I close my eyes and try to meditate or pray, but the silence I long for can’t be found among the competition between the fluff emanating from the TV screen on the divider in front of us and the thought provoking, up to the minute, commentary from NPR about the airstrikes in Syria oozing from the front seat radio.
It’s a rainy fall morning and the windows of the taxi are completely fog-covered, the only break coming from lazily rolling droplets of water. The vine covered stone walls draped with overgrown tree branches that line our pathway are barely visible as we make our way across the park. The parade of cars headed east is moving at a snail’s pace. The UN is in session, so this morning we get to experience the traffic jams we’ve been hearing about all week. The combination of the steamed up windows and the non-existent pace of travel leaves me feeling trapped.
He is sitting on the right hand side, engrossed in his phone. Reading. Watching videos. Distracting. I am sitting against the door on the left, the middle seat wide between us. I am afraid to touch him or get too close, for fear I will drag us both into that canyon of unspoken fears and anxiety. We are silent in the midst of all the noise.
At a loss, I pull my spiral bound notebook out of my bag filled with snacks and computer and phone charger and power cords. My stomach is churning. My green smoothie is balancing, untouched, between my legs. The thought of putting anything inside me is revolting.
We emerge from the park, crawl across Fifth Avenue, and then Madison Avenue, and then Park Avenue before traffic finally clears. We are making progress now. There are no faces on the sidewalks this morning, only umbrellas dancing through the raindrops. Polka dot, tan, Kelly green, over-sized golf umbrellas, clear plastic dome umbrellas, and of course a smattering of the flimsy black three dollar street corner umbrellas.
A quick left turn and we have arrived. We are directed to the 6th floor, surgery. When the elevator doors open we are greeted by long expanses of wood paneled walls. It is stained lightly and is smooth and modern. The desk where we check in is a large slab of blue and gray swirled marble and the four foot wide walkway that separates the square shaped waiting areas is patterned with slate gray rectangular tiles. Live orchids sit on each of the three tables in the waiting space we select. It doesn’t feel like we are in a hospital, and for that, I am grateful.
A sign informs us that in deference to all those fasting in advance of their procedures there is no eating or drinking in the waiting room. Suddenly, the green drink I couldn’t stomach the thought of consuming just a few minutes before is burning a hole in my mind. I take a trip to the bathroom and sneak a few sips.
When I return to my seat and glance up and to the right, my eyes catch the eye of a gray haired doctor smiling out at me from the canvas of a four foot by three foot oil painting. I’m not sure how I missed him before. His white lab coat is crisp and pristine and he wears a baby blue dress shirt and maroon tie underneath. His left elbow rests casually on a dark wood ledge and he holds his eyeglasses between the first and second fingers of his right hand. In the dark blue background rests a faded out logo beyond his right shoulder. Cancer center are the only legible words. I guess they had to let us know somehow.
A nurse finally comes out and calls his name. She double checks his wristband to make sure she has the right guy. Satisfied, she directs us to the set of automatic doors at the far end of the room. As the doors float open, the stark fluorescent lights and barren yellowish white walls remind me that this is indeed a hospital.
We are guided back to his “room”, which is really just a large repository for hospital beds. The only privacy comes from the muted drapes that hang on a curved track system along the ceiling. Momentarily, I am taken to the floating model train layout my oldest son wants to build with his dad in the basement of our summer cottage. Switches, buttons, wires, monitors and outlets labeled medical air, oxygen, medvac and CODE line the walls.
On the bed sits his pile of necessities, a standard issue whitish hospital gown dotted with blue squares and black and blue diamonds, a navy cotton Hugh Heffneresque cover up robe, a pair of gray ankle socks with white traction arrows on the bottom, and the piece de resistance, a black garment bag, labeled and tagged with his name and patient number, into which he is to place all his personal effects. The morbidity of it makes me cringe.
I can’t talk to him, because if I talk I will cry.
He pulls the privacy curtain shut and begins the process of undressing. He unfolds the hospital gown and is completely confounded. There are no discernable arm holes and just a few series of snaps and a couple of ties. I solve the riddle for him and explain how the use the snaps to create the form and shape. He is young. We are young. But we are not young. His face is red and I can see the vein on the left side of his neck pulsating. The voices drifting in from his neighbors are raspy and rugged and flecked with experience. The man in the bed to our left has smoked a pack a day for almost as long as my husband has been alive.
By all accounts my husband is here for a straightforward, low risk surgery, but the surroundings make it all seem so complicated. There is an unease today that wasn’t here last week when we were in the outpatient surgery facility, no more than a doctor’s office, where they were going to treat him with a quick procedure using a local anesthetic. But the surgeon decided after two hours of waiting that she wanted him completely under so his muscles would be totally relaxed. “He’s not at the age where things have started to loosen and the skin has begun to relax yet. It will be better this way.”
So we are here, with pre-op and IV’s and relentlessly beeping monitors and people who aren’t so lucky to be walking out and heading home later in the day.
As we wait for what comes next, a boisterous nurse walks through calling, “Flu shots, get your flu shots,” like a hot dog vendor at the ballpark.
A different nurse comes in and introduces herself. “You have more family outside, right?” she asks. My eyes well up as I shake my head, “no”. She averts her gaze, quickly changes the subject, and begins fiddling with his IV port. When she leaves, we sit in silence again. I can’t take it anymore, so I grab his hand and ask, “Have you been praying?”
