Sara Kirschenbaum

On this winter’s horizon of job stress, exhaustion from single parenting, and money troubles, my thyroidectomy was a ray of sunshine.  Just the memory of getting to sleep in a bed overnight in a hospital without anything much expected of me, makes me sigh.
Still, I squeeze all the sympathy I can get out of this operation.  I say,
“I just got out of the hospital.”
“I was operated on last week.”
“I am recovering from cancer surgery.”
Yes, I did have surgery last week.  And it was for a tumor in my thyroid.  And they did find cancer.  But thyroid cancers are the slowest draw on the body and when I go to bed at night, my thyroid and the discomfort in my neck are the last things on my mind.
What I am thinking about is whether the child support check will come in time to pay my $1,286 mortgage, so I can overnight express it in on the 15th of the month and avoid the $50 late charge that is greater than the cost of overnight expressing.  I’m struggling to come up with what would have been a better way to react when my son spit at me.  I’m bemoaning the boiler at my house which has shut down again and the house is cold and what did I get for my $650 getting the boiler fixed when now its emergency shut-off valve goes off every other day.  For that matter, where is my emergency shut off valve and what’s it going to take for it to go off?
The most heroic aspects of my surgery didn’t take place in the hospital.  For example, setting up the childcare for my thirteen-year-old son and my nine-year-old daughter.  I had to type up an itinerary for my ex-husband and all the kind souls who offered to watch my kids or take them where they needed to go.  Even though I was only in overnight, the itinerary, entitled “The Great Thyroid Surgery,” was half a page long and involved 10 drop-offs and pick-ups to no fewer than 8 different locations.  The Herculean list of phone calls and my requisite offerings of my gratitude, alone, should have entitled me to an overnight stay.  Once the last piece of scheduling was in place, I got off the phone, cleaned the toilet, the kitty-litter boxes, the kitchen, the laundry, and my body.  I set the alarm for 4:30 AM, and went to bed.
I arrive at the hospital in the morning and wait for my time to go into Pre-op.  When they call me back, it is startling to get up on the hospital bed myself.  Almost all my hospital experience has been a bedside affair.  Now it is like coming to the theatre to see a show and finding yourself called on stage.  It is me on this small sympathy-stage of a bed.  I take off my street clothes and put them in the plastic bag they give me for just this purpose.  I am the type that appreciates all the little sample shampoos and soap that a hotel offers, and I’ll take this bag, my gown, and whatever freebies they have to offer in the same spirit of pampering.  I am unsure if I should leave my underwear on but I figure they may need to do something catheter-like down there.  Naked, I put on the white and blue hospital gown with all its ties and snaps.  I feel strangely indulged even though I’m dressing myself.  I am a Mister Rogers, coming in from Real Life into a Neighborhood of Attention.  Can you say happy?  Can you say scared?
The first year after the divorce I was strong.  The second year I was angry.  Now I am just tired.  My job as Community Leadership Coordinator hasn’t helped.  It’s my job to convince mostly adjudicated teenagers that it is wonderfully rewarding to volunteer for the community.  They look at me with disbelief when I remind them that they will be expelled if they don’t “volunteer.”  One particularly articulate young man with a long history of legally required “community service” told me, “When I do community service I feel badly about myself.”  Another student, an African American, asked what was the difference between this required “volunteering” and slavery?  So much for my career as a do-gooder.  After this, the simple, plain, no-responsibilities, Pre-Op room is calming.
Nurses come in to give me a shot of sedative before surgery.  I refuse the sedative.  I’m already Buddha-like.  There will be no scrutiny of my competence when I am under anesthesia.  There will be no need to push myself, as I do everyday, between my “shifts,” coming home from the work-shift, gearing-up in the ten-minute ride home for the home-shift:  a new stretch of nurturing, cooking and being the rock of the world to my two children.
Now, with no shift in sight, with my Buddha-like calm, I lie on my back in the bed, my legs crossed under the gown.  I’m ready to turn over the whole job of living and breathing to the operating room.  Lying there, looking at the pastel rainbow lines of the hospital room curtain separating my bed from my fellow patients, I’m trying to figure out what it is about hospitals that feels so holy.
In a world of hurry, brusque necessity, and neglect, my vital signs are finally going to be noticed, touched, tended.
My mother’s first husband is Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most successful modern artists.  I remember going to a museum retrospective of his work.  There in the show I saw paintings that I had grown up with (one even I had inadvertently thrown a bucket of water on, in a water-fight).  Each had a carefully printed-out label.  I saw sketches and doodles, now catalogued and researched.  This man was a tremendously talented person, but aren’t we all—aren’t we each worthy of the scrutiny and appreciation of a curator?  My mother is also a enormously talented artist.  But no one has yet taken the time to curate her huge outpouring of daily poems, paintings, notes and influences.
This is a Catholic hospital, and as I’m waiting for surgery a prayer booms out over the pre-op room:  “Heavenly Father, let us experience your healing powers.”  I look around for the speaker but see none.  “Let us know your endless all-loving presence as we undertake our daily trials.  Let us find the courage to heal from our injuries and life’s injustices.”  I am a New York Jew, and I find comfort as well as humor in this omniscience.
