Surgery day

I told the nurse that the patient whose room she had sent me to wasn’t Peggy. She said that it was Peggy, but I still had to look at the old, pale, and puffy woman in the bed for awhile to be sure (I had told Peggy just before her surgery that she looked sexy in her purple hospital gown--which she did). My advice to you is this: if you’re supposed to be in a beauty contest one night, don’t have surgery earlier that day.

While I sat by Peggy’s bed, I pictured us when we were in our twenties, holding hands while we ran for joy across the prairie in Saskatchewan (I remember that day because we were nearly struck by lightning). Now, we hold hands while we hobble into doctors’ offices. Well, we don’t exactly hobble, but we’re getting there.

The universe never promised us an easy life.

The universe never promised us a happy life.

The universe never promised us a peaceful end to life.

The universe doesn’t even know that we exist.

We live for no purpose, and then we die, and the fearsomeness of this thought is why people believe in god.

I’m scheduled for my first of four joint replacements, which means that Peggy and I will be one-armed together. The surgeon and I all but argued—over Peggy’s bed, no less—about which hospital to use for my surgery. I said I wanted to go to Sacred Heart because I could have a private room at no extra charge, and he said he could use his influence to get me a private room at McKenzie Willamette at no extra charge (I have good reason for wanting a private room). “Besides,” he said, “I can give you far better care at McKenzie Willamette.” “Then it sounds like a no-brainer to me,” I said.

Peggy is resting now. I held her hair out of her face while she threw up. How many times have I done that over the last four decades? I’ll tell you. Many.

I just took two stiff drinks. I hurt so much that it’s hard to care anymore what I take or how much I take as long as it stops the pain. I’m not supposed to take narcotics until after my surgery because if I do, they won’t work when, presumably, I need them most. Well, hell, they don’t work that well now. Nothing works that well now, but if I pile pill atop pill and use ice, I can at least sleep a little bit before I have to get up and do it all again.

You don’t think I complain too much, or that I complain without a good reason, do you? Pain is such a private phenomenon that I often wonder where I am on the scale of having a justifiable response. This might surprise you, but I think I handle pain better than most people, but it’s hard to know for sure.

I read from Camus’ The Stranger while I sat by Peggy’s bedside (the morphine made her doze, so I had a little time on my hands).

“He was wearing a soft felt hat with a round crown and a wide brim, a suit with trousers that corkscrewed down around his ankles, and a black tie with a knot that was too small for the big white collar of his shirt. His lips were trembling below a nose dotted with blackheads. Strange, floppy, thick-rimmed ears stuck out through his fine white hair, and I was struck by their blood-red color against the pallor of his face.”

When I was young, such passages were about someone with whom I had nothing in common. Now, they’re about how I will be in fifteen years. Sometimes, I wonder if I will even live another fifteen years. Come to think of it, that’s about the length of a dog’s life—if the dog lives to be fairly old.

Nurses can tell that I adore Peggy, and that touches them. I asked one of Peggy’s nurses today if she will be my nurse when I have surgery, and she gave me her home phone number so I can be sure she’s working that day. She said that if she’s not working that day, she’ll refer me to someone who is. Now, I have my surgeon, my anesthesiologist, and one of my nurses all picked out. My advice to you is this: if someone is good at what they do, stick with that person, and let them know that you respect them. You get better service that way. As you know, I was kidding about the beauty contest, but I’m being serious now. While I’m giving you advice, I’ll also suggest that you praise good workers to their supervisors. One reason for this is that they’ll feel beholden to you, and the other is that you owe it to them.

Do ever feel when you’re writing that, after every paragraph, you could go in a dozen different directions. How do you choose? I choose really fast because otherwise I get too bogged down.

Those two drinks—taken on an empty stomach—were too much. I thought they might be, but I found it hard to care. Now that I feel as if I too could barf, I do care, but it’s too late. Most wisdom comes after the fact, but since the rules about a lot of things are forever changing, after-the-fact wisdom isn’t necessarily better than no wisdom at all.

Upon cursing those who so richly deserve it

I rarely curse anyone, but have done so twice in one week. The first time was when I saw a man picking a bouquet of flowers in a public park. The second time was twenty minutes ago when I cursed Heidi, the medical office manager who lied to me last month about my insurance company and the federal government requiring her to collect mine and Peggy’s Social Security numbers (I refused to give them, so she had me pay upfront for an appointment I had waited two months for).

I can think of a few downsides to cursing people, but the one I find most influential is that, if they have the power to thwart me, they might be more likely to use it. This didn’t apply to the thief or to Heidi. As I told Heidi, I would be delighted if she didn’t refund my money because I would love to haul her lying ass into court. If there were a hell, it would almost be worth going there just to see some people I know getting what they so richly deserve. Of course, if Tertullian was right, one of the things that makes heaven heavenly is that "the saved" get to gaze into the fiery pit at souls writhing in agony.

The painting is Paul Gauguin's “Eve—Don't Listen to the Liar"

Omniscient docs have all my money, so I hope they'll be sweet as honey and make me frisky like a bunny

Story I

Dr A, an internist, confidently announced after a single office visit that my LEG PAIN was caused by Chronic Regional Pain Disorder, a degenerative disease that becomes so painful that sufferers have a pronounced tendency to go insane and/or kill themselves.

Dr B, a pain specialist, was absolutely convinced after a single office visit that the same problem was caused by a completely different horrible disease, syringomyelia.

Dr C, a neurosurgeon assured me that Drs A and B were both wrong, but since she had no idea what the problem was either, she gave me a referral to Dr D. Since the pain is showing some signs of getting better on its own, I haven't been to Dr D.

