‘He’ll be with you in just a minute,’ Teresa said, pointing to a chair at the table.
I sat down.
‘Are you sure you don’t want your parents to come in with you?’
I shook my head and coughed.
For a moment I was alone, staring out at the treetops, the sound of traffic muffled below and Madison Avenue invisible from there. And then he was standing before me, average in stature, bald, with very kind blue eyes, wearing a white coat over a suit. When he spoke it came with a surprising drawl, as if he were from the South, and it disarmed and relaxed me. ‘It’s nice to meet you,’ he offered a hand.
He sat in the chair at the head of the table beside me and Central Park expanded behind the glass behind him. ‘Nice office,’ I said, looking past him.
He glanced over his shoulder and nodded, then looked at me and asked, ‘No one to join you today?’
I shook my head and leaned back in the comfortable leather office chair, keeping my hands folded in my lap. There wasn’t anything left to decide and I didn’t want to be distracted by other people’s questions. I simply needed to know who the man was who would do this.
‘How are you?’
‘Fine,’ I said and tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back a cough.
He stared at me, unconvinced, did not seem to need a scalpel to penetrate through my skin and I shifted uncomfortably. He reached for a remote and Powerpoint images appeared on the large screen in front of us. He started explaining things but none of it was new. I squinted my eyes to try to read the text and wished I had brought my glasses, then realized I didn’t care anyhow. I had researched the whole ordeal extensively. I turned my head and gazed out the windows again. He stopped talking and watched me, then he rifled through the papers in front of him. ‘So, you’re from….Colorado?’
I looked at him, ‘Yes.’
‘Boulder. Have you been?’
‘I was in a conference once in Colorado Springs.’
‘Did you like it?’
‘I didn’t see much more than the hotel, which was really nice. It was, the….um, some big, fancy place.’
‘Yes! That was it. Incredible mountains.’
‘Yes. It’s a beautiful place to live. Next time you should visit Boulder.’
I nodded to the screen on the wall without looking directly at it, ‘How long will it last? How many times will I need this?’
‘Once. I plan to make it perfect.’
‘Can you refer me to a cardiologist I can follow up with? I can travel here once a year if I have to.’
He shook his head. ‘You won’t need one. It will be perfect the first time.’ He said it quietly but firmly, with conviction and humility. I suddenly thought he was very handsome and wished we could walk down to the street and find a restaurant and drink a glass of wine together and he could tell me what it was like growing up in the South.
‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘Thirty-three. But I’m like an old lady,’ I caught myself smiling and feeling flirtatious, interrupted by a cough.
I raised my right hand and placed the palm over my chest. ‘Where will it be?’
He rolled his chair over to my side of the table and leaned forward, ‘May I?’
I nodded. ‘It could be here,’ he drew a line with his finger under my right breast. ‘Or here, about this big,’ he spaced his thumb and forefinger along my sternum about three inches apart. ‘Below the neckline of this shirt. Over here,’ his hand moved back to beneath my breast, ‘the problem is that it will be complicated. We have a lot of work to do and we would be more successful here,’ his hand moved back to my sternum.
‘Okay,’ I said. Sitting so close, his hands touching me, I understood for the first time that ours was an intimate relationship, albeit an awkward one. I also realized that he would see me naked and the circumstances of that suddenly seemed incredibly unfair. I pulled back, embarrassed.
‘Do you have any other questions?’
I wanted to ask a pressing one: Would I be cold in the ICU? I was always cold. How would they know I was cold if I couldn’t tell them? Would they check my skin for goosebumps? It seemed like one of the most important things to know but I couldn’t seem to form the words. Instead I chided myself: Do other people think of such stupid questions?
As we walked out of the office together I asked him, ‘Are you superstitious?’
‘No,’ he said, then wrinkled his forehead. ‘Why?’
‘The date,’ I said.
He thought a moment and then smiled, placing a hand on my shoulder, ‘No,’ he said. ‘Besides, for you, I bet Friday the thirteenth will be a lucky day.’ Then we walked down separate hallways.
I spoke with my little sister the day before and she said, ‘God only gives you what you can handle.’ I knew I was supposed to thank her, but instead I said, ‘Well, then maybe I need to stop handling so well so that I get less.’
I ate pizza out of the delivery box with Jonathan and my parents in our 17th-floor room. We sipped some wine. ‘Is it okay for you to drink wine?’ my mother asked.
