This is the view I saw as I stepped out Saturday. Lovely, and annoying as hell. See that woodpile to the right of the road? I’m not allowed to touch it, though it is crying out like a wanton woman to be touched. Call it the wanton woodpile, if you will. It likely weighs wanton, if not two tons, and I’m not allowed to lift over five pounds. In revenge I’ll make five puns, and more, a wantan soup of puns, because my brains are in a crazed state, trying to make light of weighty subjects, light of darkness, poetry of pain.
I headed off to to the farm, and right away was confronted by another woodpile.It is surprising how, once you are under doctor’s orders to shuffle about but not lift anything, you want to handle stuff. Look at the steps in the picture. I have a hungry hankering to sweep the snow off, but no, no, no. Not allowed. Once you are not allowed to touch, you want to touch. It awakens the criminal side of human nature, like putting a “wet paint” sign on a fence that isn’t wet, just to see how many passing people look left and right, and then touch the paint.
Only six days ago I was in a hurry to get as much done as I could before my operation. Then, when I didn’t have to shuffle, I tended to, (if not shuffle), to spend a lot of time using my ax or maul or shovel or broom as a sort of prop, that held me up as I examined the clouds and contemplated uplifting, poetic stuff. Now, because uplifting is banned, little seems as uplifting as handling a piece of firewood, feeling the grit on palms, the visceral stickiness of sap, the ache in shoulders from swinging a maul.
You might think that this would be a perfect time to write poetry. Many have told me that I sure have griped enough, over the years, about never having time to write, and now I have no excuse to gripe, as I now have time. And there was freshly fallen snow, which surely ought to have gotten some haiku bubbling in my brain. Instead I just felt crabby. It was too easy, perhaps. Perhaps it is cheating to write poetry without being scolded for doing so. You need the resistance. Otherwise it is like trying to shoot an arrow without a bow.
I did have half a sonnet that I started in the hospital. That seemed a challenge: To prove poetry can be found in any situation, no matter how dire or dark. However it was but an unfinished fragment:
I will be stern and sing a sonnet
Here in a hospital and in a pain,
A hole where my kidney was, and on it
Explosions of needles dragging the drain
Of all stamina towards a dull end.
Pain is like fireworks without light.
There’s no reward…
But it was hard to write, especially as I shared a room with an old wizard I called Oz because he was always behind a curtain, and he happened to have the most annoying family on earth. He would explain to them over the phone that he was in pain and exhausted and didn’t want company, and they especially shouldn’t come in if they were so sick with the ‘flu and strep throat and three colds, because he might catch their diseases, and five minutes later they’d all come bustling in and stay four hours haranguing the poor fellow with problems and details a person aged five should have been able to figure out on their own, but that these middle-aged-brats felt compelled to burden a fellow over seventy with. Oz was amazingly patient, but I think it was because he’d figured out how to stay very heavily medicated.
I wasn’t so swift. When a nurse appeared through the blur and asked me to rate my pain I’d say “4” and get a lousy little Tylenol, but Oz would always say “6” and get Oxycodone-Acetaminophen, or “8” and get good old Morphine. Also he would politely ask for other additional stuff I haven’t a clue about, murmuring “and could I have a Phamphlox and Dweebinal with that,” or some such thing, the result being he was a very patient patient and I was not. As his family fretted endlessly about whether or not to serve fudge or cookies at intermission at the 4th grade school play he would dreamily murmur “I’m sure you will chose wisely and your efforts will be appreciated”, as I was on the verge of ripping aside the curtain and yelling at the family to give the guy some peace and to get the eff out and just what did they think they were doing belaboring a guy fresh from major surgery with hours of stupid, banal, pathetic and utterly useless drivel. I’m not sure a guy has ever been kicked out of a recovery room before, for bad behavior, but I felt I might very well soon be the first. In any case, that was one reason it was hard to finish my sonnet. Also something about my expression may have cued the nurses into the fact my level of psychological pain was around an “11” on a scale of ten, and they increased my “drip” of something or another, and things got warm and fuzzy, and who cares a flying flip about sonnets after that?
The nurses did a fairly good job of waking me up for my sleeping pill and getting me to eat nothing when I wasn’t hungry, and doing this thing called “checking your vitals”, which I think means “seeing if you are still alive”. They didn’t need to push me to exercise because I wanted to escape Oz’s family, and also my surgeon did a pretty good job of impressing upon me that the faster I got moving the faster my body would get moving. When they put you under for surgery it pretty much shuts down your entire body except for (hopefully) your heart, and if you totter about afterwards pushing a rolling thing holding the tubes going in and the tubes going out, it stirs your blood and your guts start to gurgle again, and they can feed you a little jello and start removing various tubes. (Until then half the nurse’s job is to keep you untangled). In any case, I was a very good patient, when it came to tottering about pushing the rolling thing holding all the tubes and bags.
