The music in the car on the way to the hospital was interesting. First, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”: “don’t worry/about a thing/cuz every little thing/ gonna be alright”.
That was followed by Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”. I have to admit I was feeling it, if just a little.
But when we got to the O.R. prep room, they piped in music and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” wafted through the quasi private beds in the prep room. This was my Dad’s favorite song. I was only a week away from the 30th anniversary of his death.
There are no coincidences. I was not alone and I really wasn’t nervous, just anxious to get it done with, get it over.
In the prep room the nurse asked me questions and had me get into a paper flimsy Johnny. “Can I leave the skivvies on?” wincing at the word “skivvies” – no one calls underwear skivvies these days. Bonehead.
“Nice try!” the nurse responds, and I go commando tightening the Johnny around as tight as I could for some sort of privacy.
Steve and Chris came I after that and kept me company. It was great having them there, especially Steve. I know how much he hates hospitals but I also know how much it meant to Chris to have him there. Soon after that, Chris’ sister, Judy arrived and yes, we were now officially a “scene”. Can you imagine if my out of state family had driven up as they warned they might? I’d have been blacklisted from the hospital for sure.
Across from me was a frail looking elderly woman, with blue-white hair. Her bony body was covered up beneath the blanket but I could see how the Johnny hung off her making her arms look like the clapper of a bell, flailing with all the space and the large roominess the Johnny provides. I think about the things we are taught as kids about modesty and propriety, and how this all disappears in a hospital. The old woman is chatting nervously but causally with an older middle aged man, presumably her son. I could almost see her trying to sell me chances to the next St. Anthony’s festival for her local church parish. She wore an oversized blue cap which clashed with her wrinkled alabaster skin.
Next to her was a larger man who was being prepped for open heart surgery. He was extraordinarily hairy and since they were cracking his chest, they had to shave him. They pulled the privacy curtain around him and began. The droning continued for what had to be 15 minutes. Steve looked over to me and muffled a laugh. I knew what he was thinking. After a while, after we had all grown immune to the bee-like hum of the surgical razor, I heard the man being shaved exclaim in a dark, mocha baritone, “I think we’re starting a small brush fire here!”
The whole O.R. prep room broke up with laughter. Steve almost lost it and I laughed out loud. My nurse also shook her head with a grin that scooped across her face. At least there would be laughter going into this.
It occurred to me then how the lot that was assembled in this room were the beneficiaries of today’s magic. These men and women – doctors and nurses – were going to be lopping off organs, cracking open ribs, dipping their hands into the deepest innermost regions of human beings. I wondered if any of my soul would be lost, allowed to escape into the ether as I lay there inside out to the airborne world. I thought about how years ago, these same men and women would be tried for witchcraft, and magic and all sorts of savagery.
Gathered in this room was the pinnacle of human medical need and medical technology and know how.
Flying was once an interface of the unknown: it took a special sort of courage to fly across the continent. We now board flights hourly across the world with little more concern than whether or not our luggage will reach our planned destination. Likewise, these surgeons require a different sort of courage, but again, so much has been made mundane: it is the routine that belies the “hardness” of it. Maybe, I think, it is just another form of ritual that glides our way in the modern world.
Soon the anesthesiologist stops by: he is a square man with a round shiny head, and seems incapable of wearing a smile. His job was to administer the epidural which took him two attempts after lots of pricking and having my shoulders and upper body held back by a smaller more pleasing appearing black man named Josh.
I didn’t mind the square smile-less doctor missing the mark, thought I have to say, he reached new levels of pain with each prick of the needles. I did mind that the guy never cracked a smile. Maybe he was new. Maybe he was nervous. I’d heard most anesthesiologists were hoots! Comes from the fact that maybe they’d partaken of some of the nitrous they seemed to be able to get their licensed hands on.
No, a sense of humor makes us better at what we do, I believe and even if it doesn’t? it helps us fake it until we make it much smoother.
It was smart, however, to get the epidural in correctly right from the start. This was my instinct, as I figured this was going to control the pain – along with every other bodily function below my waist for the next few days – it had to be right.
The prep room was a flurry of activity. I saw Dr.”C” only once, dressed smartly in a black turtleneck and black pea coat. I remember his outfit because the dark colored outfit contrasted brilliantly with his sliver hair and white, taut trim beard. He came in to crack a few jokes (“The left kidney right?” – it was the right he was too remove – to which I responded, “okay, is that MY right or YOUR right?”
He autographed my RIGHT flank, to indicate where he would cut, and then he disappeared to get dressed for surgery.
Soon they wheeled me in. I gave Chris and Judy and Steve hugs and kisses and I just saw hands moving all around me. No one even acknowledged my presence in the room. Then, out of nowhere, a clear mask came over my nose and mouth and I was gone.
I slept a dreamless sleep. It was like a moonless, starless night. Nothing. I was hoping for some good dreams.
My first vision was the clock and I was trying to do the math in my head. I knew I had gone in sometime after noon and I was trying to read the clock, then compute the math. Was it done? Or did I horribly and accidentally wake up in the middle of the operation? Dr. “C” was standing in front of me shouting, “IT WAS CANCER! WE GOT IT” and me feebly giving him the thumbs up, then in my typically idiosyncratically way, thinking, “Do you suppose he thought I meant the “thumbs up” as though I was saying, ‘Yay, Cancer!’?”
Even with allthat anesthesia, my mind just wouldn’t cut me any slack. I swear, I’m hopeless. I stopped worrying what Dr. “C” might think about my “political stance on cancer”, and fell back to sleep but not before asking for my family. I was at least conscious enough to ask that correctly.
The procedure took a little longer than anticipated, but only because they had misplaced the film (which I had actually brought with me to prevent this very thing from happening). Also, the cancer was deeper than he had estimated from the film. He went back twice to scoop out more and more kidney until he could be sure he was dealing with clean tissue. He did frozen sections on each scoop until he had what he felt was a clean section – about 1/3 of my right kidney altogether.
The cancer was gone and I felt like packed cotton: tight, bound, and really no pain. There was an IV in my right arm.
All that kept playing through my head was: “The cancer is gone! The Cancer is gone!”
But for how long?
I am reminded of that Lakota Sioux line: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the while I am being carried on great wings across the sky.” That’s what I feel like right now. At this moment, I am just one small idiot not blessed, but acutely aware that I am at one point of a cycle that can sometimes be not so forgiving, and not seem so “spiritual”. Will I feel as grateful and humble when the other side of that wheel comes around? I have done nothing to either deserve getting this cancer, nor have I done a thing that warranted its random finding and eventual cure. I am a fool if I think otherwise.
I grip the ropes tighter, enjoy the now, and am aware of the wheel making its way around. Give me the grace to bear with that, when it comes, as abundantly as I have been given this grace, here today. That is all I ask.
Einstein once said: “There are two ways to view the world: as if everything in it is a miracle, or as if everything is not a miracle.” I have chosen the former. And even if this cancer comes back, and I am fighting again, won’t that be miraculous? And when I am asked to face the struggle that is the condition of mankind, won’t that be wonderous?
God, please just give me the strength to remember this. And if you are my friends, I expect nothing else but for you to remind me of this.
M C Biegner 2004