‘Yes. The anesthesiologist just told me not to get drunk.’ I paused and smiled, ‘I told him same goes for them.’ The sun was setting and we spoke aimlessly while peering into the lives of people who lived on rooftops in Manhattan.
That night, standing in the hotel shower, I had scrubbed my body down twice—as directed—with a strong antiseptic. Afterwards I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my naked chest. My eyes followed the contours of ribs, breasts, skin, and bone, as I used a finger to trace over the smoothness of my sternum, trying to create a memory of what it looked like. Unadulterated now, I wondered what they would find when they cut it open. And I wondered what they might leave behind.
Later, in bed, I dreamed I was speaking to someone. I had something urgent and important to say, but I was under water and every time I moved my mouth, forced air out intending words, intelligible sound, it was swallowed by the water, my pleas only audible as nonsense.
I lay in the pre-op perfectly calm. A gap in the green curtain at the foot of my bed let me look out on the preparations being made by nurses, techs, physicians, amid the hum of computers, coffee mugs nearby, as it was not yet six a.m. A nurse came in, stood beside me, checked a clipboard, and then told me she would administer some anti-anxiety medication. I shook my head. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. She looked at me quizzically, but then seemed convinced and let it go, continuing to take my vitals. She slipped out, promising to return soon. I closed my eyes but I was too awake to pretend to be drifting, so I opened them again and stared at the ceiling.
Intellectually, I knew that I should be nervous to be waiting in a cardiothoracic pre-op. But the reality of inhabiting that body had become the greatest terror, and outside of the hospital, all that awaited me was a grisly death of drowning in my own lungs at a young age. So lying amid machines and surgeons allowed me to finally rest. At last, someone else would take responsibility, and I relaxed into that, surrendering to the only forces that could help me live longer.
A few minutes before they wheeled me out, the nurse had returned and injected a low dose of an anti-anxiety medication. As I was pushed down the hallway, taking in the scene of passing ceiling tiles and lights and wondering if the architects had considered that this would be the view of many patients, I still felt perfectly calm. The light and air felt different inside the operating room. I tried to swivel my head around to take it all in, but the anesthesiologist needed my head to stay put so he could fasten his own custom-made hair cap for me.
‘He’s famous for his hair caps,’ the nurse told me.
I laughed and started to joke with him. He teased me back for a few moments, but then I heard him say, ‘She’s a little too awake. Give her….’ And then I drifted, from calmness, through a brief placid drop into non-awareness.
I had not cried for nine days. At times, tears forced their way through shut lids, but my throat never let the gate open. I was too close to the threshold: sometimes in it, sometimes just outside its periphery. Letting go like that I could have lost my tenuous grip on the one rope that was keeping me here. So I clenched my teeth, hardly spoke, stared at white ceilings, white walls, out of a picture window, and I waited. By the time I was done waiting, many lifetimes had passed. I was an ancient, withered woman.
In the morning Sadé returned, bringing freshness and smiles with her. Amid the monotonous grime of my existence in that room, she looked like clean, ironed clothes, smelled like flower-scented soap, and she moved in a willowy way that instilled life in the particles in the air, so that everything seemed to rise to meet her. I sat up straighter, the flowers that my sisters brought that were in the vase at the window perked up, even my bed sheets looked like they were trying to be a little neater, straighter, hide the sweat stains from the night.
She was glad to see that I was still faring better than the previous morning and, when she handed me the paper cup with my muscle relaxer, she promised that we would all have a decent day. My blood pumped full of pain relievers, Sadé had carried in the sunshine despite the rain outside the window, and the morning seemed to pass quickly. It was shortly after noon when a different x-ray tech came in and took a scan of my chest. I figured Mike must have the weekend off. Not long after that, Dr. A walked in authoritatively, stood at the foot of my bed and announced, ‘We will take out the tube.’
No one else was there. Jonathan had left the hospital and walked down the street in what had become a daily ritual, where he bought me a smoothie that I sipped on throughout the day. When I fell asleep he would put it in the mini fridge in my room to keep it cold, and when I woke he quietly placed it on the table beside me, urging me to eat. It was the only food I would agree to.
