My finger never strayed far from the button. I pushed it early and often. I told myself that I controlled the button but in fact, the button controlled me. It decided whether to respond to my pressure. It alone set the tone and tempo of my recompense. It was my salvation and my destruction.
Time flies when your wings are burned off. As I laid in bed in the hospital intensive care unit, recovering from fourteen hours of neurosurgery, tubes spilling from my body like tendrils in a high-tech jungle, I had a lot of time to think. Not in a focused, conscious way, but in the semi-lucid manner of an opiate-infused walking dream. Moments from my life drifted in and out of my mind like ghosts in a grey winter forest. I could see them from the corner of my mind’s eye. I learned to avoid looking directly at them or else they would dissolve again.
I struggled with asthma as a child. Breathing was an all-consuming and exhausting labor. It was worst at night when I was trying to sleep. So many nights jarred awake, gasping for air in the darkest hour. I would call for my mother and father, and they would come, bleary-eyed but always there. If it was really bad, they would spirit me away to the emergency room in the dead of night. My memories of those journeys are indelibly infused with the scent of rubbing alcohol. Sometimes the doctor would have me breathe medicine from a vaporizer on the table. I would hunch over the machine with a cloth draped across the back of my head and breathe the wispy vapors that seeped from a hole in the top. On other occasions, the doctor would give me a shot.
After several late-night journeys to the hospital, the doctor began reaching for the shot first, my parents grimly nodding in the background. I hated getting a shot, of course, and they knew it. To my child’s mind, the needle was a painful and abhorrent violation of my only possession of any value–my body. Maybe they thought I was playing for sympathy. Maybe they were trying to wean me off of these late night hospital visits by making them more painful. Maybe they were right. But I still struggled to breathe. The next time I awoke in the middle of the night, gasping for air, I didn’t call out to my parents. I sat up in my bed and read my books until the attack subsided and I drifted off to sleep again.
My brain was a shrieking crescendo of nightmarish pain. It was three a.m. I didn’t want to wake up my wife and children. They were exhausted by the stress of my surgery, of caring for me when I’d arrived back home to recover. I thought of taking another pain pill. Try to ride out the pain. Go back to bed. But that would be dangerous. The pain was horrifically sharp. It was as if an instant replay of the surgery had begun, the scalpel slicing into the soft flesh of my inner ear, the whirring drill crashing through my skull. But here at home in the middle of the night, my family slumbering at last after a long and taxing day, there was no anesthetic to mask the pain. There was no morphine button.
I had just come home after a week in the hospital. My head was wrapped in a bandage like Frankenstein’s monster. I couldn’t go back to sleep. The pain wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t sit up in my bed and read my books. Reading was impossible anyway because of the pain. Worse, the pain was a dangerous sign that something was wrong. Through a haze of agony I realized that this was how it happens: I could die right here in bed from a hemorrhage while my wife and children slept.
“I need to go to the hospital.” My voice resonated back unfamiliar, disembodied. I hadn’t adjusted to my sudden and utter deafness on one side. Hearing myself speak was an eerie sensation. It was as if my voice was coming from somewhere outside of me. I reached out and weakly brushed my hand against her arm. She was instantly awake, her eyes straining to focus in the darkness. She reached over to the bedside lamp. The light filled its corner of the room and we were cast into sharp new shadows.
To be continued.
Part seven coming soon.