Morphine doesn’t always work. On May 18th I would learn that as fact, the way I had once learned that the circumference of the earth is approximately one hundred eight times the distance to the sun. But on this day I understood it viscerally. I knew it the way I know what the color red looks like without even thinking about it. My lifelong grin-and-bear-it attitude was not serving me. I had expected to be in pain after surgery, and I was. So I grit my teeth and waited.
Seventy-five degrees upright was where I felt comfortable, although it was a loose adjective, descriptive only in its relativity. There were four chest tubes that had been placed deep inside my chest cavity while I was still cracked open on the operating table. The thick tubes snaked down six inches within the chest and exited my torso through incisions just below my breasts and traveled to a variety of boxes, carrying a yellowish-red liquid in a constant, unabated stream. Multiple times per day nurses checked the amount of reddish fluid draining into the boxes, before dumping it out. I was acutely aware of the chest tubes, and could feel where they disappeared beneath the stitches on my skin outside. I could feel them run inside, where they turned to travel deep within my chest, pressing on muscle, ribs, and nerves. I had discovered that if I was absolutely still, and if I kept my breath shallow, and if I looked at the left corner of the room where a mark on the drop ceiling looked like an elephant head, I could manage to get from one moment to the next.
The trick was to not move, ever. Not turn my head, not try to shift my torso, not lift my arms, and certainly not allow anyone to recline the bed. My mother had tried it on the second day to see if we could find a more relaxing position. But the movement shifted the angle of the tubes inside me and, whereas before it had felt like a knife had been stabbed into me and remained there, the movement felt like someone was twisting the knife, leveraging it against my own body’s weight, ripping through the areas that were already sore, while simultaneously finding new ones to injure. Within half an inch, I had gasped and begged her to stop. We had replaced the bed to ‘seventy-five degrees’ and left it there, day and night.
It was the young nurse, on the afternoon of the third day who said she would remove the central IV line in my right jugular vein. The thin tube ran deep down into my body, and on the outside had multiple knobs where medications could be administered with immediate response and my heart could be monitored closely. My mother told me the contraption made me look like Frankenstein. The nurse said it wouldn’t hurt at all, that I would hardly feel it; but I felt me body brace and I pushed the button on my morphine pump, hoping I had another eight minutes before they began so I could pump again. If I got enough in my system it might at least knock me out.
Family was always asked to leave for procedures, and I had come to understand why. No matter how benign the intention, agony was frequently the unavoidable effect in such a place. So my mother, father, and Jonathan stepped into the hall, walked passed the nurses’ station, and through the heavy fire door that did less to manage smoke and served more to separate the noises of the struggle of survival from banal conversation, daytime T.V., and the crunch of snacks from the vending machine washed down by slurps of canned soda from the visitor’s waiting area.
The nurse stood to my right, by the monitor, preparing for the procedure. She prattled about her Nurse Practitioner program, as she laid out plastic sheeting on the bed beside me, and I pretended to listen. Then she said, ‘I’m going to recline you.’
‘No!’ It came out as a weak, inaudible gasp. I was desperate but I had lost my voice since the tube was removed and was so afraid that I couldn’t even find words. It was moot anyhow, as the nurse had spoken while she was simultaneously pushing the button to recline the bed.
Someone had gotten deep inside me, to a place no person should be able to touch another. The probing was in blooms of pain of the organs, of the inner recesses of the soul. It was a private place, protected by skeleton and skin, and muscles that would retaliate before permitting a transgression.
From deep within me the seed of a fire burned that spoke to my diaphragm that pulsed to the lungs, and the lungs exhaled up through the scarred windpipe, and singed the tip of my tongue. I heard a woman scream, a terrible, chilling noise that reverberated through the ICU, a noise that instigated the sound of feet running along the hallway towards it. I wondered who the poor woman was and why they were torturing her. I was safely perched on the ceiling beside the trace of an elephant head. I recalled Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and how his image was like an ‘Om’ symbol—a different sound. A sacred sound.
