I’ve been home from hospital for a few days, and I can focus on fine print. I’ve cut my fingernails so I can type again. Bread tastes funny and I can’t tolerate coffee. I’ve been away a lot longer than we expected.
My first conscious memory after my bowel resection is one of the worst things you can confront in a hospital - an apologetic surgeon. I’d been hit by a medical emergency which was 50 years in the making.
When I was very small I had some kind of unidentified infection, which stopped one kidney from growing. Instead, the bowel had occupied the space, which meant the spleen had moved too. Reorganising my unexpected gut design, the doctors nicked my spleen, which collapsed and had to be removed, while I bled badly.
Two days later, I responded to the trauma with a small heart attack.
The next ten days became a blur of disconnected vignettes, my bed a nest, pushed from scan to scan and ward to ward.
With all that morphine I made friends with a huge bear in the corner. I lost control of my visual cortex and lay for days in a muddle of spontaneous images, some viciously ugly, most collaged from shattered pieces of coloured Perspex cut with frozen, scanned memories. In my own naturally verbal sensorium, I suppose this was the pictorial equivalent of voices in my head. I puzzled for hours over the way that could happen but still be under control, which I guess is the way visual artists function, in a parallel to the stream of words coming from my fingers to this screen.
I twisted back and forth on a mobius strip of recursive identity, trying to work out who I was if the drugs had seized my brain. The “I” that I needed being a creature which could ask questions, organise my bedclothes and work out whether to put my hearing aids in or not.
I remember a man across the ward who was 86-years-old, stone deaf, who shouted very loudly and was mentally flitting through the twilight zone. The doctors seemed to think he might have had a stroke at home; his family simply ignored his ravings, as if they had known his behaviour for a long time.
Next to him was a young man of Islander background who had been in some sort of fight. His mates came and he swanked around, making moves and swaying his hips, laughing about the violence. His big sister was on the mobile talking about someone else who had been arrested over the incident. But that night, when everyone else had gone home, I heard him sobbing in his mother’s arms.
Beyond the curtain at my side was a Czech chippie, who got away from the Russians in the 50s. Eighty-years-old, still smooth skinned and strongly built, he lives with his wife who is five years older on a piece of land somewhere in the hills. His eyes lit up when he talked of his two ponies. Lying there patiently, waiting for his heart to calm, I felt like he was an inspiration, a direction for a life well lived.
I rowed on through the hospital, my bed a dinghy, across rivers of knowledge. Bowels. Spleen. Hearts. I saw slices of my own heart beating, which were slowed down and repeated with their own sound track. “Beat” is not the right word - the thing flutters, endlessly precise, fabulously fragile, each dancing move identical for every second from the womb to the grave.
They gave me some kind of terrible muck to drink on a fragile stomach, which tasted like roadside fennel cut with decaying mulch. Then slid me - without instruction - into a torus which told me to breathe in Korean-American. Some weird dye injection bathed my whole front in heat like I had been whacked by the transparent alien ray gun over my shoulder. Maybe I had. It showed me just how fast something pumped into my bloodstream can rush across my torso. It was the only time a harassed department really failed to communicate to its astonished patients.
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