This is all real.
On February 26, 2014 I went in for a small 10-minute outpatient surgical procedure. Twelve hours later I was in a hospital ER in extraordinary pain.
I was initially discharged after six hours with the prognosis that I had a large hematoma on my bladder and no explanation of how it came to be there. After five days of continuous chills and growing weakness, it was revealed to me that I had lost six units of blood due to internal bleeding and it was possible I was still bleeding.
On the sixth day I wound up back in the ER in horrible pain, dehydrated and anemic. At that point I learned that my liver, pancreas, and stomach were completely cut off by coagulating blood in my gut. I was admitted to the hospital in a daze, and kept on a continuous IV drip. I was given no nutrients, only hydration, and thus was effectively starved for not only my 7 days in the hospital, but several days prior. In the hospital I drifted in and out of consciousness due mostly to the constant dosing with opiates to reduce my discomfort. During this time I was listed as NPO - meaning I was allowed nothing by mouth. No food. No water. And I was subjected to a barrage of painful procedures all done with the objective to try to prove that my condition was not caused by a gut full of blood, but rather, due to some form of tumor or ulcer.
Being tremendously thirsty, utterly unable to slake my thirst by drinking, starved, and under the heavy influence of dilaudid and with the ever present possibility that my condition was caused by a terminal cancerous condition, my mind wandered to ever more negative scenarios. At one point I began to realize how I might perish, and what death would feel like. At that point I began to have panic attacks and I flailed at the tubes in my body in an attempt to escape the confinement the hospital had become. It was only after my wife came to spend the night in the room with me that I could get through an entire evening avoiding the entreaties of the beings that I so clearly saw who continuously beckoned me toward what I knew would be my death.
I now know that all of this medical purgatory was inflicted upon me to provide some cover to the surgeon who had caused the bleeding.
Thus, my 10-minute outpatient procedure became a fight for my life.
If you're the recipient of a miracle, who do you thank?
Do you reach out to your ever present, ever existing God who has a hand in the vibration of every molecule, every pebble of sand on every planet circling all the stars?
Is anything that happens in your life large enough to equal earthquakes and tidal waves or the flow of water on Mars?
Maybe God is as happy about your miracle as you are. Perhaps he hasn't lifted a finger since the evening of the sixth day when it was all set in motion.
Everything from a breeze lifting dried leaves on a playground to the blue giants at the galactic core, spinning. Is it that? Really?
Isn't it closer? It is. One hand not so far from your own.
Isn't it someone you could rise on tip-toe to kiss?
Someone who has pledged to love you and see you through. The one who sees the storms and pleads for you to hold on. The harsh is coming. Hold on.
The only lamp left when the deluge drowned it all in blue-black dark. When you saw them go out one by one and there was no hope. Time is far too big. The warmth of your own life, too shallow to hold when the wave breaks.
It is not a miracle if he who made the oceans, divides them. It is not a miracle if he who throws stars blows them out in brilliant detonation. It is someone smaller than the sky or the sea who deflects the demons. It's a someone who parts the sea, not a god. It's a being who breaths back life where the beam was sputtering. Can't you take her hands and pour yourself into her eyes and pray thanks to her with the waning torch in your soul?
Dear One, how do I thank you?
I am here ankle deep in the sea that almost took me, soaked, breathing still, but for you.
I feel you. I see you everywhere.
I'm not afraid to tell them that you are real and you are mine and some day you have to let me die.
But not today, my guardian. Not today.
Nurses come and go in twelve hour shifts. Every half day I have to educate another one who takes my pressure and temp and injects fluids into the tube.
I am allowed some milligrams of dilaudid every hour. It makes me less upset about the pain which never leaves but I am trying to see what it might be like without it. Like a gopher poking his head up out of his burrow only to find the entrance to his underground domain is in the middle of traffic on the interstate. Maybe he won't get hit when he looks this time.
