The following is a continuation of the story which deals with the brain surgery I underwent back in April of this year. Part one is here.
The Next Morning
"Well they encourage your complete cooperation. Send you roses when they think you need to smile. I can't control myself because I don't know how, and they love me for it, honestly, I'll be here for awhile."
I'm counting the holes in the ceiling tiles.
I'm listening to the quiet pulse of the heart monitor.
I'm desperately in need of sleep.
About an hour ago, the heavy bed that's held my racked body since the faster-than-light jump that swept me from the terror of the operating table to the Neurosurgical-ICU was wheeled up to what they call the "secondary" intensive care unit. My picturesque view -- the glowing bridge and highway -- is gone, replaced by an immeasurably less picturesque view of a man named Miguel. My bed has been planted -- monitors and all -- directly across from his so that we now face each other. It should be easy to stare him down should it come to that, being that whatever happened deep in the recesses of Miguel's brain has left him unable to open his right eye. It remains folded shut in an eerie, perpetual wink.
I realize that I've lost count of the holes.
I feel my eyes close and try one more time to drift off to sleep, knowing full-well that it's impossible right now. If the half-dozen tubes restricting my movement weren't enough to prevent me from getting comfortable enough to truly rest, then the hydraulic wraps around my calves which inflate every sixty seconds to push blood through my legs would do the trick nicely. The pressure from the leggings prevents my blood from clotting and me from consequently going into cardiac arrest and dying in this bed -- with Miguel giving me one final devilish wink to send me on my way to oblivion.
I silently wish to be back in the quiet ICU room with the astonishing view. I'm going to be in pain either way; better I be in pain in near-silence.
I don't know at what point it dawned on me exactly what it was that was spread out so beautifully outside of my window -- at what point I regained even a sliver of true lucidity. I now know though that from that room I watched as the darkness enveloped the 59th Street bridge. I watched the headlights of the cars speeding under it along the FDR -- watched them thin as time passed and New York City fell deeper into the night. I counted the minutes until dawn, hoping that at some point sleep would come -- but it never did. Instead I stayed awake throughout the entire night, terrified and alone -- the steely taste of my own blood dripping down from my punctured brain, through the cotton compresses plugged deep into my sinuses, and into my parched mouth.
Every half-hour or so, the young nurse -- Piper -- would enter my room from a door I couldn't see, take my vitals and ask me if I needed anything. I asked for water. I asked for morphine, despite the frightening reaction my body seemed to have to it. At one point she placed a warm blanket over me and I realized that it did nothing to stop my uncontrollable shaking; my entire being seemed to be spasming, and wouldn't stop. I asked her for another blanket -- and another. I was cold. I was shaking and shaking and shaking and nothing would stop it. Nothing. I was scared. I was terrified. I wanted someone to hold my hand. I wanted someone to tell me that everything was going to be alright. I wanted to close my eyes, get up, and slip through that giant window like a ghost and float away into the night -- over the city, to someplace far away. I wanted to fly. I wanted to disappear.
But then there would be the rhythm of the monitor -- the whisper of the leggings inflating. There would be the sudden awareness of the painful needle shanks in my veins and arteries and the taste of the blood and the feel of it on my cracked lips and the fear would return, and I would return to the bed that held me trapped. I'd ask for more water, and more blankets and more morphine. I'd ask Piper to talk to me -- to reassure me. I'd once again be able to make out just the slightest hint of her smile in all that endless darkness -- with just the electric light from outside to bathe the room in a hint of color -- and she'd tell me that I was doing fine.
She'd tell me that the operation was a complete success.
The tumor that had been eating away at my brain was gone.
"How are you feeling?"
A nurse's voice brings me back to this moment. I'm in the secondary ICU. I can't sleep.
"Peachy," I manage -- barely. "I'm tired."
She whisks around my bed and begins checking the readouts on the various machines to which I'm hooked.
"Do you know where you are?" she says as she adjusts my IV.
"Nowhere I want to be," I say, then thinking the better of it -- "Hospital. Cornell Medical Center." Despite the languid ebb and flow of my awareness, I'm congnizant of the fact that this woman deals with enough shit -- figurative and literal -- that antagonizing her is neither fair nor wise. Thankfully, when she comes back into my field of view again, I notice she's smiling slightly.
"Do you know what day it is?" she asks.
