I was telling J (my therapist) the other day, “I’d rather have 100,000 readers than a million dollars any day.” J asked what that would do for me, and I was amazed to hear myself say, “It would make me feel like I was part of humanity.” I’ve never really felt like I belonged here, on this planet. So knowing that other people are actually moved to laughter or tears by what I write is a revelation to me. Maybe I’m not so strange and alone. Maybe I belong. And it occurred to me that a lot of people must feel this way, all of us bumbling along, feeling different, feeling wrong, feeling separate—unheard, unseen—and that is why we are always looking for ways to connect.
I had this whole issue ready to go—ruminations on everything from caffeine addiction, to my time as a morally bankrupt librarian, to death, dreams, and metaphysics—but events overtook me, and I decided to write about my laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder surgery) instead. Lucky you!
déjà vu all over again
As I troll the aisles of United Market in search of rations for the days following my upcoming gallbladder surgery, I don’t know if the strong sense of déjà vu is from my December 1999 controlled buying panic preparatory to the nonevent of two centuries passing in the night, or if I’m harking back to Pookie’s ER experience. After all, he had stones, I have stones. He had an inessential body part removed, I’m about to have an inessential body part removed—my fourth, in fact, after tonsils, uterus, and appendix. I feel as if God is taking me Home piece by piece.
But there was no time to shop before Pookie’s turn under the knife, so this heady feeling of “Anything goes—and I’d better be ready for it” has to be related to my late-millennial buying spree—if “spree” is the right word when you’re pushing your cart slowly, contemplatively, down the aisles of forbidden treats, rationalizing your future need to be rewarded for having survived a natural disaster. Ordinarily, I would resolutely avert my cart from the tempting display of Pepperidge Farm soft-baked chocolate chocolate chocolate (how many chocolates? I can’t think straight after the first two) chunk cookies, but it seems I have entered a Twilight Zone of extreme calm and purposefulness in which anything in the store is mine if I but pass mine eyes over it. The mission that is driving me today is—I will be stuck in the house, alone, for days after the surgery, so I am allowed to imagine the medical and/or psychological postsurgical therapeutic benefits of any substance within reach. “Get it while the gettin’s good” is another way to look at it.
So I linger in front of the rows of soft, cuddly bags of soft, cuddly cookies, and my eyes are caught by those magical words: “REDUCED FAT.” If I remove my glasses and zoom in closer to the bag, I can read the rest—“25% less fat than our regular soft baked cookie.” Of course, this statistic is meaningless, because if a regular bag is 100% no good for you, then going for the 75% version is hardly a calorie-cutting measure. By law, the fine people who make these cookies down on old Pepperidge’s farm should not be allowed to use the word “reduced” or refer to the ephemeral 25% at all. For the sake of truth in advertising, the bag should read:
INCREASED FAT—75% MORE THAN IF YOU WALK AWAY RIGHT NOW.
But 25% in the hand is worth 75% on the shelf (who says I’m no good at math?) so—plop, there they go, landing softly in my cart. Hope I can keep my mitts off them until I get home from the hospital. For good measure, I throw in a “mango tango” shake, a vanilla Frappucino, a quart of orange juice, fresh raspberries, half a cooked ham, and a whole roast chicken. I feel like I’m preparing for a picnic instead of surgery. As a concession to health, I toss in some frozen veggie burgers. I predict that hell will freeze over before those things ever get thawed.
(As I reread this, the day before surgery, the Frappucino and raspberries are long gone, but the cookies and, God knows, the veggie burgers are still waiting for my triumphant return.)