"You're overdue for pain meds," says Mandi, with an "i" like she's in high school. Without my glasses she's pink and white and black and I don't care to see her anymore.
"Just a while longer. I can't live underground."
"You can't, what?"
It's too much work to try to explain that what the drugs do is take me farther from the world of the healthy and push me to inner limits, crush me to a point in space from which it would be far too easy to fall off the edge of the world.
"It's why we have these drugs, Joe. So you don't have to go through it. It's why you're in the hospital."
I've waited too long. My head above ground is too clear and obvious and the next onslaught is coming like a truck. I wince when it hits. Exhale. My breath makes a noise, which I realize is my own groaning.
"Ok," I say. I gasp. "Go ahead."
She scans my hospital wrist band with a plastic gun that shoots blue and red lasers. Scans a preloaded syringe. Busts off the needle and screws the syringe into the outlet on my IV line. Slowly presses the plunger. I try not to watch.
"We don't like pain here and you need your rest to get well." I don't remember her unscrewing the syringe or leaving the room, pink and purple nurse Mandi with an "i".
There are volumes I could recite to her as the walls come up around me, lifetime of achievement and heartbreak, hundreds of story ideas flowing through my mind. Bathing in the subtle energies of everyone who suffered in that room, and I could tell her about the ghosts. The demons, everywhere. But it's not worth summoning the energy I know won't come. Head against the pillow.
The door is open and patients luge past on wheeled pallets, a holiday parade with a medical theme. Their tenders negotiate the hallway traffic, becoming horizontal gravity, murmuring or speaking in comforting tones to the inert flesh they motivate through the halls. Aloft are bags of transparent fluids that fly like flags on tall rods connected to the mummified bodies by a venous system of clear plastic tubing and mechanized delivery devices that beep and blink.
There is someone there in that flesh, I tell myself. Each gurney that goes by. There is someone there.
All going for procedures. To the O.R. To x-ray. To the E.R. where they have the endoscopes. The path to the rest of a life goes through those rooms.
In the afternoon the visitors come shuffling. Shoulders low. Scanning the room numbers. When they're coming in I see their faces. Their conversations are the banal. All trying to convince themselves they are not where they are.
"Of course. It's ok."
"He's getting better. You'll see."
Half hour later I see their backs as they leave. The ones who are not worried shift their conversations outward.
"Did you check if we have enough milk? We should stop at the store on the way back."
And then there are the ones who are not speaking. They hold hands. Wrap their arms around each other and refuse to complete their thoughts.
"It doesn't seem there's much..."
"Mom told us we should be ready. But I didn't think..."
In the night the nurses come to fill vials with blood. They wake you from chaotic dreams and pull you back into their living world to fill your lungs with air and remind you all is not well. That pain in your gut will now take over. You are shackled to the wall by the tube in your throat that demands you ask permission to swallow. This is what is.
The vampire nurse leaves with her vials. Stewart asks me if I want more pain meds. I know I can sleep without them, but I don't want to think of this anymore.
"Yes," I say, and he scans my wristband and the syringe. Breaks off the needle and screws the plastic cylinder into my IV. Slowly pushes the plunger.
"You can have this once per hour," he says. "Don't be shy. You don't have to lay there and hurt."
I tell him I'm not shy. I just wanted to be alive for a while.
When the time stops I see the same thing whether my eyes are open or closed.
Tall lights, just taller than people. Oblong, like a folded swiss army pocket knife. Glowing gold white. I can just about make out some detail in the glare.
They stand beside each of us, waiting. Some times there are six or more around me. But never less than one. I am never alone.
I want to ask them why they're not helping. Why just stand there?
And I get the answer, not as some mysterious telepathic channel, but a remembrance of something I always knew but never wanted to admit.
Because they're wondering what I'll do next. The choices always belong to us.
The hospital has an outdoor courtyard. There are two sets of rusting patio furniture that bathe in the sunshine daily.
