As If By Enchantment: Surgery, Tragedy, and the Cure

I was scheduled for an April surgery, over the telephone by a sweet secretary named Cherry, while visiting San Francisco. Majorly bummed, the sunny day turned dark for me. However, the experience ended up being much richer than I had imagined. Here are the three phases and some tips I learned.

1. Attempting to control anxiety revolving around the unknown. I didn't worry much until close to The Day. I unleashed my powers when I finally had my pre-op visit. During this visit, which lasted four hours, I was asked repeatedly about my will. Did I have one? No. The many details of the day gave me a slight meltdown, which ended up with the good hearted Cherry comforting me in her office.

My doctor's office: collection of protective amulets and his wall of delivered babies. Good signs.

Right before I was admitted to the hospital, a new friend, experienced in surgery, kept me completely distracted. She accompanied me to the library, to collect my recovery reading, talked endlessly with me about art and art history over ice cream, and wandered with me around shops looking at pretty things. At one point I looked at my watch and seven hours had gone by. This distraction was key for keeping anxiety at a healthy low and everyone should do this kind deed if they can. 

2. Create zen like moment by moment strategies for maintaining adult integrity as you enter the hospital, get compression stockings put on you, and prepare to be temporarily put to sleep and be cut open. Since I had never had surgery before I had built a vivid image of what the operating room would look like and I did not want to see, but neither did I particularly want to be put to sleep. Conundrum. I imagined that the OR would look basically like a morgue or autopsy room, 80's horror film style, and I imagined my bright red blood gushing everywhere. Even though they took my glasses off before they wheeled me in, I could tell that the room looked like it had been yarn bombed. I was not expecting the place to be so colorful. This was my last thought and it was a comforting one.

3. Waking up in a room full of other people doing the same. We were all cranky in various stages of coming out of anesthesia. In clear plastic detaining beds, it all felt similar to the nursery ward. According to the nurse tasked with watching over all of us babies, I had been trying to climb out of my restraints even while still sedated. She told me this story after I repeatedly yelled out "where am I?" with my breathing mask thing still on.

It's very surreal to wake up with a bunch of fresh wounds and bruises and not remember how they got there. Trying to recover the hours of my life that I could not account for was only possible by refraining from any painkillers. While the pain was not blinding, it was uncomfortable enough to remind me of reality and what had taken place during those several dark hours. For reasons I can't fully explain, I wanted that time back. Shaking the lingering effects of the anesthesia was the biggest learning experience. It stays in your system and makes you crazy sad, which I didn't know in advance. Tears are shed inexplicably, frequently. Every bit of encouragement, cheese ball or other, really knocks the drug out of you. Loving messages of all kinds work far better than Morphine. In the future whenever someone has to submit to surgery, I'll know just what they need. 

I was already home when I heard about the situation in Boston and Cambridge, where I lived for three years, 2009-2012. Although I was still weak and recovering, the unfolding events completely refocused my emotional state as following it was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I've had in years and it still torments me, but not for the most obvious reasons. There are many tragic situations around the world and our own country, but when something happens in a very familiar place, the impact is much stronger. Beyond this, seeing the remnants of an attack in this familiar place reactivated my own quieted memories of another intimate experience from my past, September 11. I remember so many small details from those days, the movie I watched the night before (Alphaville at a cute bar), the call right before I went into the subway entrance (my mother, stopping me with the news), the smoke, the smell, the debris floating across the river, the stunning silence and zombified survivors stumbling around with confusion in Brooklyn. There was no other thought on anyone's mind and no one wanted to say much. Together with a close friend, we escaped to Coney Island where we sought out the tranquility of ocean waves. I can't remember how long it took for a routine to resume, but the memory of my first few days back in Manhattan was revived when I saw the pictures of Boston, completely empty of people or traffic. Those images, maybe more than the marathon images, struck me with force.

I had felt that my surgery was a kind of hostage like invasion, similarly, my response to this was that my city, my home (one of them and my most recent), was under attack, as if the city itself were a person that I loved. Boston is a symbol of many things for me. Number one: graduate school with all of its good, bad, depending on the day, truly exhilarating or devastating moments, was a major milestone filled with bigger milestones. While I explored Boston frequently, I spent most of my time on the other side of that magnificent Charles River in Cambridge and Somerville. These towns are both tiny and run into each other so people affectionately use the term Camberville. That's about exactly where I lived.

Washington Street in Union Square, first days.
Last days (raising money for our Grand Tour. Spot the sun lamp for sale! Required for surviving winter in the north).

On our first visit to Cambridge I was not impressed at all, partly because I was sad to leave Philadelphia, partly because it was cold and rainy and ugly when we looked at apartment possibilities. But I really wanted to go to Tufts and we did find a cute place on the second visit. The area, with all of its different squares, is full of memories for me, of course I eventually came to love the city. I had many rituals with many people, as we were academics, meeting at cafes was a big one. Almost all of my old friends from New York, Philadelphia, California, and Australia came to visit multiple times so that our home and our neighborhoods became familiar to them as well.

Many meals had here: Sofra, on the border of Cambridge and Watertown.

We built a fantastic network of new friends (difficult, but rewarding). We spent a lot of time seeing films at Kendall Square, near MIT, at Harvard, the Brattle, on our back porch. Wandering around our own neighborhood, Union Square, watching it evolve, weaving our way into its fabric. I could go on since I'm obviously homesick for Cambridge right now.

When the action was re-ignited and crossed over toward my side of the river, waves of emotion washed over me. Interviews in front of the mundane backdrop to our years there elicited powerful feelings of surreal helplessness...I am far away, still deeply connected to that community, but unable to help support my city in physical solidarity. I wanted to flee my recovery unit and get back to Cambridge, going into the tornado this time.

The street where the brothers lived in Cambridge, only three blocks from my old apartment, served as a short cut to many meetings at Darwin's Cafe and the meet-up spot for my husband and I. He taught across the street at CRLS, where these guys went to school. Just outside of Cambridge, in Watertown, my little Armenia, where I've had many cultural adventures, the manhunt ensued. I found myself sympathizing for the living suspect, the antagonist, not evil because I don't believe that evil exists, but human, deeply flawed as he is. Of course I realize that he willingly hurt and killed people, but I imagine him as one of Alex's students, like the ones interviewed to describe their schoolmate. Even though his future is destroyed, doubly tragic, I'm hoping that he's treated with humanity. I suppose in a way that my reaction is also a reaction to the many bloodthirsty people who would love to see an eye for an eye and public torture for the offense. I don't believe in the death penalty and I demand equal rights for everyone. For now I am relieved that the situation is under control and the people of Boston, who united instantly, can repair.

While I was fixated on this event, maintaining contact with our beloved Boston brethren, and worrying about others instead of myself, I managed to recover fallow strength. Finally feeling bold enough to resume life outside the sick room was a great thing. After all, the small act of going outdoors seemed like a rebellious luxury after talking to friends that were unable or afraid to do so during the week.

To celebrate, we checked out Record Store Day. Even though I'm not any kind of collector, I like the atmosphere and I want to keep record stores open. There was a long line at Cactus Music, which I wasn't expecting, and a really fun DJ. As a treat I picked up this red vinyl re-issue from 1987, number 1254 of 3500. One of my favorite Cure songs is on here, Just Like Heaven. Dreamy.

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