The lost days pre and post op
One thing should be made clear. I did not think I would wake from my operation. In fact I was almost certain that I would not, but I could not say that I was really frightened or sad. To me it seemed no great tragedy to die at 72. Then again, to decline the operation when it was available to me would seem like suicide, to which I have a superstitious aversion. Clearly I did wake up, but largely as someone else. I was delirious for three days and I had lost a good deal of memory. For instance, I could not remember the current year or the year of my birth – the latter was a long time ago admittedly, but 1940 is an easy year to remember, specially as all the great men, including Julius Caesar, John Pochée, Winston Churchill and Mike Nock were born then. As you see, my memory is steadily returning. Ah, I forgot Newton, Einstein and Alexander The Great. We were all born in that auspicious year, but I could not remember it. Seriously, I wonder if I could have remembered who I was. They called me John all the time, so that was not put to the test, but nobody that I can recall asked for my surname or my middle name during the endless questions. Right now I cannot guarantee that I would have remembered either. It is very hard to describe the feeling of being unable to answer questions, the answers to which I knew I knew but could not summon.
What year is it, John?
Urm, mmm, um, ah.
Okay, John, now, when were you born?
Ahhhhhh, errrr (I know this, I know this…).
Okay John, now where are you?
I actually got that one, but mostly it was like looking into a black hole, within an amorphous gloom; and also at a blank impenetrable wall, all at the same time. This was the result of the combination of a minor stroke I had experienced early in the year (it was a haemorrhage rather than a blockage and it took away some of my peripheral vision which soon returned) and the anaesthetic. Not unusual apparently. The only person I saw directly in front of me – and he too was surrounded by vagueness and gloom – was the neurologist who had appeared when I had my stroke. I knew I knew him, but not who he was. He did not seem to remember me. Suddenly he was there, on some dimly lit stage before me with curtains around him. These were the curtains that could be pulled around individual beds, of which I was vaguely aware. He waggled two fingers on one hand and one on the other.
‘How many fingers am I holding up?’
‘Three.’ I was right again I’m sure, but by now memory rather than vision was the issue. He was simply eliminating other possibilities.
‘He’s delirious,’ he told my interrogators who seemed to be on either side. I can’t remember ever seeing them.
‘Right, mate,’ he said, and disappeared. I can’t remember seeing him again, though I felt that I needed to receive some information from him. As consciousness expanded, various personae cavorted briefly within my dim realm, then melted away into the gloom. Here is a very strange near-memory. First, however, a real one. When I was a boy I had a book with a picture of perhaps the most beautiful car of all, the Pegaso, which was made in Spain. It was a low-slung sports car with a perforated, chrome-plated shell running along one side below the door. Through the centre of this ran the exhaust, the shell being there to prevent you burning your legs getting in or out. Now we are back In hospital, where I kept trying to recall the name of a place I had passed through (in fact on my way to a fishing village called Pineda de Mar). I could see it clearly, with the Gaudì cathedral just back from the main street, but I could not remember what the place was called nor the country in which it was located. It was of course Barcelona. When I was actually there, in about1966, I began to think about the fabled Pegaso. Did they still make it? What was the current model like? Would I see one? When we pulled into a bus terminal my wife and I got out for a break and I glanced at our bus. It was a Pegaso. The company it seemed to me had switched to a more prosaic but perhaps more reliable market. This seemed funny and strange in a way. It had almost an element of the surreal. Lying in hospital I knew I knew this. At least I knew that something odd had happened in some city which I could see but whose name or location completely eluded me. What I was trying to retrieve seemed impossibly complicated, yet I could remember that something was there. Later I read one of my reports and it seemed that they had scanned my scone (unremembered by me) and found no neurological cause for my state. The trace of my brain haemorrhage was of course still there.
Under all this stream of nameless memory was the awareness of some other ailment. I could feel it. Indeed, when I was more or less incommunicado they told me that they had given me many blood tests and made many cultures, always with negative results. Now that I am in the outer world it is still with me. It is like a very heavy virus, and indeed I feel as if I am dying slowly, and now suddenly I remember that I had a heavy flu, or some other kind of virus, before I went in. The reason I had forgotten it, I believe, is that the memory disappeared under an extraordinary attack of gastro enteritis, the worst I have ever experienced.
