- Note the left leg is shorter. Sitting at the Right Hand is hard on a body.
- Billy Mays would show up 2,000 years too late for Pilate.
- Pilate would ultimately lose the suit against the exercise regimen that bears his name (but you should see his core).
- Mel Gibson could never get it straight: Calvary or Cavalry?
(There will be days when you have nothing more to offer than the stubborn remains of a failed Catholicism, an obsession with pants, and a grudging admiration for TV admen (the goddamn persistence). Fine, offer it and come back tomorrow.)
And Your Daughter?
Fast forward faster. Past the marionette months of drain bags and catheter tubes and spiking fevers with an affinity for threes (a.m., one oh).
Your arms look overly naked, your unadorned body a stranger now that there’s nothing sticking out of it. Nothing to collect from or inject into. You still get these momentary panics thinking you missed a dose.
You are, by all outward indications, better now. You’re dancing with your daughter. You can pick her up again. You try not to do the math, the percentage of her life for which you couldn’t hold her. You’d thought better would feel different. You’ll learn later that the body easily outpaces the mind.
The music: I Don’t Want to Die in the Hospital. Her choice.
She’s about to turn three and giddy with desperation. She hurls herself at you, adamant, determined that this here and now is how we’ll remember two: playful, alive, a tiny and shimmering fierceness. She’ll shake free memories of when your arms didn’t feel so foreign, when your muscles fell just so and you smelled like safety.
You have a rash. Probably nothing, they say, but atypical presentation is a hook, not a balm.
You’re probably fine, usually.
You feel your side, your scar, for the hardness that indicates a fluid collection, which in turn, tells you that the “I haven’t seen this in 30 years of medicine” is back. You do this discreetly, you think. You underestimate her. You miss it when the smile slides from her face, shatters. You stifle a sneeze.
She’s clinging now, limp. The weight of sadness: 24 pounds.
You convince yourself you have MS, that there’s a telltale MS rash. This is what happens when you leave the brain in charge.
You spin faster, bathe her in the sun that slices through the blinds. Show her she can glow without you. She already knows. It’s not what she wants. (It’s you you’re trying to convince.)
The physician’s assistant pulls up a stool. You checked (while your daughter slept on your chest)—there’s no MS rash. But there really is a rash spread across your lower back. You run down your health history for the PA and choke, like every other time, on tumor. You explain (apologize?) that it wasn’t actually cancer. She reaches over and slams a STOP button.
You didn’t know this existed.
She puts her pen down.
She lets you breathe and notice it.
She says, “You know about being sick.”
Your shoulders drop from your ears. Your eyes water. Your face opens, soft in a way you thought no longer possible, from a time before you knew anything like shame. You think of your mom and yourself at age three. The word for this moment, you believe, is safety.
All this time, you’d never considered sick. Only: these are things happening to my body.
There is a you that still sits in the silence of that moment, chilled feet dangling from a johnny in front of a PA whose name you forgot before it even left her mouth. You’ll learn to climb back there, occupy the angle and awkwardness of your frigid elbows, and recall the mercy of the strange and disentangled.
Philly suburbs, visiting family. You had said screw it. You weren’t going to be sad this time. It’ll have been 15 years since she died. Enough. This year, we celebrate her. The stomach ache started on the way down.
It’s now day three. It’s now midnight. You’re now not sleeping on the couch in your sister’s living room because the pain that you won’t admit having is keeping you up. You can’t get comfortable. Not possible.
Your wife runs out to the 24 hour pharmacy for TUMS, but you both know better (you put your shoes on). Remember, it’s called the ED now, not ER. Rebranded. A solid distraction, to focus you on erectile dysfunction instead of pain, but still, you don’t want to go barefoot.
Here’s how to disorient people upon entry into the ED: don’t staff it. Works every time. We made it! Emergency care! Are…did we come in the right door?
You did. And not a single employee in sight.
