Tuesday, November 25, 2008


There were morbid moments that had the air of ceremony. On the form: List your next of kin. And the small, mustachioed man at the intake desk asking, Any particular religious preference? Funny way to ask that question. Like he was asking what vodka I wanted in a bloody mary. Whatever's fine, I should've said. But I said, emphatically, None at all, and his reaction was like that was precisely what he wanted and expected me to say. And when the surgeon handed me a form and said with a forced chuckle, This makes people nervous when we ask them; it really shouldn't, but we have to ask anyway. It was consent to receive a blood transfusion, should the need arise. Initial here. It didn't make me nervous. Once, the litany of questions asked again and again by various parties—Do you smoke? Do you drink? How much? Do you take drugs? Any allergies?—took an abrupt turn when recited by a clipboard-carrying nurse: Are you a Jehovah's Witness... at all? She stumbled a bit at the absurdity of it. I think that's why she added "at all," as though I might be one just a little and that may still pose some sort of problem. I'm thinking about it... I'm almost one, frankly. But I reassure her no. OK, because they don't take blood transfusions, she said quickly, and hurried to the next question.

Do you drink? the kindly, motherly Asian nurse was asking me. Do you smoke? I had not yet been submitted to the indignities I knew were to come, the donning of the assless gown and padded sockies. In fact, there was a weird dignity to my present circumstances: I was seated in a high-backed chair against the wall, half-drawn curtains separating me from similar stations on either side. There was a thronelike quality to the chair and its position, its role in this ceremony of deference. A robotic-looking blood pressure machine stood like a sentry to my right. So this is what it's like to be king for a day. Any allergies?

Before long I had to go to the changing room and pile my clothes in the gunmetal gray locker. I was given two gowns and told to wear them each way. One forward and one backward. Go both ways. One way is life and the other is death. I took note of the pattern of rubberization on the soles of the beige ankle socks: It was a striation that could almost but not quite be termed decorative.

I padded around the waiting area in my beige socks and both-ways gowns. No one seemed to have an immediate agenda for me. There I was a few feet from the desk, a few feet from the chairs. Neither coming from nor going to. Like one of the undead. Nurses clutching clipboards gossiped and fussed with paperwork and looked through me for awhile. Sit over there, I was finally told, and so I sat in the third row of an impromptu gallery of plastic chairs facing nothing, the kind of arrangement you see in a small-town DMV. I sat there and read New York magazine for a long, long time, an article about a memoirist who might be lying, as others around me came and went and I began to wonder whether I'd been forgotten or whether the whole thing had been some kind of mistake, some complete and hilarious misunderstanding: You thought what, sir? You thought you were getting surgery!?

Then very quietly someone came over and got me.

The surgeon greeted me and escorted me to a place behind the doors. You were born exactly ten days before me, he said. I think I said that's funny. He instructed me to lie on a wheeled bed.

The anesthesiologist was tall and had a heavy accent. Eastern European, I thought. Romanian, Bulgarian. Do you smoke? No. Do you drink? Yes. You don't take any kinds, you know, illegal drugs or what.

Of course not.

To my left a young Asian doctor introduced himself, shook my hand, and plumped up the crook of my elbow for a good vein. You're going to feel a pinch. And I did feel a pinch: the pressure of my entire being escaping into the world at large. Suddenly my circulatory system was connected to the cosmic ether. I felt vaguely idiotic and serene. Whatever may go in me, may go in me. I'm in the blood and the blood's in me.

The surgeon grabbed my bed by a railing at the foot and wheeled me down a series of halls, around corners, through doors, cheerily greeting colleagues along the way. It was impossible to overlook the infantile aspect of the experience. Or a dream where your bed is a car.

At the end I was asked to get up and I felt a vague irritation at this - wasn't I in bed already? I'm stricken, for Christ's sake. I have on backwards-forwards clothes and my body's hooked up to a plastic bag. I stepped gingerly through the swinging doors and into the operating theater. There was a forbidding padded plank in its center, with masked figures all around. Remove the top gown, I was told. Lie down. Put your arms out like this - that's right, like that. It occurred to me that I'd crucified myself - my arms were outstretched on the lateral extensions of the cross and all there was to do was drive the nails.

The anesthesiologist rematerialized. You comfortable? Good. Now we gonna give you something to relax you little bit.

It dawned on me to ask him what it was. What is it? There was a beat or two of pause. This was not a question he was accustomed to answering.

It's valium and, um, morphine.

Good, I said, and I tried very, very hard to focus on the high, to know the high, to get inside of this high now, right here, now, this high right now, I watch the ceiling, feel it, to be high, to feel it, feel it, feel it, feel...

I woke up with a shot and no idea where the fuck I was. Why, what, light, who? OK, surgery. I just had surgery.

Illustration by Louise Asherson