“We’re all just walking each other home.” – Ram Dass
When we left, my feet not reaching the rests of the wheelchair, I could see the playpen erected over Harold’s bed, but I could not quite see Harold. All morning, he had made a horrible noise somewhere between retching and howling. Nurses had begged and cajoled, spoken sternly and given directives. None must have worked and now he was enclosed in a giant Pack and Play. It didn’t seem that it would be hard to bust out of the nylon enclosure, but as I’d heard a visitor the day before – a younger woman who kept up a resolutely positive patter for a few hours, to the point where I’d found my headphones and turned on the ambient sound of rain – Harold was 104 years old.
I left the hospital yesterday with less than I’d come with – a nickel-sized diameter from my vertebrae and a 2-centimeter cyst both removed. It went “well,” though that seems so random. The small chance of death or seizure or heart attack did not occur. The pain that has been on the right side of my lower back and down the leg is gone, in its place a different, more tender pain on the left side (they entered through the left to get to the right). Other pains in my upper body that I’d hoped might disappear are returning along with the rumblings of daily life – a text from a co-worker about an agenda, refereeing computer time with my kids, a squabble with my partner about cleaning.
One friend had said it would be an adventure, a chance to re-meet my body. Which is so true. From entering the hospital at 5:30 AM – signing in at the only open entrance and making our way to the initial exam room – there was a sense of turning a corner. Something would be left behind, openings created. The first nurse was gravel-voiced and plain. The second textbook. The third, an anesthesiology nurse practitioner student, was the most reassuring. She would be in the room with me the whole time, so I concentrated on her – her friendly eyes over her mask, the way she’d say, “That’s a good question!” as though I was asking new questions she hadn’t considered before.
When the chaplain came in – a woman in a polyester floral top with a no-nonsense haircut – I wasn’t sure what to think. Who’d ordered the chaplain? “It says ‘no preference,'” she noted of my chart. I wanted to be clearer than this, should anything bad happen. “Buddhist, I guess,” I told her, and she wrote it down. We looked into each other’s eyes; she was the first person all morning who had completely seen me. Certainly the young resident who had rushed in in his street clothes and initialed my back in permanent marker for the incision had not. I started to tear up and she told me that it was okay, tears were cleansing. Then she teared up, too, and I reached for her hand.
Fifteen minutes later, the anesthesiologist nurse was wheeling me down a hallway. I’d give up my bags and my glasses to Chris, kissed him goodbye. I could see my toes at the end of the gurney in their blue rubber-tipped socks, the fluorescent bulbs whirring overhead. It’s just like in a movie, I thought.
One of the first voices I heard when I came to was of Harold’s visitor. She sounded suburban and coifed. She sounded like red lipstick and pre-school birthday parties. She was using a voice she thought she should be using – loudly reassuring – and was playing a role she thought she should play.
I went in and out – awake and then in a dreamlike space, images of iguanas and childhood toys, furniture piled on the stoop and a rest stop in Colorado all in faded out colors. When I woke up more fully in the dark of the room, the day all spent, a voice reached me: “Is it ok if I take care of you?” I automatically said, yes – we’re programmed to be polite. I remember my father thanking his way through so many cancer treatments. The nurse, who turned out to be the mom of one of my daughter’s friends and also a neighbor, stepped closer: “No, really, is it ok?” I almost started to cry, I was so relieved she was there.
She talked with Chris about my doctor – it was nice just to listen and not have to participate. She and -thought some meds and helped me to the commode to pee. Chris held my head when I started to throw up and she got a new pan. Next door, Harold was quiet. I ate the pills out of the little cup. Chris kissed me goodnight. I went back to the slow motion slideshow playing nonsensically on the wall of my memory.
The morning was long – it was impossible to swim to the surface, listening to the sound of rain in my earbuds, I was confused if the storm was outside or only playing in my head. The patter was interrupted now and then by Harold’s hoarse, terrified hollers. Because of his ruckus and because of my steady vitals, no one came in to my room for hours. From 8:30 am to 12:30 pm I woke up enough to see the secondhand making its orbit, only to plunge back under.
When there was an opening, I took it. Getting out beyond my little bit of hospital real estate, walking tenderly with the IV on one hand, I made the round of the spinal ward, seeing people wearing helmets and with hands wrapped in wads of gauze. Going home had sounded impossible just an hour before, but now it looked like the right choice. I was recovering from something pretty minor. Scary to me – it was a leap of faith to remove the cyst from my back, hoping that the pain that’s dogged me for more than a year would scatter – but so small in the grand scheme of life’s potential pains.
I’ve been home for three nights. I seem to have lost sensation on a swath of my face. If it’s gone for good, that’s not such a big thing. The rest is too soon to tell, though I’m already seeing how laying low for a week is going to be challenging. I got up for a few hours this morning and supervised my kids in some cleaning, walked gingerly to the nearby park and watched Bella throw the ball for the dog, and then came home to tuck myself back into bed.
Soup from my mom. A card from a friend. Chores done by my kids without grumbling. Reading aloud by Chris in lieu of his own book. Little gifts presented on the tiny velvet pillow of illness. What kindnesses we can give and receive when the body reminds us of its expiration date.
I stood in my kitchen this afternoon, the house quiet. The dog was outside rolling in the grass, lost to his own ritual. Drinking ice water from the mug I brought home from the hospital – I’d bent down with great mindfulness to reach the cubes from the lower part of the refrigerator, feeling lightly stinging tugs at the incision – and filled with gratitude for the red linoleum under my feet, the green of the unmowed grass. And wondering about Harold.