Perhaps My Brains Have Turned To Sand

(To my friend Richard, who’s been politely hocking me a cheinik about writing this for the past too-long of a while. Title scooped from a Brian Eno lyric.)

Let me just say that the past four months have been, without a doubt, the weirdest %$#@!ing life-interval (pardon my language) that I have EVER experienced.

I may have to rethink my life-long dream of settling Mars; I’ve been more-than-less constantly indoors for nigh on 120 days — half the duration of a Red Planet run — and would be furtively eyeing the hatches at this point in the journey.

A quick summary with lotsa jargon: last November, I began experiencing sporadic and severe pain in the right-upper-quadrant of my abdomen. On December 17, my gall-bladder was removed; a week later, I was back in the ER with near-fatal liver enzyme levels occasioned by an operation-induced liver hematoma. (Oh, yeah, and I had to be defibrillated again. The look on the ER doc’s face is more easily imitated than described.) A string of subsequent diagnoses (and other hospital visits) indicating biliary dyskinesia led me mid-February to the Cal Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco for a sphincterotomy of Oddi, which scared the living bejeebus out of my wife but only relieved the pain for a week. At this writing, a second gastroenterologist is exploring the possibility that the gall bladder surgery damaged my liver; I had a CT scan Tuesday and have a followup appointment next Wednesday for the results.

Quicker still, no jargon: After two surgeries, three near-death experiences, four months and a pile of ER visits, my gut still hurts — to the extent that, even with concentration-destroying meds, I can sit up for only a couple of hours at a time. (It’s taken me two days to write this, for example.) I’ve been off work since Dec. 1 and receiving disability; Ann was laid off January 4, and we have been surviving largely due to the generosity of our community. Meanwhile, career, chaplaincy (see previous entry) and almost everything else is on hold until I Get Better.

It’s been incredibly, terribly (in the word’s original sense), wonderfully humbling to be the recipient of so many wishes and good thoughts, of food and financial help. It’s also been very, very, very weird to need it, as well as to had a gurney’s-eye view of worry-drawn Ann (in San Francisco, collapsed exhausted next to my hospital bed on a pile of blankets) and looming medical personnel and machines that go “ping” and tubes that go everywhere. On the other hand, it helps to remind myself of all the unread books I used to wish I had time to read. There are fewer of those around the house now, with the intention of fewer still. (Most entertaining so far have been Fleming’s James Bond series and Douglas Rushkoff‘s “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” which makes some bad arguments in favor of some excellent pints about issues raised as early as 500 years ago by people who hadn’t recently rediscovered Judaism.)

The weirdest part, and this happened right after the Great San Francisco Valentines Day Adventure, has been this near constant sense of … amnesia? Disconnection? As though I’ve forgotten how to be me, or rather of what sort or type of essence constitutes Nealness. It’s a very difficult sensation to describe — an unfulfilling counterpoint to the sort of ego-loss experienced through meditation, prayer, psychedelics or orgasm — but I bet it’s not uncommon among those in semi-isolation. Evidently we need people around us to remind us who we are (just as we sometimes need solitude to remember Who we are). We also need something to do — something by which to define ourselves — something to make the days count, or at least make them different. (Which they inherently are, of course, but that’s not always easy to see.) This, in turn, raises the question — are we more than our social roles or contacts? Do we, like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, vanish in-between scenes peopled by Other Characters? To tell you the truth, sometimes it has felt that way. An uncomfortable thought, that — more uncomfortable, in fact, than the constant sensation of apparent impalement-through-the-right-side.

But on the other hand, I have fingers that can type (sort of) and I can get up and go for walks (briefly) and to the store (if it’s not something too heavy, or requires more than an hour’s travel). Since some poor bastards can’t even move, or have their organs on the outside which they empty into buckets, I’m not doing too badly.

A few years ago, not long after I’d recovered from cancer surgery, I spoke with a sheriff’s deputy who’d just spent six months laid up with a back injury. Comparing our fates, he grinned and asked, “How many cracks are in your ceiling?”

“It’s not the cracks so much,” I said, “as what lives inside them.”

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