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. 


I was playing on a steel framed hide-a-bed as Sunday morning stretched into a lazy afternoon, just tipping back and forth, back and forth. I was young, bored and testing. To my surprise the bed gave way and came crashing over, its metal frame embedded in my nose. The blood gushed, poured over my cheeks and landed in big red blotches on cotton pajamas.

My father was in the next room deep inside his easy chair. He looked up from his National Geographic as I stood stunned in the entrance.

Jesus Christ, what did you do now?

Nobody went to the doctor in our family. There was only one to serve the whole county. You could wait all day long in his office without any guarantee of treatment, so families dealt with emergencies by themselves.

My dad laid me out on the table, put ice on my seven-year-old nose and gave me a shot of scotch from the cabinet. When my skin and emotions were numb, he grabbed a needle from the sewing basket, sterilized the point in a flame, and added black upholstery thread.

This will just take a minute, he said. Longer if you can’t hold still.

I watched the point of the needle move back and forth, back and forth toward my eyes in my father’s careful hands. I made it though three stitches and could do no more.

That will hold, he said. Better lay there until you’re strong again.

I studied the ceiling tiles, the molding that joined the cabinet to the wall and finally the blood that smudged my hands.

I don’t ever want to do that again, I decided. I need to be more careful.

written April 30, 2008