Easy is the descent to Avernus: night and day the door of gloomy Dis stands open; but to recall thy steps and pass out to the upper air, this is the task, this is the toil.
— Virgil, The Aeneid
Eight years ago, for no good reason, my gallbladder up and died.
We had walked around and around quarreling for three weeks and came to a sudden parting of the ways. The babysitter drove me to the hospital. Nora stayed home with Nick, who was a little over a year old.
I remember the car ride. Every bump was an agony.
“I’m sorry,” the babysitter said, each time.
She was in way over her head.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
What she heard was, “I promise not to die in the car.”
What I said to myself was, “Please. Don’t do this to Nick.”
Someone gave me a shot of morphine. I had given a thousand shots of morphine, never appreciating the wonderful drug it was.
“God’s own medicine,” said Sir William Ostler in 1880.
I went for a scan, somewhere in the hospital I knew like the back of my hand, but now strange and shadowy.
“Will you look at the size of that spleen,” I heard a tech say.
Uh oh, I thought in my narcotic dream. Lymphoma.
They operated in the morning. There were two operations, actually.
After the first, a fiberoptic look inside my G.I tract, the surgeon said, “You’re white count is up. We’re going in.”
I knew I had picked the right guy to save my life. I had worked with him for years.
“Take no prisoners,” I thought.
I didn’t feel like talking.
THE WRINKLE IN YOUR POCKET
In the hospital where I trained, psychiatric residents were required to take a dose of Thorazine, to understand what they were doing to patients. For the same reason, I always thought it a good idea for anesthesia residents to undergo an anesthetic, but we never did. 25 milligrams of Thorazine is one thing. General anesthesia is another.
When you wake, it’s as if you’ve never slept. A minute, an hour, a day, it’s all the same. No time. Nothing. A billion years? The wrinkle in your pocket.
Where did I go, you think. I thought. Maybe to Greece, to rendezvous with Aesculapius. Maybe to non-existence.
Post-op was stormish. The gallbladder had been gangrenous. There was pus in the abdomen. The drain kept filling with blood.
“You need to take him back to stop the bleeding,” the gastroenterologist said.
“It’s mush,” the surgeon said. “There’s nothing to sew.”
Nora brought Nick the third day. He toddled into the room and looked at me, unsure. He wasn’t talking. I couldn’t pick him up. I would have cried but it would have scared him.
I was two months getting back to work.
A MERRY MEETING
After I got sick, I figured out it was Shakespeare’s gallbladder that probably did him in. He was 52. He’d been shaky for a few weeks, then the vicar of Stratford wrote this in his diary:
Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.
That’s what happened when bad gallbladders didn’t get taken out.
I never know how much to write about the hospital here.
The stories aren’t really about fatherhood, but I seem to need to tell them.
Today I lost my temper with a nurse. It had been a hard, long case and I was mad at the surgeon.
“Should I put his arms on the arm boards?” she said of the patient.
“Yes. That’s why they’re called arm boards,” I said. I didn’t say it nicely.
I went down to the cafeteria later and ate an ice cream bar. I passed by the radiology suite where I had had my scan. I went back to the operating room and apologized to the nurse.
On the way out, I looked in on the patient in recovery. He had been terrified beforehand–his prostate was cancerous and had to be removed. In his medical summary in the chart, under family history, it had said, “Patient adopted.”
He was sitting up, looking puzzled.
“Do you know where you are?” I said.
“Recovery room. All done.”
I wanted to take him in my arms and hold him the way I held him in the operating room, the way I hold Nick to keep him safe.
He nodded, trying to make sense of things.
“Thanks, doc,” he said.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
To Sleep, a sonnet by John Keats, read by Tom O’Bedlam.
IMAGE CREDIT: Death and Morpheus from The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (D.C. Comics)
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