Presently I am working on “A Slow Eclipse,” the final volume in my historical fiction trilogy, The Tinsmith’s Apprentice. Yet the whole enterprise, which began at least years ago, nearly ended midway through my writing of the first book, “A Partial Sun.” Nearly ended due to complications following a surgery.
I am reminded of this disconcerting fact because it was five years ago this month that I was released from the hospital. I had gone in for an outpatient laparoscopic repair of a hernia, the consequence of a previous abdominal surgery. As I lay quietly on a cot in my street clothes waiting to be formally admitted, I felt a certain foreboding.
I was not released that day after the hernia repair, nor the morning after that, because of excruciating abdominal pain. Nine days into my failing recovery, I had lost thirty-five pounds and had had an abnormal CT of my abdomen. Early the next morning, the surgeon came into my room. Ann stood at my bedside, anxiously awaiting his report. She knew him professionally and he spoke frankly to her. “His white count is now elevated and he has spiked a fever,” he said. She watched him turn down the covers and expose my swollen abdomen, which was tender and warm to his touch. Then he plunged a syringe into the affected area and aspirated pus. In my sedated condition, I was oblivious to all of this. Oblivious until he took my hand, and said, “I’m very, very sorry but I’m going to have to go back in.” I covered my face with my hands in a private moment of despair and angst, before being rushed down to the Operating Room. Ann upbraided the anesthesiologist for his blithe manner and demanded that he give me something for anxiety asap. Then she climbed up on my gurney, straddled me, took hold of me by both shoulders and said, “You can do this! You can do this!”
I woke up in ICU with a catheter, IV lines in my arm, and a tube from a “wound vac” meant to speed the healing of my bandaged surgical incision. I was given a smaller tube I could put in my mouth to suck out phlegm. I already had a central IV line with multiple ports threaded into my jugular vein through which I was getting nutrition, and, blessedly, another line was added that pumped a pain killer into my system every fifteen minutes if I pressed the little button in my hand. It was a comfort, that little button, and I pushed it a lot. At some point, I was told that two-thirds of my colon had been removed. I pictured that two-thirds, bloody and distended, now detached forever from myself and tossed into a hazardous waste bag headed for an incinerator somewhere. I slept, I woke, I slept. I hallucinated, not unpleasantly. Nurses changed the IV bags, friends visited, some with flowers. My doctor, who had seen reports of my surgery and could hardly believe what he was reading, came all the way from his office in Floyd to see me. The pastor of the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church appeared and asked if she could pray with me and I gratefully accepted. Other members of the church, I learned, came by our house to walk our dog, Sabine, and later, bring food. I was amazed and even embarrassed by these and other expressions of concern and support, and by the wide circle of friends and acquaintances who responded to Ann’s regular Facebook postings with updates on my situation.
One morning I vomited all over myself; I couldn’t help it but was still embarrassed. Yet the nurse who was obliged to clean me up did her work without the least complaint. Ann came every morning before going to work, to be there when the surgeon and his team of student assistants made their rounds. I was inspected and questioned by them all. The surgeon was especially anxious for my bowels to begin functioning again. They did, finally, in a dribble. Three times in fact. When I informed the surgeon of these dribbles, he hopped up and down, joined by his student interns. “Poop dance!” he exclaimed. “Poop dance!”
A week later I was moved out of ICU and given meals; there was even a menu. I lay in bed looking at the wall clock, or out the window, with its uninspiring view of air handlers. I began walking, pushing a walker as I went, first in company with the cheerful therapist, Jim, and then on my own. Down one hall I would slowly go, to a seat by the window where I could see trees waving in the wind, and then down another hall, where I could see low mountains turning green in the distance. Nights were interminable. Few nurses were on duty, so I learned to get out of bed and into the bathroom on my own, holding onto the IV pole for balance and pushing the wound vac machine with my foot. I had barely enough slack in the lines to get myself around the door and seated on the toilet.
One morning, Ann and our daughter Haley came into my room together. They were somber, and I knew what their message would be: Ben has passed. Ben! He and I had both been in ICU at the same time, though at different hospitals, I for the abdominal surgery, he for an aggressive colon cancer. Ben was my sister-in-law’s youngest son, a tall, handsome, popular young man who had been the goalie for the Blacksburg High School soccer team when they won a state championship, and after that had a career as a women’s soccer scout and coach. He had been happily married for a little more than a year and had only recently become the father of a son, Daniel, named for Ben’s grandfather. Ben and I had communicated by cellphone. The last time we had talked he exclaimed, “I can’t move my legs! How will I ride my bicycle?” It was a wrenching question, for I loved riding my bicycle, too. We were crossing paths that terrible night, I on my way slowly back to life, and he on his way painfully toward death, though he fought it with the heart of a champion. Now he was gone. We all cried, the three of us together. Why had I survived? I asked myself. Why me and not Ben?
When at last I was cleared to be released, and Ann wheeled me out to the car, I rode home down Main Street in wonder. How many times in health had I driven down this very street, hardly noticing? Now, the beauty of the world stunned me: the blue of the skies, the glittering of the trees in leaf, our movement through space. In our driveway, I got slowly out of the car and for a moment stood transfixed at sight of the crowded bushes which edged our property. Previously nondescript to me, they were now shockingly singular, glistening in the sun, an iridescent green.
So began my long recovery at home with Ann’s abiding support and daily visits from home health care workers. It took eight months for the surgical wound to completely close. I spent hours doing little or nothing: on the back deck in my bathrobe, enjoying the sun’s heat; in bed reading The New Yorker; on the front porch, content for hours simply to watch the wind lift the leaves of the maple tree in our front yard in the late afternoon sun. I began walking, at first only half a block and then to the end of the street and back. Eventually, I began riding my bicycle once more—oh joy!
And finally, at long last, I began work again on “A Partial Sun.” It felt good to write again, good to return to the eighteenth century and pick up Isaac’s story. I felt a commitment to resume the book for Ben’s sake, too. His brother John had told me that even in his last excruciating hours, Ben had been “rooting for me all the way.” His courageous words were wind at my back, which impelled me toward completion. And now look: from that one book evolved a trilogy!