It's not just any Friday; it's my last Friday in this sweaty District rat race for a couple of weeks. Next Wednesday I'm packing my wife and two boys into the roadster and heading south to the Low Country beaches for a solid stretch of disappearance. I've already mentally checked out - mostly going through the motions at the office and drinking too much with clients and friends at night, the latter of which I often categorize as 'work' to make myself feel productive during these spells. I believe armed forces types call the general apathy for what's in your face due to a preoccupation with what lies ahead as FIGMO - fuck it, got my orders. So, doing my best to ignore the annoying pain in my stomach, I look forward long term to vacation and short term to hosting two wonderful friends for dinner tonight. My wife and I have already agreed to cut our days short to meet at Whole Foods near my office to shop together for the feast, so the finish line is in plain view the minute I roll in to work fashionably late.
Bunched into a fetal position on my bathroom floor, late afternoon, a detour driven by the pain in my stomach that has become something of a force, I stubbornly tell myself it's probably just a bug while I feed my paranoia with a Google search of 'appendicitis' on my iPhone. Lately I am so concerned about my health that in the past 2 weeks I've done what typical males would not - paid attention to cues from my body and feasted on the opinions of many doctors, a few of them at Sibley Memorial's ER during a heart attack scare that turned out to be an embarrassing nothing. No way I'm going back to Sibley, I mutter to myself between short breaths. When my newly appointed nurse practitioner asks a few questions and decides I'm on the verge of a medical emergency, I decide to climb into the back seat and go along for the ride. I am no longer in control and, frankly, rather terrified. On the way to Sibley, now on the floorboards because I can hardly sit up, I attempt to distract myself from the twisting knife in my abdomen by projecting anger and cursing, through clinched teeth, the DC Department of Transportation for its shoddy job of road maintenance, as each bump blurs my vision with absurd pain.
Despite the numbing effects of morphine, then later dilaudid, my brain races around a story I read the day before about a father falling to his death from the stands of a ballpark as he tried to catch a baseball while his 6 year old son watched. I can't stop thinking about that kid and how my nanny told me 2 weeks ago that my own 6 year old confided terror of losing me when I went to the ER for the heart attack false alarm. Jack has still not vocalized his concerns to me - he's feigning taking things in stride, like a man, even though I don't recall suggesting that or setting such an example. He’s developing his own perspective on life, becoming a reflective, sensitive guy, and I’m suddenly clawing for way to stick around and watch where it takes him. Tears burn my eyes as I rock back and forth in this ER bed wrestling with pain and my own clear and present mortality. Then a hand grips my shoulder, and I see Rachel next to me, her expression solid, confident. How did a ball of perpetual anxiety like me land such a grounding force like her?
Love and prayers are floating in, she smiles. Hope you don’t mind that I posted news of this out there.
I tell her I don’t mind, though the concept of social media in this moment of crisis hits me with equal parts ridiculous and gracious. Ridiculous because, maybe as an aging father who participates in social media though often gets dizzy, I fail to completely embrace the medium as genuine. Let’s say I am an old school, meandering work in progress on that front. Gracious because, in spite of the above, I am touched that people I know well and hardly know at all are pausing to send well wishes. Later, between one of many dilaudid naps, I look up to see my dear friend Owen hovering over my bed next to Rachel, and I bite hard on my lip to contain my emotions. He’s been around hospitals too much the past few years, and I beat myself up for a moment over dragging him back to the dreadful sterile hallways of another. I struggle with being the cause for so much hand wringing.
Thanks to inguinal hernia surgery three years ago, I’m relatively up to speed on the nuances of general anesthesia, so I brush off the consultations and interrogations of so many doctors, nurses and technicians with one-word answers and painful grunts. How many times can a guy on serious narcotic pain meds answer the same questions over and over with any level of fluidity? At a certain point, when another nurse enters with another clipboard, I look to Rachel, and she knows to take the wheel on fielding these inquiries. A montage of corridor and elevator ceilings later, I’m wheeled into the OR where I reunite with the anesthesiologist’s forced smile. I’m finished with conversation at this point, so I lazily nod at her recap of what’s about to go down. While she wraps it up and tends to her mise en place, I close my eyes to meditate, to reflect on my life, to find and cling to some sense of peace with everything. I don’t care what they say about modern medicine; going under always comes with the risk of not coming back. This moment at the threshold of truth needs to be real, spiked with clarity and acceptance, but there’s this chatter, more like bickering, coming from every corner of the room like so much radio static – nurses, assistants, techs bitching at each other about one thing or another – and it’s dragging a rusty rake through my bonsai garden. I prop myself up on elbows to take in these jackals who, thanks to the goofballs in my head, look like Ralph Steadman renditions of scuffed-up cafeteria workers, nothing like the polished medical professionals I expect. This grates on me, makes me sweat profusely, and my thoughts become shouts before I know it.
How about some fucking harmony in this room, people?!
Heads turn in unison, and mouths gape beneath surgical masks.
I’m trying to find some peace over here, and your negative, petty shit is killing it, so kindly shut up!
The outburst drains me, and I fall from my elbows to the table where the anesthesiologist covers my face with an oxygen mask, either to contain me or regulate my breathing. I’m suddenly filled with regret over my words, but as the gloaming sets in and my grip on consciousness slips, I detect a hushed din of laughter around me and think maybe I lightened the mood and did everyone, including myself, a favor.
Less than 24 hours after I stumbled in, I’m wheeled out with a pain in my stomach that won’t allow me to stand straight for at least 48 hours and a prescription for narcotics that will leave me in a drowsy dream world straight from a slate of Raymond Carver stories. I know the sight of me in this wheelchair will rattle Jack and likely stay with him for a long time, but the nurse with her talk of hospital policy stonewalls my argument. When I pour myself into the car, as expected, he is a mixed bag – assessing me with quizzical looks, making little-to-no eye contact, turning his gaze out the window for long pauses. Our 3 year old, grasping very basic pieces of the situation, lends levity with cutesy questions related to boo-boos and band-aids. I’m thankful for his blissful ignorance and wallow in it the whole ride home where I crash hard in my bed and, between long spells of sleep, run my hand across the sutures on my stomach to remind myself that this really happened.
Later I wake to see Jack smiling next to my bed, clutching a summer bouquet of flowers on its very last leg. He'd strolled down to Broad Branch Market with barely enough money to score a Slush Puppy and negotiated these into his purchase. Since we're regulars and he's practically the market mascot, it doesn't require a stretch of imagination to buy his story. It's clear that this bouquet was tagged for the dumpster, and to any one else would be hard on the eyes, but to me the flowers are everything. Though I'm not supposed to strain myself, I can't resist drawing him close and breathing him in. He giggles, and I muster laughter despite the pain below.
You okay, dad?
I am now, buddy.