I glance slightly to the left of her as she picks up the chart attached to the foot of the bed.
"It's April 28th, 2006."
"Yes it is," she says without looking up from the clipboard.
"I know that because it's written on the rotation board to your right."
She smiles -- checks off points on the chart.
"Very good," she says. "Can you tell me who's president?"
"Fucking idiot," I say, actually managing a hint of a smirk.
"I'll count that as a yes," she responds, placing the clipboard back on the hook at the foot of the bed and -- in the time it takes me to slowly close my eyes and reopen them -- appearing at my bedside.
She shines a bright pen-light into my eyes; it feels like it's burning a hole through to my sore and damaged brain. She clicks it off and I can still see the purple and black sun seared into my retinas. Somewhere behind it she holds up her index finger.
"Follow my finger without moving your head. Eyes only."
I do as I'm told: side to side, up and down.
"You seem to be doing well," she says. "Are you in any pain?"
"My head's pounding." I whisper now. "Needles hurt."
She pushes past another nurse who's come to fill a tiny styrofoam cup on my sliding table with water. Before I can even react, she's pulling the surgical tape from the heavy IV line which was inserted into the tender skin of my left wrist just before the surgery -- before everything went white. I feel the soft hairs being ripped away. All I can manage is a pained whimper.
"Okay, hold on tight," she says. "We're going to pull your A-line. This runs directly into your artery. You shouldn't need it anymore."
I have nothing to hold on to, but I close my eyes tightly and try to will myself away from here. In one sudden motion, I feel the shank deep in my vein slide out and the excruciating pressure from her thumb as it flattens a cotton ball into the open wound. Flashes of color dance behind my eyelids. I exhale stale air through clenched teeth. She wraps new surgical tape around my wrist.
I allow my eyes to relax without opening them, and the strange shapes projected against the inside of my eyelids seem to diffuse, then vanish. I finally fade away.
"So give them blood. Blood. Gallons of the stuff. Give them all that they can drink and it will never be enough. So give them blood. Blood. Blood. Grab a glass because there's going to be a flood."
I feel something gently stroke the inside of my palm -- a light touch. I slowly open my eyes to see a face. It's glowing bright white. As it comes into a wet focus, I realize that it's my wife. The light is coming through the window next to my bed and illuminating her soft features. She smiles.
"Hi baby," she says. "How are you feeling?"
What begins as a groan evolves into actual words: "Better now." I smile as best I can.
I can see tears beginning to pool in her eyes. I reach up and touch her face; her skin is soft -- even softer than I remember. I look over her shoulder and realize that my mother and father are standing behind her; they're both wearing reassuring smiles. Before I can even find another word, my eyes drift downward. The room blurs. Sound tunnels away. Everything goes black.
The next thing I hear is a voice. It comes from somewhere in a dream.
"Chez," it says. "Chez. You have to wake up."
A slightly darker room than the one I remember emerges from the pitch blackness. To my immediate left, the sun is setting over the East River. My wife is still at my side, but it's the nurse's voice that's dragging me -- kicking and screaming -- back to the waking world.
"I have some bad news," she says. "The doctor wants us to begin taking blood from you every four hours. We need your arm."
Before I'm even awake enough to know what's happening, I feel the latex strap (they asked me if I'm allergic to latex, didn't they?) tighten around my arm; the cold swab of alcohol is rubbed into the crux of my left arm; the needle slips in. I wince -- curse -- awaken fully.
"I have all these tubes in me; there isn't one you can just plug into?" I seethe.
"Well, that's the bad news. We removed your A-line, so that means that we have to find a new vein each time. The rest of your lines are for putting fluids in, not for taking them out."
I turn over slightly, attempting to bury my face in my pillow but unwittingly pulling my IVs taut -- putting me in even more pain.
"You're fucking kidding me," I moan into the pillow.
"I wish I was."
The nurse folds my arm, squeezing a fresh cotton ball into place. "Motherfucker," I whisper. I glance over to see my wife's face; her expression is a concerned pout.
By this time tomorrow, they will have practically run out of places to insert a needle into me. I'll overhear the nurse saying that several of my veins are in danger of collapsing.
"A celebrated man amongst the gurneys. They can fix me proper with a bit of luck. The doctors and the nurses they adore me so, but it's really quite alarming 'cause I'm such an awful fuck."