Inside the rainbow-lined curtain, the hospital lands somewhere between a museum and a temple, for my single-parenting body.
With this God speaking to me, my arms over my head, my legs crossed, I’m more than willing to let the unseen O.R. crowd take responsibility for my heartbeat, breathing and the lump in my thyroid.  I surrender.
The anesthesiologist comes in and explains the different ways he will be administering the anesthesia.  Injection first, then with a breathing mask.   He says he will stay by me through the operation and the recovery room.  The idea of someone sticking by me is novel and sweet.  He shoots something into my IV needle and wheels me into the operating room where I start to go under.  But before I go, I prop myself up on my elbows and look all around.  The room is bigger than it is on the TV show “E.R.” and there are only a few people around doing tasks at the edge of the big room.  I ask someone to remind the surgeon that he  promised me he would take a picture of my operation.  I want evidence of my pass, uncharted, unclaimed, around the dark side of the moon.  As someone scurries out to find the camera, and as I’m wondering how you would sterilize a camera, I slip under.
When I wake up in recovery I have a fat crinkly rough towel wrapped around my neck tight enough to suppress bleeding but not so tight as to strangle me.  I am throwing up and clutching two Polaroid pictures.  One is of my neck pried open with clamps and retractors.  The other is of my sectioned thyroid on a sterile pad.  When I was a girl, I tried over several months of steady effort to retrieve a physical object from my dreams.  These Polaroids come close.
Hearing awakens in me before sight.  I’m dumbly aware of the bustling around me but I don’t open my eyes.  I fall in and out of consciousness like a bad surfer who can’t catch a wave.  Finally they wheel me to my room and I’m reminded again of “E.R.” as they transfer me to my bed—several peoples’ hands on my sheets lifting me from the gurney and setting me on the plastic coated mattress.
Physical pain is easy for me.  I approach it with a running start like a triathlete.  Childbirth was a good marathon.  After months of hormone-induced depression and nausea, I set myself to the doable task of pushing out a baby.  I could turn away from the worry-tuned neurons of a hormone-tweaked brain and step into the work of the body.  Everyone was so proud of me for the day of “labor” which, if not the easiest day in 9 months, was definitely the best.  Pushing out a baby, or a thyroid, is a walk in the park compared to daily labor of getting by.
Listening to my roommate in my hospital room is also labor.  She seems to have a condition that causes her to belch—a small “pop” belch—every 11 seconds.  The worst part is when it unexpectedly varies to 7 seconds or 15.  I find myself in anxious anticipation of the next belch.  I finally resort to TV, agreeing to interrupt my sparse spiritual hospital lifestyle.  But I find a “relaxation” channel that plays elevator music while scanning endless mountainous horizons, and keeps things simple.  Clutching the TV remote, I fall asleep as another prayer comes over the loudspeaker: “God, Allow Your healing Hand to heal me. Touch my soul with Your compassion for others; touch my heart with Your courage and infinite Love for all; touch my mind with Your Wisdom, and may my mouth always proclaim Your praise.”
Life in the hospital ends too soon.  I’m wheeled out of the building in a rickety wheelchair by my boss, who is also a friend.  She takes me home and distributes my flowers around the house.  I have a big clear bandage on my neck, suitable for grossing anybody out but also keeping me in a perpetually submissive—chin-down—repose.  It is two hours until my children are dropped off by their father and soon I’m directing meal preparation between catnaps.
The next day the children decide to do a lemonade stand in front of the house, and I am happy to have them occupied.  Between naps I try to keep an eye on them in case child abductors frequent their stand.  14 lemons and four trips to the store later they’re happy, and safe, with lemon juice spread all around the house and a negative cash flow due to buying the lemons one by one ($.59) instead of in a discounted bag.
Day after tomorrow I’m going back to work, four days after surgery.  As I feel the ebb of friends and family no longer coming to visit, I re-appropriate my flowers.  The purple lilies, I say, are for navigating my finances through the minefield of shut-off notices.   The bouquet from my job is for my enduring the hypocrisy of enforcing volunteerism.  The perky red flowers in the painted pot from my children are for trying to be a good parent (even when my son spits at me).
Five days after the surgery, I go see my surgeon for follow-up.  He tells me that the large tumor they removed was benign but that they found two tiny surprise malignant ones as well.  He tells me that they were small enough that no follow-up is needed; no radiation or chemo.  I can tell that he is impressed with my strength, he says, “You just breezed right through this!”  He takes off the bandage and takes a Polaroid of his work.  As I leave he offers me a piece of candy which seems an inadequate gesture.  I leave his office and go straight to the ladies room to look at my scar.  There, in the mirror, I see the scar on the bottom nook of my neck—it looks like a little smile.  I recognize that smile.  It’s Mona Lisa’s!  I have Mona Lisa’s smile on my neck, sitting on a welt of inflamed tissue.  And she’s smiling her knowing smile at all the off-register attention; all the pain in all the wrong places.
She says,
“We just got out of the hospital.”
“We were operated on last week.”
“We are recovering from cancer surgery.”
And we smile our double smile, one above the other.

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