Last Thursday night, I entered the emergency room with hideous cramps and nausea. After the nurse injected a dose of Phenergan for my belly and Dilaudid for the pain, the hospital tech wheeled me away for a quick CT scan, revealing adhesions in my small intestine. My stomach was blown up like a football. Back in my room, the emergency doc delivered the bad news: He had to admit me, but first he would put a tube down my nose and throat to pump the pulp out of my stomach.
I feel the tube first in my nostrils, like a burn, and then like a cardboard box sticking in my throat, the corners pushing at my windpipe. It takes everything I have to relax and avoid gagging.
A nurse wheels me to a room on the second floor, sticks an IV in my arm, piles a load of blankets over my legs, and leaves me in the dark. I can see the clock above my bed, and for several hours, I watch the hands tick away, occasionally dozing off for a few minutes. I expect someone to come in and do something, don’t expect they will leave me all night in a dark room with a tube down my throat. But when I ask the nurse what happens next, she tells me I should relax and go to sleep.
“But when will they take this tube out?” I plead.
“Maybe in the morning, if the doctor gives the order.”
By 6 a.m. I’m crawling out of my skin, unable to hold it together any longer, gagging now and begging the nurse to take out the tube.
“It’s my body,” I cry. Except when you enter the hospital that isn’t true. You hand your body over to a set of rules and regulations and give up the right to make decisions. The IV in your arm is mandatory, and it’s plugged into a wall, allowing you enough range of movement to reach the bathroom, but not to close the door. Every three hours someone takes your vitals, your arm wrapped in a band and squeezed, the thermometer shoved in your mouth. This is mandatory as well. The nurse wakes you in the night for no particular reason other than to ask how you are and start a little conversation. You have no choice about that either.
You are fortunate you have a devoted husband, who stays with you through the night, although you barely notice he’s there. All your effort is spent not gagging on that tube, which mostly involves focusing on breath, watching it rise and fall, as you’ve been trained on countless silent retreats, practiced on your meditation cushion every morning until now it is second nature. Intermittently, you take the opposite tack, checking out with endless episodes of Weeds on Netflix, your iPad propped on your lap. Two seasons in 48 hours.
The doctor finally arrives and gives the okay to take out the tube, but that is not the end of it. Now you have to prove you can keep clear liquids down for 24 hours. The “nutritionist” serves you orange jello with the consistency of the slime covering your Passover gefilte fish. The sugar-free lemon-lime soda is okay, but you wonder how wise it is to drink considering you came in with a belly full of gas. The chicken broth is grainy and tastes like pee. You drink the apple juice and nibble at the sugar-free lemon ice despite its medicinal flavor. It’s the only element of your “meal” that requires your jaw to move, which is vaguely satisfying.
On the second morning, the doctor gives the order to release you, but not without another meal of jello and broth. You complain of a headache, but no one seems to care. When you finally get home, you are grateful. You see the neighbor’s pecan tree through the window of your bedroom. Your sheets are clean and cool. But your head is starting to pound and then your eyes begin to ache and the light coming in from the window becomes torturous. When the nausea begins, you assume it’s from the migraine, but you can’t take a chance and within a few hours, you are back in the hospital.
It goes on, but I’ll fast forward to the following Wednesday, when I was summoned for another CT scan. The room where they warehoused me was cooled to 60 degrees. I know because the nurse checked for me. The technician, Kim, brought three tall cups of white and pulpy, sweet liquid dye, followed by an ice water chaser. When I’d ingested it all, Kim walked me to the radiation room where she instructed me to lay down on a plank and raise my hands over my head. Then she left the room to administer the dye contrast, warning me it would make me feel like I was peeing. After a few minutes, I felt myself slide into the great white tube, classical music blaring from speakers on the ceiling. I felt like an actor in a futuristic medical opera, like David Bowie in the 1976 Nicholas Rogue film, Man Who Fell to Earth.
I’m fine now and taking pleasure telling the tale. During the entire ordeal, I had one eye open, aware of the medical theater around me, the odd juxtaposition of the CT scan and classical music, the foldout chair my husband slept on, covered in pink vinyl. Lying in the dark hospital room, I considered how to describe the tube in my throat and the texture of the jello. Even on opiates, some part of me was awake and taking notes, practicing the six sense of awareness.
As I’m writing this, I think of Raymond Carver’s poem, “Sunday Night”:
Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
Outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock and roll,
The red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
(From, A New Path to the Waterfall.)
This is what it is to be a writer, artist, creator of any type. This is what it means to be awake. Whether you’re sitting on a park bench, studying the twisting limbs of the live oak trees while your daughter masters the monkey bars, or you’re in the Alzheimer’s unit with your father, feeding him chocolate pudding on a Sunday afternoon, or waiting in a hospital bed for the doctor to deliver you news. You live moment by moment and take notes—visually, verbally, mentally. You bring it all back and make something of it.