It is Friday, April 2, in the year of our demiurge 2021, a Good Friday, as fate would have it. My wife and I have finished a meal of fish chowder and I am feeling good, except for a mild discomfort in my abdomen. The discomfort grows to an acute pain extending in an ever-tightening band from front to back. Sometimes the pain subsides, only to come back like the turning of the screw.
Hours go by without relief. I try numerous remedies, including extra-strength pain killers, but nothing helps. After 24 hours of increasing and unbearable pain and no sleep, I surrender to the inevitable and we call an ambulance. I know that a blocked bowel can be life threatening and that sometimes cancer causes the blockage. The bumpy road to the hospital provokes heavy vomiting and I feel better for a while but the pain soon returns.
At the hospital I am given morphine. Two nurses appear and, through the nose, insert a tube into my stomach. The tube won’t go through the nasal passage, causing even more pain. They tell me how sorry they are as they push harder, switching from one nostril to the other. I am moved by their compassion and their courage to do what is needed, however difficult.
One more night without sleep, this time in a hectic, well-lit and bustling triage area. In the morning a surgeon appears, a black African of kindly disposition, notifying me of impending surgery. He tells me I am garnering a reputation in the hospital as a real troublemaker. I burst out laughing. I can still laugh. That’s good! Where there is laughter there is hope.
As I revive from surgery, that same kindly voice is telling me that no blockage was found despite the CAT scan results clearly identifying one. The surgery had been, in that event, only exploratory, a far less invasive procedure. I would next be given a camera pill to swallow, which will, in theory, work its way to the blockage and then stop, all the while transmitting images to technicians.
It is Saturday, April 3, and I am transferred from triage to the main hospital, a shared room with three other patients. Sitting up in a bed across from me is the perfect image of General George Armstrong Custer. When Custer speaks, which is often, his voice carries halfway across the ward. He plays loud movies on his entertainment system and keeps complaining that he has no access to the Disney Channel. He constantly asks the nurses for help, but none of them are able to solve his technical problems.
Custer is in a really bad way, something he does not seem to realize. He gets in loud arguments with his wife and sons about when he is going home, but he requires 24-hour attention. His wife tells him, “I am really stressed out about it” but he keeps on minimizing the situation. He will live in the garage to avoid the stairs, he says. His wife starts to leave, wishing him good night. He starts talking again and she says good night one last time. The phone rings and it’s number one son. “Your mom’s mad at me,” Custer says. “She stormed out — didn’t even say good night!”
Custer plays his 3AM movies at full volume. The nurses tell him to turn it down. “I can’t hear anything,” he says. “Well, use earphones then!” Custer never surrenders. “They hurt my ears,” he responds.
So this is what it’s like, I find myself thinking, this descent into the underworld. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat or drink and if I bend my arm it sets off an alarm on the IV machine. All I can do is observe. I think of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Everything is taken away from you, he says, except one thing — the power to choose your state of mind. I close my eyes and let the situation be what it is.
My throat is sore and my mouth so dry I can barely speak, so the nurse brings me a cup of crushed ice, which I must administer sparingly to avoid the ‘no fluids’ order. I am amazed at how much joy can be derived from a few pieces of crushed ice.
A young nurse visits me frequently, always asking, when she leaves, “Is there anything I can get for you?” I know there is nothing she can get for me and she knows it too but it’s her way of saying I care, I want to help. She has an elaborate tattoo on her forearm and hand, a pink and yellow floral pattern interlaced with light green vines. I come from a generation where tattoos were for merchant seaman and dockworkers, the flotsam and jetsam of the high seas, those who frequented seedy, smoky waterfront bars in Halifax or Saint John. I could never understand why anyone would want a tattoo, least of all a young woman; but barely visible amongst the vines on her arm is this powerful word — LOVE. I am moved almost to tears. I could tell this gentle soul was born for this line of work. Her every instinct was only to help, to make things better.
How good it is to be wrong! Being right is so dreadfully overrated. How pleasant to observe one more foolish prejudice burned in the crucible of my own experience, this silly thing about women and tattoos. Being wrong can be liberating when it frees the slave from his own stupid opinion. Our capacity to get things wrong is simply enormous.
Saint Paul was chastened by his vision to not call anything clean or unclean. In his former life as a Pharisee of the Pharisees, he had been full of judgments and definite opinions.
I’m beginning to see gnosis as the end product of a process of refinement, the burning away of false judgments, erroneous thinking, and miscalculations to arrive at the pearl of great price.
I have had my bellyful of thinking I’m right, and old Custer is driving this home for me. I reflect upon the various Custer decisions of my life, and the lengthy postmortems in the wake of them. What’s the point of being right if it does nothing for the advancement of your own soul? Surely this is gnosis — nothing to do with correct doctrine. Gnosis is an epiphany. It moves you to your core. Who cares about being right or wrong?
An amazing thing happens after midnight on Saturday. The camera which is supposed to get stuck does not, completes its run without incident. On Sunday morning the order comes through: I may resume eating and drinking. Roxanne arrives later with a care package. It’s now Sunday. There will be more time in the hospital for observation, but the crisis is ending.
The surgeon tells me they do not know what caused my problem. There was no mistaking the CAT scan and blocked bowels do not unblock themselves, he tells me.
So there it is, three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, disgorged (discharged) at last – exhausted, chastened, but renewed. Could this be a metaphor for life itself? Our life’s experience exhibits an intelligence all its own, almost like a dream, full of hidden meaning. We have strayed too far from the centre of things, to a place of confusion and suffering, and now we are finding our way home aided by the deepest levels of the unconscious.
Hardly the Easter celebration I had in mind, but I emerge the better for it.
(c) Adrian Charles Smith 2021