Indeed I felt possessed. Some demon had lifted me up parallel to the ground and fired me like a bazooka. For those too young to know, this was a light American rocket gun. When lifted to fire it resembled a very fat trombone. My mouth was agape and I also felt like one of the gargoyles projecting from the carillon tower in Sydney University just across Parramatta Road. A shocking force went through me, which I could see ahead as glittering dark green vomit fired at tremendous velocity. I’ll spare you further details, but the action was symmetrical. Such was the power of this terrible force, my body shook and I felt I must surely have a heart attack if it did not soon stop. A carillon, incidentally, is a chromatic set of bells – that is one that can produce all the black and white notes – played with the hands, forearms and feet, somewhat like an organ. Years ago I had written a story for the National Times about the university’s famous carillon and its celebrated exponent at that time, John Gordon. Between conversations I had watched him play – Bach as to my request – then went up on the roof, above the projecting gargoyles and the clock faces, and heard the music rising into the sky and all the vibrations passing up through me. I still hear the bells, meditative and cascading, from my place, often played by pupils of John Gordon.
Anyway, after a couple of days things settled down and I went to the chemist. They gave me sachets of stuff to dissolve which would replace electrolytes, whatever they are, and sodium. I have now read the instructions properly and realise I did not drink enough of the stuff. Did this have anything to do with my condition?
My operation had been brought forward, then postponed twice. Could this be it, and would I wake? So I pondered as I walked in the freezing pre-dawn to Royal Prince Alfred, having forgotten the interlude and the flu which it seemed to have masked. What was this operation? A Triple A, ie an Aortic Aneurism in the Abdomen. The aorta is of course the large artery that goes up through the abdomen and turns down into the heart. An aneurism is a swelling or distended sac in the artery, which, as it grows, begins to resemble a large berry. They had discovered this and begun watching it some time ago. Eventually it reached a size where it was more dangerous to leave it than to operate. If it burst I would die in considerable pain. ‘Catastrophic,’ was the word chosen. Even if it happened outside the hospital my chances would be very slim. Nevertheless I had kept riding my bike, modifying my uphill sprints somewhat. Somewhat reluctantly also. I had arrived at this firing squad hour on one occasion and waited until early afternoon to be told that it was postponed. That I had fasted to instructions since 10 the night before was not so bad, but the lack of water, the dehydration, was very unpleasant. Obviously there was an emergency ahead of me, so I could not complain. Nevertheless, after three pre-op examinations you begin to feel as if you are in limbo, but very healthy, Triple A notwithstanding.
The University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred run more or less into each other and the proximity of RPA had always given me a sense of security since I found myself in there with a heart attack twenty years ago. The university also gave me a sense of community and well-being, though I have not been to school since I left home at 14. I had , however, accompanied different student girl friends to lectures from time to time to time, usually learning something interesting if not always useful.
Skirting two ovals, passing the lovely cream Physics Block with the arrow-headed lightning angling dynamically through a cloud in a bas-relief that represented electricity; also the thin conical black cyprus pines against the cream stucco, also the many sandstone buildings and the old brick teachers’ college – I thought I would definitely like a few more years. I was thinking of my beautiful bike, my flippers and mask. My many accumulated records and books. It was time, I had recently decided, to listen to Haydn some more.The Beatles of course, Debussy, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis through every period, the Beach Boys, Anton Webern, and so on and so on. Well, Bartok of course, of course. The boxed set of piano concertos numbers one to three with a beautiful photo of Bartok’s black varnished piano, with glimpses of his office, on the cover. But why Haydn? I had some of Haydn’s symphonies, two masses, a horn concerto etc, but had not heard them for a while. Let me recommend Haydn now that I am out.
I do remember now the anaesthetist sticking a cannula in the back of my hand. That we had a brief conversation but none of what we said.