Story II

After ordering thousands of dollars worth of sophisticated tests, Dr E, an orthopedist, insisted that my BILATERAL SHOULDER PAIN was due to arthritis.

Dr F, another orthopedist, was just as insistent that it was due to torn rotator cuffs.

Dr G, my third orthopedist, unequivocally disagreed with them both, and confidently diagnosed another problem.

Dr H, my fourth orthopedist, completely agreed with Drs E and F but completely disagreed with Dr G.

Dr I, a neurosurgeon, suspected cervical cancer and cut through the front of my throat to get a piece of bone from the back of my neck. When no cancer was found, she said she was certain that a series of fluoroscopically guided steroid shots to my spinal cord—administered by her practice partner—would eliminate the pain. When they didn’t, I went back to Dr G who performed two shoulder surgeries, each of which required a yearlong recovery. I’m now in worse pain than ever.

I’ll share just one more story. Peggy had a cyst removed from her leg in the 1970s. The doctor put an airtight dressing over the incision and told us sternly to leave it in place until our follow-up visit the next week. We lived in Mississippi at the time, and it was August, so this sounded like a really bad idea to us, but we ignored our qualms because, as we told ourselves, he was a doctor and we were school teachers, so what did we know.

As we feared, the incision became infected. My point is simply that you shouldn’t put a great deal of faith in a doctor simply because he or she has a medical degree and sounds confident (if people treated you like God Almighty and threw money at you like it was confetti, you would sound confident too). As for “modern medicine,” well, the term has a nice ring to it, but you’ll recall that the modern medicine of one era is the primitive blundering of the next. You’ll also recall that “modern medicine” labored for millennia in ignorance of bacteria and viruses, and that the original appeal of homeopathy lay in the fact that it was SO innocuously worthless that it didn’t regularly kill people as did the modern medicine of the early 1800s (buy me entire carton of a “powerful homeopathic remedy,” and I’ll drink it in front of you). This meant that instead of having to survive both the disease and your doctor’s ministrations, you only had to survive the disease.

I’m far from suggesting that you should feel discouraged though. After all, no drug or procedure is a complete failure if you live to tell about it, and if you don’t live to tell about it, well, your doctor at least succeeded in ridding you of your problem, so you’re actually a winner either way.

A potpourri of generalizations about the irreligious

I went into atheism kicking and screaming, but many atheists found it easy to give up their religion because it never made a lick of sense to them, and because they didn’t think that living forever sounded so great anyway.

Even today, if someone could prove to me that god exists—and that he is good—that person would find me most appreciative, but then I would feel the same way if he convinced me that I had won a billion dollars. Neither prospect appears very likely.

I’m actually glad that no one ever tries to convert me, because it would bore me to rehash the same old tired arguments for god's existence. Yet, for someone to say that I’m going to burn in hell forever if I don’t believe in his particular version of god, and then to spend no time at all trying to show me the error of my ways does seem strange. Maybe such people recognize the paucity of their arguments, or maybe they just don’t like me well enough on earth to put up with me in heaven.

Believers sometimes ask what I’ll say to god after I’m dead if it turns out that I was wrong. Well, if I were standing at the edge of the proverbial fiery pit, I might brown-nose for all I was worth, but if I were honest, I would have to say, “I’m very surprised that you exist, but since you do exist, allow me to point out that you’re sure one sorry-ass excuse for a deity. The main difference between you and Satan is that Satan at least knows he’s evil.”

When I was a child in Mississippi, I often heard white people say that black demonstrators had no reason to criticize the way they were treated. When believers tell me that I have no reason to criticize religion, I remember those white people.

An atheist won’t think you’re more evolved because you claim to be spiritual rather than religious. He’ll just be grateful that you lack organizations through which to oppress him. Likewise, he won’t take it as a compliment if you tell him that he’s “too spiritual to be a real atheist.” Really, he won't.

Likewise, an atheist won’t think you’re “sensitive” because you believe in magic and mysticism; he’ll just think you’re so jaded that you can’t appreciate a real wonder unless you populate it with creatures of fantasy.

I sometimes wonder if most religious people aren’t just pretending to love god because they’re afraid of him. I would even suspect that most religious people secretly hate god because they have books that portray him in one way, yet the world around them—over which he presumably has complete control—is the other way.

Atheists think the same way about god that they think about Bigfoot. They don't categorically deny his existence; they just take the complete lack of evidence as a bad sign.

Most atheists spend zero amount of time fretting over your beliefs about god. What they fret about is that so many of you are determined to force your beliefs about god on society, only to scream that you’re being persecuted if anyone objects.

Most atheists do think that the world would be better off if no one believed in god because religion is a major—if not the major—cause of hatred, alienation, and war. Believers don’t seem to notice the harm caused by religion, or if they do notice it, they blame it on other people’s version of religion rather than the concept of religion.

Few atheists think religious people are more moral. In fact, most of them believe religion to be a hindrance to morality because religious people place their holy book or guru above fairness and compassion.

I think people are religious for psychological reasons. The world is often unjust and capricious, and the universe as a whole places no value upon our lives. Religion claims that the opposite is true, and this makes it attractive.

Scandinavia is known for its low crime rate, its high standard of living, its reluctance to wage war, its environmentally responsible lifestyle, and its irreligion. America is known for its high crime rate, its worsening standard of living, its warmongering, its pollution, and its religiosity. This same pattern is repeated in the parts of America that are the least religious compared to the parts that are the most religious, and it is repeated everywhere else in the world. Does this maybe suggest something to you?