Just when the death toll was at its steepest; just when the supply of hospital beds was dwindling, just as the novel coronavirus was scything through everyday life, canceling birthday parties, weddings, funerals, graduation, senior proms — a tall handsome man slit my throat.
I was lucky he was able and willing to do it.
Even during a pandemic, a few ugly words retain their power. “Metastatic” and “malignant neoplasm” are two of them. An inconveniently timed recurrence of my thyroid cancer put me in a rock-and-hard place situation: wait and let the cancer grow? Or have surgery at a time when everyone from my local Selectboard to the Centers for Disease Control was telling people to stay home? As the day for my procedure drew nearer, the COVID-19 news grew more and more dire. Each time the phone rang, I crossed my fingers that the hospital was not calling to cancel.
When the call finally came, I was told to be at the hospital at six in the morning. I was cranky about that — it meant leaving home by 4:30. But it turned out to be a blessing. That early in the morning, the hospital felt a little like an airport just when it opens, when the day is still clean and shiny, and schedules have yet to be upended by the vicissitudes of weather, traffic, and broken equipment.
But even in the morning calm, the weirdness of the “new normal” was apparent. At the front door, a sign announced that only patients were allowed in. So my partner, David, dropped me off and then drove the hour-and-a-half back home; there was nowhere for him to wait. Once inside, I followed tape marks on the floor to the registration desk, where all of the staff wore masks and HIPAA privacy rules went out the window: to pay my co-pay, I had to shout my insurance information and credit card number into the room where the clerk was working. In the surgery admission room, patients sat one to a table spaced six feet apart before being escorted one or two at a time to pre-op.
I was slightly disoriented. Since my previous surgery, the hospital had reorganized who did what where in order to keep coronavirus patients segregated. But perhaps not that segregated: over the course of the day, I kept hearing requests over the intercom for a respiratory therapist to go to the emergency room, “stat.”
But even down here deep in Alice’s rabbit hole — in this fun-house mirror version of a hospital — the mood was shockingly normal. After a few weeks of self-isolation, it seemed almost quaint to be in a place where people were actually interacting with each other. The nurses did the usual things — blood pressure, pulse, and so on — with the normal amount of touching followed by a new-normal amount of hand sanitizing.
My surgery went well. The anesthesiologist told me I “did great” — which (at least in my limited experience) is what they always say after surgery, although I don’t know what that means seeing as all I did I was lie on my back unconscious. It doesn’t seem like something to be good at, and I don’t think I will add it to my bio, but some days you take whatever compliments come your way.
In the recovery room, the man in the bed next to me was coughing loudly. The nurse said that this was common after anesthesia tubes are removed, but no one wants to hear coughing these days regardless of how normal it might be, so the nurse fast-tracked me to my room in the new wing, where the rooms are private and spacious and well-lit and quiet. They even have pull-out beds so that a friend or partner can stay overnight with you, although since they’re not allowing visitors right now, that was a moot point.
I wasn’t in any pain. I had my pacifiers — phone and tablet — and I thought I would do some Kindle reading or some online browsing, but I didn’t. There was a TV, and I thought I might check out the news or indulge in my secret addiction to the HGTV channel, but I didn’t. I just kind of lay there with thoughts chasing each other around my head: how grateful I was that I wasn’t in pain, that I was all alone, that my room was peaceful, that the corridor outside was quiet, that in the middle of this world-slanting pandemic I was able to have the surgery I needed, and that the nurse made sure I got some coffee to relieve the caffeine-withdrawal headache caused by the “no liquids after midnight” rule. Little things and big. I lay like that for a long time.
I am not a generally smiley person. I have lines in my forehead that may have been inherited from some grumpy Slavic forebear. Or perhaps they were self-inflicted — with me, being happy often involves a furrowed brow as I wrestle with a piano passage or a paragraph I am writing. Happiness, to me, often goes hand in hand with exertion: intense engagement in the creative process, or in learning something, or doing a physical activity. I am not great at yoga or meditation.
However, I do remember a few moments in my life that were defined by a serene stillness and by an overarching feeling of well-being. One was while I was walking across France. I was staying in a château in Alsace-Lorraine. I had just showered and gotten the hiking grit off of me, and I was wearing a feather-light dress I carried to look civilized in town. I was sitting on a chair outside on the lawn, reading a book. There were no mosquitoes. There was no traffic. There were three colors: the weathered gray stone facade of the building, a blue sky, and the green grass. I felt suspended there in time and safe space, where nothing could go wrong. I wish I remembered what I had been reading.
Another time, on a beach in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, we had stopped for lunch and I collected some mussels off a rock, cooked them in diluted sea water mixed with lemonade, and ate them. Afterward, I sat on the beach watching the waves and I wanted time to simply stop.
A French château, and a New Zealand beach…. And now, here in the hospital, I had a few hours like that, too. Sort of wandering in and out of a light sleep, awakening and feeling at peace and safe and easy. I was grateful to find that feeling in that place and situation. Grateful for the serious, calm care from the nurses and from the food service manager and from the housekeeper. And grateful to my surgeon, especially when he agreed I did not need to spend the night.
So I called David and he drove an hour-and-a-half back to the hospital and learned, no he could not come in and use the restroom, and we turned around and he brought me an hour-and-a-half back home, where he went to the bathroom and I went to bed — where I lay, feeling like someone punched me in the throat and pondering the weirdness of life and how it unfolds and goes on, normally and abnormally and new-normally. And how astonishing it is that we adapt and function, and work, and that the vast majority of us find ways to be kind and loving and creative and helpful and support each other. And I considered the idea of what had to happen in the world for me to put the words gratitude and surgery and pandemic into the same sentence. And then I thought perhaps it was simpler than that: that I should be grateful for gratitude, and for being able to add this snapshot to the album we are all creating of this unpredictable, unnerving, and unprecedented journey we share.
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