Lying there alone, Dr. A stood beside me, to the right. He was very tall, but closer I could see the authoritative air he had entered with fading. There was almost fear in his eyes. But what he said was, ‘I will just pull this, and then you will be fine.’ His words were directed at me, but it sounded like he was talking to himself. I was used to procedures with extensive preparation, so I followed his instructions, lifted my right arm overhead, while he raised my gown just a little. I thought there would be more, but after all of the waiting, hunching, the agony, the sleepless nights, the disbelief that I would ever be free, he said, ‘Done.’
I had hardly felt it. Our eyes met. We both waited a moment. I breathed, once, then a few times. Nothing happened. His face relaxed, smiled a little.
For a moment I saw myself through his eyes. He stood, pressed his shoulders back into upright posture, and I had the fleeting feeling that our roles had shifted, that in that instance, in a place of desolate secularism, I had been the surgeon. Through our odd relations in this strained week, circumstances had forced us together in a tense, intimate way, thrusting my humanness beneath his eyes. It all happened so quickly, that brief exchange through the eyes, but before he turned away to leave the room, with a content smile that barely tugged at the corners of his lips, I saw that all authority and roles had melted. We were two humans, equally terrified, equally changed. A confusion took hold and began to spin my head in a circle that would not stop, that dumped out the concept of order, rearranged everything, then blew it apart yet again, to bring it back together and reorganize it in yet a different way, with infinite variations, and the concepts of director and follower, victim and perpetrator, and all other roles appeared useless and moot.
The time from when Dr. A’s head disappeared into the hallway and the moment my mother’s appeared, was only a few seconds, but in that I sat with my jaw dropped, utterly confounded, unclear as to why I was there: had I come to have my heart operated on? Or had I come to operate on the hearts of others? I could not even separate them, as they appeared before me as threads of the same cloth, and when I teased one, the material fell apart. It was not enough time to ponder, before my mother entered with a large, cautious grin on her face. Only then did I realize I was done.
Jonathan had not been gone long, but by the time he returned there was talk of preparing my discharge papers for that same day, although Sadé raised a warning hand with a warm smile, that it could take several hours to make that happen.
For the first time since the surgery, I could move freely. There were no tubes scraping at my insides, I wasn’t tied to boxes that pulled on my skin, muscle, and organs, and the muscle spasm in my back had released when Dr. A pulled out the tube. In the absence of those connections, I felt miniature and harrowed, as though the little that remained of ‘me’ was so minute that it hardly warranted all of the fight.
To celebrate, Jonathan took me on a walk. Other than the past day and-and-a-half we had had a daily walk around my floor, that was slow-plodding and painful. This day we walked out of my room, past the nurse’s station, turned left down a breezeway, and I exited the Step-Down Unit for the first time. We found ourselves in a large glass-domed atrium with trees planted and some nearby benches and tables. I was tired from the exertion so we sat on one of the benches. It was the closest I had been to a normal place since I had awoken from surgery. Out there were every day people: hospital workers, doctors, nurses, businessmen and women, healthy people, who had been so close all along but effectively on another planet.
As I sat there, the normalcy bustling about me, the past nine days suddenly flooded to the surface. My head lilted to the left to rest on Jonathan’s shoulder and I wept. Until then I had not known what it meant to weep. There was a surge from the lowest part of my abdomen that pulsed up in waves, gathering from each new part of the body more force, the wave was tidal after passing my chest, arriving in my throat larger than the space could manage, and so the whole thing blew out of my mouth in wretched gasps and moans. With each tide of release, my body convulsed so violently that he could not even place his arm around to embrace me. Instead, he resigned to sit there, my head bouncing on his shoulder with the movement, and he watched me and cried himself.
When I was spent and the waves had quieted, and we sat there in our own bubble in the atrium, I looked at his red eyes and realized he had been there all along. Someone had always been there. Each day that I lay in the hospital, someone had hovered, kept watch. Mostly, it was Jonathan and my mother who took turns. But they had felt far away and we never really spoke. My experience there was one of being on an island that no one else could reach. Even now, I don’t remember how they passed their time. We moved as if in different places. I could not reach theirs and could not bring them to mine. I hadn’t noticed anything outside of myself till then. I also understood that he had seen me at my most disgusting and wondered what it must have been like to watch, that it must have had its own, entirely separate impact. We had walked into this place already divided, and the week-and-a-half had battered us both, but differently. Our struggles had been internal and separate and neither of us really understood the other’s. The wedge that had been placed long before had completed its splinter. We were leaving there not knowing one another at all.
