2008 Reflections: February: All The King's Horses, All the King's Men

December 23, 2008

I spent the first half of February 2008 waiting to be disemboweled, which is a strange state of affairs. As such you might imagine I’d remember the time vividly, but I struggle to recall much beyond the thin, pink twilight walks from office to home, punctuated a bit more often than usual by a trip to Garrison’s Fine Wines. A certain listlessness or nonchalance, maybe. I am not a person of ritual or routine but I think I made a rut for myself and walked in it.

I think it might have been a rough time; it seems like it would have been. But it’s a retrospective void. My consciousness has curtained it off for my own safety, likely. I read a biography of Andrew Jackson and Timothy Egan’s good book about the Dust Bowl. I argued about the relative merits of duck fat. I listened to trance DJs with ampersands in their names. I only know these things because I left a sleuth-able trail in my blog. I subsumed gravitas with the trivial.

Two Things

There are two gifts I gave myself in the first half of February. The first I recommend for anyone who is prone to their mind flying wild at night: I stayed the hell away from the Internet. That is, I used the Internet for output: blogging, photo posting, book reviews. But I didn’t seek to learn from it because I knew it would be at best a dark, speculative oracle. A ranting collection of worst case scenarios. For one of the first times in my life, I opted for ignorance. Was it denial? Can that be argued? Maybe, but the damage to my psyche averted by it was worth every drop of naivete.

The second gift was the traditional yearly trip to Sunriver, Ore., Every Presidents’ Day weekend, a couple dozen of us pack up our ski gear (well, I don’t; I eschew all snow sports), DJing equipment and crates of terrible liquor (sticky, stale Triple Sec; Bacardi Limon, variations on Rumpleminze and Jagermeister; down to the last ill-advised and always regretted) and over-fill some rental houses with bad smells and hangovers. This year, after the cops came–they mostly seemed amused–the party night took on a philosophical turn. The music had been obligingly turned down but the colored lights were still rotating across the vaulted ceilings.

There were a few Dutch guys there, friends of friends of a friend. Kids, really, barely 21. Living in Portland on a 5-month jaunt, working on their PhDs at OHSU. One, Erik, I think, spoke to me at great length from an overstuffed armchair. He was studying something biogenetic, something to do with oncology, mice and pipettes. When I told him, after a long while, carefully, after I was sure that it was relevant, that I was having surgery two days following and had a tumor in my ileum, he turned fascinated. Suddenly I was in focus for a visiting Dutch kid with a ferocious academic appetite. Being this–the object of fascination instead of one of pity–was more empowering than I expected. It wasn’t about me. It was about some specific subset of me that didn’t have to encompass my whole being. We could talk about my insides and then just as easily talk about bicycle parts or the implications of being so functionally bilingual. I never saw them again. I doubt they would remember me. But I remember that, about them, that which they gave me as an unintentional offering.

…Put Me Back Together Again

I sit here and think of all of the things I could tell you about abdominal surgery. Details. I was in the hospital for four days so there is plenty to recount.

But here’s the thing. The story–the details–don’t matter because they are just things that happened. So I’ll tell you the things that had concomitant emotion, those which weren’t just occurrence. Here is what impacted me:

  • My surgical staff was composed of women, only. I remember this, I know this, though I don’t remember any of them or seeing them. I remember, a flash, the metal door to the operating theater. I like this.
  • If you see a nurse or if you know a nurse, please thank them for me, or for you, even. I believe the career of nursing to be one of the most important and least respected paths in all of humanity. I remember nurses.
  • When I woke up I had four holes in my center that went all the way in. Only the thinnest of slits on the outside but I felt like they were windows to my soul. I woke from a feverish dream confused and asked a passing nurse if this was all that was left, these center bits of me. She was not the best of the nurses and gave me that unsympathetic stare and ratcheted down the opiates.
  • I woke up early one morning and my room was empty. The abdominal wing at St. Vincent is high up but looks out over a forgettable parking garage. It was early so the form of the garage was simple; no one was parked on top of it yet. As I watched out the window, individual horizontal stripes of dawn began unfolding. On the bottom, the grey line of the garage, then salmon, russet, goldenrod, lavender, blue, indigo. Very little detail, only very deep, almost synthetic color. I couldn’t adjust my position in my bed and my belly seeped fluids through my slits. It is the only moment of my hospital stay that I recall feeling uncomfortable and restive. But it was accompanied by a sunrise.

I had to stay an extra day because my heart rate wasn’t cooperating. Like a small animal it kept pounding and shivering. This was hard because it was irrelevant and unexpected. But when I finally got home I realized that, despite having my intestines laying in a heap on my belly just a few days prior, I was unfathomably close to normal. My systems ticked along. I had even started eating within twelve or sixteen hours after being sliced into. I could shower. I could shuffle down the stairs, walk a few blocks. Those little slices to the center of my soul were mere scratches; my tubes resealed and started up their secret, pink contractions again. As if obeying laws of fluid dynamics the body falls naturally toward a resting state, avoids crisis in favor of balance. It is a kind of scientific magic.

At some point during my hospital tenure my surgeon danced in–I really remember it like that, she at least skipped or hopped. I wouldn’t describe her as fleet-footed but she is young. She could be someone I know. Smart-alecky she said: “Not a lick of cancer! Tests came back as advanced Crohn’s disease, but…” and here an exaggerated, comical shrug.

Enh,” I finished for her. It didn’t matter.

Now I Know, but it was Still Unknown

Now I was curious and unafraid. Wikipedia articles on laparascopy, Crohn’s, ileum. The Katamari Damacy-like junkballing of cute factoids to spew at curious friends. They’d had to pump me up, like a balloon, full of gas. That’s why my shoulders hurt. Air was still in there. I no longer had to worry about the vagaries of appendecitis–they’d taken away my appendix. There had been a statistically significant chance that my intestinal stitches would leak and I would have been summarily re-gutted (open surgery this time) and put on a bag for months.

But the real zinger? My follow-up appointment with my surgeon a week or two later, when she mentioned, in cool passing, as if it were incidental, that the entire team had been convinced that I had lymphoma. The entire time. Until after my surgery. I reiterate: sometimes it is far, far better not to know everything. That they’d known that this path was best, that my needs were such, is a testament to their tact and sensitivity.

February ended, with its extra day, a sunset on one adventure, and the dawn of another. Because, you see, they hadn’t realized what was actually wrong with me yet. And it would get worse before it got better.

One Comment

  1. Gary Walter says:

    As one who has experienced numerous surgeries – most before I was in the 6th grade, I read this post with fascination. You describe well the emotions and sensations of the post-op fog.

    Again, Lyza, thanks for your honest vulnerability!

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