It was 1955. I was ten years old and having another surgery. I knew the routine, count backwards from ten while men in white coats pushed portable tables, readied fine instruments of gleaming steel, and placed a black ether mask over my face. I never counted past five before the light from the mask pulled me out of my body, away from the table and up to the ceiling. My spirit hovered, seeing and not being seen. I watched and listened as the people in white leaned over me, ready to cut. I moved outside, with no conscious thought of moving, just abstract desire and then being there. I was the air and the wind and the trees. I was everything and nothing, as I watched people come and go down hospital steps, car tires crunching snow, windshield wipers frozen and glittering. I watched men and women in long heavy coats, hats, mufflers and gloves huddled together talking and laughing below shards of soft glowing light. I watched and listened without anxiety or worry, cocooned in safety and a blissful feeling I’ve not known since.
These journeys are burned in my memory, vivid and stark. I often long for that welcome expanse of invisible light where I became nothing and everything – but not the moments of darkness before being slammed back inside a room, bed and pain-filled body.
For decades I believed there was a light in every ether mask. I thought it was designed to open a tunnel and lift surgery patients safely out and away. How surprised I was when I examined one as an adult and found nothing but molded black rubber. This can’t be it, I said. There is no light inside.
White coats and surgical coverings, sharp shining silver tools designed to invade, ether masks filled with gagging head splitting recovery. Alone, alone, alone, in dimly lit rooms where I wake full of pain, and half conscious awareness. Wheeled to other sterile rooms with metal beds lined up in rows. Jokes from a waitress who visits to explain that my mother is too busy to come. Are those pork chops you’re having for dinner, she asks, looking at the tube of liquid dripping into my arm. I smile feeling some responsibility to both appreciate and amuse her.
Later my mother comes with new pajamas, little rose buds living in creamy soft flannel. She smells like fresh air. The outside world clings to her clothes, the scent of the day lingers in her midnight hair. I want to eat her up, whole. I want to take her inside me to satisfy an unspeakable appetite. She tells me about the restaurant while painting her lips in fire engine red. I want to grab those lips, ask her to swallow me. I want to live within her body. Take me home, I want to scream. Take me to another place, eat me alive, but don’t leave me here.
Visiting hours are short, her schedule is full. I am one of the lucky 5. I am sick, so I get to see her. I have her undivided attention for about half an hour. New pajamas and the memory of sunlight playing on her ear-rings stay with me long after she closes the door. Now it’s me and nothingness. Tomorrow the janitor will mop my room. I like him. He comes everyday. The floors are not dirty. I don’t know why he comes. He has bags tied balloon-like over his shoes, as he mops clean over clean.
He lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. A preacher came to see him everyday, holding his hand, offering words of encouragement and turning inward to ask God for help. Bless this soul, the preacher repeated, and return him to health.
My father’s eyes were open, but he was too weak to speak or move his body.
The preacher read scriptures aloud, always smiling, praying and talking with my father about salvation, heaven and hell.
At the end of two weeks my father gestured for pen and paper. The preacher slid them within his grasp, smiling and encouraged.
Father found the strength to write three words, then pushed the paper in his direction. The preacher stood up and read the note. It said, in shaky exhausted script, Hit the road.
written April 30, 2007