11.30.12 That's Life
It has been a challenging week. My husband had surgery on his leg on Tuesday, to remove the steel hardware that repaired the shin bones he shattered in a motorcycle accident in Indonesia in April of 2011. Compared to the original surgery, this was nothing, though the surgeon did take an hour to scrape away at the healed bone in order to retrieve the 7 screws and one long plate from G's tibia. So I have no recipe for you today. Instead what I have is a heavy scarf of mixed emotions that I knit while waiting in the hospital, striped with painful memories and fringed with hope. I'm sorry to grieve you but I must unburden myself.
Hospitals fill me with a sickly dread. As I packed my bag in anticipation of spending a couple of days in the city, I knew just what clothes to bring. During the many months that I was in and out of the hospital with my husband who died of cancer in 2003, I had to be a warrior and I dressed accordingly. Warm, forgiving, efficient clothes. Sturdy boots. You have to be tough and prepared to fight on all fronts. There are no comfortable chairs in hospitals. The food is toxic. The lighting is fluorescent. There are strange smells of plastic and ammonia and death. Indifference is common. The beeping of machines, quiet but constant, will not give you a moment's peace. G's condition wasn't life-threatening but I was still afraid.
In the admitting room, our first stop on the long journey to the OR, we sat together on an aqua leatherette loveseat, morning news blaring from a TV hanging in the corner. People were strewn about the other seats like refuse, arms and legs akimbo, some asleep, others staring blankly into the middle distance. A harried guy about our age was doing his best to wrangle his parents, both of whom seemed shellshocked and very old. The father was the patient but the mother, deaf and talking much too loudly, was clearly suffering more. When the son took his father upstairs to surgery she stayed behind, absently touching her fright wig of a hairdo. "My husband was never sick a day in his life," she shouted at a young black couple sitting across from her. "An ox. He could lift a building. Now look at him." A toothless smile cracked her wrinkled face open. "That's life," she said, but we all knew she was talking about death.
Later, we ascended to the "Pre-Op Suite," a long, shabby room with a row of hospital beds divided by thin yellow curtains, where patients await the trip to the OR. G and I sat there immersed in the worlds of our iphones for what turned out to be way too long (his surgery was ultimately delayed for 7 1/2 hours due to a fight between the hospital and his insurance company), but we couldn't help but hear the tragedy quietly unfolding next to us. After many phone calls and doctors and nurses rushing back and forth to her bed, an elderly woman had been given to understand that she might not live through her emergency surgery (something to do with her liver). Finally a relative arrived and signed the consent forms. As she was being taken into the OR, the woman asked for 5 minutes with her niece. The nurse looked dubious and they agreed on 1 minute. In that time, the old woman conveyed to the younger one precisely how her belongings should be divided and what sort of funeral she expected. "Cremation is fine," she said in a low, even tone. "Nothing fancy, just do what you can." There were no tears, no protestations. And then they wheeled her away.
I thought of my father and how his body curled in on itself like a tiny, dessicated shrimp as the stomach cancer consumed him. I remembered how he put all his waning energy into dying and how that infuriated me until I finally understood it was his right. I thought of my husband who stroked out on our bed and was left lying on a gurney in the hallway of the ER, his last meal of spaghetti bolognese vomited up on his t-shirt, his one working hand clutching mine with a madman's grip. I remembered how he fought for his last breath like an enormous fish on a line. I thought of my mother, who also died in 2003, just 4 months after my husband. My sister was with her and she called me and held the phone to my mother's ear so we could say goodbye. I remembered the sound of her breathing, as rough and roaring as a washing machine, and the few silly words I mustered: Thank you for being such a good mother. There is no summing up of a lifetime; there is only the moment. The tears come even now as I write this, and I feel that familiar tightening in my chest, the constricting that reminds me that the heart is a muscle. Mine is criss-crossed with scars and stronger than ever.
For years I have held onto an image that I ripped from a magazine of an old woman's hand. There's a caption: Can you let go without regret? Letting go of others, letting go of your own life—can you do it? If you want to be conscious up until the end—your own or somebody else's—you have to be willing to face it, think about it, work at it. Like everything else, it's a struggle but there are rewards. And that's life.