It’s amazing, the preparations I have to make for being away from home for a day and a half. The cleaning, the packing. The calling the East Coast publisher to arrange to get the last figure captions for Recombinant DNA and Biotechnology—looks like I’ll be editing on my recovery bed—no sick leave, no vacation pay, or personal days for the self-employed—or is that “no rest for the wicked”?—the instructions on what to take and what not to, the meal planning before and after, the setting the VCR so I’ll have “The Practice” to come home to, the grocery buying, the phone numbers, the prescriptions, the errands, the cat food, the mental preparation for death, the hormone replacement patch—stick it far from the gallbladder—the preregistration, the forms to fill out, the blood test, the urine test, remember to tell them about the problems I had after the colonoscopy, was it the Versed? To complicate matters, my carport is going to be repaved the day I return, so I have to arrange for P and C to take their truck home (it gives me a feeling of security to have a pickup parked out back; I’m tempted to install a gun rack), and I have to move my own car out to the street before I leave. In this neighborhood, it feels like leaving my only child out in the yard for 2 days. I’ll remove my valuables—sleeping bag and survival kit, car phone—but still. In case my carport is covered in bubbling tar when I get home and I can’t get to the back door, I have to round up the missing key to my front door, which I never use. Can’t find it, so what am I supposed to do, leave the door unlocked? Then I have to buy bigger food and water dishes for Pookie, plus a second, huge litter box, so he’s completely self-sufficient for the duration. He’s going to feel like Pookie in Wonderland, everything suddenly getting bigger on him. Of utmost importance is what book to take. I decide on Cryptonomicon, a huge, elaborate novel about cryptography, computers, and World War II—probably too much for my postsurgical pain-addled mind, but I don’t want to get stuck with Family Circle as my only option.
No wonder I don’t travel.
Last but definitely not least, I have to arrange for a ride to the hospital and back. I have to arrive at 7:00 a.m. Monday and leave around midday on Tuesday. This is a dilemma of enormous proportions, because I find it really hard to ask for help. I hated having to accept charity as a child (we needed a lot of it) and I somehow got it in my head that it’s shameful to need anything. J has to talk me down from my panic, as if I were a kitten stuck in a tree. I ask her, half-jokingly, half-defiantly, if she’ll come and take me to the hospital, and she says she can’t “rescue” me from this challenge—but if I ask three people and can’t find anyone to drive me, then yes, she will drive over from Berkeley in the morning and pick me up. I am deeply touched by her offer. I know there’s no way I’m going to let her do that, but talking it out with her helps me see that the problem is all in my head, so I get on the phone and call a few friends, who are, of course, happy to help.
And by the way, I feel like writing an “Ode to J” for this woman who perfectly inhabits the role of my therapist, with a rare (in my experience) combination of looking out for my best interests and keeping boundaries intact, yet showing me very clearly how much she cares for me. Her integrity is unwavering. She has never let me down or tried to take advantage of me. The fact that this amazes me tells you something. I have been ill-used by certain female authority figures in the past, and J has done a lot to repair the damage. I am grateful for her presence in my life.
I have started writing this story before the actual surgery, counting on something of interest happening that will make all this introductory material worthwhile. I would hate for it all to be much ado about nothing, as so many of my preparations for disaster turn out to be. And I don’t want to have to resort to fiction, not my strong suit. (“Dear reader, it was terrible—the doctor took out my liver instead!”) Never fear, I have a backup tale to lay on you if the gallbladder story turns out to be benign.
Well here I am, back home… pain and Vicodin battling for dominance… and I shudder to think of some of the “special” moments I endured in the hospital. There was pain, there was nausea, there was a cloyingly rich yellow mystery soup I dubbed “cream of butter.” I think what I suffered from the most, though, was e-x-p-e-c-t-a-t-i-o-n-s. Because of the brief time I’d be there, I naively thought that it would be a piece o’ cake. Apparently, it was a piece o’ cake for some people. When the surgeon came in to discharge me, he bragged about the procedure, “What could be easier?”—but of course he hadn’t been with me during the long night of bloodletting (I learned that I have thin veins that disappear at the poke of a needle), the projectile vomiting, the excruciating catheterization.
