When you arise, you're ahead of your wake-up call, because sleep is a commodity in which you need no longer trade when things really matter. Somehow, the anxiety that exuded from you like the glisten of perspiration the prior afternoon is gone, because you simply cannot afford the fear. You've thought your many thoughts, you've had your deep forebodings, but you're not cast in the primary role today, and you put on strength as if it were the thick green "business casual" shirt you're buttoning up. You get to your car at five minutes until five, when the world is not yet awake, but the last bursts of REM sleep are oscillating away, the eyelids jarring in impending light.
You've driven these roads before. You always expected to live here, in this small city with tall trees and charming homes, since you spent three of the happiest years of your life here, and thought you'd found Heaven, or home. That's the shopping center that was a Christmas shopping tour to the "Big City" all your childhood--it seems much less cosmopolitan than it did the days when you spent idle weekends trying to catch mosquito fish from the town drainage ditch using a tiny tropical fish net affixed on the end of a long broomstick. All your life you've felt that everything you consider essential you felt in that sensation of lowering the tiny net quickly into rushing water after cagey, elusive fish--you try so carefully to be sophisticated, but the reality is that so often you only turn up empty, wet net. Even in that rare instance (did it take weeks? months? years?) when by coincidence you finally scoop up a mosquito fish, there is nothing for it but to throw it back in. In life it all cycles, there is nothing to do but wait and scoop and throw it all back.
You drive by the IHOP where you must have eaten many dozens of meals, at three in the morning, from the time you were a teenager in a continuum that may last until either you or the Markham/University IHOP is gone. But today there is no time for pancakes, which you eschew anyway because you realize that you can never eat the things you once enjoyed again. Today you have a destination.
When you arrive, the parking lot is entirely dark. You park in one lot, and then realize that the signs in that lot are telling you that you cannot park in the lot you have chosen. You park again, where the lot says you get the first hour free. You stroll into a building which differs a bit from the place you know so well. You have been to these buildings many times in the past. Whenever a medical meeting afforded family doctors a chance to attend a seminar, you came along and ate sweet rolls in the cafeteria in the basement. You know this building as if it were home for you, in the same way that the Gurdon Hospital, for all its anti-septic smell, was home for you, a home where a woman named Irma who worked in the kitchen would give you saltines and ritz crackers with a special grace, as if saltines were truffles. You know the basement, and you remember the other parts of the building as a place where everyone has someplace to go, and none of the places involve you. But you're involved today.
You take an elevator up, and step off on your floor. A sign leads you to the right room, past signs with odd monikers like "positive pressure" and "nutrition". Soon you're in a home again, of sorts, where you sit and talk with people you care about in low, intrigued voices, a maze of family stories and common history and the odd effects of the adverse effects of ingestions of bottles of electrolytic fluids. You're there for a few hours, your discussions interrupted only by people who come in to affirm or alter various minor matters of scheduling (and your need to move your car yet again, as your lot has a one hour limit)--you don't care what the scheduling really is, because you are here for the duration. You take a relative down to the basement for breakfast, and eat raisin bran and get filled in on the various risks and potential outcomes. Then it is back to the room to wait. A minister arrives, from a hundred miles away, and you all talk, largely about his son the massage therapist, who lives in the Ozarks without running water, and then, rather later, you all circle together, five people together above one person, and the minister prays. He's not really your minister, he's a family minister, but in the denomination in which you were raised, he's ridden a sort of modern circuit of sorts, and he's only been your family's minister for six years, and some day he will transfer and somebody else will be your family's minister. When the prayers are over, there is only more waiting, and then a rolling bed arrives, and you and yours follow the one of yours on that rolling bed, as the bed heads down the elevator to the second floor.
They have a windowed waiting room on the second floor, so you say your see-you-soon goodbye, believing that you will get another chance to say goodbye when the pre-op is done (but in fact, no), and you find yourself using terms like pre-op and post-op as if those terms were native to you, but in fact you have little idea what they mean, but like the way they trip off your tongue. You need a touchstone. You need a phrase. You need a context. You need a meaning. You've known about this, you've seen it coming. You've processed it. Now you must have a vocabulary for it. The English you know is not equipped for this. You've got to use new words. You've got to think new thoughts. You are here as support, and you cannot support something you do not have language to describe.
You sit with your people in rather uncomfortable chairs, along with other families sitting with their people in rather uncomfortable chairs, and the whole thing is rather like an airport waiting room when the flight has a few seats left, except that instead of calling the names of standby passengers, they are calling families, who will be told whether things went well or poorly.
