Greetings on a beautiful day here in Chicago. I'm laid up with a bad back, but after completely resetting my brain in Mexico for a week, I'm feeling pretty solid even though I can't really stand up straight.
I was fortunate enough to perform this last Monday with a group of ladies that had taken storytelling classes with Scott Whitehair in February and March. Scott is a fabulous and supportive teacher and the class really helped me work out some writer's block that had been bringing me down for quite awhile. If you're interested in a four week course in personal narrative, I would highly recommend working with Scott.....he is immensely encouraging of the value of everyone's authentic voice. Plus, as one of the students mentioned, it's far cheaper than therapy and a lot more fun! The show on Monday was my first attempt to tell a story without having notes and it was harder than I had imagined. I was caught off guard by how emotional I became telling it, which made not having the written words to fall back on a challenge. But in an effort to stay outside my comfort zone, I'm going to attempt the story again at the Moth on Monday and I plan to put together more short stories to do at the Moth in Chicago and Los Angeles soon. Either it will get easier or I will decide it's not for me; I'll only know for sure if I keep doing it.
In brainstorming an idea for a story for class, I thought of an email exchange I had with my friend Michele about a traumatic event that happened to me in the hospital after having surgery to remove my ovaries and a cyst that was suspected to be cancerous. Michele and I had hysterectomies at the same time the year before....hers was a proactive measure to help stop the spread of stage 4 metastatic cancer that was ravaging her body. Michele and I have been friends since elementary school and our lives have kept crossing paths ever since. We ended up at the same suburban high school, where she was a popular glee clubber and I was a sulky malcontent smoking cigarettes with the guys from auto shop. She claims I was "cool", while she wasn't, I recall the opposite. We were united once more when she would come visit me at work at the Capital Club for happy hour after her work days at Harborview Hospital and I would fix her a gin and tonic or a Metaxa sidecar and listen to the tales of the neurosurgery department. Over the last four decades there have been many new houses, new jobs, husband/boyfriends, divorce/breakups, the births of her daughters, family dysfunction, and her getting the news that she had eleven months to live. She has far exceeded that estimate and she continues to LIVE with cancer, still maintaining a great sense of humor. Live is a carefully chosen verb as she would frown upon me using the words "fight" or "battle" or any other words of war to describe her position. I sent her the following story after I wrote it for class and thanked her for reminding me that it had moved her when I shared it with her at the time.
I awake in darkness to the fact that I am wet. Even in a medicated fog, I sense right away that something has gone terribly wrong. I flip on the reading light over my hospital bed to find that I am covered in blood. I reach for the call button for the nurse. DING!
The nurse working the night shift is thin and grey haired and arrives with a surprised expression, like I’ve interrupted her from watching her soap opera. She enters the room hesitantly, with a “yeeeesss?”, until she’s close enough to the bed to see what has prompted my call. “Oh my!” she says, snapping into a sense of urgency. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The blood has come from a six inch incision in my abdomen that had been stapled shut after having my ovaries removed after they are suspected to have cancer. An artery had ruptured just below the surface of a widening gap between the staples and began pumping blood through the opening, through the bandaging, through the hospital gown, through the sheets. I’m not in any more pain than I had been before starring in my own personal horror movie, but I desperately wish to be sleeping instead of contemplating that attempts to put me back together have been less than wholly successful.
The nurse cleans up everything in no time and tells me that I should go back to sleep, which I do, only to wake up an hour later, again soaked in blood. DING!
This time she seems more concerned. She repeats the clean up procedures and tells me she wants to confer with the doctor on call.
She returns to say everyone official will be in for regular rounds in a few hours and I should be all right until then. Wanting to accept this assessment, I go back to sleep.
Morning comes with a visit from the doctor who stomps in authoritatively, explaining my case to a group of med students in the most clinical of terms. Her expression turns less routine when she pulls back the bedsheets to find that I am again covered in blood. I’ve become accustomed to this being the state of affairs when I wake up; I’m now immune to the visual shock of it and am just dreading the clean up ritual. She tells the med students that I’ll need to get prepped for surgery to fix the problems at hand.