But the expectation that failed me the most was the idea, the hope, that I would have a transcendent experience like the one I had after my appendix ruptured 3 years ago. Come to think of it, the first day or so of that hospitalization was no picnic either, but what happened toward the end of it wiped the bad parts from my memory chalkboard. With apologies to those who’ve already read the story, here it is. (I return to gallbladderlessland a few pages on.)
the parsley epiphany
We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences—Deepak Chopra
Two weeks before my appendix burst, I had this dream:
I’m driving a small truck, like a camper, and I park at the edge of a cliff. I have to get out on the cliff side, and as I look out the door, I’m so close to the edge that I can’t even see the ground the truck is standing on. I’m going to have to go down the little steps and turn and step onto a rope ladder attached to the truck and sort of climb sideways to get to the back of the truck to the ground. I spend what seems like an eternity looking down into nothingness and wondering if my weight hanging off the side of the truck will cause it to topple over the cliff. But it seems steady enough… so I finally do it, I go down the steps, turn, put my feet in the rope ladder, which swings out away from the truck a little, and I am acutely aware of that vast abyss below me….
I woke up at that point, but not in a panic: I knew I had made it—I didn’t have to play out the rest of the drama and actually reach solid ground. It was all about being willing to hang there, suspended. I can still feel that vivid sensation in the pit of my stomach—how it felt as I swung out from the truck, absolutely nothing below me.
Trust is hard for me. I have a lifelong tendency to feel that disaster is always about to happen. If it doesn’t happen, I make it up. I constantly find myself in the middle of a mental drama in which, to take the most common theme (especially at night), a man is breaking into my house. This fear is somewhat understandable because I’m a woman living alone and it’s been known to happen, but I am also capable of worrying that an airplane is going to crash into my roof. It doesn’t really matter what the imagery is, there’s just a sense of always expecting to hear the bad news on the phone, the sound of breaking glass, it’s a feeling of what next? I hear a strange noise and my adrenaline starts pumping. I’m sure there are psychological reasons for this tendency, but that’s not the point. I’m now over 50 and wondering if it’s possible to have a sense of ease in my life. Trust the universe? Easier said than done.
And then, one day my appendix burst. I didn’t know that was what was happening, it didn’t feel like a burst, it was more like a slow turning of screws in my midsection over the course of about 30 hours. It is, of course, ironic that I assumed the pain to be benign—for once, I didn’t immediately leap to a disaster scenario—and I assured myself that it was just some gastrointestinal bug from the leftover Chinese take-out I’d had for lunch. As time went on and the pain got worse, I was thrown into that excruciating inner debate: Should I take the big step of calling the doctor? (I never think they’ll know any more than I do.) What if I ask my friend Jean to come all the way from Fairfax to take me to the ER and it turns out to be nothing?
As it happened, I called her just in time, I got to the hospital just in time, they operated just in time, and my life was saved just in time. Which tells me that, yes, of course, I can trust. Trust myself, trust my intuition, trust that I’ll know when the crisis is real and not manufactured by fear. Trust the universe to be “endlessly correlated” (Deepak again) whether it looks like it or not. I’m not just saying this because my life was spared. People die all the time. The issue is not—Trust, and only good things will come to you, nothing bad will happen to you, no bad man will break in, no airplane will crash, no illness will come. There may be a local rupture—of a doorway, a roof, an internal organ—but there is no rupture in the fabric of being.
Upon arrival in the ER, as I was lying in pain, freezing cold, while an angel of mercy tried unsuccessfully to insert a catheter to take a urine sample—HURT much?—I felt safer than I’ve felt in a long time. Part of it was knowing that I had navigated the rocky road from “I don’t want to bother anyone, it’s probably just gas” to actually getting my body where it needed to be. But on a much deeper level, I felt that I was safe in the universe. I’m not that thrilled with the word “universe,” but I don’t know what else to call it. I’m not trying to aggrandize my little self, we’re all hooked up to the “universe” through the catheter of our individual lives—now there’s an image—but what I mean is the deepest, truest pulse, the heartbeat that runs through everything.