My stomach tube comes out my nose. The way they have it taped on me makes me look like a distorted Star Warz bar scene character. The enigmatic elephant man with thin swinging trunk.
Another tube comes from where they plunged toward my duodenum from my back in a procedure full of 3D x-rays and pain like the end of the universe. The tube is full of blood but nothing drains from it that they hoped to drain. Now it's just something else that makes me need the meds.
I unclip the nose tube from the vacuum pump on the wall. Wish I could do the same with the IV, but if that stops I'll die of thirst. So it has to come with me.
The IV goes into a machine that's latched onto the middle of a seven-foot microphone stand-like device with wheels. At the top of the stand are four metal rods bent into curly ram's horn shapes. There are plastic bags filled with clear fluids hanging from the curled rods. I know most of these are saline, but some have electrolytes, and one had been filled with an antibiotic solution and now just hangs there filling space making it look like I'm being infused with ever more important fluids.
I push the microphone stand IV tree in front of me. Nobody stops me when I open a door that says, "ALARMED - EMERGENCY ONLY" through which I've seen hospital staff walking for days.
In the courtyard I park my IV tree and sit in one of the rusted patio chairs.
It's California springtime. Outside the sweet air moves. The sun is warm and if I close my eyes the hospital HVAC units sound like surf. I imagine seagulls and kids chasing each other through the sand and into the foam from the breakers in the distance.
"Wake up, sleeping beauty."
It's Mandi with an "i" pulling a double shift. I feel her shadow across my face. When I open my eyes I have to look nearly into the sun to see her, so I squint for a while, then just close my eyes again.
"It's time. Do you want your pain meds?"
I shake my head. I'm pretty good on my beach.
"Remember what we talked about. You want to stay ahead of the pain with the meds. If you go too long, the meds may not help you as much."
"I think I'm good," I say. "I'll just rest here."
"Ok, well if you need anything just come to the desk."
An image pops into my mind. Bright and clear.
"Well, there is one thing. Do you think I could get a Coke with some ice out here?"
Mandi's energy shifts slightly. I can feel it with my eyes closed. In fact, in my weakened state short six pints of blood and with less oxygen going to my brain, I'm feeling a lot of things. Watching the subtle energy leave marks. God is leaving signs everywhere, like a trail of breadcrumbs. But I don't want to follow. Mandi wants to pump in some opiates, but doesn't want to hand me a frosty paper cup filled with ice chips and soda.
Now I know for sure. This is the rabbit hole: a drug addict's paradise.
"I'm not sure you can have the caffeine," says Mandi. "I'll check."
I say, "Can't have a soft drink with caffeine but I can have another milligram of morphine-times-six."
Time goes by. I don't know if she heard me. It might be an hour. Best not to perturb these people. They control everything. This is how a patient winds up dead in the middle of the night. Lots of air bubbles in the IV line. Wrong juice pumped into the veins. They don't like the outside because there's too much chaos. Too much uncontrollability. Leaves are falling. The wind picks up dust. Birds land wherever they damn well please. It's an unpredictable environment. This is why they don't like windows or airflow or temperature where they're working on people. Too many external variables.
I decide I am going to be an external variable.
By the time I go back into the pressurized, controlled container of a hospital I know she never checked for my soda.
The shift's changed. At the front desk I see my name on the white board. Mandi's name is gone as my nurse and a new name is there. Jarred is my new nurse.
Back in my hospital bed I'm hooking up my nose tube myself when Jarred comes in.
He holds out a cup. "Hi I'm Jarred. Mandi said you wanted this."
It's a cup of soda and ice.
Jarred says, "It's Sprite. She called and your doc doesn't want you having Coke. Hope that's ok."
I take the cup, cool in my palms. All my summers compressed into a tiny vessel. Warm sand on my bare feet. The first day of vacation, off from school. Sip here and you're at poolside watching the cannonball contest. Sip here and you're sitting at a table at Denny's waiting for your chicken sandwich while the kids scribble over the crayon puzzles on their place mats. Sip here and everything outside this hospital can be yours again.
