For those of you who have never had a panic attack, the words may have no special emotional tug. For those of you who have had one, they will bring forth memories of a mind frozen in exquisite agitation, the whole room, the whole world enmeshed in a horror movie that refuses to go away.

The panic begins to reflect back on itself, mirrors in the barbershop; terror evokes terror of terror. The fear doubles and redoubles, and births its own nightmares. And one anguish shines out above all the others: that this will never end.

It is the original Beast, one that has its own rules. A creature not to be argued with, one that permits no distractions. Sleep: definitely not. Drugs: doubtful. Television, radio, movies, reading, alcohol --- all either have no effect or turn sickening. The Beast demands one's entire attention. After its departure (sudden, unannounced), you find yourself thinking things like, Is this what it's going to be like when I die? Is death the ultimate panic attack --- the one that will never end, droning on into eternity, taking reluctant, frazzled, miserable you with it?

The sickness began the night Emma let me stay in her infirmary, next to the gurney with the stirrups that they use for gynecological exams. She runs a volunteer school-orphanage-clinic here, just north of the equator, near San Lorenzo, and I visit from time to time. Since I usually get drunk on their bad red wine, draining endless bottles over supper with Emma and her husband, Valentino, and since I don't want to drive the ten miles home, running into some idiot donkey on the dirt road back, I let her give me a place to stay for the night.

Not long ago, at one or so in the morning, she shook me from my dreams and said, "Sorry, old friend. Rosa's here to have her baby. Could you move over to the boys' dorm next door?" I can and do: the boys are gone for Christmas; their five-and-a-half-foot bunks are a tad uncomfortable for six-foot me --- but Lord, who am I to refuse a one-night stand on sheets loaded with the sacred rites of Onanism, what one writer called "the honeymoon of the hand"?

No sooner have I hunkered down on those protein-rich covers than Rosa starts up with her Song of Deliverance next door. She sings to us most of the night, music intermixed --- as in any good opera --- with cries, shrieks, shouts, groans, grunts, wails, yelps, roars, sobs, murmurs, sighs, keenings, and laments. Between Rosa, the mosquitoes, the cramped bunk beds, and the damp sheets, I manage to tackle, wrestle, and bring to the mat about fifteen minutes of good sleep before the sun pops out of the ocean and the chickens start in with their screeching and cawing.

So I get up and go out to my truck in front of the infirmary. Emma brings me some tea, and I eye the mist of morning, the hushed palms, their cocos hanging down like ripe, hard nuts, listening to Rosa's cries, the sounds of the awakening.

I sit in the truck and play one of the dozen or so tapes I'd brought with me from the north: Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross --- the string quartet version, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau loudly bewailing the gods, as does Rosa in her bed of pain. Finally, at 6:22 A.M. (I know, I looked at my watch), there comes from Rosa a particularly strong, sad wail, and ten seconds later (I looked at my watch again) there is another cry, just as loud, but in another key, one slightly more keen. At that moment, as they say in the language of this blessed country, the mother ha dado a luz --- she's "given to the light." Then Rosa wails no more; it is time for the other, her newest and dearest, to take up the cry.

And he does, with first-day-on-the-job vigor, wailing out what one master said must surely be the saddest song of our lives. "I will mourn you when you are delivered into the daylight," Sri Nisargadatta wrote, "and I will smile when they lay you in the grave."

---Excerpted from
Ignacio Schwartz's
"Jerking Off in Central America"
(c) 1995, The Sun Magazine

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