Friday, March 1, 2013

Dialogue with the Dead

Some reflexes are built in, arriving as you tumble into the world.  Other reflexes are acquired, either as the entity that is you develops, or as non-programmed reflexes, acquired through random experience and event.  Most reflexes, regardless of their origins, are with you to stay.  Some may be removed through practice and conscious effort.  As a rule, reflexes are easier come by than excised.

On December 7, 2003, at about two in the afternoon, you sat in the office of a surgeon named Alex, putting your shirt on, buttoning it.  Moments before, he'd used a marker pen to trace a drawing, reminding you of the Mississippi River, on your chest.

The drawing, in part for you, in part for him, was a guide to what he would do to you the following morning.

"There is,"  he said, "about a five-percent chance I will see things while I'm inside that will cause me to do things that will result in you having to live with a colostomy bag for a few months or possibly for the rest of your life.  You'll probably look, the moment you come out of the anesthesia.  If you do see something like a tube, I don't want you to be alarmed."

You were already on a liquid diet, now reduced to strained chicken broth and water.  Knowing your relationship to coffee, Alex suggested you had time for a cup large enough to last you for a week or so.  "No cream, of course, and don;t even think of bargaining for non-fat milk."

Early the next morning, you were given a pill and a small glass of water by a nurse who handed you a hospital gown.  "You're going to want to drink all that water.  For the next few days, your hydration will be intravenous."

Well aware of the intent of the pill, you were placed on a gurney and rolled into an operating room, where you were introduced to an anaesthesiologist who reminded you of the actor, Robert DeNiro, who made some connections on your back and arm with the help of a nurse.  "In a moment,"  he told you, "I'm going to push this plunger and the next thing you know, you'll be out of here and in a comfortable ICU room.  Okay?"

When you nodded, he assured you he'd be with you during the procedure, making sure you remained unaware of what was going on about you.  "Okay?"

The pill was clicking in.  Giddy with a sense of mischief, you nodded.

"Anything you want to say before you, er, go?"

In the background, you saw Alex, in his scrubs, giving you a thumbs-up sign.  "Yes,"  you said.
"My favorite author."

"Yes?"  he said.

"Willa Catheter,"  you said.  And then you said, "I don't know why I said that."

And, indeed, you were aware of nothing until about four o'clock that afternoon, when you awakened in an ICU room.  A nurse noticed you being awake.  A moment later, Alex was there, still in his scrubs.  "I wanted you to know,"  he said, "that you will see a tube, but it is only temporary.  Everything went well.  No way you'll need a colostomy apparatus.  Ever."

You managed to say, "Thank you."

"By the way,"  Alex said, "while I was in, I took your appendix.  Nothing wrong with it, but since it was in the area--"

For at least two years after Alex's daylong adventure in your inner self, you reflexively flinched or twitched when someone approached you from the rear and touched you, either with intention or by accident.  At times, even when you were facing a person who, for some reason or another, touched you, you were aware of wanting to protect yourself from the invasion of your space and, indeed, insides.

Even now, approaching ten years after the fact, although you often need to remind yourself that you once had cancer and no longer do, you will experience a tiny frisson of reflex.

In the Old West, which, for practical purposes, meant the Western Territories before being admitted to Statehood, a legend persisted.  Whether fact or motion picture inventiveness, the image came forth of the covered wagons of the westbound settlers, being gathered into a circle, the better to fend off attacking Indians and marauding wolves.

Talking this morning at coffee with friends, you were conveying condolences to a friend who'd experienced the loss of someone close, and the metaphor crept into the conversation of circling the wagons.  At one time, the metaphor may have had a racial bite to it, as in White Man equals Good guys, Indians the equivalent of savages or worse.  Even today, Indians may still see the metaphor as racist.

You were not thinking Indians when the metaphor was floated.  You were thinking of recent losses of your own.  A few years back, Anne, then Digby Wolfe, then Barnaby Conrad.  Circling the wagons reminded you of that vulnerability you felt for a time after the surgery that brought with it the gift of removing what was a determined tumor.

You try to make sense of outcomes, whatever they are.

One potential outcome was to trade the loss of cancer from your system for the need to make some revisions in the way you conduct personal hygiene.

Another outcome was inuring yourself to that invasion reflex, so that your contacts with fellow humans and animals of choice can flourish.

Losses of real time encounters with Anne, with Digby, with Conrad are not so simple.

In one of your conversations with Anne as she began to wind down, you said you supposed you'd go on having conversations with her for the rest of your life.  She seemed touched by the sentiment but, ever the realist, she said, "I won't be able to hear them."

"Fuck it,"  you said, "I'll have them anyway."  And, while you were certain she could indeed hear, you said things.  They were not measurable in their difference from things you'd been saying all along.

There is comfort in that.

There is also comfort in knowing that most persons beyond the age of thirty or so appreciate and understand the ramifications of having conversations with persons who cannot hear them.  Nuance is important, of course.  Some individuals who appear to be having conversations with others draw attention to themselves, thanks to a wild-eyed look or a tendency to use biblical language or speak in carping or oratorical tones.

When, for instance, you have conversations with Mark Twain, you take a clue from Conrad, who always spoke of Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Lewis. He referred to his bullfighting mentor always as Don Juan, never Juan or even Juan Belmonte. You would never think of calling Mr. Twain Sam.

On the other hand, you've more or less established rights to call Anne Annie, to call James Digby Wolfe Diggers or J.D., and somehow it would be a bit like losing your appendix to call Barnaby Conrad anything other than BC or your favorite Spanish name for hm, El Grandote, or the more teasing one, El Pelon (Baldy).

So the message is to take such comfort as you can, then go on conversing.


Nancy Siris-Rawls said...

Shelly, thanks for this post. I have those unheard conversations with many who have passed on...especially my dog, Shadrach. I also have unheard conversations with those very much alive but have never met in person. I thought I was a bit crazy. You post made me feel better. Yes, it soothes me to have these unheard conversations and even helps my writing.

Sarah said...

Thanks for this Shelly (and for all your posts, by the way). Circling the wagons is an apt metaphor for illness. Your words remind me to try and consider the situation before reflexively doing so, since sometimes the danger is real, but other times only a coyote howling in the distance.