Do you want to know how I got these scars – Part five

My eyes were covered by a sterile sheet of cloth. I could hear the voices of a dozen surgeons and technicians calling out and responding to each other–the opening steps of a complicated surgical dance. My head was resting on its side with only my right ear exposed, facing up on the operating table like a delicate cutlet served on an immaculately prepared plate.

“Count backwards from one hundred.” I couldn’t see the anesthesiologist because I was laying on my side with my back to him, but I could hear his voice. My own voice resonated back, disembodied, as I counted off the numbers in darkness. I could feel myself beginning to float. The sounds of the surgeons’ voices intensified yet became more distant as I drifted away from consciousness. My lights went out by ninety-four.

There was a time when I used to dance. I began dancing when I was eleven years old, practicing my moves in the covered patio of my family’s rented house in Hayward. My friends and I spread cardboard across the concrete floor and competed to see who could complete the most backspins, and who could break out of a spin to end it with the best pose. One of my favorite moves was “floating,” which gave the illusion of effortlessly walking in many different directions at the same time.

I was surrounded in total darkness, and the floor was spinning violently beneath me. An instant ago, I’d heard my own voice intoning the number ninety-four. The next instant I was cast into a wild tailspin of darkness. I didn’t know it at the time, but seventeen hours had passed. Now I was clinging to the edge of a vortex, trying desperately to stay on top of it. The spinning was more severe than ever I’d felt even in my worst and most dangerous drinking binge.

I opened my eyes to a tiny slit, allowing a thin haze of grey to penetrate the darkness. The world spun even faster. I could hear my wife’s voice calling to me. My friend was there as well. I called out to them, to let them know I was here, please come and get me. All I could manage was a faint moan, and the darkness enveloped me again.

Me in my Mr. Bounce tee shirt on a sunny California winter day five months after my surgery in 2008.

I came of age in the 1980’s. It was the golden era of twentieth-century greed, grime, and glitz. In those days, everything had to be bigger, brighter, and brasher than what came before. Hairstyles were tall and voluminous. Shoulder pads in jackets and other attire achieved linebacker proportions. The predominant aspirational lifestyle was one of conspicuous consumption and fantasies of wealth injected with sex, plastic, and electronics.

Back then, I was fascinated by those massive “boom box” music players. I always wanted to have one of my own, with all the bells and whistles–the bigger, the “deffer.” It’s only in hindsight that I can fully appreciate how well they characterized that extraordinary era. The dozens of impressive lights and dials that don’t actually do much to improve the quality of the sound. The voracious consumption of batteries that drained in an hour and then were thrown away to leak out of sight in some forgotten place. The hulking plastic body trimmed with blinding veneers of faux gold that soon chipped and faded into a lackluster patina. The thousands of black-on-black plastic parts that were engineered to fail, were not user-serviceable, and could not be replaced.

“The best odds we have to fully resect the tumor and preserve the facial nerve is to use the trans-labyrinthine approach.” The neurosurgeon was hunched forward in his office chair, elbows on his knees, his hands clasped in front of him as he explained my options for the surgery. His shirt collar was open beneath his sport coat, and he had a slim gold and black watch on his wrist. “That approach will give us the most visibility and the best angle, without question. The drawback is that we would have to cut through your labyrinth, because it is directly in the path.”

In order to remove the tumor that was fast growing inside my head, the surgeons would cut across the labyrinth of my inner ear, effectively sacrificing it to open a clear path to get to the tumor. The labyrinth is the body’s mechanism for regulating one’s senses of hearing and balance. Without it, there is no hearing, and no sense of balance. I had little choice – my labyrinth would be sacrificed to save my life and give my surgical team the best conditions to remove the tumor, preserve my facial nerve and avoid disfigurement.

The surgery would be delicate and risky. The damage would be extensive and painful. But if all went according to plan, I would survive. It would take weeks of recovery to regain my balance, to walk unaided again. My one remaining labyrinth in my other ear would adjust to doing the work ordinarily performed by two. But my hearing and balance would never be the same. My days of effortlessly “floating” in many different directions at the same time would soon end.
Ninety-seven… ninety-six… ninety-five…

Part six coming soon.

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