The nurses’ station on the 8th floor of Methodist Hospital Dallas has a stack of travel magazines as part of their curriculum of torture. It was the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday ironically enough, when I wandered by and picked up one with a cover photo of palm trees and sandy beaches. The headline read: “Phuket! Closer Than You Think!”
I showed it to the attending nurse behind the counter.
“How would you pronounce that?” I asked.
Working a holiday shift, she wasn’t really in the mood. She gave a quick, irritated glance.
“Fuck-it” she said.
“You sure it’s not Poo-ket?”
“Ph makes an f sound. Fuck-it. Don’t matter anyway. Still the same place.”
I smiled. I didn’t need a magazine to transport me to Fuck-it. I was already there. I had been there for about a week. And I was ready to go home.
The Saturday evening before Thanksgiving I was eating dinner at a friend’s house when I began feeling nauseous. I excused myself and went outside. Suddenly, my knees buckled and a rush of cold air penetrated my every pore. Face down on the grass, I started retching violently. No vomit. Just heave after painful heave of dry nothing. Then desperate gasps. I stumbled to my car and drove home. By then, I was screaming in pain. I fell through the back door where my startled wife tried to understand what was going on.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
I was writhing on the floor. I told her to give me a few minutes.
Wisely, she would not. A short time later we were at the Emergency Room where a series of tests revealed I had a rupture where my esophagus intersected with my stomach.
And thus began my eight week medical odyssey- one from which I hope to never fully recover.
The day following my ER diagnosis I transferred to Methodist Dallas to see the only physician in north Texas who performs endoscopic suturing. I narrowly qualified as a candidate for the procedure since my hole was on the larger end. On Monday morning, I had a stent placed in my esophagus and the rupture was stitched. All good, right?
Sure. Except nothing could disturb my esophagus while the rupture healed. So the next day, I had a narrow plastic feeding tube inserted into my jejunum. This would be the conduit for all of my nutrition the next several weeks. For at least 12 hours per day I would be tethered to a pole that forced brown liquid into my gut. Ice chips would be my only oral diet for the foreseeable future.
The first four days of my hospitalization were packed with surgeries.
Thanksgiving Day was the first official day of recovery. Needless to say I wasn’t exactly awash in grateful sentiments. Unfortunately that attitude wasn’t much different from Thanksgivings past. Sure, I would give a cursory nod to my blessings. But then I would move on to matters of greater importance….like football or climbing some imaginary social/financial beanstalk.
This Thanksgiving I awoke to an almost unbearable sadness.
My family did their best to intervene. My wife would remind me to take it one day at a time or to think of people who had it even worse than me. Good points, to be sure. But comparing my relative fate to some other poor bastard who had it worse only got me so far. I even tried my hand at some self-actualization.
I mean, am I perfect? No.
But am I the type of person who tried each day to be a better person?
Mostly alone, I started to reflect on what had brought me to that point.
I wondered whether the etiology for my torn throat was the bile of cynicism I was devouring on a daily basis. The truth is, something toxic had been festering in my gut for a long time. Perhaps it was witnessing the rancid state of society that numbed me to the world. It could be unresolved grief for a friend I lost to a heart attack in February or watching a family come to terms with the tragic loss of their son. Meanwhile, the slow creep of Alzheimer’s has completely shrouded my dad in its heavy fog.
So needless to say, happy horseshit had been in short supply around these parts.
Medically speaking, I knew there was a real problem. The past ten years, I had a half dozen trips to the emergency room to extricate food stuck in my pipe. But rather than treat the cause, I decided it was easier to deal with the symptoms. I didn’t have the time.
For some reason, I have always been in a hurry. Not exactly sure where I was going or why, but I had to get there quickly. Looking back, I think I was just afraid to sit still. If I was always on the run, the cruel hand of fate would never catch me.
But as the saying goes, I found my fate on the road I took to avoid it.
I was finally discharged from Methodist Hospital after 6 nights and I went home to settle into my new routine-a plastic tube through which a light brown liquid coursed directly into my bowels. Ice chips to moisten my mouth. My kids were gone and my poor wife tried her best to save me from a tsunami of self-pity. She didn’t stand a chance.
Ten days after I left Methodist, I spiked a fever. Later that day, I was back at Methodist Hospital with an abscess-a big, nasty, pus filled infection.
To clear the fluid, a drain was inserted into my back with a tube threaded through to my abdomen. This appendage had a plastic bag on one end which collected the discharge from the infection.
After a few days of treating my sepsis, the doctor ordered a barium swallow to determine whether the sutures were still sealing the rupture.
I knew this was a pivotal moment. If there were no leaks I could continue along this course. The presence of any leaks meant we were back at square one.
I was wheeled in a hard plastic chair to a frigid room. The radiologist had an emergency which put her behind schedule. So I sat. For hours. I couldn’t rush it. I couldn’t will it to turn out any particular way.
This is where things started to change. With no iPad or phone to distract me from the stubborn immediacy of suffering, I watched as other patients and their families trickled by. You can learn a great deal observing people who help those in need. I watched an elderly man reach across to grab the hand of his frightened wife as she went in for an MRI. I saw a nurse hum a sweet hymn to a man, barely conscious, just returning from surgery. I recalled my own family who sat with me and encouraged me and prayed for me and cheered me on.
When something kicks you squarely in the nuts, it alters your vision. Over the next two hours I felt this strange thaw. No matter what the radiologist discovered, that’s where I was. And I would deal with it. And I would be grateful for it.
The short version is that my sutures were in place but I had to go back to the hospital a few days later to treat a second round of sepsis and pneumonia. It was rough. But by then I was busy recalibrating my attitude.
I realize now this had to happen to me to bring me to this place and I’m glad it did. The manner is unfortunate, but I’ve never been much for subtle hints or signs or nudges.
The older I get, the harder it is for me to deny that life is just one big crap shoot. Some fucking nut job slays 17 people on a sunny spring afternoon. Cancer kills an eleven year old. A young mom dies in childbirth. It’s hard not to be cynical. So I had to face it head on to get my arms tentatively, uneasily around it. So, what is “it” exactly?
I suppose it is the realization that the beauty of life might just be its fragility.
Sure there are people engaged in horrible battles. But isn’t that where we find the most exquisite humanity? They’re inseparable.
Grief sucks, to be sure. And while it’s cathartic and gut wrenching it’s also beautiful and cleansing. It strips away the bad parts of the world. The cynicism and the anger and the hate. It reminds us of our overwhelming capacity to love and to be loved. It’s magic really.
My dad doesn’t know who I am but he still understands laughter and hugs and love- the very things that make us human. He’s in the same place but he wakes up in a new world every day-one that he can’t distinguish from the one he woke up in yesterday.
In a way, we do too, because we never know what is coming our way. Things change in an instant. One day we are in “Poo-ket;” the next we are in “Fuck-it.” Same place. How it’s pronounced is up to you.