Sadé was right. The entire afternoon was a preparation for my departure, which did not happen until after six p.m. In the middle of the afternoon, the dietician came in to take my food order for the next day. I told her I was leaving but she said they put the orders in anyway, just in case. She rattled off the list of food options for the next day, and I only half-listened, as usual, since the options were typically tasteless. I was on a gluten-free diet and the imposed hospital diet of the cardiac wing which is non-fat, so nothing ever sounded appetizing. Usually, for breakfast, I was offered a rice cake. With my dry mouth that sounded as delightful as cardboard. But then I heard her say, ‘Gluten-free waffles.’
My head swiveled to look at her. I couldn’t believe that after all this time, when I was leaving she offered me that. I almost accused her, ‘You’ve been holding out on me,’ but managed to bite my tongue.
I was taken by wheelchair down the hall, through the atrium to the elevators, and down to the ground floor, all the way out to the sidewalk, where I was finally allowed to stand on my own wobbly legs. Jonathan and my mother hailed a cab and they delicately placed me in the back seat. Jonathan leaned forward and told the cab driver, ‘Drive as slowly as possible and we will pay you twice your normal fare.’
‘Well, it looks like the world is still here,’ my mother mumbled.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘It’s the end of the world today,’ Jonathan said.
I stared at them blankly.
‘Some preacher has been predicting that today is the end of the world, and he has everyone worked up about it.’
I kept staring. I couldn’t believe that if this was the last day of the world that I had chosen to spend my final days like that.
The cab dropped us off at the hotel on the Upper East Side, where I had stayed the two days before surgery and where Jonathan and my mother had taken turns resting, showering, and eating while I had been in the hospital. We had a one-bedroom apartment on the seventeenth floor with a special rate for hospital patients. They had told us in advance that when I was discharged and came back to the hotel we should check in with the concierge to pay for an extra person.
As we entered the lobby on Saturday evening, there were guests milling about in groups, talking excitedly, looking like they were about to go out. The staff behind the desk were laughing with one another. But within a moment of entering, everyone went silent. I felt their eyes on me, following as my mother and I walked towards the elevators. Jonathan had approached the concierge to inform them that we had an extra guest, but the man’s eyes were riveted on me, and I saw him raise a hand to Jonathan, waiving him away. In the elevator Jonathan told us he had refused to charge us extra.
The forty pounds I had gained in water weight were gone, along with an additional ten. My arms and legs were skeletal. The short-sleeved shirt I wore showed the bruise on my forearm that looked like someone had pounded it for hours with a mallet. I had a large scab on my neck from the line that had been there, and I was clutching the red heart pillow to my chest. My skin was gray, pasty, and clammy, and the dark circles around my eyes were so pronounced I looked like I had been punched in the nose. I realized that I looked like I had just walked in from a war that none of them even knew was going on.
My mother rummaged some clean clothes for me out of the suitcase I had packed. Then I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I stared at the mirror, but avoided my hollow eyes, looking just above, as I plucked my eyebrows. Then I showered, gently massaging soap, not yet brave enough to touch anything between my neck and navel. I shampooed my hair twice, running my fingers through with conditioner, pulling out clumps of hair that washed towards the drain. I was carving out femininity in an androgynous body, trying to define my humanness, convince myself of it.
And then it was nighttime. The lights outside and sounds of traffic seventeen floors below told me I was on the other planet now. Jonathan and my mother had rounded up all the extra pillows in the apartment to prop me up, help me get comfortable. They were quiet now, sleeping. I was wide-awake. For all that time I had been kept alive by external forces. Now I was alone, no nurse’s station safely humming in the background, promising immediate response. No wires, tubes, or machines. The umbilical cord had been cut so quickly but I did not yet believe I could survive without them. And in the absence of the pain of chest tubes, for the first time I recognized that my sternum had been cut in half, cracked open, and then wired back together. It hurt. I had not even noticed it till then. I tossed and turned, but as I rolled onto a side, I felt my ribs shift unnaturally, and could feel a scraping of bone between the two halves of the severed sternum. I had held myself in such tortuous postures, coddling the sensitive areas around the tubes, but now even with freedom, there was still no comfort. I had thought getting myself out of the hospital was the greatest struggle, but now I was terrified to face what lie ahead. I wanted a nurse. I wanted a urinary catheter. I wanted a morphine drip. I wanted security. I wanted stupor.