He nods his head and quietly answers, “Every morning. Not as much as I should, but every morning.”
“It’s hard to tell with you,” I say with a smile. “I feel like I should be praying more too,” I continue, “but sometimes I feel like it doesn’t really matter. What can I say or need or ask that God doesn’t already know?”
“You know it does matter,” he says to me, “It has to matter or else nothing else really matters.”
“I guess. I just don’t feel like I know how to pray my love and gratitude and fear and neediness. I know how to live it, but praying it is different,” I tell him.
“I think I don’t pray much because I haven’t fallen in love with God yet,” he offered. “I believe things and I have faith in those things, I’m just not that into God. But I think God is working on me. No, I know He’s working on me. He’s been working and He just keeps going. I’m a big project,” he says with a wry smile.
“I’m just the opposite,” I tell him. “I have fallen head over heels in love with God. What I can’t get comfortable with is religion and beliefs and faith in all these man-made, man-run institutions. I can do the God stuff, but it’ all the messy humanness between Him and me that trips me up.”
“I know. You are a skeptic,” he jabs at me good-naturedly.
“No more than you,” I jab back. “Maybe in a different way than you, but not any more than you.”
The spiral bound notebook I have been frantically writing in all morning and has drawn more than one suspicious glance from the nurses working with us is sitting on my lap when the surgeon finally walks in. “Wow, that’s a lot of notes,” she comments.
My husband is quick to respond. “She’s a writer. She processing all of this right now.”
He called me a writer. My heart swells with love.
A look of relief passes across the surgeon’s face. I imagine she’s happy he didn’t say I am a lawyer.
The pre-op workups uncovered some other things on which he will want to follow up with his primary care physician she tells us. Elevated bilirubin levels and electrical blockages in his right aorta. Nothing related to or that will impact what they are doing today, but things to follow up on.
The redness in his face that had faded away returns and his eyes turn hard. When the doctor leaves I grab his hand and try to lighten the mood. “Well, I guess it’s official, you’re getting old,” I wisecrack. At that, the hardness in his eyes is replaced with the liquid of tears. “I’m not old,” he replied. “That’s the problem.”
I can do nothing but hold his hand.
It’s finally time to take him back and I am asked to go down to the first floor waiting area and check in at the desk. They will send a nurse out periodically to update me on his status. I leave him with an awkward kiss in the middle of the hallway before he turns left and I head right.
Downstairs I sit alone with my back to the window overlooking the city below. I longingly watch the small groups and pairs of fellow waiters talking quietly together. My phone beeps over and over with messages from loved ones and friends. I wish just one of them were here.
I pull out my computer and begin a feeble attempt to attack the to-do list I created to occupy me this morning. I end up spending most of my time cleaning out my inbox, desperately trying to stay ahead of the promotional emails and unread blog posts that relentlessly pile up, because that seems easier right now.
The time passes quickly. It’s a short procedure, much shorter than all the waiting to get to it, and before I know it, my phone is ringing, telling me to head back up to the 6th floor. When I arrive back at the reception desk I am directed into a private consult room where the surgeon will meet with me. It reminds me of a cross between the living room area in an extended stay hotel and the family respite room in a funeral parlor. Four worn tan and bluish gray armchairs surround a round wooden coffee table, empty, but for a box of tissues. On one wall, there is a writing desk and chair. Another orchid rests on the left hand side of the desk. There are two doors in the room, one that I entered from the hallway in the waiting area, and the other, adjacent to the surgery center, from which the doctor will enter.
She comes in after several minutes and tells me all went well. She saw nothing else suspicious and she did he best to close him up without distorting his tattoo too much. “I could care less about the tattoo,” I tell her.
He’s already coming out of the anesthesia, but it will probably be another half hour or so before I can see him. She directs me back to the waiting area.
I settle into one of the few empty seats, pull my computer out, and start to write. I can focus now.
About an hour later, a different nurse comes out. “You can come back and see him.” She takes me back to the same repository of beds where we started our day. The beds are no longer filled with alert patients anxiously awaiting their turn. Most are now filled with unconscious bodies hooked up to breathing tubes and pulsing machines. “He’s all the way down at the end,” the nurse tells me.
When I walk around the privacy curtain he is there. Sitting up. Looking at me. My breath catches in my throat and my eyes well up. He is pale and groggy, but he is there. The oxygen tube is still in his nose, but the nurse assures me it is turned off and everything is working on its own.
“You got the corner office, huh?” I joke, an ode to his prime placement by the window.
I sit looking him over while the nurse talks and I am taken back to a recovery room almost exactly six years before, where I first saw my father resting after his open heart surgery. The same weakness and frailty and vulnerability that shook me then, came back to me. These men I depend on. They are not invincible. They are only mortal.
A little more paperwork, discharge instructions, and assurances that he can keep food down and we are on our way home. I set him up on our sofa bed with his first real meal of the day and a cup of tea with honey to soothe his throat, tender and raspy from the breathing tube. He turns on Sports Center, pulls out his phone, and sets his laptop up next to him.
I know that we have reached the end of this chapter, but if feels like there is still so much work to be done.