Then I was conscious, after a fashion, in a confused limbo. A cannula had also been attached to my dick and it hurt and it did not feel as if I could pee. I think now that some ancient urinary tract infection had been aggravated into new life. This resembled very definitely what I imagined hell would be like. Could I stand it forever? No, and that’s the idea I suppose. I drew a nurse’s attention to this extreme discomfort – the pain and the terrible desire to pee – but he said I was actually peeing regularly. At some point the cannula was gone. They said that I had pulled it out. I’m still not sure that I believe that. I think I knew immediately that the operation was over. I did not think it was about to begin. My friend the very original artist Nick Zaharias visited me three times but I only remember the once. He told me he had tried to convince everyone that I was a reasonably articulate person normally. ‘You couldn’t put three words together,’ he said.
No complaint should be read into any of this. I relay it, or some of it, because it might be interesting. And from my own point of view, because it is more than interesting to see my verbal facility reluctantly returning, more or less.
‘John, where are you going? Get back into bed.’
That was a familiar refrain. Where was I going? Ah, that is a good question. I apologised later for whatever I might have done. It seemed I had not abused anyone or threatened them, but I am sure I was a dreadful nuisance. The usual praise should be taken as read here for the nurses – male and female, Anglo and Asian. What patience, what grace. Likewise the doctors: Anglo, Chinese, Indian, Armenian, and some whom I no doubt took to be Chinese but were from elsewhere. What a calling. Later I heard someone on television saying that it was the sense of dedication that made a hospital sing. And it did. After my release, still quite sick, I caught a fragment of a program while lying in my own bed, slowly dying as I believed, in which a scientist held on the palm of his hand some tiny animal whose life they had saved. The creature inspected him in turn in a series of rapid, flicking, switching glances. Then the man said, ‘Who’s a good little boy?’
Some may not understand this, but it said everything, really. Who’s a good little boy? It was no bigger than a largish spider. Not the really big ones. It was tiny. Its eyes were shining points. I felt hot tears. They seemed to be behind my eyes.
The patients however were somewhat more mixed.
Opposite was a lovely uncomplicated young man from Gosford. He was very sick and had to sit up to stop fluids accumulating as I vaguely recall. When the State Of Origin decider was on he invited me across to watch his hired TV. I wouldn’t normally have cared one smidgen for our loss, but I felt his distress. Those Queensland bastards always cheated. I believed him. Next to my bed however was an Italian who abused everyone including his wife, who always came into the ward with a pathetic, simpering, ingratiating smile for everyone. She deeply wished to please. He ignored it and told her she was, ‘Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!’ When I told him to knock it off, to find some dignity, he turned the abuse on me. I preferred that. The other was unbearable
Also on the other side of the room was a man from Tamworth who was a paraplegic and had recently lost another section of one of his stumps of legs. He had a fine strong face and a good torso, no doubt from propelling a wheel chair. I thought that he was admirable in every respect. When someone turns on you, however, it is hard to continue admiring them. This is what happened. After my days of delirium I got out of bed and tried to restore some circulation by stretching myself this way and that. There was only one movement that could be considered fancy, and this involved rolling my hands over each other over my head to maintain relaxation while I strained towards the left and then the right. A physio had shown me this. Hell, I had been in bed for a while, apart from strange breaks for freedom or perhaps the toilet. Later I was lying bed half asleep when I heard his rather large voice.
‘Did you see that display this morning? What was that? Ballet? Or what was it?’
‘Pilates?’ someone else suggested. Mirth spread. It was not the first time in my life that I had found myself amongst people who considered me weird because of some small deviation from their norm.
I sat up and declared, ‘I was just trying to get some circulation going. Maybe you should too.’ Silence. The legless man just looked the other way and turned on his radio. From then on the man’s favourite joke began to wear thin? We heard it every time he used his phone. It went like this: ‘Yeah, I went out last night and I didn’t have a drink, but I came home legless.’ Then there was his range of peculiar noises and vocables, addressed to no one in particular. One of them went, ‘Doggiedoggiedoggiedoggie’ It was said rapidly and accompanied by a kind of swallowing sound and a popping of the tongue. Then there was his pretty constant sports viewing, often on his rented TV overhead and simultaneously his radio, which lay on his chest emitting a rabid babbling and raving. O’nce he had a loud telephone call with a woman – whose name he used, that’s how I know – in which he declared, ‘I’m randy as a buck rat.’ There seemed to have been no response to this disgusting sally, because he tried it again after a silence. Nothing again. He moved on, unabashed.
