“How is your body today?” my husband asks. It is a good question and I should thank him for simply asking. It is also an umbrella question, one that covers all manner of ills. I am rereading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and all manner of ills sounds like something psychosomatic Mary Musgrove might utter to her endlessly patient sister, Anne.
“My body…” I begin. I try not to sound like whiny Mary. I describe my symptoms: bloated, achy stomach, which I am constantly try to assess with my hands: just fat OR legitimately swollen, the old stomach problems triggered by this week’s stress and sadness? I start by saying IF I go to the doctor, I will have to go down that line again of starting a toxic medication for stomach acid that eventually causes cancer, I’ll have to get imaging, a CT, maybe an endoscopy, worse, I’ll have to give up coffee… blah, blah, blah. I don’t finish because I bore myself. I trail off and my gaze returns to the newspaper open before me, a story about how global warming has nothing to do with this season’s catastrophic hurricanes. Really?! I scan ahead to the last paragraphs hoping for some concession to melting ice floes and rising oceans. I live in a small town and the local paper leans right, sometimes so far right it topples over and I imagine it going up in flames in our state’s raging wildfires. Only occasionally will it reprint articles from The New York Times by science reporters living aboard those huge carriers dodging small ice caps in the Arctic, sailing by starving polar bears marooned on icy rafts where once they thundered across an icy continent.
My body’s symptoms. I think of the Wittgenstein quote, which is instructive for me as a fiction writer: “what you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.” I take this to mean that everything we voice is an expression of our personal somatic experience: pain, longing, regret, hope, desire. It is both unique to our skin, bones, muscle, tissue, organs, blood, and common to every body. The human experience.
My husband stands at the fridge, his back to me. He uses strange, clinical words, something about his brain working through what happened to his patient. I understand him to be saying that he is processing the death, but the wording is so weird, it feels like a translation from another language, the grammar backward, the verb before the noun, but maybe I am not hearing him clearly over the hum of the fridge, the hum of my brain beginning to buzz from caffeine and the morning ahead and the news in front of me about Houston underwater and Miami Beach desolate, fancy hotels boarded up, the Governor of Florida telling his people, get out! My daughter wants to go to school in Miami. Where would she be safe? What does “hunker down” mean when a hurricane is racing at you? I look at my husband’s back, large square shoulders like a linebacker, a new suit straining that expanse. I could “hunker down” behind him and always be safe. If only I could send him on the road to protect my girls from natural disasters and man made threats to body and soul.
“My brain,” he says. “It’s still making sense of it.”
He is opening cream cheese containers and then putting them back in the fridge.
“They can’t all be empty,” I say.
He picks one back up and sets it on the counter. The toaster springs his halved bagel.
“She was 90,” I say. “Not a healthy 60 year old or even 70 year old.”
“But she was my patient.”
He told me he asked to hear it from her mouth. Her daughters, granddaughters, everyone wanted her to have the surgery to fix her broken hip.
“I need to hear the words from your mother,” he told them.
“Mother wants the surgery. Don’t you, mother? Don’t you want Dr. Hinz to fix your hip? Isn’t this what you want, too?”
And the patient said, yes. She pronounced the word to him. She was compos mentis, he told me, and I thought how weird that we resort to an extinct language to express the binding legal decisions we make for our bodies, even, I guess, to describe more pleasurable bodily experiences, the most well known Latin words.
When they put her to sleep on the operating table, my husband said she looked dead. I thought of asking him a flurry of questions: how did she look dead? Was it something about her pallor? Was she grey? Was her face slack? And then, the other questions which I feared would ring sentimental and dramatic: what must it have felt like to her at that moment, this patient, who is for me nameless, this mother, grandmother, maybe great grandmother, still alive in those moments but maybe not conscious? Did she hear the OR banter, talk of weekend plans, children’s soccer games and who was playing at the brewery? The cold clatter of tools unleashed from their sterilization packets. Did she imagine herself transported somewhere in the stinging Arctic cold of the OR? Earlier, in pre-op, had the nurse blown her up in those hot-air smocks, stuck her feet in fuzzy socks, which would go in her discharge goody bag? Was this the person who spoke the last words to her? The last words drifting in her brain. Or was that the lot of the anesthesiologist who told her he’d count backwards from 10 until she was asleep, so that it was a number, 7 or 5 or 3, she last heard?
After he told her family, my husband heard the granddaughters in the hallway. Their bodies were on the floor. He spoke with them. He tried to console them. They lay on the floor wailing.
“My patient…” he begins again with me. He tries it another way: “I had a patient die on the table.” Knocking his brain with these words, the right words, the wrong words. He is not depersonalizing or dehumanizing her by calling her “my patient,” or “a patient.” I know as sure I know my own body that he called her Mrs. Every. Single. Time that he spoke with her. Mrs., to show his respect, to let her know that he respected her decisions, her capacity to make decisions for her body, decisions about the rest of her life. I also know that he would have sensed her anxiety and instinctively reached for her hand.
I slip my hand under my husband’s dress shirt. This is habit, something I do instinctively, to feel his skin. Maybe it’s missing the physical touch of my babies’ bodies, my babies who are long grown.
He retucks his shirt. I put my face in the shallow “v” of skin at his open shirt and breathe him in. Damp from his shower, the soap we share, which fades differently on me.
The patients he will touch today at work–hands on their feet, an elbow, a shoulder, knee, hip. What he will read in their joints, what their bodies will say to him, what he reads in their faces, their grimaces, what he hears from their mouths, gasps of pain, and then, their words, their stories. What it feels like living with pain, their frustration, their fatigue, their not sleeping, not being able to walk, run, ski, fish, sit at the computer, sleep, make love.
He listens to it all, both the words and what the body tells him. I am at home with words and he prefers numbers so maybe there is math in this equation, how he pieces together what the body says with what the patient voices. Over twenty-five years he has trained his brain and hands to listen, discern, detect, diagnose, reason, prescribe, plan, fix and heal. But his 50 year-old heart is unchanged. It is the same heart he was born with: open, expansive, capacious.
I am sure there were expletives in the O.R. I do not ask for details, would never ask what these words were, if they were they shouted or whispered, who did CPR, if someone counted compressions. They would have remained calm, everyone in that room, their minds and bodies trained to react calmly, professionally, efficiently, compassionately in the emergency. I picture one of the nurses, or surgical techs or MAs reaching under the drape and taking Mrs.’ hand, holding it in rubber glove, clasping the frail bones until the counting stopped and the words, time of death, were uttered.