Tottering about did give me a chance to spy on the crowds of nurses, and see what in the world they did with themselves when they weren’t “checking vitals”. What they seem to do is paperwork. At any one time there were around 8 nurses working full-out at computers at the nursing station. Perhaps someone somewhere thinks that if you document everything there is less chance for malpractice, but I’m inclined to believe that the more you document the more they can find to sue you for. But perhaps that was just the drugs talking.
Of course they are not all nurses. Some are technicians, and administrators, and aids, and technical administrative aides, and administrative technicians, and certified nurse’s assistant’s ITs, all clickity-clicking away on their keyboards like blue blazes, as I went doddering by in a nightgown drafty to the rear, pushing a contraption with squeaky wheels, pausing to comment on paintings by Monet on the walls, but largely ignored. You’d think I’d get more attention. What if I was escaping? To me it seemed paperwork had more priority than patients, and it would do them good if I taught them all a lesson by bolting for the parking lot, but the elevator was so far away, and all uphill, and my bed was nearby and cooing my name. So my escape was not completed, just like my sonnet.
The worst thing was that I got a case of the hiccups, which is not good if you have a hole for a kidney, because each hic is followed by an explosion of pain measuring several megatons. (Likely they are called hick-ouches by true doctors). Fortunately an administrative-technical-assistant’s-IT’s-technical-aide happened to be in my room just then. Also known as “the cleaning lady”, this gruff, good-hearted, old crone, smelling ever-so-slightly of forbidden cigarettes, told me to quit the machismo bullshit and push the stupid call-button by my bed, and tell the nurse I was a “9”, because “your butt sure is a “9”, heh, heh, heh.” And as the crude,rude, lewd lady departed I thought to myself that her mop-and-brush-holding contraption also had squeaky wheels, like mine did, and that strangely she was more like a nurse than the nurses, on some down-to-earth level science can’t measure with gauges and tubes.
Then I hit the “call” button, and when a nurse wandered in I said I was quite OK but each hiccup was a “9”, and I must admit a crease of care and concern did appear on her brow, and she injected something into my IV, and nearly instantly I was feeling no pain, and drifted off to sleep. Unfortunately I then discovered I apparently had used up my allotment for deep sleep during my operation, and couldn’t sleep longer than ten minutes. Not that I could fully wake up. But I could note the hands of the clock had moved ten minutes. It was a long night, full of time standing still in ten-minute-increments, and lacking any sort of lines that I could use to complete my sonnet.
It did occur to me that spiritually I was a complete failure, because it hadn’t even occurred to me to hit the call-button to God when the hiccups started exploding needles in my gut. Instead I was like your typical American addict, and I immediately turned to drugs. Far have we fallen from the fortitude of our forefathers, who were given bullets to bite for their pain.
Towards what I supposed was dawn, (though Oz got the window, and the light never changed much on my side of the room), I started to think of how typical it is of puny mortals to reach for the wrong things. A drowning man does not grasp for God; he grasps for straws.
Hmm. Now that seemed a thought more sonnet-like. And into my head came a perfect couplet, just superb for ending a sonnet with. Of course, like the case of Coleridge and “Kubla Khan,” as soon as I sat up I forgot the darn couplet. That seems to be a problem with anything resembling opium. You may think you’re a genius, but you can’t persuade anyone because you forget where you put the evidence.
It just made me want to get out of the darn hospital, and I did a lot of huffing and puffing around the nurse’s station pushing my squeaky-wheeled thing, trying to get my blood flowing and my guts properly gurgling, as that seems to be what they cared most about. They didn’t seem to care much about whether I’d turned to narcotics rather than God, but were very pleased by how much urine my remaining kidney was producing. I supposed piss was the measure of a man, in their eyes, but I took the haughty view man is made for higher things, and was a bit offended when they kept asking me if I’d passed gas or not. The indignity of it all! I did relent a bit, however, when I discovered that when I passed gas I’d get some jello. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, they say, and jello provided me with the sublime motivation needed to heal myself, and by evening they were starting to remove all the tubes. But now I figured I was spiritually in deeper trouble, because rather than God I’d turned to jello.
