Today, I had surgery. I’m writing this from my bed–a fact that kind of amazes me. For one, I’m at home mere hours after a difficult procedure. And I’m actually coherent and not shrieking in pain. I’m not even on heavy drugs, and I can walk just fine.
But there are other unpleasant things.
Like my neck and shoulders and jaw are absolutely killing me. The side effect of being intubated with my head stretched downward across giant pillows. That’s the worst pain I’m feeling. Oh, and the throat–my poor throat. It feels like I have pneumonia–with all the gunk and the raw everything…and that cough that makes me hate everything. The actual thing they operated on? None of the normal symptoms, at all. That feels normal and fine. I am, however, wincing at not-normal symptoms that are from having a tiny pelvis. My body doesn’t play nice with modern medicine. Hence, my anesthesiologist using an ultrasound to find a good vein for an IV after several failed attempts and many painful bruises.
I’ve been here before. The bruises will heal.
But some parts of my body feel alien and delicate–like touching them will make them fall apart. I’m afraid to look.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a specialist to see what might be causing a problem I’ve been having. Oh, and I needed an annual exam. In my gut, I knew it was my thyroid meds. I knew it because that’s when it all began. When I’d skip a day, it’d stop. But that sort of thing wasn’t normal. And I have a family history of very bad things–that, left uncaught for too long–eventually killed my aunt. After many battles. It transformed from one thing to another. Only to go away–till we all sighed in relief for a while–only to come back as some new thing. And eventually, it stayed.
My aunt with the red hair, who used to make me tortillas–who taught me to make enchiladas–who we visited in summers…driving Daddy’s blonde station wagon. The subject of so many pictures. The only family I ever really knew other than my parents. Who I was like–in almost every way–according to Mama. One day, she was gone.
So, I get the concern.
But–in my heart? I know I’m not her. That’s not my story.
There are other things, too. My Mama had this procedure right before she conceived me. When they told her she’d never have a baby. That it was broken…and then this happened…and then I happened.
So, I knew about this procedure–though Mama certainly didn’t say everything.
Selective memory–when it comes to pain–runs in our family.
There were reasons to go here. Mine was not done for her reasons–more to diagnose and alleviate symptoms. I still have days to wait before I’ll really know anything. Answers I’d always needed. Things I just wanted to know. It was a God’s honest relief when Dr. M suggested it. Because I need to know this thing. Oh, and yes–let’s rule out the big bad scary. That too.
I was terrified. I Googled. (Don’t Google).
I like to know things. It’s my way of tricking myself into thinking I’m in some kind of control–when I, clearly, am NOT.
I did it for years when my gall bladder rotted. I did it when my Mama got sick. To comfort myself. Prepare myself. Rationalize. Find ways to postpone. To cope.
I’d had surgery before. But it was different.
I had been in absolute, utter, horrible pain for over a week. I’d been vomiting for two days, non-stop. I only sought help because I legit thought I’d die. And lo-and-behold–had I not–I would have. The surgery came in the nick of time–like God had planned it that way. The best doctors and the best nurses and everything just fell into place. It was an easy surgery as surgeries go. No issues with anything. Even my troublesome veins cooperated with little fuss.
I had no time to be scared. To overthink all the things and freak out about all the things.
Knowing–this time–was awful. More so because I had done this before, too. With her.
The last time I had to be at a hospital before dawn was the day of her surgery. When they stopped her heart and tried to replace that valve. When that didn’t work. It was a different hospital, but they’re really all alike. That room where all the people gather, all terrified and awaiting their fates. Where the exchange happens. And they ask questions about advance directives and life-saving measures.
Then, they whisk you off to some other room–where they prep you for surgery–along with all the others being prepped for surgery. It’s a flurry of medical histories, blood draws, EKGs, heart rate checks, and the exchange of street clothes for gowns that don’t ever close. I was alone today, but then, I was with her. I had to be her ears, after all, as I always had been. I was the one repeating the things people told her–in ways she’d understand. And then, the introductions. Of anesthesiologists you’ve never met–who are now critically important to your survival. You hope you don’t get a yahoo. And medical students who walk in just as the EKG tech exposes your boob. And smiling others all there doing something you don’t quite know.
And then, you’re whisked off somewhere–and someone else is holding your shoes.
Being the one in the bed, after being the one holding the shoes, is hard and comforting–and surreal.
For years, that moment with her tormented me. That last moment I saw my mother alive without a machine driving her. That whirlwind where I forgot to tell her goodbye. For years, I’ve wondered what she was thinking. Was she scared–as terrified as I was? What did they do to her after I saw her disappear?
Last year, when I had my gall bladder surgery, I learned about that. That last part of ORs and anesthesia and breathing deeply. But I learned something she didn’t. I learned what it felt like to wake up–to be well and happy–totally high on morphine or whatever the Hell they gave me. Still here.
I didn’t learn about the weeks of fear. Of the unknown. Of what happens when things go wrong.
These few weeks, I learned that. Of the obsessive need to know everything.
And then, last night, I prayed to God and to my parents–to her–to help me be alright. Because I still have so much to do. And there are people who need me. And I am too young for this bullshit.
And it calmed me down–allowed me to surrender and race toward that inevitable…and put up with the missing paperwork and the IVs that wouldn’t go and the difficult intubations.
And I got it. In some small way. I understood the things I observed in her those days when she was dying.
And I realized she was okay. She accepted it all. She forgave all the shortcomings. And she went in with her eyes open.
I know this because–today–I was kinda convinced I’d die. Because that’s what those places are for me. I knew better, maybe. I hoped. But that part of me that lost her wasn’t listening to the statistics. All it could remember was everything that went wrong.
This was the place where you don’t get to say goodbye.
Waking up today–more like gasping awake–was a little like being reborn. Man, it sucked. I felt like an old man and a child at the same time. Just trying really hard to breathe. It was some surreal dimension where, like a baby foal–twenty minutes after coming out, I’m dressing myself on my own and walking to PACU. An hour later, I’m stuck in Colorado Boulevard traffic–buying chicken soup.
We are all such fragile miracles. And I am so grateful for all of it. But especially the lessons I could never expect about the people I loved so much.