by Judith Ren-Lay
Crisis is a tube – you enter one end and are consumed by a narrowed path until you come out the other end. Some tubes are very, very long.
I knew I had flipped to a new level when I began occupying my time swatting the fruit flies that had accumulated since the flowers began to fade. It felt like I had become part of the hospital, linked into the daily workings far more fully than I had ever believed possible. It was the day after Labor Day when I first sat, frightened, meditating, waiting in the Emergency Room for 6 hours until they finally admitted me and began to work on my blood. By the time I was out of the first hospital, I was already scheduled for tests at the second and, when it was shown conclusively that surgery was necessary, I ran around town like a maniac trying to set up welfare, disability, any means I could find to assure my basic expenses could be paid once I got out and began the slow road to recovery and a return to some sort of life. I looked out the window singing “Hey Jude” softly to myself: “…remember to let them into your heart, so you can start to make it better…” So, then I waited, waited, waited for the morning I was to let them into my heart.
I am not interested in telling you about my operation, although certain aspects of that will be examined. I want to tell you about the way the changes have led. No miracle baby, just a long, arduous, and painful ordeal.
I am awake. I see the ceiling, squares of light glaring back at me. I am alive, it’s over, I can move my arms and legs. A warm wave rushes through my nerves. There is a joy here I have never known. WE DID IT. The awful terror happened. Breastbone was sawed in two like a tree limb, rib cage pried and clamped open exposing the culprit heart. A pump team takes over, hooking up the dread machines and, freeing the soul to wander, breathes for me, circulates the blood while the surgeons cut out the old part and replace it with the new. And now, awake, I have tubes coming out from my ribs, a tube from my nose into my stomach, another one into the lungs, still breathing for me until I can take over again. The doctors come in and squeeze my hands. I talk to them with my eyes. The worst is over. A miracle has changed my future, forever. Joy of rebirth awakening to the horror of where I now lie.
That night the weekend city had deposited three stabbing victims and four gunshot wounds into the hands of the surgeons. There I was surrounded by all of them. A man across from me was pulling bloody tubes out of his bald head – brain surgery, they told me. The nurses had to tie him up to keep him from harming himself and the rest of us. To his left a group of doctors leaned over what appeared to be a corpse with dozens of tubes coming out of it, hooked up to so many bags and machines that there was hardly room for the doctors who came and went shaking their heads and discussing among themselves. I think that one was nearly dead. There was a lot of blood everywhere, and tubes and bodies and………….
What is this dark soul feeling too unwelcome towards infirmity? The body falters, hesitates to move. Blood infusions sap recovery. Denizens of city rat-infested holes prowl the hallways. Nurses cackle at complaints and administer dangerous drugs in a haphazard fashion. Young not-yet doctors inflict pain while claiming to heal. A seemingly healthy woman, I agreed to this torture, this incongruous need to replace part of a heart.
The no time of days going endlessly on and on. A view 15 floors up and deep from the belly of the city’s refuse. A bridge, helicopters, water moving. No weather. Only semi-stasis. Patience becomes a necessity to sanity. Calmly awaiting what has gone so far beyond our own control. Little interior lights flash on and off. Major holidays pass. I wait. I read. I wait. I live a daily torture. I hold on. I separate. I will not fold. I will be angry, but I will not fold. Determined to tell about it.
There is screaming, and low moans punctuate the periphery. As though we were all just an asleep piece of meat, they tell our broken bodies to do this, do that, oops, the platelets don’t exactly match, the medicine might make you throw up, the needles drawing blood, endless blood, sting and stick and burn.
It seems I have arrived shipwrecked on “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and the natives are all swaying side to side chanting “House of Pain, House of Pain…”
All the furniture rolls. Some handcuffed to a bed, manacled to a wheelchair resist patience. The guards sit, bored and hungry, staring in on the livelier rooms.
Emma walks off the scale at three hundred pounds, each pound hammered loosely, dribbling down thighs, becoming ankles, melting into paper slippers, slap, slapping by. She stops to ask for sugar, her walk a determined sliding sort of shuffle, hurling the bulk from one point to the next.
Henry wears his gown open down the back, no pants.
Wong rides his wheelchair, barefoot, no shoes. His nails reach nearly four inches from his toes.
Joseph is bald, a clockwork zombie, always walking.
Someone next door coughs, belabored and thick, every few minutes, as though his lungs were pus.
Jaunita sits like a fat buddha, speaking no English, watching me. She sweats a lot, and her gown is much too small. Breathing is an effort for her. She wheezes in her sleep like a drowning whale.
Teresa has just had her leg amputated above the knee, a quiet little lady, listening to her radio news, the first one to tell me Noriega was in the hands of the Vatican. After her surgery they wheeled her in, face contorted. She moaned low for hours. The nurse would give her nothing. The Doctors’ had forgotten to write the order for pain – an oversight.
Gladys sings quietly to herself, “Jesus Loves Me” as she looks out the window, seeing helicopters taking to the air, passing our window on the 15th floor. I hear “Oh God” when they remove her stitches, over and over and over again, the intern says “we’re halfway through now” and “just a dozen more to go” while she is screaming and crying.
Why don’t they give her something for the pain, the pain, the pain…..
And the ones in charge merely tell me to accept the deal, do whatever I can, when all is bleak and unimaginably delayed. Where is the soul, now, here? Where did it go? What distant satisfying wanderings does this sad reality make shine? And why did I feel such strange joy, a euphoric rebirth alive and glowing as rejoining brought new life, only to doubt and question? Victim of anxiety care, exploding with fear and anger, worrying over base essentials, letting mean nurses string me out, unprepared to cope, let down, tired, unformulated in the future, alone, mainly wanting to be well. It’s like a twinge, a tug, a constriction, a tightness right in the center.
The days drag on. They are rough. They hurt me, then look at me as though I’m crazy to respond to pain. I feel it all the time, the pain, the constant throb of something stuck in me, leading through a vein, inner blood highway, critical and conscious, uncontrollable and agonizing. The interpretation doesn’t arrive as usual. Struggle eradicates the meaning. Revelation is waiting. I know what’s happening …but…out there…silence.
Surprised when bad news can be received so well. Unable to speak always clearly, crying with anger. Flying off to a 15-minute nervous breakdown. Negative assertiveness gains some small advantage. Nothing is “appropriate” here. We respond, initiate, let it out, let it fall, release it all, reason deterred, having only expression…………..
I was three days away from discharge after nearly five months, two open heart surgeries, and seemingly endless weeks of intravenous antibiotics. I was beginning to believe in recovery again. That night they moved Annie into my room. The first thing I noticed was how badly she smelled. She had some sort of chronic diarrhea and kept shitting the bed. It would take the night nurses hours to discover this and change her. The next night she began throwing up. She was one of the homeless, claimed she was “just sittin’ here bored, stickin’ myself to death.” The first word out of her mouth when she woke up was “shit” – or was she saying it in her dreams………..
Yes, it’s true, let them into your heart – and things change.
JUDITH REN-LAY (www.judithren-lay.com) has been creating performances, music, poetry, and dance since moving to New York in 1975. She won a Bessie in 1985 for “The Grandfather Tapes” and has performed her signature work for four decades, currently archived at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Now 78, she is currently focused on writing as her primary form.