When the buzzer went off Friday night I went to the front rather than the side door. I’ve used that door maybe two dozen times in my nine years here, but since I’d called the ambulance, responding to the EMTs in the fastest way possible seemed like the polite thing to do.
I’d been in pain for almost a week. The intensity of my intestinal agony came and went and came again, but each time it returned it lasted longer and frightened me more. My mind is conditioned to expect relief from vomiting, so each round of pain came with dehydration and strain. An aching radiated into my back, and when all was at its worst I would sit straight up from whatever posture I’d adopted to quell the pain and combine deep breaths with yelps of pressure and disbelief.
I played mind games, timing the pressure and stabbing sensations, going for long stretches without eating, trying to fool my body into working in a way it hasn’t in years.
Finally Friday night my eyes were on the clock again. I’d give myself until 11:00 for the pain to vacate my abdomen. It had passed in only three hours on Monday night. It could pass again. I tried to sleep. I walked around. I pulled at my hair, praying Hail Marys as I paced my apartment. Mother of God, pray for us, sinners…
It was midnight. It was time. I considered driving myself the two miles to the ER – it would have been such a short drive with the streets abandoned for the evening. But it was cold and I knew being overcome with pain behind the wheel could be dangerous. I logged into my insurance benefits to make sure there was no copay for ambulances. I dialed the phone.
Sue was calm and comforting and let me keep some dignity by allowing me to climb unaided into the back of the ambulance. I was warmly and comfortably dressed with a bag packed full of all I thought I might need in the hospital. The wisecracking driver smoothly took us down the familiar roads to the same hospital where all my doctors are and I screamed just enough to make sure they would urge me through triage.
My plan worked: though my gurney was parked in the hallway for hours I was treated quickly. I writhed a bit, trying again to get whatever was torturing me through my narrowed system. I bolted upright and breathed intensely when I needed to, earning the confused looks of the pill-seekers and Listerine-swiggers at an old indigent hospital after midnight on a sub-zero Friday.
They gave me morphine, finally. I’d had it once before, when I went into the ER on the day my godmother died, when I made the mistake of eschewing an ambulance and was forced to endure the waiting room. I knew how good the morphine would make me feel – indeed I had been dreaming about it all week. When the IV went in I knew what relief might come.
Only an hour and a half later, as I waited for the CT scan that I’d already scheduled for 7:00 but which would be moved up to 5:00 am, my baby-faced doctor offered more morphine in response the returning pain.
“Is that OK?” I asked, concerned about the frequency of the dose, about how badly I needed this relief, about having spent the last week dreaming of morphine. He smiled and nodded and a nurse came over and I felt the now-familiar feeling of fluid rushing into my IV.
The barium contrast arrived at 4:00 am. I may have known more about it than my delightful ER nurse. I popped the containers open, turned down the accompanying ice cubes, and started chugging. Wheeled into imaging, wheeled back, and all the while I was doing nothing. After the CT scan I was finally in my pathetic hospital johnnie.
I was to be admitted. A GI intern came in to chat. The surgical team, who monitor the floor where I would be staying, visited. I stuck with my habit of cracking jokes and slathering on charm for new doctors.
I was wheeled to a room and immediately told that I was on the wrong floor, but that they would take care of me until a bed opened up on the GI floor. The nurse, Darnelle, offered more morphine. I said I didn’t need it. The sun streamed in warm on my back.
As soon as I felt the warmth of the sun through the window I released it all – my expectations of miraculous cures, my insistence that I could soldier through this, my confusion over how still be Me while being sick, my intractable resistance to the hand I’ve been dealt. I felt whole again, perfectly Me, though now accepting my need. I heard Darnelle’s voice and knew she’d take care of me, and I slept.
Maybe I should have told you.
That’s what we do these days. The very first ER pix should have been Instagrammed. Sure, I prefer to use Facebook as a forum to show how clever I am, but couldn’t I have found a way to do that in the hours after my admission?
I didn’t want pity, to be sure, and I didn’t want judgement. I didn’t want advice, no matter how well-intentioned. I bristle at the assumptions and the misunderstandings.
And there’s always someone who wants to jump in with unnecessary help or unwanted company. I told my own mother and fiancé to stay home the first day I was there because I didn’t want to watch them sit around. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with having to turn down some Oprah-wannabe half-stranger offering awkward companionship.
I thought at first that was why I kept things uncharacteristically private. But I realized it has more to do with me than with any well-meaning friends.
I am an oversharer by nature. In younger years I blasted the world with my pain indiscriminately, hopeful that by sharing my anguish someone could see and value who I was. I was truly depressed and hated myself and by making that known I hoped someone could put all those pieces together and show me the meaning of suffering.
By years of writing through tragedy and struggles I have learned that meaning-making is my only consolation. When I look ahead to a life of struggle and eventual loss (for how could I not anticipate these things, being Irish and clear-sighted and diseased?) the prospect of making all these things beautiful through emotion and words is the only comfort I anticipate.
I needed to know what my story meant before I could give it away.
I stayed in the hospital until Monday afternoon. I had nothing but time to think and so bombarded my doctors with questions each time they stopped in. I ate jello and pudding and asked my love to drive three hours to see me – and to bring me papers to grade.
On Monday, out of pain and with a plan to stay that way, I slipped back into my pink sneakers and wool coat. Then I eased my shoulders into the backpack I bought for safari this summer and showed myself to the 8th floor elevators. When I reached the lobby the prospect of sunlight and fresh air put a spring in my step as I pushed through the revolving door.
Energized, I bounced across the teaching hospital’s campus. It was a quiet holiday so I had little company when I reached the bus stop. I had told the nurse I would take a cab, but the bus goes right by apartment and it wasn’t that cold. Though the bus was a few minutes late and the wind picked up I stayed at the stop until my familiar bus came. By the strength of my own two legs I climbed aboard with my smartly packed bags and the keys in my pocket that would bring me home.