My eyes are tearing, and I know the reason my nose tube is starting to hurt is that the tears are flowing into my nasal cavity causing swelling. Now I can only breathe through my mouth.
Jarred asks me if I'm ok.
I nod. I don't know if my crying is ridiculous, humiliating, or utterly indicated by standard medical procedures. I try to speak but only squeaks and grunts come out.
My eyes are full of blear and blinking only brings the inside out. Jarred comes toward me, a tall oblong container of golden light.
"Do you want your pain meds?"
I shake my head.
I try to say, "I want to feel, alive," and it comes out in staccato.
Jarred says, "You know you're not like the other patients here, right? You're going to leave. You will. I know it's hard to believe sometimes, but I promise you, we will put you in a wheel chair and take you to your family. You have to have that image in your mind and your heart. Okay? Don't drop it. Keep it close. Think of it every time you can."
I sip my clear lemon soda and I'm sitting near the flying elephants at Disney World, watching my children spin circles in spasms of utter joy and I can't stop crying. I'm crying for everything that's now decades out of reach. My little children who are now adults. My wife with whom I thought I would travel to the end of time, and who is now my ex. Things I gave up for my career that were never worth the cost. Every investment I made in time or wealth or love turned sour. I'm crying for all the things I've never become. All the mistakes I've made. All the times I said I wanted to change my life for the better and made everything worse. Everyone I've ever hurt in a cup of sprite and ice.
How did I become so imperfect? In such need to apologize.
I don't want the pain meds. I want to feel the hopeless hurt that will never heal. That's the life I'm in and the meds just push me out of it and eventually you can't come back.
"You know where the buzzer is, right? Buzz if you need anything."
He leaves as if nothing is different. Crying is just another patient condition.
They live. They cry. Some die and some get through.
In the night the IV machine pumps quietly. The nurses walk the hallways off to break, back from break.
If I could focus myself to read - I could read a book by the light of my angel.
When I feel myself drifting I look for the light that leads us from this life to the after-death, but I never see it. My angel assures me that unlike others around me, I'm not even in the same country as that supernatural pathway.
"What kind of guardian lets this happen?" I say after my evening injection when the nurse leaves me alone with the clock and the liquid dark. But I'm talking to myself. There is no telepathy. No alien-like mind meld. There is what I know even with the probe in my back and the tube in my nose and the IV in the crook of my arm.
The guardian does not judge for there is nothing upon this planet with enough importance.
The guardian observes. Wipes the fever sweat from the brow and whispers ever, "I love you, I love you, I love you.
"I can never leave you. Though the roads you take may be torn by ice heave or bomb craters, or barely a foot's width along the side of a tall mountain in the snow and clouds, I cannot leave you, you will never lose me.
I am always holding your hand. I am always in wonderment at your thoughts.
I do not change your world. I do not shield you from falling rock or poor intention except to fortify you and remind you.
No matter what you do. No matter how good or bad.
No matter how much pain. No matter the price or the return.
I love you.
That is what it means."
In the hospital morning you can only know by looking at the clock, I open my eyes and I see the blankets on the chair in my room.
"Are you up?" the blonde haired girl asks from that chair where she has been watching me all night. Pushes off her blankets. Picks up a cloth and wipes the fever sweat from my brow.
I'm deep in the darkness, far away, and she takes my hand in a grip much stronger than machinery or planetary attraction.
"I'm not leaving until I take you home. You can't lose me. You're coming with me. We're going home together."
The drugs and the fatigue make it hard to speak and I can't squeeze her hand as hard as she's holding mine.
"I love you."
This is how we will get out. This is how we survive. It's in my mind and in my heart. The feeling of my walking out with her. Leaving the hospital. Into the sunlight and the air where everything happens and nothing is certain.
I know now, I can be saved.
I'm worth saving.