Easter week I reread a blog post from almost two years ago, stumbled upon it idly reminiscing past blogging glories. I reported in the post that I had been reading Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, a chapter of which McMurtry writes about how his life changed after quadruple bypass surgery, and was reminded of my own recent experience of surgery.
In my case the most startling evidence of the profound effects of bypass surgery was that, about two months after the operation, I ceased to be able to read . . . . The content of my life, which has been rich, began to drain rapidly away. I had been leading a typical type-A East Coast life, reading three newspapers a day, reading many magazines, and in general, trying to stay informed. But more or less overnight, staying informed ceased to matter to me . . . . From being a living person with a distinct personality I began to feel more or less like an outline of that person — and then even the outline began to fade, erased by what happened inside. I felt as if I was vanishing — or more accurately, had vanished.
Clearly, I can’t compare my relatively uncomplicated routine appendectomy to McMurtry’s oppresively serious bypass surgery. But, when I started to reread the essay, and read the passages above, I felt a connection to McMurtry’s sense that the content of life was rapidly draining away.
Oh, it was a sensation I had begun to feel more than a year earlier, a few months after I quit my job at the newspaper – the content of my life, though not at the stature of Larry McMurtry, was that of a writer, a feature writer at a newspaper, one with aspirations to reach at least to Mr. McMurtry’s bootheels. That content was fading, or seemed to be fading, first after I traded myself in for the teacher of writing in me, and then, as my college teaching career came to an abrupt end, losing another identity — father (a complicated story for another time; I found out after eight years of believing otherwise that I wasn’t the father of a wonderful 8-year-old boy).
Then, with the climax of my teaching career, came what seemed an inability to find a job as a writer or editor, other than a few short machinegun bursts of freelance work for Waco Today, a lifestyles magazine. The only thing I kept up with was finishing the second draft of a novel. Still, as job prospects seemed to fade away, so did my sense of myself, my sustaining purpose. And now, in my current job — it seems a backward step careerwise — my content feels even further faded. I can’t find a rhythm to my writing. This essay is the longest sustained piece of writing I’ve written in months, since my last major — a minor thing probably in most writer’s notebooks — freelance assignment in July.
One night, a week after the surgery, when my funk had renewed itself, I told my wife, “I don’t have a sense of purpose anymore.” She knew writing meant everything to me, and had been worried that I hadn’t been writing very much. My saying this worried her even more. My life no longer felt rich, alive with rivers of words. Reading McMurtry’s essay, feeling a connection to McMurtry because of a shared experience of surgery, I began to wonder if the surgery elevated my already fading sense of self. The surgery itself became portentous. A burst appendix left unexcised could kill.
All through my hospital stay, post surgery, I never thought about the possibility of dying. That possibility only occurred to me after the nurse in the ER exam room told us my appendix had burst. Once I was in a gown and lying on the bed, I stopped thinking about the possibility I could get sick enough to die. I just wanted the morphine to kick in and the surgeon to show up. McMurtry writes about being hooked to a heart-lung machine during his bypass, and how, because the machine takes care of two major functions — circulation and breathing — the operation places you in a state in which you are neither alive nor dead. A comparable state for me might have been those moments in surgery when I was under anesthesia, unconscious, unaware a self of any sort existed. Before the surgery, after being placed on the operating table, I only recall taking off my boxers and the nurse telling me my legs will be strapped down so I don’t fall off the table. As fas as I know, I ceased to exist after that, recovering only to a brownish Purgatory of shadows moving around me, and a burning sensation at my side.
But dropping away under anesthesia can best be only a farce of death, a play on it, a gentle unconscious reminder there will be a time when we go under and won’t wake up. Appendicitis hadn’t eliminated me physically. Surgery hadn’t elimated me, all the content that makes up who I am. A CT scan, a machine, had peeked inside me — with the help of a Diet 7-Up and iodine cocktail, everthing was illuminated, as far as I know, my stomach, my intestines, and certainly the muck hiding what was left of my appendix, discerning the details of my body and its flaws. The surgeon saw even more of me, the me that was my body, opened it up, poked around in it, and stapled it together after removing a flawed part. The body was alive, altered, but alive.
(To be continued)