Imagine that you wake up, under water.
You rise slowly from the depths of the ocean and break through the plane of the surface of the sea and take your first breath. You find yourself breathing through a plastic tube that goes down your throat and seems to reach to the toes of your feet. Lying face down on the slab of the operating room (later the nurses will object to you calling it “the slab”), your first thought is that you’re going to get waterboarded.
You cannot talk, so you gesticulate fiercely with your right hand, pointing at the tube using the universal sign of slashing your throat in a gesture that is meant to signify END THIS or TAKE IT AWAY. The medical personnel decide you can breathe on your own and acquiesce to your demands. The anesthesia wore off early, and you woke up before your time.
Then you take your first breath—unassisted—and it’s as if a Mack truck hits you. You take another breath, and the Mack truck crashes into you again. The surgery has gone through muscle, bone, nerves and sinew to get at your heart, but none of your sensitive organs hurt. Only the burning quadrangle of your rib cage hurts as you breathe. Seemingly, every hole in your body—and some that weren’t there before—has a plastic tube coming out of it, with many long needles attached to your arms and extremities.
You are wheeled into a room at the Intensive Care Unit and you notice there is a yellow face floating in the air, looking at you and smiling. You wonder what’s so funny, what in hell is there for that smug, wan face to be smiling at? The eyes had a disturbing resemblance to the bespectacled eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg from the faded billboard on the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby. (This was the first of my hallucinations.) Then you realize that the smiling face is a Happy Face on a balloon, tied to a coffee cup by a string.
“This is from Bob and Nancy,” Margarita says. Leave it to Bob Ivie to call the gift shop, find out what gifts are allowed in the ICU and get one to my room while I’m away in surgery.
Then a routine began that lasted through the next days in intensive care. A succession of guardians sat next to my bed: sometimes we talked, but mostly we sat quietly with each other. Jimena, who is a third grade teacher in Phoenix, usually arrived between 5 and 6 am before her school day started. When she left for her classes, Sara came by after dropping off her boys at school. I had entrusted her with being the point person in my dealings with the university. From long experience, I can say that if you ever find yourself in need of confronting an academic institution, arm yourself with an attorney. University bureaucrats are terrified of lawyers, and render them a respect and an obeisance that they never offer their own faculty. Mid-morning would bring Margarita, who had taken a leave from her pre- school, and later Manuel would arrive, who would work long distance on his job as senior vice-president of a Wall Street insurance firm.
Of this time, I remember whispering to myself, “Watchman, what of the night?” and hearing in my mind the reply from my guardians: “The morning cometh, and also the night” (KJV, Isaiah 21: 11-12).
From these daily visits by my family, I gathered a useful lesson. If you ever have wondered what to do or say on a visit to a sick person, do not be afraid. The patient is in no need of exhaustive conversations. What sick individuals need is the thoughtful visit and the company. Sit and be with them—they’ll let you know what they need.
Nights were spent up at all hours, searching for comfortable positions on the hospital bed, watching favorite old films run by the classic movie channels: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons; Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire and Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar with Brando; Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke; films noir or 50’s westerns when I could find them. In times of pain or disorientation, go back to your old movies for morals you have forgotten and must learn anew.
The day after the surgery, the surgeon and a group of medical students visit the ICU. One of them, Dr. Riley’s assistant, shoots away from the pack and introduces herself to me. She is available for consultations as a liaison with the doctor. I never had the sense during surgery of my spirit floating above the slab on which they laid me, as those who have had life after death experiences claim. But later, I did have the memory of one clear vision. Out of left field, the first words I remember speaking to the doctor’s assistant were these:
In a past life, I was a Spanish conquistador who was sacrificed by the Maya on a pyramid as an offering to the sun. They took my heart out with an obsidian knife, and shortened my lifetime on earth. Now that heart has been returned to me, for a purpose I cannot yet discern. The scar on my chest is evidence of it.
This was my state of mind right after the surgery; it is still the same today. I am aware of the power and the limitations of metaphor. Myths that we live by allow us to rise, and carry our cross up to Calvary when we fall.
Something new had come into my soul, but something old remained. Everything was different, but everything was also the same.
(to be continued in the last post of the series)