It might have made for more interesting writing if I had cancer, but I don’t. The doctors don’t know what I have. They suggested that I have a follow-up CAT scan in three months to learn if C-5 has done anything else weird. Peggy thinks it is a space alien; it does look other-worldly.
My surgery was at the huge new hospital, and the operating room was also right out of science fiction. For one thing, I counted five large screen, flat panel televisions from where I lay with my throat exposed and my head in a plastic doughnut. On each of those screens was an inside view of my neck, and everything in my neck was in some shade of gray; everything that is except for C-5, which was a brilliant white. It was weird, I tell you, to lie there with these enormous C-5s staring down at me from every angle, and me knowing that a team of strangers in masks was about to stand in the glare of two huge round spotlights; press a razor-sharp knife to my throat; and cause my blood to flow up my neck, down either side, and even into my ears and hair (Peggy did wash blood from my hair).
Yesterday, the surgeon went ahead and sent me to the scheduling clerk to set a date for my next operation, one to unpinch the nerve that makes my right arm tingle. She said she doesn’t think I need shoulder surgery, that this neck surgery will eliminate my shoulder pain. My last neurologist and my orthopedist think differently, but it’s hard to argue with a woman who just cut from the front of my throat all the way to my backbone and made it almost as painless as opening a bag of tortilla chips.
Her assistant walked to the desk with me, and I happened to say something on the way about the pain in my left shoulder. He disappeared and a moment later reappeared with the surgeon. “You have pain in both shoulders?” “Yes, the pain is in both shoulders, but the tingling is only on the right.” I didn’t remind her that she already knew this. “Then that’s a whole other and more drastic surgery, so I want to try a series of steroid shots first. They give some people relief for years.” Okay. Cancel second surgery. Schedule first steroid shot. This is the kind of weirdness that I run into all the time with doctors. They spend almost no time with you, don’t listen to half of what you say, and then send you off for risky tests and procedures.
I back the van out of the garage for Peggy when she goes to work. I do this because it is almost wider than the garage door and scary for her to back out. Today (Friday) was her first day back at work. The van’s CD player took up where it left off on Monday when she brought me home from the hospital. I was puking IV fluids at the time, so the relaxing New Age music struck a different chord this morning.
Peggy and I felt pretty good when we left the doctor’s office on our bikes. Then she remembered a paper she had meant to bring (a form she needed the doctor to sign regarding the days she took off from work). I could tell she was really mad at herself for forgetting it. “Peggy, we just found out that I don’t have cancer. Why are you so bummed about a damn form?” A short while later, my own exhilaration wore off, and all I felt was enormously tired and even a little empty. Once we got home, we had all these phone calls to make to people who were awaiting my biopsy results, and I simply wasn’t going to make them, because I knew everyone would be happy and relieved, and that they would expect me to be happy and relieved too. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel these things; it was just that I was drained of all energy. Within minutes, I had gone from planning a celebratory meal out to wondering if I could stay awake long enough to eat a salmon burger at home.
I can best explain my feelings this way. Imagine that you’re crossing the street a little distracted—listening to your iPod maybe—when all of a sudden an 18-wheeler comes barreling down on you with its air horn blowing, its brakes screaming, and misses you by six inches, the turbulence alone almost knocking you to the ground. Would you feel like going out to celebrate the fact that you were almost, but not quite, killed?
I was surprised by my ennui because I had been relaxed at the surgeon’s office. I had two really distressing events this week, both of which I had known about and dreaded for days. The first was having my throat cut, and the second was getting my biopsy results. Yet, I went to both of these events relaxed. I’ll try to explain. A stressful event is made such by the nature of the event itself, but also by our emotional resistance to the event. In the case of my two events; I knew that they were going to happen, that there was no rational way I could stop them from happening, and that I might as well surrender myself to them, thereby giving them permission to happen. I transformed myself into clay, into water, into a complete pacifist; and this enabled me to approach these formerly dreaded experiences with disinterested curiosity.
So why then, when I had felt relaxed at the surgeon’s, did I feel so tired afterwards? Had I not really been relaxed after all, but had only fooled myself into thinking I was relaxed? These were unsettling questions, and I simply didn’t have the emotional energy to entertain them. Instead, I reminded myself that I had survived a very hard week that had come on the heels of many very hard months; that I had behaved bravely; and that I have earned the right to forgive myself for not being a perfect human being. Being human is a devastating proposition because it also means being flawed. My doctors are flawed; my nurses at Sacred Heart were flawed; I too am flawed; and I forgive us all. May God help us all, and may God save us all because we most certainly cannot save ourselves.