Lost Hours

Tuesday, April 22, 2002. My wife’s parents arrive from Minnesota to spend a few days watching the kids and the house while I’m in Carmel. The kids are so young, their lives so full of fun and frolicking, that they won’t remember “fat dad” beyond the few pictures stashed away in scrapbooks and one wobbly video recording made the previous Christmas in which we hang popcorn strands amid twinkling lights, sing along with Bruce Cockburn’s “Mary Had A Baby,” and wrestle on the couch.

We crowd into our faithful white minivan with its brown leather seats stained with watermelon Kook-Aid and tinted windows spotted with “Have A Grrreat Day!” stickers courtesy of the smiley bank teller and drive to a local buffet – Minnesotans love buffets – and I eat heartily: fresh baked rolls piled high with scoops of honey butter; little meatballs smothered in barbecue sauce; a thick, hand-carved slice of glazed ham; long, steamy uncut green beans; a bowl of vanilla ice cream with Gummi Bears on top. I eat like I always have, fast and furious, talking with my mouth full, bellying up to the heating tables again and again, all the while pushing down the truth that keeps rising in my gut like so much swallowed breath and bile. . . I won’t ever eat like this again.

The next morning I kiss the kids goodbye. They’ve spent the night in mom and dad’s tiny bedroom, a sanctuary in our tiny home, good for bedtime stories about what Brown Bear sees and what Polar Bear hears, where dreams are filled with things-not-scary and grandma’s quilts and stuffed, smiling bears and bunnies are always within arms reach. They rouse enough to give clingy hugs and receive butterfly kisses, and then settle back down as the early-morning light peeks through the worn cotton curtains with flowery patterns that sometimes look like faces, caressing their rosy, smooth cheeks.

Details come easy when one is not heavily sedated.

I’m dressed in one of those too-thin hospital gowns as they wheel me into the surgical suite at 10:30 A.M., 120 miles from my baby blue front door. Pastor Neil goes out of his way to stop by and enlist the guidance of the almighty upon the assembled medical professionals. I like Neil. He’s the only pastor at our church who isn’t all pretentious smiles and pious small talk. His spiritual house is made of splinters and grungy carpet with nary a stained glass window for keeping things docile. He lives . . . truly lives . . . in a world of honesty, bristling amidst the mayhem, and I am grateful for his hand upon my trembling shoulder. A nurse dispenses with the small talk and asks if I’m ready to take a nap. I wonder if I have a choice. “Let’s do it,” I eventually manage and the drugs are pushed into my arm and I close my eyes.

It will be nearly two days before I’m deemed recovered enough to get a room of my own among the general population of patients.

Two days . . .

Like Neo in the real world, just after unplugging, my memories of those hours are patchy. I can’t pull focus on any one moment. A thought: God, I’ve been hit by a truck! I can’t move my arms. Every breath feels like I’m fighting against a pile of rocks on my chest. Someone tells me to take a deep breath and then breathe out on the count of three as they pull a tube, crusted red and then slimy and rotten-smelling, out of my nostril. A young female clad in white and sporting a long braid is guiding my morphine pump behind me as I shuffle to the toilet behind a curtain in a darkened corner. A series of slow-mo laps around the hexagonal nurses’ station, a smile upon my cracking lips and waiving a punctured hand as the nurses prod me on with encouraging words that bounce around inside my reeling head. A large black man in stunning white scrubs challenges me with a mock drill sergeant edge in his booming voice to just try and stop him from pulling me out of bed for another lap. A purple Popsicle melts on the bed tray next to the ice chips and Ensure.

All these images and words shrouded in a fog of timelessness and pain.

For my wife the hours drag by bringing their own burdens. She worries yet prays when a doctor comes out during surgery and says they are waiting on biopsy results from a dime-sized tumor found on my liver. Our faithful white minivan throws a tie-bar in the middle of a busy Indy intersection as she’s driving to fight boredom and loosen her stiff neck, scrounging for something besides hospital food for breakfast. Some old friends, a relocated couple from our church, answer her plea for a helping hand with grace and compassion, picks her up at the dealership and treats her to “the best doggone eggs and hash browns on the planet.” She scrapbooks away the hours trimming picture after picture after picture but not really accomplishing anything. She misses our kids and longs to spend time with her parents but she stays near me until the fevers fade and my mind clears and they wheel me upstairs.

Where the hours aren’t so lost anymore.


A Boring White Wall

“Right over there, against that wall please.”

She said it after fiddling with some paperwork, greeting me with a generic smile, and while looking not at me but at the buttons and dials on her digital camera. I swiveled slowly around, my entire body moving, as if I wore a neck brace and the individual parts just couldn’t take actions independently of one another.

The wall had no taste. No style. No feng shui. It just stood there, brilloed, barren and bright white. I thought of those black velvet cloths that jewelers display diamonds on for scrutinizing customers. This wall would make anything that leaned against it pop with clarity, no imperfection hidden from even the most casual observer.

I turned back around and took note of all the other people in the office: a receptionist chatting with another patient about some insurance matter; a secretary filing chart after chart, all piled haphazardly on a wire cart; a tech walking through with a vial of blood on her way to the lab across the hall; and my nurse, the one whose job included taking my “before” picture. I’d been weighed (378 pounds), my arms had been squeezed – the pressure of the blood coursing through my deeply-submerged arteries measured and written down – and now all I had to do was lean against the white wall and smile. Or not. The choice was mine. “Perhaps I should save my smile for a few weeks down the road, when all this is finally a reality,” I pondered.

The date was April 11, 2002. Five days before I went under the knife and got my innards rearranged. The medical folks called it an open Roux-en-Y. It’s Gastric bypass or bariatric surgery to us laymen, and simply weight loss surgery to the larger, skinny populace. Some called it the “easy way,” a senseless, overused option for quitters – those who gave up on giving good old honest will power a try, for once. Others called it my last hope and applauded my bravery at taking such drastic measures. Still others remained silent but supportive; the time for words had come and gone and all that remained was to do this thing and get it over with.

I had been through all the preliminary medical testing – poked and prodded by a menagerie of nurses, doctors and technicians, and left sweaty and winded. I drank their concoctions, felt them course through my system as they sucked my thick dark blood into vial after tiny little vial. I let them inject me with their tracer fluids, then stood real still while they donned their protective vests and disappeared behind walls with glass windows and talked to me through tinny speakers. Turn left. Turn right. Raise your arm . . . higher . . . now lower . . . now your other arm . . . etc., like a marionette on so many sterile strings. I spent an hour in the psychiatrist’s office reaffirming my intentions to make the necessary lifestyle changes – drinking oodles of water, taking up walking, visiting the doctors as scheduled – that would make the procedure a success. That I would be happy to reach the higher regions of the statistical benchmarks regarding optimal weight lost, but could also live with the more modest numbers. And that, no matter what steps I had to take, regardless of how far I had to reach out for support, I’d maintain a positive attitude even when times got tough. And times would get tough, he assured me with a gentle yet used and tired smile.

Sort of like the one I flashed ever so briefly on the morning of April 11, 2002, leaning against a boring white wall.