Wait five minutes, ten. Guy walks out: “You need to be seen?”
The other option: in the middle of a freezing January night, your wife turns to you and says, “Hey, hon? Want to see if the ED lobby is airing Friends reruns?” And you’re like, “Fuck yeah, then we’ll see if they have any rooms available.” (The irony: medical dates will become a thing for you, buuuuut more by necessity.)
ED protocol: they check you in very efficiently, setting the expectation that man, things are moving now. Then, you wait. Then, you run to the bathroom. You puke. You dry heave. You debate pulling the cord by the toilet to see if there’s an ED inside the ED.
Four hours later, five, boom! You’re seen.
What it means to be seen: imaging confirms appendicitis, but also, your left kidney’s been holding out. They call it a lesion. That sounds like a cut maybe? Your kidneys are 40, just like you. You figure they look close enough, everyone’s got something. No rush, they say, see a urologist when you get home, no biggie.
And finally, opioids!
Post-op. In the room: the newly de-appendixed, his wife, his father.
The Nephrologist strolls in: “What brings you here today?”
(Today: fifteen years to the day that your mom died at 51. A snowstorm threatens now, just as then. Her death unexpected and in the hospital. If this feels over the top to you, keep an eye on your dad’s face when the Urologist crashes this celebration of life.)
“I just had my appendix out?”
She’s confused, her and her clipboard with your medical notes aggressively not on speaking terms.
“And they found a lesion on my kidney?”
“Oh, you need a urologist.”
Like they said. But they also said: no rush. Is this foreshadowing?
Cost of 3-minute Nephrologist: $185. You know because you’ll receive several letters to help you treasure those minutes. In fact, you’ll be terrific pen pals for the next year and a half. They’ll even send you a Happy Appendiversary bill on the exact right date!
The Hospitalist (9 minutes later): “I’m Dr. John Fucking Elway, hospitalist. I’m the quarterback of the team because sports metaphors. I don’t do anything per se, but my smile? Huge. Demeanor? Eager beaver.
“You’ll have painful urination tomorrow, but I’ll neglect to file paperwork for the lab test. It’s true! You’ll have whizzed in a cup for nothing, but who needs dignity when there’s breath like mine? Can you guess? Cinnamon. And the mouth feel, mmmp.
“You’ll see some specialists today. It’s nothing, literally. Like that nephrologist. Whatever they say, add 5 cc’s of salt and call me in the morning, am I right?
“My serious face. It’s only temporary, but notice the sparkling eye contact. You need anything, just ask for Dr. Donovan McNabb, got it? This is me not winking as I turn to leave.”
The Urologist (3 minutes later, curtain whipped aside): “About that cancer on your kidney. I’m a surprisingly effective fire hydrant, only douchier. No need to thank me. I have the best science inside my brain, which is huge, like my dick, which probably feels like it’s crammed inside your ear right now. Oop! Here comes the science.
“Odds that lesion means tumor? 100%. Chances you’ll lose your kidney? Positively. Isn’t this great? Statistics for lay people.
“You’ll remember this about me: I have the facial hair of the recently pubescent. And yet: 80% chance it’s cancer. In other words, totally cancer.
“Have you seen it yet? Your lesion-tumor cancer baby? Gimme your number. Texting….texting….annnnd it’s off, you got it. Now, look, make your hand like a fist. That’s your kidney, here’s the golf ball. Believe that.
“K, pull your johnny up, let’s see what you got. Ooof, skin bridge from your circumcision. Unh uh. We can clean that right up.
“Listen, when you get home, go somewhere they do a lot of these. Nephrectomies, not circumcisions. Maybe you’ll keep your kidney after all. Who knows. Look, I’m out. I got a hoagie and a stack of 70’s porn on VHS waiting for me back at my house, which is huge. You feel me?”