Everything stops when she proclaims, “We don’t have time to take her to surgery. We’re going to need to take care of this here.” I may be high as a kite, but I can tell by everyone’s reaction that what she’s suggesting is out of the ordinary. She explains that they are going to cauterize the offending artery and staple me back together here in my room.
Everyone springs into action, scurrying about bringing trays full of tinctures and tools. The doctor carefully paints silver nitrate on each side of the laceration and pulls out a metal tool that looks like what it is, a staple gun. She pulls the sides of my flesh together and activates the lever. CHA CHUNK. The pain from my skin being severed and clamped together with metal combined with the stapling sound is horrific. She moves the stapler up a notch and repeats the motion. CHA CHUNK. I am wincing but I’m imploring myself to lay still. By the third CHA CHUNK, I am out of my own head and imagining this is happening to someone else as I can’t really synthesize much more of what’s going on in first person. And then it’s over. She thanks me for hanging in there and says she’ll be back to check on me soon.
Four nurses remain with me in a constant state of motion. One begins to clean up my bedding while another is feeding me ice chips, a third sits down and holds my hand and strokes my hair, the last puts a cold washcloth on my sweaty forehead. They buzz around me like bees to a hive, praising me for my courage, telling me that everything will be all right. They explain to me slowly and carefully how to read the machine next to me that provides intravenous pain relief. I have a button that I’ve been pushing only when I’ve felt like I’ve needed it; they insist that I must get more proactive about it. They tell me that the machine is set up to make the medicine available every eight minutes; they point out on the screen where I can tell when that time is up. They assure me that tomorrow should be better but the near future will be excruciating if I don’t commit myself to staying sedated.
All of their attention has made me feel surprisingly uncomfortable. I’m appreciating their concern, but I’m taken aback by how awkward it makes me feel. I am quiet as they conclude their duties and tell me that I should ring them right away if I need anything.
When I’m again alone in my room I consider the uneasiness I felt from their attentiveness. Their inclinations felt unfamiliar to me, as they were expressing an instinct I will never know in its truest form as I now cannot have children of my own, something I wasn’t exposed to being raised by a mother who thought tough times were best countered with a sense of detachment. It was maternal spirit that caused the nurses to do more than just their jobs. I pondered how mothers are driven to soothe and comfort and provide solace and educate their children to protect them from harm. They understand the power of gentle touch and soft words and they know how to be present only to another’s needs. I felt warmth and calm wash over me as I stared at the display on the morphine machine, making sure to hit the button every eight minutes until I drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
In actuality, I didn't really have the maternal realizations until I relayed the story to Michele shortly after....when I was lying in the hospital I was thinking that the only person I could recall being stapled was Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler and perhaps the experience would fill me with fortitude and some day a stripper would tell me that I didn't really need to call her Cassidy because her real name was Pam. Hey, I think I mentioned morphine was involved, right?
Michele told me her takeaway from the story was that she should always try to be emotionally present for her daughters, Anya and Mila (aka Dizzy and Crash), even when it's hard. I'm happy she has loads of friends and medical advocates and access to the latest and greatest cyberknife procedures and as she says, "the best kind of the worst cancer ever", but I know in my heart that being Anya and Mila's mom is her most effective form of medical treatment.
After I told the story the other night, I had a lovely conversation with our young bartender, Cherish. We talked about the play, Wit, and how you can live a seemingly important life full of John Donne sonnets, but in the end you just need a kind nurse to read you The Runaway Bunny. Sometimes I fear this blog comes off as a nonstop unwanted advice column...but it's immensely therapeutic for me to keep celebrating the notion that our love and connection to the people in our lives are all that really matter and sharing stories has brought my life an incredible sense of meaning. This keeps me going when my mind is filled with, to quote Anne Lamott, "such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
The summer is filling up with grand plans of a road trip through the rust belt in a mini van and helping girls find their inner rock stars. Watch this space for details.