And so, as I was rushed up to surgery—ah, the thrill of being the center of all that attention, my reward for the preceding hours of solitary torment—I felt that it truly didn’t matter if this was my time to die, it didn’t matter if this drama, the drama of little Mary, one of countless millions of dramas, was about to end. I knew I was held in much bigger hands than the hands of the surgeon. As I had that thought, I flashed on the hands of the blue Being in one of my recent paintings. You could as easily say that I was held in those hands. Whose hands they are doesn’t matter. Hands are there.
After a few days of, let’s face it, pain and misery, when I was unhooked from the I.V. antibiotics and was able to eat soft food, I sat in my hospital bed, looking out on Mt. Tamalpais, and the sun was pouring in, and all I could see out my window was green, except for the birds who would come up to the wire netting and look in and chirp and fly off again. As I contemplated the food on my dinner tray—the usual hospital fare, not the carrot cake and chili dogs I had been dreaming of (literally)—I saw that the same “cottage cheese and soft fruit salad” I had had for lunch had been dressed up for dinner with a sprig of parsley on the cottage cheese. This simple, even lowly, probably mechanical gesture (I don’t think someone in the kitchen was sending me waves of love by tenderly placing the parsley just so) pierced my heart. It touched something in me about the care that had sustained me through the difficult days, the focused attention to keep me safe, the confluence of events and help from friends, and even a compassionate surgeon (!!!). I felt so blessed, and the blessing came by way of a sprig of parsley and a ray of sunlight, it was such a simple thing.
But the real surprise was when I examined my good fortune, and I knew that the gratitude was not for anything. It wasn’t for the nurses, the doctor, the sun, the view; it wasn’t for another friend named Jean, an out-of-towner, who drove to Marin without a map and found the hospital by sheer luck and intuition because “calling didn’t seem good enough”; it wasn’t for my medical insurance, my restored health, my repaired bowel; it wasn’t even for my life. I was not grateful for my life. The gratitude just kept tunneling down, and it wasn’t dependent, I was grateful for no-thing. Each good thing that had happened could have been taken away—including my life—and the gratitude wouldn’t have been touched in the slightest. I found this most curious.
And so I ate the cottage cheese and the tasteless, touch chicken tarragon with canned mushrooms, not being grateful for any-thing, and tears fell on my hospital gown and I thanked God, and I felt so incredibly held in grace. And it was not Mary that was being held, Mary was just as meaningful and meaningless as the sprig of parsley—a manifestation of God’s love and completely expendable at the same time. What an incredible precipice to teeter on, but it didn’t feel like teetering, because the precipice and the abyss were one, there was nowhere to fall, there was no one to fall, no truck, no rope ladder, no ground, no dream separate from reality, no rupture of any kind.
It’s not that I have attained enlightenment and will never have paranoid fantasies again. In fact, the day I came home from the hospital, I found myself in another fantasy loop of “what if something awful happened, what if my guts fell out of my stitches and I had to call 9-1-1 and the medics had to break down my door and the neighbors looted all my belongings….” Then it hit me what I was doing, and I thought, oh my God. It already happened. One of my worst-case scenarios already happened. Something burst in my belly, a true life crisis burst upon me, and what did I do? I handled it. Or it was handled. The friend was called. The doctor was summoned. Life took its course.
It was a wonderful insight to see that the ravings of the mind are completely unconnected to reality. And a deep experience (a spiritual experience, for lack of a better term) may not even affect the mental level, because the mental level is what it is. It made me realize that I don’t have to set a new standard for myself now that I’ve “seen the light.” Maybe I’ll jerk to attention when I hear a noise outside, maybe I’ll stave off the bad man in my imagination, maybe I’ll fear the worst over and over again. The mind is not capable of deep change. I can probably hope to catch it sooner, and I expect I will. And then I will go on with my life. I will not look for change on that level, because it’s not relevant.