And then someone grabbed my hand and in a blink we were on a dark street on a cool summer night in a village beside the alpine lake in the Salzkammergut. Tendrils of damp crept from the water around us, sneaking up jackets that we pulled closer around ourselves. We stood at the bend in the road just south of town beside a yellow brick house with green shutters framing windows that exuded warm yellow light and a melancholy piece by Chopin on the cello played by the musician who lived there. We fell into step together, heading north on the cobblestone, our feet clicking in rhythm with the music that slowly faded behind us, replaced by the sound of dripping water. We were standing before a spring: a metal spout that stuck out of a mossy, rocky hillside and dripped a constant stream of water into the stone basin below. I knew a man who lived there who could never pass without rolling up his sleeves to cup the water with his hands, bringing it to his mouth to slurp loudly and then proclaim, ‘Such fresh water—we are so lucky!’ He was a man who had suffered much.
‘I’m so thirsty,’ I thought.
I felt a tug, the night grew darker, gathering the figure beside me into shadow, the damp withdrew from my skin, receding back into deep valleys cut by ancient rivers that no longer spoke what they knew, and I felt the siphoning back into a jagged body that should have been a corpse.
I was glaring at the nurse, trying to split her with my eyes. My arms were useless, my legs were bogged, I was inert, so I put whatever fire of my being remained into my eyes and directed it at the young nurse, who was now breathing heavily, sweating, fidgeting nervously, under the stern gaze of an older nurse who had pulled back the curtain to the hallway and was staring in, assessing the situation. There was no way I could allow that to happen again.
‘You just have to breathe through it.’
I kept glaring. We panted together, eyes locked, until she lost her resolve. Retreating, she asked, ‘What if I put a pillow under your right shoulder? Do you think that would help?’
I nodded, almost imperceptibly. And she slowly placed the pillow behind me, with a gentleness that contrasted starkly with the awfulness of a moment before. She tried again. I breathed, the nurse breathed, and I stayed tucked between polyester sheets, beads of sweat forming at my hairline. While she worked to my right, I let my eyes stray to the Ganesha image, and thought that the elephant has a great memory. I wondered what he had seen and what he knew about this place. Perhaps I could ask him about the man who died in the night. He would know. What else could he remember? And what would he chronicle about me?
‘Done!’ exclaimed the nurse, already raising the bed back to comfortable. I turned my head to look. The nurse had just pulled a nearly-foot-long tube out of my carotid artery and I hadn’t even noticed. I was sure that should have hurt someone, but, below a certain threshold, pain is a relative phenomenon.
Winter arrived early, bringing the clouds down low to the tips of trees at the tops of the hills so it felt like I was in the mountains. The high peaks had come to me, since I could not visit them. Pores that had allowed room to breathe became fault lines, crevasses when water seeped in and froze, expanded. The edifice had no iron core so nothing would stand long after, solitary.
Jonathan and I—living with one another for over a year—had glided together into a space that we inhabited separately. Experience had nothing to do with circumstance, said our troubled minds, fighting each other because we couldn’t figure out who else to blame. There was little we should have chosen to share; we could have silenced possession and need, leaving only the emptiness to unify what we were and quiet the vastness we were not. Love as the inadequate way of saying, ‘I have nothing, am nothing’. But we were too young or dumb to be wise, so we rent ourselves to pieces, flinging them about carelessly.
We hibernated in an attic apartment on Mapleton Hill, bright light pouring through the windows, softening where the roof slanted. We stooped a lot, could only stand erect under the center roof line, then scurried to the nooks to find space. Bright red of the house outside, dark wide floor boards inside, a pantry with a ceiling four feet at its highest and a window we could only look out by lying on the floor.
A windy night, sleepless and agitated, windows rattled, doors creaked, then slammed. Parts of the house we had forgotten banged uselessly against the siding and suddenly I saw a long time into the future, the house abandoned, windows broken, a breeze passing through disturbing dusty things no one remembered anyhow. The same ones we cared so much about right then. The front door swaying on its hinge, and I was the tree, tall, thin, my branches naked of leaves, no sign of life showing. But still, bending, leaning, waiting.
From deep dark watery depths, would emerge fate, life, vitality. Strength is fluid, flowing, immeasurable. Cold and dark swim together, each one deepening the other, till they create an ocean that can swallow and hold things we can’t fathom; that can create creatures not ready to be seen by daylight.
I tried to squeeze myself out of a hole that was dug when my heels pushed firmly against the earth, unmoving. I went down, and my head was buried before I realized I was underground. Fingernails were not sharp enough to dig through moist dirt, pulling out only worms. Next time, if only the earth would rise to meet me, I would stand on it lightly, lean onto the balls of my feet, rock onto my toes, allow the falling to propel me, step by step, forward.