Later, in Boston, when the post-kidney-surgery infection has arrived, just before they puncture your skin to corkscrew a tube through the thick of your back to drain a fluid they’ll never identify, the nurse who sedates you will be so enthused to learn the two of you share a birthday. You’ll be grateful for her excitement in a way you’ll never understand. You’ll hope it wasn’t just the meds or Sinatra crooning in the corner.
The river was perfect that day. Mattresses floated with disregard. Futons sank, deservedly so. To be a bed and a couch is already too much, and either way, not a boat. Mattresses, however. Who doesn’t want to float with disregard?
(Clarification. There are no metaphors here, only this: allow for lovers on that bridge, old ones especially. How much time do you think you have?)
You get no pretty pictures here. Ok? Alright?
You’re going home. At least nod so I know you understand. Ok? Good. You got this tube inside you that runs up your arm, across your chest here, to your central artery. That’s your heart. Don’t think hard on that.
This plug at the end of the tube. It’s called a lumen. Keep it clean. Always. Wash your hands all the time. Someone looks at you funny? Wash them again. Medicine goes up the tube into your heart. This freaks you out. Don’t worry. It’s not like you’re gonna put Coca Cola in here.
Seriously, don’t get clever. Messed up though, right? All the poetry in the world and here you are with a line straight from the outside world to your heart. But I digress. Antibiotics, that’s all that goes in here. Got it? Good. Decimates your gut. Try not to get C. diff. How? You religious?
Over here, these two bags. Flush twice a day with ten ounces of saline. Empty them into your toilet, wherever. It’s not hazardous. One drain goes to your kidney. The other one, I don’t know, lower, not important.
You’re not saying anything. Talk. It won’t be so bad as you’re thinking. It’s usually fine. Sometimes worse.
Your daughter, she’s what? Two or something? Here’s what you tell her. Daddy’s a little sick. Easy peasy. She knows sick. She gets colds. Tell her you’ll be better soon. Look in her the eyes when you say it. Hold her hand, but don’t squeeze it. You have to believe it. She’ll know the difference.
It’ll be hard enough on her, that you can’t pick her up for some months.
You hadn’t realized?
There Are Rules
I’m nine on the family trip to the West Coast, when my aunt confiscates the dead crawfish from the restaurant, wraps it in a cloth napkin.
A rule: You can take the napkin if it’s for a dead fish.
Outside, set the fish into a stream. When it’s not resuscitated, watch your kid heart do something that feels a lot like falling. This is new. Keep it between you and the fish.
Years later, two feet of snow for the next six hundred miles. Your mom, still young, calls from a hospital bed. “I’ll be ok,” she says. “I haven’t been to Europe yet.” Says it three times, like Peter. Or Paul. Whoever. As if she didn’t know what was coming and soon. You too, but some things you can’t let yourself know.
A rule: Allow for early departures.
A dead fish crawls through your brain. Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island shills luxury Cordobas, Corinthian leather. What did the Corinthians, recipients of countless epistles from Paul, have to do with Chrysler?
Good. Stay here: things you can churn on, resolve or pretend to. When it feels like falling, think harder.
A rule: This is how I wrap my dead.
I've Been in the Hospital
“The clocks in here, they’re a joke?”
“For real? Yeah, couple times.”
“I needed a second opinion?”
“I’ll let you in on something: you’ll always find someone to tell you what you want.”
“What do I want?”
“Let’s try it again. I say, Lesion. You say, Huh? I say, What I mean is cancer. You say, Oh. Huh. Got it?”
“Sorry, Doc. I’m here for the kidney or the appendix?”
“Appendix. The kidney hasn’t happened yet.”
“What about the reimbursables?”
“The aquatic situation.”
“Deep breath in, William.”
“What am I losing this time?”
“What time is it?”
“It’s ok, honey. I’m sorry to wake you.”
“Ow ow ow ow.”
“Sorry for the pinch.”
“But not for taking my blood.”
“You have no idea how much blood you don’t need.”