I've devised a plan; I'm going to get out of here.
My arms are bruised black and blue from needle punctures. Last night at around 3am, I was awakened by a large black man with a picnic basket full of test-tubes and needles and the bedside manor of Ed Gein. He attempted to physically roll me over and put a syringe into my arm, but I managed to knock it out of his hand. "I can get security in here if I have to," he said. "You better hope they're armed," I returned with a furious sneer. This exchange was promptly followed by a blackout, which was promptly followed by my coming to just in time to see a nurse inserting something into my IV.
"What is that?"
Before she could even answer, I felt my arm catch on fire -- felt it spread throughout my body. I was being burned alive from the inside out. I opened my mouth in a grisly, tormented silent scream. There was molten lava flowing through my veins -- boiling my blood as it consumed me whole.
"Magnesium," I heard her say over the sound of every molecule of my being, exploding, one after the other.
Now it's morning again and I'm being allowed to shower for the first time in four days. I'm unhooked from the monitors -- wondering for a moment if the nurse's station will suddenly light up like a pinball machine at word that one of the patients' hearts has apparently stopped cold -- and am marched off to the bathroom, along with my IV stands and catheter. If there's a more pathetic or embarassing situation short of shitting yourself, I'm unaware of it.
I somehow figure out a way to shower and shave, ridding myself of both the smell of stagnation and the ratty castaway-chic beard I've been cultivating for the past several days, then return to my bed to find one of my nurses -- unfortunately, a young, attractive one -- waiting for me with a forced smile on her face.
"What'd my payment not go through?" I say as I lie back down.
"Nope. Time to take your catheter out."
One of the few true blessings in all of this is the fact that I was knocked out when they inserted both a lumbar puncture into my spine, and a catheter into my penis. For this, I will always be thankful.
"You know, I haven't looked at it once."
"Nope. God knows if there's one image I don't want lingering in my brain, it's my shriveled wee-wee with a tube sticking out of it," I say. "Couldn't they have at least sent one of the seventy-year-old nurses to take this thing out? Spare me the embarrassment?"
"Sorry -- I'll have to do," she says with that synthetically sweet smile. She reaches down along the side of my bed as I close my eyes and begin thinking about kittens and butterflies and long, white beaches and star-filled skies and Liverpool's 2005 victory over AC Milan in the Champions League finals and the new Shelby GT and Maria Bello in leather pants in Coyote Ugly and Pearl Jam's cover of the Who's Baba O'Reilly and my wife stepping out of the shower in the morning and any other goddamned thing I can call to mind to distract myself from the twelve inch tube and deflated balloon that's about to be pulled through the end of my dick.
I hear her say the words, "Hang on," then feel razor wire shred my urethra.
My pelvis jolts forward and I muffle a scream which degenerates into a cruel laugh.
"Oh you're fucking evil," I hiss.
"Had to be done," she returns with a look that borders on satisfaction. "Now comes the fun part. If you don't urinate within the next few hours, we have to put the catheter back in." As I furiously try to rub the pain out of my wounded penis, she looks right into my eyes -- no doubt to lend the necessary gravity to her next statement. "That's going to hurt -- a lot."
I reach over and grab a plastic bottle which is now hooked to my bedside, put it under the covers and begin pissing like I've just downed a gallon of iced-tea. It burns like hell.
"I guess that settles that," I say, looking directly at her.
"I gave you blood. Blood. Gallons of the stuff. I gave you all that you could drink and it has never been enough. I gave you blood. Blood. Blood. I'm the kind of human wreckage that you love."
With my shower and shave behind me, I now look presentable for the various doctors who see me intermittently throughout the day and night -- the doctors I'm now trying to actively convince to allow me to leave the hospital so that I might be able to go home and get some real sleep. I've memorized their rounds and make sure that I'm always chipper and alert when they show up at my bedside -- typically in small packs -- to stare in fascination at their prize monkey. In the moments before they make an appearance, I sit up straight, open my laptop and slip in an episode of Firefly on DVD. I smile wide when I see them. I tell them the truth: I feel surprisingly good -- especially for somebody who had brain surgery four days ago.
