daily rounds. We came to a river that was running brown and high. It was up to the throats of the water buffalo. Water buffalo! Where was I? The woman sent the truck down the bank toward the swollen river. She was going to try to ford it.”Listen here,” I cried. “You get me back to Dr. Red Duke right now. He’s supposed to be taking care of me.”

In another dream, I was in a house. I could see and hear a man and a woman moving about. They spoke English with French accents. They had contracted with the state to care for me, but they were con artists, and their fraud had been discovered. They took their time packing, but they meant to be gone by dawn. “Wait,” I cried. “You can’t just leave me here. Please. You’ve got to find Red Duke.”

Ignoring me, the man carried things to a car in the garage. The woman stood by my bed and watched me for a moment, coolly smoking a cigarette. “Do you know what’s happened to you?” she asked.

Another dream took on aspects of a novel I had been working on. For generations there had been rumors and lore of a great lost house on the Brazos River, a sort of Texas Camelot. It was the home of Sam Houston’s family, the patriarch’s, and I had found it. The large front room had a marble staircase, bookcases, and oil portraits of elders. I was in this house, and I could walk. I moved around freely and enjoyed myself. Sam Houston was there, ragging his son Temple for being drunk all the time. “You’re one to talk,” Temple shot back, pouring himself another. It was a rowdy gathering. Tall, striking old women flung good-natured taunts at the men. The Houston family seemed to have merged with the Parkers, another prominent Texas Hell and Backclan. The family gathered proudly on the staircase to be photographed by a man who stooped at the rear of a camera and tripod. “Wait,” one of the women insisted, and the uproar resumed. Quanah Parker deserved to be in the picture, the sisters maintained. He was blood kin, even if he was a half-breed Comanche.In the flesh, I was in that room. Then the voices receded and the focus narrowed, leaving the staircase blurred. I saw my friend Jim Anderson. Tall and slender, he gave me a nod of greeting. “Jan,” he said.

And I greeted him, thinking, “Jim, what are you doing here?” It was entirely seamless. Jim handed me a telephone, and I found myself talking to my sister, Lana, in Wichita Falls. Very much for real. For the first time since I’d been shot in Mexico City.

“Mother’s all right,” Lana told me. “She’s just very shocked. She needs to hear your voice.”

My 81-year-old mother. I thought, “Man, you’d better rally, because you’re not going to reassure her very much at all.”

I put up a cheery front as long as my family and friends were around. At night the morphine held the pain at bay, but it wouldn’t let me sleep and forget. I obsessed about magazine assignments and thought if I just had a laptop computer I could get them done. Why they mattered anymore, I can’t say. I watched NBA playoff games that I had no interest in. I pondered Christianity one night. I decided my reconversion would take place in a tiny Episcopalian church near our home in Austin. In large type their yard sign stressed that they used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I saw myself strolling to church on a bright sunny day in bow tie, shirtsleeves, and suspenders, fanning my face with a straw boater. Then I dozed, and when I woke, my reborn faith was gone. Another trick of the mind and the drug.Two weeks earlier a Mexican doctor had told me, phrasing it gently, “We’re afraid you’re going to lose the mobility of your legs.” But I’m alive, I thought. I’ll deal with paralysis. Then I saw my friend Norman Chenven, who had been our family doctor for many years. I thought it was night, and I was outside (actually, we were in my room at Hermann). Norman stood in a crowd pressing against a chain-link fence. In his matter-of-fact way, he said that paralysis was just one possible effect of a lower-spine injury: “The bladder and bowel and sexual function?” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see about that.”

Bladder and bowel and sexual function! I could be incontinent and impotent too? I took that harder than being told I was paralyzed. I felt like my manhood had been chopped off at the waist.

One night I set out to prove Norman wrong. I asked a nurse to bring me a bedpan. I wedged it under my hips, pulled up my hospital gown, and lay in that posture for half an hour or so. I couldn’t feel if I was straining. Hell, I didn’t even know how to use a bedpan. In disgust I wrenched it out from under me and dropped it on the floor. A doctor in Mexico had said I had the physical conditioning of an athlete—it was one of the reasons I had survived. It was a flattering thing for him to say. But all of it seemed

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