by Elaine Barnard
“You put this off for quite a while, Verna.” My surgeon extended his hand. “No worries, you’re small. You’ll sail right through it.” He smiled, the nurse smiled. Everyone seemed to smile at his medical expertise, the confidence of a god, something I didn’t have. That’s why I’d delayed for so long, postponed the inevitable.
I’d been feeling this ache for months, sort of a burning where my thigh met the hip joint. Bone on bone. The X-ray revealed the truth of the situation. Lubrication gone, the arthritic disintegration of the cushion that moved the bones with ease, like a brand new sports car that needed no attention to the engine. Hadn’t I always hoped that would be the case? I’d live forever with the assurance of youth, the balm of the blessed body, given as a gift to treasure forever.
When I was a child, pain was so remote it never entered my mind. It was something experienced by some far-off others. My body was my body, up for the daily task of keeping me alive, breath upon breath. Disease, any disease, I was certain with a child’s naiveté, would never happen to me.
But it did. The surprise of it after all my years at the gym, working out, eating right. Surely I was immune from the inevitable. Surely I would sail right through this surgery just as my surgeon predicted. Because I didn’t know how to handle pain. Where did it come from? Where did it go?
It was early on a Tuesday morning, 5 a.m. to be precise, that I woke, hungry, having eaten nothing since midnight, not even a drop of water passed my parched lips. I’d showered the night before and again this morning with anti-bacterial soap, slept in clean sheets and new pajamas to avoid infection at the hospital. Infection was the worry. It was rampant. If you got infected, your odds of recovery were slim even with antibiotics. There were new viruses, new strains that resisted antibiotics, that fed on your organs until they were no more. “So be careful,” my doctor had instructed. “Be vigilant.”
My lover and I drove in silence through the dim streets, lights barely flickering through the morning fog. It seemed unreal that I should be doing this. Surely it was a dream from which I’d soon awaken.
But the birds told me it was real, commuters hovering at the bus stop, the garbage trucks just rounding the corner. Had we put our trash out? Had we remembered the details of life that connected us each day so we’d remember our humanity, our many needs, not forget who we were and why we were here if only to put the trash out, that simple act binding us to the present, so we could never forget this earth, this starry globe that cradled us in its benevolence.
Deep in the mist we saw the hospital, a silhouette looming through the dawn, its white towers signaling, we are waiting, we are waiting for you to come. We slid into the parking structure like morning ghosts, our faces bloodless from little sleep, eyes puffy, hands trembling on the door latch.
An elderly man was there before us, checking in, repeating his name through the glass partition, torn jeans falling from his narrow hips, underwear white where it escaped the waistband. What is his problem? Why is he also here at six in the morning? What torment has brought him to Emergency, the only entrance open at this early hour?
Angels of mercy pray for him. Pray for us all here below your hallowed spheres. I repeated my name to the glass partition, my throat so dry my name was barely a whisper.
The clerk smiled behind the glass, a morning smile, a tinge of sleep behind her glasses. Click of the computer, mother of all information, “We were waiting for you. Your insurance card, please, and identification.”
How could I be identified? How would it be when…? Yes, that final identification, the last look that told them yes, it’s her, that’s the right one, the crooked toe, the artificial hip, the hands slightly arthritic. Yes, she’s the one.
I took a seat near the door in case I opted for escape instead. In case this was all a mistake and I shouldn’t really be here. There was another Verna they wanted, a Verna jean, a Myrna maybe. The door opened and shut. The nurse stood smiling, ponytail shining in the amber light as if she’d just washed it. So young, so fresh, her smile so disarming, as if we were going to a Sunday school picnic or a carousel ride in the mall.
“Come with me, Verna. We’ve been waiting for you.”
I followed her down the hallway. Paintings of flowers hung on the walls, blue water, white sand. The faint essence of disinfectant from an open doorway. Dream away time in the tropics. Lullaby and goodnight….
“Here, put this on, open in back.”
The gown was blue, baby blue, the color you might prescribe for an infant. The softness of it…. We are going to sleep, that’s all, to dream baby, to dream.
“Just put your clothes in this bag. Did you bring any valuables?”
“No, no valuables.”
“Now we’ll just climb into this bed and get you started.”
Started where? God of mercies pray for us.
Then the machines arrived, the poking and the pulling. The vast distances that separated us, the patient from the nurse as oblivion mastered the morning and I descended into the blank of time where nothing was remembered except the awakening somewhere else, outside of time now, because pain was prevalent, persistent, encompassing.
“How are you feeling?” my doctor asked the following morning checking for blood clots or the least sign of infection. The god was at my feet, radiant in the morning light, full of self-congratulation.
What a good job he’d done, what a fine incision. Here is where she bled, and here. This is the center of her trauma. This is where the blood has collected, this hematoma.
When will it go? When will the hematoma disappear, be absorbed into the body itself, that miraculous organ? As if he read my thoughts, he answered, “Be patient. Your body will do its job. It never fails.” And he disappeared.
But when? How long will it take?
“Your breakfast is here, everything you ordered.” The morning nurse smiled her breakfast smile. Did I order this, this vast pile of food as if I were about to join the soccer team or compete in women’s slalom at the Olympics?
My hand shook as I poured the coffee. Its fragrance lifted the mist beyond the window. I raised the fork and slid it into the mass of eggs, the color of sunshine, the color of morning. Behind the blinds a finger of sun blended with breakfast as if to confide in me, to tell me it was still there, the sun, the morning. Eat; savor the food on your tray, the warmth on your tongue. Feel your strength, you whose fear nearly overwhelmed you.
I savored, I ate, and then with help I tried to stand. They caught me as I toppled to the floor. Nurses on each side, holding me, helping me. “You’re still not strong enough,” one said. “You’ve lost too much blood,” said another. “Back into bed now. Your doctor will arrive shortly.”
And he did. “Another day here,” he said checking my chart, “and you’ll be ready to roll.”
“Therapy of course. Remember?”
But I didn’t remember. Perhaps I didn’t want to remember. Perhaps I thought a miracle would occur and I’d jump right off this bed and drive home, all healed, all right, no therapy, no such thing.
“They’ll come to your home three times a week until you’re stronger,” he said. “Can ditch your walker. Then we’ll send you to Nifty Over Fifty. They’ll finish you off.”
“How nifty will I become?”
“That depends on you, Verna. How fast you recover depends on how hard you work at it.”
I winced. The painkillers were wearing off. A cloud passed over the sun. The ever present television forecast rain.
“I have these prescriptions for you. Make sure you take all your meds at the times I’ve designated. Call my office if you have any questions.”
Suddenly he was gone. I heard him in the hall murmuring to the staff. Murmuring about me. But was it about me? He’d probably already forgotten about me and was giving orders for the next patient. And the next. Suffering never stops. I swallowed the first of my pills willing the pain to recede. Carefully I read the prescriptions for the next day’s regimen. Medications I’d never heard of and hoped never would again.
I lay back on my pillow and prayed for the healing to begin.