Monday, March 14, 2011

Before the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans combed their hair

It has been suggested that I write about my experiences...

The morning after

6:38 am, Saturday, March 12, 2011
Day three of the first hospitalisation

There is an old woman shouting in a room down the hall. I think she must be senile, and she sounds terribly sad, as the old and mad often do. She shouts continually throughout the day and her calls have reminded me of birds; first, of the seagulls that fly like white ghosts over my home town at night and second, of the peacocks in Beacon Hill park, whose weird, otherworldly wails punctuate the day over the whole south end of the city.

Her rhythmic chanting has been in Italian and I am not sure if she has been calling for her daughter Maria to come take her home, or upon the Madonna. Sometimes it has sounded as though she is calling “Signora, Signora…” On my first day here, she was shouting throughout the day and without cease late into the night.

After I had come back to the world following surgery on the first night, I lay in my bed unable to move because of tubes and glutted with fear and I tried to be angry. I tried to think, “Why don’t they do something, she’s disturbing the whole ward…” but my habitually selfish thoughts would not stick. Perhaps I was too frightened to be unkind.

I also knew that there was probably nothing anyone could do. The poor old thing is senile and it was clear that they were helpless to do anything. Whenever anyone tried to intervene, her shouts would increase in volume and desperation and she would start weeping. One night nurse, clearly having had her fill, scolded her, “Basta!” Enough! and remonstrated with her firmly, saying, clearly enough for even my poor Italian to grasp, that she was safe and there was no need to be so loud. “Tranquilla, tranquilla!” But the old woman’s shouts never ceased and only increased in rasping desperation during this motherly correction, turning for a moment into weak screams.

Finally, that awful first night, the old lady subsided and we all slept as well as our various afflictions would allow. At five twenty-four, precisely, the blonde and somewhat brutish night nurse came in for her last, clanging visit to finish her shift by changing IV drip bags, leaving fluorescent lights glaring behind her. I did not have the energy to push the button to ask that she come back and turn them off. By five twenty-six, she had done the same thing in the Shouting Lady’s room and the chants resumed their gloomy monotony. I don’t remember a worse awakening.

Today I am sitting up, with the pillow end of the bed cranked up high, and typing on my Mac on the roll-y tray table. I slept from eight to six and am de-tubed. I have had a shower and a glass of frizzante water and I know that in a few minutes, the trays will be pushed down the hall and there will be tea. I have had a full day of rest and quite jolly visits from friends who brought me amusing books and little canolis, on a gold paper tray wrapped in silvery mylar and a red curly ribbon. I slept fairly soundly through the night, hardly noticing the interruptions from nurses attending to my roommate’s needs. But at five-thirty Friday morning, I felt close to God; abandoned, in other words, and close to death.

An IV saline drip into the back of my left hand had replenished fluids after a 26-hour fast but my mouth was dry and thick and still tasted of anesthetic and I had no way of getting anything to drink. I lay on my side, hurting from the metal pin stuck in my flesh and immobilised by the catheter tube that humiliatingly drained my private fluids into a plastic bag on the floor. It was painful to lie on my side and I had slept on my back, which strains my lumbar causing excruciating pain after a short time, and compresses my breathing, giving me nightmares. My legs and hips and shoulders ached and I was shivering, not with cold but with the simple fright and horror of cancer. My jaw and upper throat ached and hurt when I swallowed, the after effect from the tubes during surgery.

It was too early to call anyone and the friendly Italian sun had not yet appeared. I could just hear the birds starting through the closed windows. I thought of the little blob of cancer growing on me like a rebuke, a punishment for past sins. A deadly disease that starts small and unnoticed and could end by eating me alive from the inside.

“Maria! Maria! Maria! Maria!...” the old lady cawed.

To my shame, I started to weep helplessly, waves of terror making my heart race and closing my throat. After a few minutes of this, the nurse came in looking concerned. Very kindly she said, “Why you cry? … depression?” I nodded, trying to smile. She patted my feet and said, “Can I ‘ave your blood?”

“Non tutto,” I said. Not all of it. I was so distracted, and the nurse so skilled, I hardly noticed.

“Maria! Maria! MARIIIAAA!!! Maria!...”



jjalsevac said...

That sounds awful.

Praying very hard. Sorry I can't do more from over here.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Hilary!

I hardly know what to say, except to give you my good wishes and express hope for your recovery.

And I trust the old lady will find some comfort soon.

Sincerely, Sean

John Paul Sonnen said...

A worthy quote from Helen Keller: "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."

Anonymous said...

Dear Hilary,

Boy, am I ever empathetic now.

Last year, after being tilted on my head for five hours to have my prostate (there, I said it)removed by a space robot, I had what sounds like the same experience, right down to the wailing old lady down the hall.

I could regale you with my uproarious adventures with the Big C, but this being your blog, and not mine, I won't. Just know laughter will come after the tears.

You were very much in our prayers at Holy Mass yesterday, and you'll continue to be, until you tell us to stop.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Yes, there seems always to be a wailing old lady. Odd.

Anonymous said...

Weird, my experience too - a wailing and senile old woman - when I was in the hospital. She was actually in my room. Roughly in the same vein as the co-ed showers in the universities now. Even more of Plato's Republic coming to fruition.


Anonymous said...


HJW said...

No.Women's ward.

binks webelf said...

The Wailing Old Lady is everyman-- each of us when what we optimistically call our 'normal good health' goes south. I've cared for dozens of these dear souls.. sometimes all that's left is a smile.

Her soul is alive, whatever the state of her mind (calling for her mother, husband, children, Our Lady, and God), and her lostness is ours, under the yoke of suffering. Sacred.. scared..

Love & prayers,