Things were not going so well for Oz behind the curtain, as rather than having tubes removed he was having them reinserted, and his family was taking it hard, by scolding him as a sort of back-slider and hinting he was causing them a lot of inconvenience. The fellow was a complete saint, assuring them it would not trouble him if they went out to dinner without him, and so forth. I found it helpful to be in close proximity to a person who put me to shame with his tolerance and patience. Also I had been given a good book about the Galveston Hurricane (“Isaac’s Storm”) which reminded me what morons we humans can be, in the face of impending disaster and death.
I was starting to get some better ideas about how to finish my sonnet, building upon the idea that we might reach out for straws rather than God when drowning, but sometimes even though we are grasping for straws we feel the grip of a warm hand. Sometimes, even though we attempt to drown the lifeguard coming out to save us, they clout us on the chin and drag us unconscious to shore. However having my guts come back to life and eating so much jello was causing all sorts of cramps, as was the fact that surgery involved my belly being inflated like a balloon, and deflation left some bubbles lodged between my abdomen and rib-cage, and when I called these various needles of jabbing pain an “8” I was given two Percocet, and all of a sudden sonnets became meaningless. I slept in installments of two hours the second night, inter-spaced with periods of time standing still within a bleak dullness devoid of poetry.
The next day my entire aim was to get the heck out of there, and I succeeded, limping bravely out in the evening and heading home with my wife. I was told I was allowed to eat all the solid food I wanted, and given a bottle of Percocet to use if I wanted to dull the pain, (but I can’t say I trust the stuff much, having known people I loved who became addicts to it.) And that brings me back to Saturday morning, and stepping out gingerly to look at my home frosted with new fallen snow.
The dusting of snow did seem a nice touch, even though it made me crabby because I couldn’t remove any of it. It awoke the boy in me me, who always liked snow (partly because I didn’t have to remove it at home, and I got paid jingling quarters for removing it from the neighbor’s). It even seemed remotely like a good omen, like reaching out for a straw and feeling a warm hand, and an old hymn came into my my mind, and I decided to go indoors and research it.
The hymn was, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, and I figured I’d find out there was some good story behind the inspiration of the hymn, because there often are good stories behind good hymns. However in this case the fellow just happened to get sick a lot, and spent a lot of time bedridden. He only lasted a year as a preacher, because he got sick then as well, and wound up bedridden. I wasn’t sure this fellow’s story was one I wanted to hear. His name was Thomas Obadiah Chisholm, born in 1866.
In any case, being in bed so much meant he had plenty of time to write poems, 1200 in all, many which were published in small Christian magazines but none of which made much money. He had a wife and two daughters to support and had to crawl out of bed when he could and scraped by selling insurance, yet somehow just enough money always appeared to get him by, and he was grateful to God for that, and at age 56 wrote one particular poem thanking God for just enough money, (which is actually all any man needs). That poem was in a collection he sent to a friend, who liked the poem so much he wrote a tune for it, and the hymn became popular in one lonely town out west. Somehow, years later, the song was noticed by the singers that accompanied Billy Graham during a tour of England, and the hymn became popular across the Atlantic, just after World War Two, when he was over seventy and still working selling insurance. In fact he was still working after age eighty, when I was born, and kept right on working until he retired at age 87. To be honest, the fellow sounds like a bit of a hypochondriac, considering he was bedridden so much yet out-lived just about all his peers, dying at age 94 in 1960, writing poems right to the end. I wasn’t sure this was exactly the example of healing I needed just now, because I’m not in the mood to still be selling insurance when I’m eighty-seven.
It also brought me back to the fact I hadn’t finished my sonnet, but I was too crabby to deal with that right away. First I had to deal with the fact that I was not allowed to do any work, not even stick a log into the fire, and didn’t like the sensation of being useless. However then I remembered paperwork, which is something my family seems to loathe completely, from great-grandparents down to first-graders. Unlike bureaucrats, we are sensible people who know paperwork has nothing to do with planting, weeding, hilling, growing, harvesting, cooking and mashing potatoes. However, just as nurses have to do heaps of paperwork in hospitals though paperwork has nothing to do with healing, our Farm-childcare has to do heaps of paperwork. So there was a job I could do that didn’t involve lifting. I could even feel a bit noble about doing it. However that doesn’t make it even a little bit less detestable.
And perhaps it was the detestable nature of the paperwork that supplied the bow that shoots the arrow. After only an hour of dealing with receipts I was so sick of it I felt the old urge to goof-off stir in me, and from such is poetry born. Even though it is sort of cheating to complete the hospital sonnet when I wasn’t in the hospital any more, I figured I’d give it a try.
