Yesterday, John (aka the Big Man) had an unexpected, unplanned gall bladder and hernia surgery.
It’s a routine surgery. No big deal. They do hundreds of these a week. The odds were in his favor that it would be 100% successful, so I did my very best to keep things in perspective, and to stay away from What-If-Land.
I was not entertaining questions like, what if they go in there and find something else? something worse? What if he has a bad reaction to the anesthesia? What if he… No! I wasn’t having any of that.
There was an underlying tension, and I may or may not have been holding my breath, as I calmly waited at home with my girls. The simple, easy, routine, everyday surgery would take about an hour or so. My plan was to get to the hospital when he got to recovery, so the girls could see him. So they could know everything was all right.
When we got there he was lying in the bed on his back, with tubes in his nose and an IV in his arm. He was clearly under the influence of lingering anesthesia and pain meds. We stood around the bed in silence, because he looked like he was sleeping. But the nurse said, “Go ahead. Talk to him. He’s conscious”. And so I said “Hi Johnny”, and his eyes fluttered open and then closed again.
In a scratchy voice, as dry as sandpaper he said “Owwwww. It hurts. It’s like an 8. Maybe a 9.” And the nurse immediately upped his drip. (I think he smiled on the inside then).
I leaned over and kissed him on his forehead. “I love you, Johnny.”
I looked at my girls. Shannon was standing there, looking right at him, as always stoic and strong. I turned my head to Maggie and I saw that she was bawling her eyes out. Her face was red as a beet, her chest heaving. I could feel the anguish. I wrapped my arms around her and said something. I don’t remember what exactly, but something like, “It’s okay, Mags. He’ll be fine.”
Images flashed through my mind of every hospital visit I ever made. My great-grandmother. I was 8 years old and “Nanny” was one of my favorite people. She was a heroic figure in my eyes, but when I saw her there in the hospital bed, in a coma, it was the first time I really saw her as human. It was the first time I was confronted with mortality. I remember thinking, “She could die”, and she did.
My mind filled with visions of my father, right here in this very hospital, so many times. The first time I walked in to see him lying there, I thought, “He looks so small and helpless”. And then with each visit, he seemed to get smaller and smaller.
Then my mind rested on images of my mother-in-law; taking the girls to visit her, first in the hospital bed and then in the nursing home. We watched her shrink before our eyes, less and less of her there every time, until she finally disappeared.
I thought of Maggie standing there crying, looking down at her father. Her larger than life father, all 6 feet ten inches and 300 pounds of him, lying there below her. There is nothing like a hospital bed to cut things down to size, to put things in perspective. Even though his feet hang off the bottom of the bed, from this angle he is really just one tiny little human being.
I could see it on Maggie’s face. I could hear it in the rhythm of her breaths. I think she saw it too. I think she caught a glimpse of the real size of things, the mortality of it all.
I could still feel it when we were leaving. We walked down the hall and I put my arm around her and said “He’s gonna be just fine, kiddo. Don’t worry.” She told me to stop. She told me I was just making it worse.
We walked out of the stuffy fluorescent hospital into the crisp dark night. I could feel the fresh air wrap around me and cling to my face. I took the deepest breath. He’s going to be just fine, I thought to myself, as I exhaled.
(He is going to be fine, by the way. He’s just a tiny bit smaller.)