You sit and you discuss family history, because there is no point in dwelling on prognoses and procedures and post-operative matters. Your wife, who has cared enough to drive you three hundred twenty miles at night the previous evening, heads up to the hospital room, to nap on the sofa until news arrives. You ask the questions to erase the confusion about birth chronology among your aunts and uncles. You hear again about your forbear Thomas Jefferson Doggett, who was wounded five times, and captured at Antietam, where his brother died on the field, but your forbear sat out the rest of the war at a federal prison in Rock Island, Illinois. You hear about a great-great Uncle Billy, whose involvement with another person's wife landed him in an altercation in which he shed the other man's blood, leaving him to flee to the Indian Territory (which is now called Oklahoma). The Choctaw, apparently an accepting people at that time, took Uncle Billy as one of their own, the story goes, until a number of births suggested that Uncle Billy's philandering ways generated a number of children who looked as though they descended from Uncle Billy. Uncle Billy apparently got his walking papers as a Choctaw shortly thereafter. The whole morning had a feeling of oral history--of stories told to shield out the immediate story, of ironies noted and intricacies exchanged. The person at the reception desk calls out family names, and groups of family members go outside the door to hear if their loved one's procedure has gone well or ill. The minister explains about his deer camp in the bottom lands, and his boys in Montana, and attending Perkins theology school. If you had grace and hunting skills and a bit less eccentricity, you might have been this minister, which is only to say that you would never have been this minister. You express your regret that you did not bring a novel, but you are living a novel, and the chapters lay all around you, like pages waiting to be turned.
Finally, your family's name is called. You're advised that
the procedure has begun. Soon a half an hour has passed, the time in which the procedure might have been terminated if its futility were swiftly determined. Your job is in part to ensure that regular meals are eaten, as you lack the spiritual gifts of the minister and the practical gifts of the medical professionals. In the basement, you have a London broil, while your relative has a cheeseburger. You head back to the waiting room. Your wife and other family members are there. Soon the call from the reception.
The procedure is going well, and they predict another hour and a half to go. You read an odd paper called Soiree, which depicts Little Rock "society", but you know only one person in it, actually fewer than you would know in the Kansas City Independent. You're there, though, in the moment and in the stories and you're waiting. Other families are being called to get their news. You see the doctors come and motion for them to come outside the glass. You worry that you will see an unhappy outcome, and a family in tears; you don't, but later your more med-savvy relative says he did. Perhaps you are anesthesized to tears. You cannot see the negative outcomes. Perhaps this is a form of blinder. Perhaps, on the other hand, you are not observant at all when you are preoccupied.
Soon your relative's doctor comes out, and your family comes out to hear the news. The procedure went well; in fact, as well as could be expected in light of the situation. Substantial steps to control the adverse developments were taken. There will be more time. There will be chances to fight. The doctor is calm, upbeat, and definite--he makes no grand claims, he makes no fervent promises. Life is too full of promises unfulfilled, claims unsubstantiated. He says he did all that he could see and safely do. You expected no more--you feel as though you've been well treated indeed. You're not upset that some fears are confirmed, because you are not hunting for miracles--you're hunting for the best human efforts. Leave the gods to bury the divines. You wish to travel among the living and the dead.
Then the interminable wait resumes. Nobody in the waiting room was there when your family arrived. One of the two kind sisters from your home town who works here finds out more details for you. You are constantly impressed and barraged by the kindness of acquaintances and strangers. Is it an Arkansas thing? Is it a caregiver thing? Is it grace? You don't know, but around every hallway is a friendly person giving directions, finding out facts,and helping you help work through this.
The waiting adjourns upstairs to the hospital room. The delay is prolonged far past the estimates, as forty minutes stretches into hours. You know, deep down, that this is the sort of thing that goes with these places of schedules and workloads. But you also know that time can mean pain or complication or the call that there's been an admittance to ICU. At six p.m., though, the rolling bed is wheeled in. You've all made it through this. You've lived through this.
You go with your wife and your brother, and you eat cafeteria food because it is close to your hotel, and because you must eat quickly. You cannot imagine what it would have felt like to have had that stress and an adverse result. You stand in line behind state legislators, one of whom you somehow know, but you are too tired to remember if you went to law school with her, and you ignore the talk of lobbyists and the like and just wish the cafeteria would adequately staff the salad portion of the line.
The three of you eat, and then you go to a book store, where you buy one book about quilts, for its gorgeous pictures, one book you grab on a related whim, which is an odd paperback book about fictional characters in a quilting circle, much more "formula genre fiction" than Whitney Otto, and a book about how El Alamein, Operation Torch, Stalingrad, Guadalcanal and a naval battle all happened within ninety days and yet changed the course of the war. You wait at the register for the clerk to comment on the contrast, but the clerk is less obsessed with you than you are. You then go to your room, where on the TV show ER the ER doctor discusses options with the boy who is dying of testicular cancer and your wife points out later that the oncologist, not the ER doc, would do this in real life.
You arise the next morning, have an IHOP meal with your brother while your wife sleeps in, and then you all go to the hospital again, where the patient is sitting up, in high spirits, and you know you have all survived this particular plague of locusts. You feel the stress lift from you as if you've been ransomed from some cosmic bet between God and Satan.