Across from me, I see the typical lethargic movements of Dead-eye Miguel -- his right eye now held open by a piece of surgical tape which secures his eyelid to his brow. Across the top of his head -- running from ear-to-ear -- is an unbroken line of dull metal staples. Next to him is a newcomer to our little melting pot of brain stew. His name is Mr. Yu. He's a diminutive Asian man who smiles constantly and doesn't speak a word of English. His family tends to visit in groups of seventeen at a time, which means that at least twice a day, the secondary neurosurgical-ICU at Cornell Medical Center is transformed into an episode of MXC, complete with the requisite high-pitched squealing and howls of surreal laughter. All that's missing is a monitor lizard and young girls in bikinis with raw meat taped to their legs.
"You're going home in the morning," Nurse Cockripper says as she suddenly appears at my bedside. "Doctor Schwartz just cleared you. We're moving you to a private room for the night."
"But I'll miss happy fun sexy recovery party!" I say with a deliriously exaggerated smile.
She reponds to my obvious sarcasm with a wan smirk and begins unhooking my monitors, eventually leaving only the saline drip which is plugged into my right arm.
"Can I ask you a kind of personal question?" I say as she begins to walk away. She turns around and faces me, putting a hand on her hip like a greasy-spoon waitress who wants to rid herself of a last, loitering customer.
"I couldn't help but overhear you yesterday, talking to the other nurse about some problem you were having with a guy you were dating -- how he didn't understand your job." If there's one thing I have plenty of time to do, it's listen to what's going in the world beyond the partially-drawn curtain that separates my bed from the others. I'm not sure how to specifically ask what I want to ask, so I make a quick decision that I should probably just spit it out. "How can you even look at someone in a sexual way?" I say.
Her face softens. Her posture seems to relax.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," I say, sitting up slightly, "you deal with every type of gruesome bodily function there is. You witness every horrid thing the human body can do -- and you're usually the one called on to clean it up. You stand waist deep in death and decay every day. So, how can you possibly leave this place at the end of each shift, go out on a date, watch somebody take off their clothes and put all of this out of your mind? How can you think of the body as something beautiful -- something you actually desire?"
Her eyes widen slightly. I'm fully aware that the line is at least a good ten to twelve steps behind me. It feels as if all the ambient sound has been sucked out of the room -- the single act of such impertinence creating its own vacuum. She tilts her head slightly -- her hand reaching up to reassuringly touch the ends of the long blonde hair which rests gently on her chest. She hesitates, then speaks.
"It's capable of all that awfulness -- it can break down completely -- and then it can heal itself. It's the most incredible machine there is. You don't think that's beautiful?"
Sufficiently put in my place, I smile.
As if on cue, there's the squealing sound of sneakers on tile -- the chaotic tromp of young feet across the hospital floor. I look past the nurse to see two children -- a boy and girl -- plow into the ward with unruly abandon. "Papa! Papa!" they shout as they make a bee-line for Miguel's bed, jumping onto it and wrapping their arms around their father from either side. It's now that I notice that Miguel is wearing a dark, pirate-style patch over his uncooperative right eye and an oversized Yankees hat on his head to cover the grisly row of staples. He moves slowly and carefully -- his reaction to the presence of his children delayed by several seconds. It seems to take an eternity for him to fully comprehend that he's at the center of an epic group bear-hug.
Finally, a weak and sluggish smile spreads across his face. He says something in Spanish. His words are a slurred jumble.
A woman about Miguel's age comes into view and takes her place at his bedside, pulling up a small chair. After a moment, he turns to her -- acknowledging the loving touch she gives his hand.
"What happened to him?" I ask without taking my gaze away from the strange and heartbreaking sight directly across from my bed.
"He had a brain tumor," I hear the nurse say. "The same kind you had."
I immediately turn my head and face the young nurse, looking at her with an intensity I wasn't sure I was capable of right now.
She says nothing.
I say nothing.
A few feet away, Miguel's little children laugh for reasons all their own.
The next morning, I'm released from the hospital. I walk through the revolving door and out into a brisk morning in Mahnattan. I look up to see the sunlight being split apart by the fresh spring blossoms as they begin to adorn the trees along the street.
I close my eyes and take long deep breaths.
(Despite never losing sight of how fortunate I am to have survived such an ordeal, the surgery has had severe and lasting effects on me -- both physically and mentally. For an admittedly somber look at that aspect of my recovery, feel free to go here: The Dreams in Which I'm Dying -- 12.19.06.