Common Wisdom: Short Stay

You learn, to your surprise, that surgery is indicated. Minor, but requiring general anesthesia, and there’s the rub. To you, the prospect of extinguishing the light carries with it the real possibility it will not go on again. But there seems no option; the alternative is to risk detection of cancer. So you agree, and set the date, which seems comfortably remote.

Before you realize it, the advanced date is tomorrow. You look at the clock and begin those awful projections: “this time tomorrow I’ll . . . ” You try not to dwell on the imminent flirtation with mortality, but find yourself leaving instructions in a sealed envelope requesting a Latin Mass at the monastery nearby, in the event things go awry. Then the predictable pattern triggered by imminent danger: straightening drawers, general housecleaning. The primitive instinct towards order, the subconscious comfort in control, confronting the uncontrollable.

You know people are divided into two categories; those who think it can’t happen to them, and those who think it will. You fall into the latter. One daughter points out the preferable condition of pessimism, because life then holds pleasant surprises, The optimist is vulnerable to a series of letdowns.

You are grateful, of course, for the strides of medical science and shrink from recollection of pre-anesthesia stories, where amputations were performed with only a stiff shot of whiskey to the patient. But, as a medical wife, your exposure to the untoward is acute. What the layman takes as routine you regard as miraculous.

You decide to make your Easter duty, but since it’s Thursday (and you are averse to absolution secured by chatting on a rectory couch with your pastor) you go the local seminary. The priest does not ask an Act of Contrition, but offers a prayer and requests a simple act of penance. You have apparently received the Rite of Reconciliation. It feels odd, but you exit with some sense of having “gone to confession.”

Your manicurist, lapsing into the cardinal sin of the veteran regaling the uninitiated with tales of horror, relates her problems with nausea once awakened from anesthesia. You listen, but nausea isn’t your concern. Waking up is.

That evening, your mother is on the phone, worried. Your husband is out on business, unperturbed. One collegian remembers the date and calls home, but almost immediately plunges you into a heated discussion about morality that leaves you exhausted, if temporarily deflected from tomorrow’s focus. You lost your rosary beads last week on a trip; your youngest daughter, unasked, hands you her tiny pearl and gold beads, your gift to her at first Holy Communion.

Surgery is scheduled for noon; there is to be no food or drink after midnight. You worry about thirst until you remember the common fast — now abandoned — before Sunday Mass. You are chagrined to recognize the once routine discipline is now the cause of consternation. You set your clock and drop to your knees, with particular attention to the Act of Contrition.

The alarm rings and you mobilize. You swing into that remarkable oxymoron, the active paralysis, wherein you methodically go about what needs doing, all the while emotionally frozen. Immersion in the mundane and escape from threats of the unknown. Your husband is gone, without a note. Paradoxically, you take comfort in his nonchalance. You try to forget he is the quintessential optimist. Your daughter drives you to the hospital and you walk yourself into Admitting. The clerk is cheerful and complimentary and you hear a voice — yours — responding about exercise and calories, which subjects now seem silly and unavailing. She attaches a plastic ID bracelet to your wrist and escorts you to the surgical floor.

You sit with your papers in the waiting room with other pre-ops, striking up a conversation with an attractive Yuppie pretending, as he does, to be interested in the topic. After his, your name is called. You proceed to Short Stay quarters, so named because if all goes well you are not required to stay the night. You are handed a hospital gown, which you exchange for your own clothes, symbolically and substantially losing your identity. You can no longer bolt out the door. You fold your things into a white plastic bag, on which is emblazoned the at once pretentious and pathetic PERSONAL BELONGINGS. Questioned about allergies you mention rather apologetically epinephrine, and the nurse assures you it is essential information, revealing the untimely news that her son almost died from a chemical reaction. You receive a bright pink bracelet, naming the offending drug. You look across the room and see someone’s plastic bag, and Topsiders. In an absurd reduction, it is all that remains of the Yuppie.

Teeth gritted against it, you tremble slightly and are asked if you are cold. In the waning drive to preserve composure you blame room temperature. You’re given a pre-op injection, which you both fight and welcome, the surge of chemicals inexorably reducing you to docility. No turning back.

The comfort of bed gives way to an unyielding gurney. You are being transferred to the O.R. Someone expresses exasperation: “They’re running late again. They just can’t keep a schedule.” Feeble, you envy her normalcy. For her, it is just another day. Halls spin by. An elevator conveys you upwards. A blast of overhead lights and many voices. You’ve arrived. Your head is lifted to receive a cap, a heated blanket drapes you against O.R. chill. “We need your arms, now,” a pleasant voice requests. You try to comply, but the arms are leaden; assistants arrange them on top of your blanket. You still have rosary beads clutched in one hand and you hear slurred speech from your dry mouth say to the anesthetist, “no offense.” Her response is instant and congenial. “We’ll take all the help we can get.” The surgeon’s warm hand closes over your own. Literally, a nice touch. You feel inordinate gratitude for the gesture, as EKG monitors are attached under your arm and to your chest. A prick deep in your left forearm signals the final step, the opening of a vein to serve essential purposes: it will admit the pentothal, inducing sleep; it will receive a slow drip of dextrose and water thereafter, and it is at the ready promptly to circulate drugs in case of cardiac, respiratory, or bleeding emergencies. You are glad the nitrous oxide mask and esophageal intubation occurs after sleep. The merciful threat of sleep. You wonder if your epitaph might read, “Short Stay,” and realize the phrase could apply to every man. A generic epitaph. Then you don’t wonder or realize anything at all. Darkness at noon.

A blast of cool air on your face. It is an oxygen mask, the kind flight attendants wave at you before take-off, which you personally know you could never properly activate. The surgeon’s voice comes from a well: “You look great. Everything looks fine.” A man is groaning next to you and your empathy is profound. Even debilitated, the human urge to help. You try, but cannot lift your head.

Wheels turn under you. Walls go by. The elevator. You are making the return trip, you and the pearl and gold rosary from a long ago happy day. You are moved from the gurney to a Short Stay bed, at whose end you dimly detect the plastic bag, reading SMITH. It is over.

You lie in bed lapsing in and out of sleep. People come and people go talking of Michelangelo. Hours from now, you manage a rocky ascent, take your plastic bag, and discard hospital garb and childlike submission, putting on your clothes and your identity. The pathology report, with good news, will come days later. You are taken home and sleep soundly through the night. In the morning you wake, feeling unburdened for the first time in weeks. You turn the page of your daily scriptural calendar and, in a coincidence you would scorn as contrived in a movie, you read, “I laid me down and slept; I awakened; for the Lord sustained me” (Psalm 3:5).


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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