When he was flown back to Tamworth my spirits lifted. It is a terrible thing to find yourself despising someone who is handicapped so to speak. Actually he seemed to revel in it, but that is really enough. Move on.
A Vietnamese nurse took me for a walk around the corridors of our level and out onto the back stairs at the modern end of RPA. Some of these stairs projected from different facets of the building, but they met and were suspended by tapering steel wands within a tall box of glass. Chrome-plated banister rods were plugged into a further chest-high wall of glass within the outer enclosure. This somewhat complex play of metal and glass was refreshing but the ability to see out over much of the world was exhilarating and aspirational. Let them release me! About 45 degrees to my right as I faced south east the sun shone on the squared sandstone clock tower of St Andrews College. The clock face was black and its hands white, like a watch some mafia don might wear. Actually it looked fine against the sandstone. Carillon Avenue was hidden, directly to the right, by trees and buildings and to the left trees and buildings intermingled, some of both probably stood in the university. Hidden by buildings behind, back through the university and across Parramatta Road was my place. Let me out into the wide world. Let me die at home.
From then on I walked around there and out into the day on my own. I knew my coordination was till far from perfect, but I also knew how much allowance I had to make. Would I get better? Not so sure, but I wanted to die at home.
And so it has come to pass, except that I am not dead but finally feeling better. The virus seems to have worn itself out. In fact I had almost forgotten how good I usually feel. As I ride slowly through the park on Glebe Point the sunlit grass is an improbable green out in the sun beyond the dark fig trees, as if it has been painted there. The flat trembling water and the reflections of boats are almost beyond comprehension. Now I stop and remove my polarised glasses (worn through certain hours to prevent the return of pterygium or Surfers’ Eye) and stare into the blue sky where tiny transparent cells and worm-like shapes on the surface of the retina, swarm like a kind of plankton. After a while they seem to float by, but that is just your eye moving. Swing your eyes the other way and they float back. I have watched them since childhood. Another memory. Had I ever forgotten it? It doesn’t matter now. My surgeon, Doctor Q–, has declared himself happy. He almost laughs with pleasure at the scan of his own handiwork. I don’t have to see him for another year. He agrees it was probably a virus that made me feel so disoriented and sick.
Finally. Since last year when my sister Ann died of cancer, losses, trivial misfortunes and catastrophes have arrived in a steady stream. In fact I told a Turkish friend that I felt the gods were playing with me – it has happened before – and that the only answer seemed to be to share in the joke. My friend has recently become religious.
‘Oh no,’ he said. God is communicating with you’.
‘Why doesn’t he use his voice of thunder?’ I asked. This was a little disingenuous perhaps. Or was it?
‘No no, you must reach out to him’
Right. Shortly after this I broke a front tooth while eating soft liquorice. My saintly dentist at Gordon worked something out that would not cost anywhere as much as I had thought. Relieved and even somewhat buoyant I came back to Glebe, went to the Broadway Centre for something, then crossed Glebe Point Road toward my place. On my left a car showed no sign of slowing down at all. In fact he seemed to be accelerating, so I ran a few steps, then tripped on the gutter, flew through the air and thumped into a steel bin. At the last moment I reflexively turned my head aside, but the bin belted me on the temple, raising an egg. I lay there for a moment, feeling as if Mike Tyson had given me a casual swat. Then I sat up and, quite spontaneously asked,
‘What was that for?’
But instead of losing more memory – as far as I know at any rate – one suddenly returned. I remembered a musician called Glenn Heinrich telling me that the multi-instrumentalist Tom Baker had himself died of a burst aneurism. Apparently it was very painful. Baker had said. ‘I’m a famous jazz musician. Give me some morphine.’ Did he intend to be funny? Either way, he succeeded. Well said Tom Baker.