About Me

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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Monsters are Real

It seems I almost died four weeks ago now. Though that realization has grown on me only slowly. A stomach ache came and went over a weekend in late September and then started to grow in earnest. An ambulance came to collect me on Monday night. I left behind my 95 year old mother with my cousin Patricia and went off to place my life in the hands of strangers. The monster I had dreaded since reading in my teens a vivid description of a medieval man's miseries with gall stones was now upon me. My doctor had actually warned me I had stones in there, but I had had them for years with no consequence. It seems 30% of Americans carry them. Not all, fortunately, will have to meet the monster. 

Oddly, there is a certain peace that comes with acute crises. One lives utterly in the moment, intent on the drip by drip revelation of new experiences.  "Beginner's mind,"  Zen priest David Suzuki called it. Curtains were drawn around me in the ER. I watched the staff appear and disappear as I listened deep inside to the ruin afoot. The nurses in the ER were brusque,  ever busy and matter of fact,  but also kind. The pain was growing. And nausea began. By the time i received a room, I had entered the full anguish of pain and vomiting brought about by an unknown foe. But even then, some part of me was able to simply watch, dispassionate and intrigued. Was it Buddhist training? Or what all people experience? I listened in the night to the mysterious sounds of my acute care unit, of others, unknown but nearby, suffering as I was. On the other side of a rigid plastic wall divider,  a woman next door moaned and then made phone calls to a lover and then a friend. I could feel the thick fabric at my shoulder shift as she moved against it. I vomited again. In the end, though we had listened for hours to each other's misery,  I never saw her. 

The drugs began Monday night after nurses had struggled to gain entrance to my apparently vein free arms for an IV connection. Bruises and blood.   Anti-nausea medication eased the worst then, and Dilaudid for pain. When they were administered in sequence, I floated and slept. But it was when I woke and lay with my eyes shut that the strangest part of my experiences there unfolded.  There were images behind my closed eyes, almost but not quite as visible as they would have been if my eyes were open. Several times I did open them to check if some shadow or change in light was affecting me but the answer was always no.   When I kept them closed, and focused my eyes on the imagery that came, I had a frontline seat to Dante's inferno.  Or perhaps, one friend suggested, the universal unconscious, or was it the bowels of creation?  I would very much like to know, because I was not causing these images. I had never seen or imagined them and indeed i could not change them even when I tried. The strongest element was  texture, darkly sparkling earth, or kelp or shag carpet or cliffs of moving dark tendrils. Water poured out everywhere, foul or muddied, torrents of excrement, mud with small rocks, or simply water. And everywhere there was heaving movement, fecundity, primal creation or decay. Half made faces emerged from the moving earth, pink flesh lumped and unformed with only an eye or a nostril fully made. Skulls, fantastically lined elderly faces with eyes closed, copulating couples, infants, demons, animals and innocents. The moving earth or waving tendrils of grass or fabric folded them ever deeper into crevices, or writhed slowly open, revealing them. The images were of intricate dark beauty, detail beyond detail. A goat appeared purple and blue, and then a fox with a fantastic fringe of carved ivory rising from his ruff. Faces dead or those being born, I could not tell. Eerie in  the luminous dark, like  the  cocaine dreams of a great artist.  What on earth was I looking at? Once the dark purples and blues and reds and blacks,  the muted greens, were replaced with imagery entirely of bronzed gold. A hill of sand lit by a hidden sun. Figures rose from the sand, made of sand, and the wind rose and blew them once again into non-existence, back into the hill.  These images occupied my mind for much of the time I was alone and awake in the  room. I could not make them stop and wondered if I was seeing the bardo. If I concentrated on changing them or even just lightening them, faint sparks flickered deep in the distance, that was all.

All was not grim, however. My nurses were kind. One in particular, Bob, is an old friend, a fellow Buddhist who is a nurse and has cared for my father on previous visits. His gentle humor and help with the temperamental IV made the suffering much less.

There were tests on Tuesday. A surgeon came, one, Bob assured me,  known for great competence. I later learned I was to be taken into surgery on an emergency basis on Wednesday morning. Blood tests showed the battle against infection was rising to critical levels in my body, though I had no fever yet. It was still contained, but now felt like something about to break open.   The surgery on Wednesday morning showed why. I was put completely under, unlike my joint replacements. As I came back to consciousness, there was no sense of time having passed. I only remember the staff muttering about how bad it - my misbehaving gall bladder - had been as they repositioned my limp body in the recovery room.  Indeed though no stones were blocking any ducts, the whole organ had had been black and gangrenous. A word to strike fear. The surgeon, Dr Brian Waddle, checked on me briefly, and assured me we do not particularly need gall bladders, and that mine was now gone, incipient stones and all. Amoxicillin would deal with the left over infection and so it has.

They sent me home Thursday, so weak I could barely walk, the new early release hospital policy in the age of Mrsa infections and merciless insurance companies. I was frightened to leave so early, but, indeed, it lifted my spirits and dimmed my Hieronymous Bosche eyelid show to sit on my front porch in the sunshine a while. In my absence, Patricia and George had managed, with considerable strain they later shared, to keep my mother going. But it was my brother Chris who arrived like the cavalry and stayed to save the day. After telling me he could not help, he had changed his mind and flown to their rescue all the way from a job assignment in Pennsylvania. For eight days he stayed with us, a perfect kind carer for both, even while maintaining his work schedule as a computer network tech from my kitchen table. He endured with perfect calm and kindness mom's dementia eccentricities (she often thought he was an old boyfriend) and incontinence and my inability to help for several days.  This was a brother, an ally, that I did not know I had. If this illness brought anything good, it was this above all, to regain that severed connection.

So that is my story dear reader. There were more tumultuous days before it all settled down. Wildly oscillating blood pressure, a drainage tube that left a pain in my side for days when it was  removed. More monsters scuttled under the bed for those days and left me sleepless far into restless nights. Would one of them emerge to become real? Twice I reached a level of panic that believed one had. But in the end, after a visit to Land of Medicine Buddha they all receded. Body and health returned. Hieronymous is back in the museum where he belongs. And I am left with my life, and  apparently even my health and a great gratitude to all who helped me recover it.