I will be stern and sing a sonnet
Here in a hospital and in a pain,
A hole where my kidney was, and on it
Explosions of needles dragging the drain
Of all stamina towards a dull end.
Pain is like fireworks without light.
There’s no reward, no way for brains to fend
Off futility with promised delight.
Faith is a shambles, writhing in its rout.
Shame turns from God and cries, “Give me meds!”
A knife silhouetted snuffs the wick out
And black descends strangely tinted with reds
For Drownder’s fingers know straw-grasping’s neurotic
And the Real Lifeguard is no hell’s narcotic.
However that sonnet seems mostly about what healing isn’t. I am more interested in what healing is. After all, because I am now a so-called “cancer survivor”, healing is now a matter of life or death.
This subject is something I intend to delve deeply upon in future posts, but at this point I can only say, likely appearing horribly ungrateful to the surgeon and nurses who saved my life (at least temporarily), that we should be honest and confess we haven’t a clue what healing involves. We are fools to measure urine and passing gas and call that healing. Somehow that belittles the very majesty of life.
The alternative, of course, is to visualize the Christ, healing with a touch of the hand or even a glance, but that just seems too darned unscientific for some.
However allow me to digress just a little back to when my father was a young surgeon and my mother was a young nurse, and antibiotics were just first being mentioned in medical journals. They had been taught and trained in a world where there was no real cure for staph infections, and TB was a death sentence much like cancer in some ways now is. There were all sorts of ways to slow the progress of TB, and even to cause it to go into a sort of remission, but to many it was a slow, prolonged and particularly horrible death, as were other bacterial infections, including sexually transmitted ones such as syphilis and gonorrhea. Their training included treating many who faced a future that was very bleak, and involved dying by slow stages and degrees.
My father told me one way to prolong the life of a man dying of TB was to remove the lung that was infected worse, as that would allow the healthier lung to no longer have to deal with a sort of spillover of germs from the basically dead lung. He said the operation was particularly bloody and resembled, as he put it, “a cannibal’s barbecue”, and that afterwards the person would be hunched over to one side, but often able to recover to a surprising degree. I can recall one such hunched-over fellow who worked at our local hardware store.
Then, like a miracle, penicillin entered the picture, and rather than that barbaric operation you only needed take a pill, and every TB bacteria in your body dropped dead, just like that.
My mother and father experienced a time when it was like Jesus walked through the hospitals and all sorts of doomed and dying people were healed. Not just people dying the slow strangulation of TB, but people facing the rotting brains of syphilis, were amazingly and abruptly germ-free, cleansed, and faced a future full of unexpected hope. It was a heady time, and absolutely no one thought of suing doctors for their work, because most were filled with joy and gratitude. A healing none had expected had appeared out of the blue.
What a gift was given, and what a joy it was to work at hospitals at that time! But what was the marvelous healing? Just some mold you can find growing blue on an orange. Just a little pill. At the time it was a wonder, but people slowly came to take healing for granted, and the wonder has faded away, until now we are brought back to the original question: What is healing? And we are brought to the original answer: We really don’t know.
What we know is the joy we feel when it occurs, and the misery we suffer when it doesn’t.
Medicine struggles to grope through the darkness of ignorance, striving to bring us joy, even as malpractice lawyers hinder them more than they help, but the true essence of joy seems a subject as much in the realm of art as it is of science. Many who suffer do not go to a doctor, but rather go to a Beethoven symphony, and are healed by what a deaf man heard.
So perhaps sonnets do have a part to play in hospitals, after all. Some pseudoscience and psychology just barely seems to suggest as much, but unfortunately they are big on drugs, and most couldn’t write a sonnet if their life depended on it. As far as I’m concerned, sonnets hold the part of healing we are completely missing, and drugs don’t.
We tend to have too much wax in our ears, which is why it took a deaf guy like Beethoven to teach us so much about joy in music. I feel we are equally deaf about what brings the joy of healing, and I want to study it more.
I confess my ignorance, but will say this much: Part of healing involves care, and family can be full of that. Though I’m allowed to eat any food I want, my guts are taking their sweet time to get over the insult they have been subjected to, and one of my daughters is concerned and making sure I get enough roughage in my diet, and therefore I am touched when I come cramping down the stairs in the dim light before dawn and see this still-life on the kitchen counter.
And this reminds me an important part of healing is that you must want to get better.
And for the time being, I figure I’ve said enough on this subject.