I have been given the gift of the piercing moment of truth, the fleeting awareness that the things of my life are not the Real, whether they are sweet and precious or difficult and painful. The truth is: Appendixes can rupture. Being cannot. On some very deep level, it doesn’t matter what happens to you.
Do I need to keep this gift on display, keep asking to see it again, as if it will disappear? Where could a gift like this go? Sure, it would be nice to live in a state of higher consciousness, but it doesn’t ultimately matter. What’s true is still true, whether I believe it every minute or not. This releases me from a potential burden, the burden of trying to live up to something that’s beyond my mind’s comprehension. I don’t have to prove anything, I don’t have to attain anything or “be a better person.” The truth doesn’t have to set me free. How liberating is that?
Epilog: A few weeks later, I received a questionnaire from the hospital about my stay there. One of the questions was: “Were your spiritual needs adequately met?” I had to laugh. Oh, yes.
Back to the present
And now do you see why I had such high expectations about going back to the same hospital, the same surgeon, as if I had attained a level of blissful transcendence that would keep me safely above it all? And just in time for the ‘zine—how appropriate my two stories would be, cheek by jowl, as if I were singularly blessed to be able to perceive the usually fearful experience of surgery from some higher plane. Yes, that earlier surgery and its aftermath were a gift, but so was my safe transport through this less-threatening experience, just as every day is a gift—but how tempting it is to single out certain moments, to want only the heady insight, the glorious relief, the ice cream that sweetens and numbs the pain, the bliss of oblivion named Vicodin when the throbbing gets too bad, the luck of the draw that brings the sweetest nurse on earth to your side when you need her the most.
I think my lesson here is that holding out for epiphanies is a lost cause, because they’re not within my control. All I can do is take what comes. Besides—when I think of sweet Pramila, who came in to take my breakfast tray and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Are you finished with this, or are you still enjoying your coffee?” (you would have had to taste the coffee to get the full effect of this quip)—and another twinkly-eyed chap who said he was writing on my chart, “Patient claims to have washed up and brushed her teeth already”—I know that epiphanies aren’t made up of only the amazing insights or the moments of life-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death. Epiphany is where you seek it, I suppose.
I sit here typing this on the evening of my return home—physically drained for sure, and feeling a little let down, but still grateful for the love of the people in my life and the disinterested but caring presence of the angel-strangers at the hospital. Somehow the very ordinariness of what I went through, compared with the earlier surgery, feels appropriate. Life is not scripted, much as I would like to cut and paste only the happy endings. Maybe that would be the beauty of being a fiction writer, epiphanies a dime a dozen as long as you can fit them into the plot.
But even having to stick to “facts,” it seems that things tend to connect up, that even dashed expectations and failed attempts at transcendence play their part in life. I got up after typing the above paragraph—suddenly I felt the need to wash down my evening Vicodin with two chocolate chunk cookies—didn’t want to risk taking the drug on an empty stomach, you know—and I accidentally stepped hard on Pookie’s tail. He retreated to his little bed under the stairs, turning his head away and refusing to purr as I petted him and apologized profusely, asking his feline forgiveness. I knew it would come—his brain isn’t big enough to hold a grudge—but I wished I could erase what I had done.
And then I thought of poor Nurse S., whose catheterization technique was pure torture—something about my vagina being “too high”—I worry about my body like everyone else, but it never occurred to me to worry about that—anyway, she came to me when her shift was over, took my hand, and said how sorry she was to have caused me pain. Even though I murmured, “It’s all right,” it didn’t feel all right in my heart. I judged her harshly and held on to the resentment, banking it as if it would pay interest some day. But now I see the true epiphany of this story. Transcendence is not just about the moments of grace or pleasure or love; there is salvation in the difficult moments, too. I see that sometimes it’s my turn to be the one who forgives and not just the one who gratefully receives.